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Rare Trades

In an age of mass production these makers are keeping these dying arts alive.



What is a cooper ?

Someone who makes a watertight vessel out of timber. It involves a lot of skill and practice.

How long have you been coopering ?

‘I’m a fifth-generation cooper. I made my first barrel when I was fifteen, and I came to the trade full-time when I was forty – thirty years ago now. I’m an old bastard.’

What sort of vessels do you make?

‘Mostly buckets and barrels, butter churns, hand-operated washing machine tubs. I’m retired now, and I make mostly for alternative lifestylers, barrels for dry goods, wine and whisky barrels; they’re made to last. I have buckets my grandfather made that are still as good as the day he made them, ninety years ago.’


Photos by Amy Russell

What brought you back to the trade of coopering at the age of forty?

‘My father died, and he’d asked my mother to put in the obituary: “last in line of four generations of coopers”. I didn’t want her to write that, so I had to take it on. I wanted to keep the family tradition alive. I was a furniture maker previously, so I understood timber.’

How did you learn ?

‘I learnt from my father. As a child I’d go out to the shed with the old man and play in the sawdust until I was old enough to pick up the tools. He’d give me a belt over the back of the head if I did something wrong, and I’d learn something. I used to work with my father on weekends, and muck around in the shed.’

Are there many coopers still practising the craft ?

‘There are a few still practising in SA, but they specialise in small barrels, and there’s a bloke in Bendigo who caters to the wine industry; but I don’t know anyone who makes a range of products like I do. You’d have to be crazy to make buckets. There’s a lot of imported stuff that is just rubbish: you get what you pay for.’

Why do you do it ?

‘Every minute I spend in that shed I’m with my father. I wanted to keep the family tradition alive. But I think it will end with me. Although, I have a granddaughter who pesters me to make things, and she’s made her own bucket. My dream in life is to die working at the bench, making a bucket or a barrel.’


Why did you decide to become a shoemaker?

‘I did work experience with a shoemaker in the Adelaide Hills, and I loved it. I wanted their lifestyle. I just wanted to make stuff all day. All my family make things: my dad is a jeweller; my mum is an artist; and my brother makes sets and props for the theatre. There was no doubt I was going to make something.’

How did you learn?

‘I studied shoemaking at school as a year 12 project. Immediately following school I studied with a few private teachers. I found a Bulgarian master in Port Noarlunga, just south of Adelaide. I then went on to study it at TAFE. I learnt most of what I know now through an unofficial apprentice-style arrangement with a practising shoemaker; I worked with him for seven years. I have now been making shoes for twenty-two years.’

What do you love about your craft?

‘I love making things every day. I love the diversity of the trade, including all aspects: design, sculpting, pattern cutting, sewing and getting a bit dirty. I love all the interesting people I meet, and I especially love being able to say: “look what I made today”. It’s very satisfying!’


Photos by Eugenia Neave

How long does it take you to make a pair of shoes?

‘This is such a difficult question to answer, as I’m usually working on many pairs at once. There are roughly eighty to one hundred processes to make a pair of shoes. If I was to just work on one pair I think it may take about three to four days.’

How many practise your craft in Australia?

‘Many people make shoes as a hobby, and there are different kinds of shoemakers too: bespoke, orthopaedic or just manufacturers. I think there are probably a handful of us in each state.’

Do you think the art of handmade shoemaking will survive?

‘I think and hope it will survive, with a few committed and passionate artisans willing to keep it alive. Fingers crossed that one of my children might take it up!’


Describe what you do?

‘I make hand-carved wooden spoons, using a range of simple tools and contraptions. My toolkit comes with no power cords or plugs, and my workshop can be wherever I place my chopping block. When carving with a knife I’m in the moment, slowly producing curves, sharp angles, cranks and facets that come together at the end to form a spoon. It really is a form of meditation … I call it spoonfulness!’

What inspired you to start making spoons ?

‘A little book on green-woodworking, with a bearded guy on the cover pedalling a foot-powered lathe and surrounded by his wares, tools and woodland workshop. I then went to that woodland workshop, and watched a master craftsman make a chair leg on a lathe powered by foot and a springy sapling. It was that precise moment, watching him make ribbons of wood leap into the air, as his chisel glided across the grain, that inspiration hit. I wanted to make things from wood, the natural way. That was twenty years ago.’

Who did you learn your skills from?

‘I started learning woodworking from a Herefordshire master craftsman, Mike Abbott, as he guided me through the process of making a traditional ladder back chair from a single log of English ash. Over the years chairs gave way to spoons, which draw on the same skills but rely on a greater sense of spontaneity and adventure.’

Photo by Jeff Donne
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

What do you love about spoon carving?

‘It calms me and grounds me. It takes me on a journey with no defined ending, and it mixes together earth, mind and body to come up with something that is functional and deliciously wonky.’

What is your favourite spoon?

‘I’ve been fortunate enough to hold and collect spoons made by some of the world’s best, but my absolute favourite spoon was crafted from peppermint gum by a woman who came to one of my workshops. It was a giant ladle with a handle made from a forked branch, and the first spoon I’ve ever seen with handlebars. You just can’t buy that stuff from Ikea!’

Is spoon carving a dying art?

‘Thanks to renewed interest in making things using traditional skills, it’s grown young again.’

Why do you think it ’s an art that should be saved?

‘I get a lot out of sharing this process with other people. It’s about enlivening our minds by giving our hands something to do other than swiping screens and tapping out emails. Someone once said that our hands are where the mind meets the world, and I hope people are walking away from my workshops with tingling fingers and minds.’


How many years have you been practising your craft?

’Since 1971 – so forty-five years. It started as a bit of a hobby. I moved from Chile, and had a job working as a nanny for the owner of an umbrella factory. As the children grew up I started working in the factory, a few days here and there. In 1977 I started full-time, eventually becoming floor manager. In 2000 the previous owner died, and his sons had no interest in running the business, so I took over the company. I work on my own now; I do everything.’

How do your umbrellas differ from those made overseas?

‘My frames are better, the quality is better. I use the Fox frame for gents, it’s the very best in the trade. The nylon comes from Italy.’

How long does it take to make an umbrella?

‘Between half an hour and one hour, depending on the design. I could make up to 100 in a week, if I wanted to; but I have a very sick husband who I need to look after now.’


Photo by Marnie Hawson

How many people would you say practise your craft in Australia?

‘I’m the only one in Australia, and I believe I’m the only one in the world who makes the umbrella from tip to handle; I do everything. Most umbrella manufacturers have one person for each stage of the process – they need seven people to make one umbrella. ’

Who buys your umbrellas?

‘My umbrellas are made for people who appreciate quality; they’re made for beauty, not just to keep the rain o§. Some people say: “Why would I buy from you? They are more expensive. I can go to the shop and get one for cheap.” I say: “OK, go to the shop”.’

Is umbrella making by hand a dying trade?

‘Yes: I have lots of people who want to learn, but I have no patience or time for teaching. My hands are getting weaker and I have so many opportunities to make business, but I don’t know how to use a computer and that makes it hard. I also have no family to help me.’

What is your favourite umbrella?

‘My favourite umbrellas – and also the most popular – are one colour inside and another on the outside, and the ribs are hidden. No one else has them. They are beautiful.’


How many years have you been practising your craft?

‘I first learnt basic braid weaving techniques when I was nine years old, but it wasn’t until 2007 that I began to learn specific basketry and weaving techniques. I’ve been weaving and teaching weaving ever since.’

What inspired you to start weaving?

‘During my travels in 2007 I went to a festival in Laura, Queensland, where I joined in with a weaving group. I learnt to weave my first coconut palm basket – very challenging but immensely satisfying! Then I attended a very short workshop in Alice Springs with the Tjanpi Weavers: we sat in a group and made coil baskets with wonderful Indigenous women. I loved the simplicity and the social aspect of their weaving process, and I’ve been hooked ever since.’

Where else did you learn your skills ?

‘I have sought out as many classes, workshops and teachers in basket weaving as possible. I did a lot of research via books and online courses, and I practised on my own. When I travelled overseas I made a point of meeting with basketry craftspeople, and I shared my ideas and asked them to teach me. In this way I’ve learnt many different techniques from different cultures, for example Australian Aboriginal, Indonesian, Native American and Maori techniques. I’ve progressed to develop my own style of basket and sculptural weaving.’

Photo by Michelle Troop
Photo by Jann Lane

What do you love about weaving?

‘It’s an art form rich with history, technique and cultural connection. Weaving lends itself to many different methods and styles, which appeals to my freely creative and analytical sides. I’m constantly challenged and inspired, and this pushes me to develop as an artist and a teacher. Weaving is also a lovely medium to connect with people and nature: I’m able to touch on community and environmental issues as I teach.’

What sort of things do you weave?

‘I weave baskets, mats, pouches, bags, hats and decorative items. I’ve started to use more contemporary techniques to do sculptural weaving, such as big woven orbs, huge sculptural birds and human-sized native animals.’

Is weaving a for gotten skill?

‘In western societies weaving is largely a forgotten skill. Like a lot of contemporary craft items, woven baskets and mats have been replaced by cheap, synthetic, machine-made merchandise rolled o§ production lines. Convenience has made the skill of weaving, unnecessary and redundant. But there is a growing appreciation for handmade woven items, especially indigenous woven artworks which grow in value over time. In Australia, the Tjanpi Weavers have contributed greatly to this improvement.’


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