Sylva Wood Centre craftsman, Alistair Buchan, talks about his journey becoming a furniture designer maker.
Guest blog by Alistair Buchan
In 2015, I was working in a standard office job in London, but despite decent prospects and pay, it was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I decided that I needed a hobby which would allow me to express my creative side — woodworking and furniture design seemed to fit well.
I enrolled in a five-week night course near my hometown of Oxford, and soon after finishing the course I began researching careers and more formal training. I wanted to be able to make anything, and everything, that my imagination could throw at me. My research led me to the Furniture School run by Williams & Cleal, and after sitting down with Jane Cleal for an informal chat over a cup of tea, I enrolled on an intensive 40-week furniture course
My course started with work on a small puzzle requiring only hand tools, followed by a small dovetailed box which introduced me working with veneers, complex joinery, and design elements. Soon afterwards, I was introduced to heavy machinery, selection of timbers, and more design techniques and software, all of which came together in making a small side table.
Two of my projects won Somerset Guild of Craftsmen Awards, which I am very proud of, but I know these were also a testament to the guidance and nurturing from the team at Williams & Cleal. About halfway through the 40-week course, I started receiving lessons in the business elements of furniture making. My first draft cash flow soon revealed that starting a furniture making business can be quite a significant financial risk.
After leaving Williams & Cleal, I moved back to Oxford. I started meeting with local craftsmen to pick their brains about local suppliers and potential places to start up a business. Someone soon pointed me in the direction of Sylva Foundation and the Sylva Wood Centre in south Oxfordshire. I couldn’t believe my luck.
The Sylva Wood Centre is a perfect place to start a furniture making business. The charity offers workshop space, with access to a shared machinery workshop. I was able to start my fledgling business without investing in my own heavy machines, while paying reasonable workshop rates. The financial burden of starting a furniture making business could be really cut down by starting off my new career at the Wood Centre.
In November 2016, I started ‘hot benching’ — where woodworkers can hire a bench for just a week at a time, in a shared large workspace alongside fellow makers. I started first with a few small commissions for various family and friends, which helped while I found my feet. This continued for the next year, and all the while I kept developing the business and my own personal design and making skills. There are a 13 other wood businesses at the Sylva Wood Centre so there is always someone to bounce ideas off, to ask for a hand with a glue up, or lift a heavy item.
In the summer of 2017, I decided to take the next step and graduate into my own proper workshop within the Sylva Wood Centre. Because of the popularity of the units, there weren’t any available units at the time, so I put my name to a waiting list. Meanwhile, I kept chugging away and used the time to develop a proper business plan and direction for Ali Buchan Furniture.
In March 2018, a unit became available, so I moved in. I hung my clamps on the walls, set up a few benches for laying out and gluing up, as well as my main bench for doing the dirty work. Three years after I decided to change my career, I’m now where I want to be: a small furniture design and making business, specialising in fine bespoke desks. Who knows what the future holds, but I am excited to see where Ali Buchan Furniture can go. It’s been a whirlwind three years but some of the best years of my life. Williams & Cleal and Sylva Foundation have been right at the heart of it all.