bend wood, pre-drilled and ready for assembly

05.11.14 | local manufacturers

Project Lacey Green : written by Clem 

I headed up to Buckinghamshire on Monday on a mini road-trip to explore some of the industries and suppliers in the local area. The first stop was the Chiltern Timber Recycling Project in High Wycombe, a non-profit which collects waste material from building sites within a 40 mile radius, and sells it on second-hand. Part of a national scheme, this not only prevents wasteful landfill practices common in the UK, but provides a cheap source of high quality timber – costing 50% less than it would to buy new. They had all sorts of timber in stock, from floorboards and scaffolding planks, to studwork – which they can start putting aside for me, and deliver incrementally to the farm (just as soon as I have a design and a material list!). They also have a team of in-house carpenters who use the timber to make furniture sold directly from the warehouse, and have been commissioned to make larger installations for high-end retail environments. The project is led by Andy, who offers training opportunities and volunteer placements for people with learning disabilities. It was really interesting to meet them – and seeing all that great material was an impetus to start designing!

The next visit was to H G Matthews brickworks in Chesham, founded in the 1920s, and now a third-generation family business. The factory is located on a much larger piece of land which also contains clay pits providing the raw material for the bricks, and forests providing fuel for their wood-fired kiln – the only one of its kind in the UK. The company built this in 2011 as a response to rising fuel costs which were making their four diesel kilns expensive to run. The lower temperature of the wood-fired kilns creates a richer red hue in the finished product, and can also be used to make glazed bricks, which have a beautiful dark green glossy surface. An accidental by-product of early firing methods, these ‘mistakes’ became desired products and are often used decoratively in local vernacular architecture.

The bricks themselves are made from a mixture of loam from the Sussex coast and their own local clay, which is particularly rich in this part of the Thames valley. They also add crushed anthracite from Wales, a form of mineral coal, to allow internal combustion and even firing throughout. Some of the bricks are made entirely by hand using four-part moulds (much more efficient than the single moulds we used in India), which are coated in fine river-bed sand from Leighton Buzzard to prevent sticking. These have a more textured surface and are typically used for restoration works where there’s a desire for the new and old bricks to match. Others are made with the help of machines which compress the material into the moulds, creating a smoother surface; these can be produced much faster and are cheaper to buy. They also produce unusually shaped bricks, referred to as ‘specials’, which are used for corner details, along the top of walls etc. All the bricks are dried under a large canopy in the summer, and in a heated room in the winter, before being fired. The company also sells flint, a hard sedimentary rock found in abundance in the local soil, which is commonly used in Chiltern cottages – including at the farm. Many thanks to Steph and Darren for showing me around!

Yesterday I had a tour around the amazing Ercol furniture factory, which I recently discovered is just a few miles north of farm, in the medieval market town of Princes Risborough. The company was founded in 1920 by a young Italian immigrant Lucian Ercolani, who trained in London but moved to High Wycombe in 1910 – which was at that point the flourishing centre of furniture making in Britain. Building upon the tradition of the ‘Windsor Chair’, the history of which is nicely exhibited in the Wycombe Museum, Ercol is best known for their iconic post-war utility pieces. Once produced as affordable furniture for common-place use, these have recently been re-issued in collaboration with the fashion designer Margaret Howell, illustrating the way in which British manufacturing is increasingly focused on ‘crafted’ products for an affluent market, rather than everyday goods. Although they still have a factory in the UK, between 20 – 30% of their products are made abroad, in European countries like Croatia and Italy where the production costs are lower than the UK, but the quality higher than the Far East. Ercol’s original factory in High Wycombe also contained a large plot of land for drying out the timber, which was felled from local forests. The spread of Dutch elm disease across the UK in the 1970s, coupled with the decline of the UK timber industry as a whole and cheaper international transportation costs, has meant that they now source their wood from America and Europe.

It was incredible to see the entire process from start to finish, and to understand the ways in which high-tech machines are still used in conjunction with hand tools that haven’t changed for centuries. Perhaps unsurprisingly there was a very clear gender distinction within the workforce, with all the wood-work being performed by men, and most of the textiles being cut and sewn by women – many of whom are ‘outworkers’ who do the work in their own homes. This is advantageous for the company as it means that don’t have to accommodate the entire workforce on the factory floor, and enables women with families to manage their time very flexibly; the bags of cut fabric are dropped off at their houses, and collected 24hours later, meaning the employees can work in small slots throughout the day in between domestic chores. If the entire workforce were able to work in a similar way we might be on our way to gender equality – but unfortunately CNCs are a little larger than sewing machines and can’t be set up on the kitchen table!

Although the number of staff has dropped over the past three decades from nearly 1000 to just 100, many of the workers have been employed by Ercol for more than twenty years, and the business is still in the family – currently being led by Lucian’s grandson Edward Tadros. It was a pleasure to meet and be shown around by Nick Figiel, who started in the prototyping workshop as an apprentice in 1979, and still works in the design department. I’m excited to return the favour and show him around the farm when I’m back in a couple of weeks!