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Posts Tagged ‘English Walnut Kitchen’

Case Study – The English Walnut Kitchen, Bath

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Our ‘Case Studies’ are an opportunity to take a more in depth look at projects from a design perspective…

Our latest kitchen is a bit different from our previous projects. This is entirely made out of solid native wood; English walnut and sycamore. In many ways it is also the most subtle kitchen we have ever made, being in a beautiful Georgian rectory on the edge of Bath, it needed to sit comfortably with the period architectural detail and yet be modern and practical.

We have made film that follows this project all the way from cutting the first boards of walnut, through the months of cabinet work, to the fitting and final completion in December 2012… It was recently described as “the best kitchen video ever made” by KBB kitchen journalist and blogger Grahame Morrison. See what you think!

The project came about through having already made a number of pieces of furniture for the clients, including a stunning pair of English walnut pivot drawer console tables. It’s through this I realised they had a love of native walnut, not only commissioning these but having a number of very high quality antique pieces in the same material. It was some months later when they contacted me to see if we might be interested in designing a new kitchen.

Unusually they had a very clear idea of what they wanted with lots resolved, even down to some basic CAD floorplans and an appliance list. Despite being a big Georgian house with high ceilings the kitchen space is relatively small, so the design needed to be compact. It was the island that still needed the most resolution but we quickly came to a conclusion on a shape that would fulfill all the storage, seating, work surface and practical needs, whilst being an impressive focal point. Needless to say we couldn’t resist adding soft curves to make the space flow and circulation around the island easier.

The key question was still material. They wanted something warm and rich, but not too dark. The list was narrowed down to oak, elm of English walnut, much lighter and more characterful than the American Black walnut which is widely available. All these woods are from the UK, I was (I always am) keen to use native timber, as were the clients. Now it just happens that we had a good stack of native walnut that we had sourced and cut ourselves in 2009, it was ready to use and the colour was perfect – light compared to many trees. This is one of the challenges using the walnut, every tree is full of individual character, colour and texture. Finding two that match can be hell. The other issue is that they have a very high wastage factor – you do end up throwing alot of it away due to faults, knots, shakes, and a light and sometimes ugly sapwood. On top of that the woodworm love it! So not an easy material, and we only just had enough by the look of it.

We also had to find another timber for the internal solid timber panels and interior elements. In the end we fixed on sycamore, partly because it added visual lightness but also it was a beautiful partner to the walnut. The main island worktop was also made out of sycamore. I like the fact that there is a strong tradition of using sycamore for tops – you often see it in the kitchens of large estate houses where it is scrubbed daily, creating a lovely patina.

But if this kitchen is about one thing – it is celebrating what I believe is the most beautiful timber on Earth, English walnut. Ironically, because it is so full of character it actually makes it very difficult to use: For example laying up 3 pieces to form the centre of a door panel – sometimes one piece just won’t work because of grain or colour, even though it’s stunning it gets rejected (hopefully to find it’s place in another panel somewhere). Of course the same issue arises between sets doors on a run and individual cabinets that are adjacent to one-another, it all has to appear visually harmonious which is much more difficult to achieve than you might think.

At first glance the kitchen furniture looks quite traditional, but look a little closer and you will realise there are subtle things going on. We have created solid frame doors with a solid centre panel, but the panels sit flush with the frame, highlighted by a 3mm recess all round the centre panel that creates a crisp, graphic shadow line. Also instead of the stiles (the vertical rails running up each side of the door) going the full length as is normal, it’s the top and bottom horizontal rails that are dominant. This means we can use one piece of timber across 3 or 4 doors with the grain running through. These long runs create ‘landscape pictures’ in wood. These details also carry across the curved doors which we made by cutting up solid timber into a pack of consecutive veneers then laminating them back together over a curved mould. Lots of work to make sure there is no visual difference in appearance. The other reason for using those horizontal rails across door sets was to help balance the very tall squat nature of the room – strong horizontals making the kitchen seem lower and wider. It works!

The clients selected a granite called Antique Labrador from Bristol Marble, they went with a sample of the actual timbers so they could get a good idea of what it would look like. Like the timber this is a subtle choice. It has strong blue/grey tone which does not make an obvious partner to the warm orange/green/browns of the walnut, but it does work. We also picked out the blue by using a similar blue leather on drawer linings throughout. As far as other colours go, the other major feature of the space is the impressive Black Everhot range cooker. This is the largest 150cm version and looks much more contemporary than the traditional Aga. The top of the cooker has lots of visible stainless steel which links it visually to other appliances and items around the room. The walls are a warm off white and then off course there is the sycamore top on the island. The dominant colour and theme of the room is that rythmic walnut though.

From a design perspective it’s a really cohesive space, but as always there are favorite bits that stand out to me. The real triumph is the addition of a sideboard type piece into the island. Sitting higher than and protruding from the rest of the island helps give this element a separate identity – a piece of furniture within a piece of furniture. Because it has a granite top it also acts as a serving area for hot plates and dishes before they get taken to the adjacent dining area. The drawer at the top is a single wide cutlery drawer which shimmers with shinny silver things when opened.

What else, well I love the fact there are no handles to distract from the purity of the timber, that big slab of very slightly rippled sycamore on the island top (too much ripple would have been overpowering), the bookshelves over the microwave, the bespoke walnut trays in the tray alcove and even the recycling bin cabinet! That was the last piece in, it’s free standing and looks just like a tall boy cabinet, but it’s life is as a glamorous bin – well 4 bins to be precise, such are the complexities of modern life!

I love this kitchen, because at first sight you might just walk through, but like the best music, it has depth and grows on you. Using solid hardwood to make anything other than a very traditional looking kitchen is a challenge, it’s no accident they look that way. What you see in a Shaker style kitchen for example is very efficient use of the material; working with its strengths and aesthetics. In many ways our cabinetry is also bound by those tried and trusted rules but, we subtly changed them, using the limitations of designing in solid wood as a positive start point to develop from.

Is a solid wood kitchen better than a veneered one? I think this is a question I will come back to and explore in more detail. As a designer I can certainly be more flamboyant using veneers – playing with grain direction, using woods and combinations of woods in a more decorative way, forming curves and shapes more easily. But there is something honest about real wood that I feel as a designer, I know the makers also feel that on the bench. It has soul, it feels like a priviladge to use, especially English walnut.

If you’d like to talk to Simon about a kitchen project please get in contact, initial conversations and ideas cost nothing. For more of our kitchen case studies click here.

All images taken by Double Exposure Photographic / Video work by Watershed PR

Out of the Workshop – Fitting

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Do we enjoy fitting work – no not really. Ask any cabinet makers and they are always more comfortable in their own workshop with the tools and equipment they are familiar with, there is always something we have forgotten no matter how small, or a tool that would be perfect for a job we didn’t anticipate.

Saying all that, over the years we have got good at it and frankly we wouldn’t trust any one else to fit the cabinet work we have spent months making. It’s really not the same as a set of Howdens units, we work to very fine tolerences, even if the walls and floors seem to be working against us.

On this fit the walls and floors got a 9 out of 10 in terms of awkwardness, with the small easy jobs ending up taking lots of time, while those bits you expect to be difficult turning out to be easy. For example John and I spent about 7 hours getting a fridge door to work, that’s half a day out of a 4 day fit on one door!

For all the issues we encountered we still finished ahead of schedule on the last day and got everything done we expected. There are still some pieces to finish – the island sycamore top (i’m now making the second one after three trips to the timber yard), the cornices for the top units, the free-standing bin unit and some miscellanious items are still to come in a few weeks. It looks great already though, the clients are very happy and can at least start using the space.

To complicate matters for ourselves we had the Watershed PR film crew in on the last day of fitting. We have been following the making of this project through all the stages. Eventually the film will be here on the blog for you viewing pleasure, as will finished professional shots in another of our major project ‘Case Studies’. Hopefully these images will give you a taste of what’s to come of this really special English walnut and sycamore kitchen.

Around the Workshop – Autumn Arrives

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

The workshop has had just one focus and one project since August – our English walnut and sycamore kitchen which is bound for the outskirts of Bath. In that time the seasons have changed from Summer to Autumn and I don’t feel I’ve even looked up.

The deadline was always tight and by the time we landed this fabulous commission we were already starting 3 weeks late, time we hoped to make up during the 8 weeks of making. The kitchen is part of a complex refurb of a stunning Georgian House, so timing and schedules really can’t be stretched without all sorts of knock on effects.

If you saw the last ‘Around the Workshop’ post you will have read the ups and downs (mostly downs) of using English walnut. Sure enough most of that has come to pass – I love this stuff but the firewood pile has consistantly been 3 times bigger than the component pile. So we have had to go out and find more, that’s never easy at the best of times. Luckily i’d been speaking to contacts in the business just in case we did run low, so I called in some favours and parted with more cash.

Although the outer doors and surfaces are all English walnut, the internal carcasses and frames are all made of solid sycamore, another favourite wood of mine. It’s great to be able to make all of a kitchen in solid native timbers, from a making point of view it’s the ultimate challenge, something we could all really enjoy getting stuck into. As always my design work incorporated lots of curves so that adds to the making challenge.

Curves also mean we have had to cut our own ‘saw-cut’ veneers so they match the solid straight components. Essentially we make a our curved doors by slicing up pieces of thick timber into veneers through the bandsaw, (around ten 2mm pieces out of 2 inch stock.) We then re-glue them over a curved mould. It makes an incredibly strong, light door but it is time-consuming, particularly if you have lots of different radius curves to make. It’s another thing we have become very good at – but it has been made a lot easier with the big dimension sander. The design detail on all the doors and drawers has a 3mm shadow gap around the framed centre panel. Its a bit of a play on a traditional frame and panel door, but as always we are playing with subtle twists – using traditional form and proportion in a very contemporary way. It’s not minimal, instead we are trying to bring the best out of this wonderful timber.

It’s been a bit of a baptism of fire for Connor our new apprentice, straight in at the deep end, but he’s done well. When the pressure is on like this we probably don’t have as much time as we like to talk him through stuff and put each process in context. As a result he has ended up doing things that make no sense at all until a couple of days later. I’m always saying to him and other people we have trained over the years, that a critical part of being a good maker is the ability to be thinking about a dozen processes ahead of what you are doing now. That comes as second nature to John, Mike and I (most of the time), but for someone out of a school environment used to being taught in a systematic way to pass an exam, that’s a giant leap. The great thing is you can see those eureka moments on Connor’s face when it all falls into place. Or perhaps it’s a sense of relief that the people he’s working for aren’t mad after all!

We have already part fitted some of this kitchen, partly because the lead time between granite templating and fitting was so long. So two weeks ago we got all the base cabinets in ready for templating. We are back on site next week to fit wall units and the island. That will coincide with the granite fitting. We still have one or two elements to finish after that, the main one being the free standing cabinet for recycling bins. Again, rather a nice piece in English walnut and sycamore for this unglamourous job. That will be complete by the end of the month and see a conclusion to this project.

We have loved making it, but I’m sure it will run over time. We have also been working long hours, including weekends, and are all knackered. So for us and the clients its conclusion can’t come soon enough. We have been filming the making and fitting of this project so there will be some video in a month or two, as well as the usual still images. Mind you I’ve not photographed the last kitchen we finished yet! It will be like buses – all at once.

I’ll blog some more images at the end of next week, by which time it should look much more like a finished kitchen.

Around the Workshop – Mind the Language

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

No matter how much English walnut I buy, it’s never quite enough. It’s the most wonderful stuff to work with and look at, but I’ve just spent two days solid cursing and swearing at it – I always do, then somehow forget it minutes later.

This time we are building a whole kitchen in it, with the cabinet interiors being made out of solid sycamore – a big project heading for the outskirts of Bath. It seemed like a good idea at the time but today I’m wondering what I was thinking! All the doors and drawer fronts are now made and many of the cabinets are taking shape. We made these out of the 1 inch walnut we bought and had cut ourselves 2 years ago. But it’s the 2 inch that’s making me sweat, I’m down to my last 3 boards of the rippled log and I think I’ll just about get what I need. Short of inch-and-half though and we still have a free standing unit to make yet – I may be on the road again by the end of the week looking for more.

So this is the visual equasion: Lots of lovely boards of English walnut / a much smaller number of finished components = a very large deep box of expensive firewood! This equation varies a bit, but not often in my favour.

For those of you unfamiliar with the frustration of English walnut, well where do I start!

• They are very individual trees with distinctive character, colour and grain – matching two logs can be difficult.
• You can’t really use the sap as the colour is very different and often really ugly – in contrast to the stunning heartwood.
• The sap can be really wide, so you end up throwing half away before you have even really started.
• What’s left can have shakes, rot or knots – usually just where you don’t want it to be.
• Just for good measure the woodworm love it – it’s got 3 Michelin stars from their perspective.
• It’s not grown commercially so you only ever find the ‘odd’ tree from an estate or garden.
• It’s more than twice the price of oak and you can expect to throw at least twice as much away (making it 4 or 5 times more expensive in reality.)
• I still love it, but it will make me grey and old as I load up the firewood bin with expensive off-cuts.

Why do I do it, well just look at this…

We made a pair of pivot drawer console tables for the same clients we are making this kitchen for, like me, they understand English walnuts rare and subtle beauty.

I better get back to work, cover you ears!