While in Canberra recently, I took the opportunity to drop in on Dunstone Design, in Queanbeyan. I met Evan only very recently, at the Melbourne Working with Wood Show. I had been intrigued by the BowSander that his company had developed in the first instance to solve a very specific problem in chair making, which turns out to have much wider appeal and application. But more on that another day.
Instead, this was a chance to see where the amazing chairs I saw at the wood show were made. And I was not disappointed!
Further down, I have some examples of what Evan’s team produces. Dunstone Design (also known as the House of Dunstone) produces Australian contemporary fine furniture, and it is a thriving business. One of their very comfortable dining table chairs sells for around $2500. I mention that at the outset, so you get a real understanding of what I got to see here – this is very high quality, beautifully designed furniture, not you average Ikea offering (or price). The philosophy is simple – there is a huge amount of work that goes into each and every chair, and that effort and skill costs. The chairs are made without compromise – they are not designed to fit a price point, nor designed to make manufacture as quick and as easy as possible, and if you want something that well designed and made, then yes, it will cost.
They do have $600 chairs, but while they are still very nice, you can see where the significant compromises have been made to achieve that price point. The most expensive one I found of theirs in their online shop is almost $7000.
Dunstone Design has about 5 or so staff, each with their own skills. I didn’t have the pleasure to meet the rest of Evan’s team, but I started to get quite an appreciation for who those staff were, and what each bought to the table. Evan’s approach to staff choice really is to find those gems who will superbly complement the team, but still build each up so if they ever do branch out, they will leave having had excellent grounding into all aspects of fine furniture production.
There is even a refined philosophy about the apprentice and the requirement to make coffee that is not belittling, and make sense from a business perspective as well as for the apprentice himself. The time that simple task saves allows the team as a whole to have time to come together, and provide additional time that can be spent on teaching the apprentice more skills. It strikes me that the workshop is a very positive place to work. The complete antithesis to those cooking shows etc that we have seen on TV, where we see the work of chefs in the kitchen and the experiences of those staff (although that is shooting some very large generalities).
The workshops are superb spaces, and space is definitely one of the very obvious aspects of the workshops. There is space. Space to move, space to work alongside another person without interfering, space to think, and design.
There are very definite areas through the workshops too – an area for material preparation, for refining shape, for joinery, for laminating curves, for sanding, for oiling and finishing.
There is another philosophy that comes through here. They often will not buy what they need. They will make it. Cabinets, workbenches, furniture dollys, blast gates, jigs, dust shrouds and fences. These will coming through in the various photo sets here, so keep your eye out.
There are plenty of really heavy duty machines in this workshop. Large spindle moulders, a huge bandsaw fondly called Goliath (and more on that one in a sec), panel saw etc. I don’t recall seeing the planer – I know it is there somewhere! The thicknesser is quite incredible, and worth a small (no, make that a medium) fortune! It is digitally controlled, so you can set an exact thickness of 26.8mm for a long run, change it to 42.7mm for one small job, then bring it back to 26.8mm to continue on with the first. That would be such an awesome feature for a thicknesser. Sure beats counting how many winds you do of the handle! It uses Tersa knives, so extreme sharpness is a cinch to maintain, and while helical heads are said to be very quiet (not having had one myself to know), this was also a very quiet machine. Check out its outfeed table!
A very interesting mod on one of the spindle moulders. A long brass tube that connects to compressed air, and it has small holes along its length. This continues to blow the surface all clear of any dust that would otherwise get trapped underneath, mucking up the accuracy.
The bandsaw is one of the real heroes of the workshop. It is something of a monster, and yes, it is Goliath. It has something like a 24″ throat, runs a 2.5″ wide, 1 TPI tungsten carbide tipped resaw blade, and had to be specially made to modify it to cope with Australian timbers.
It has an awesome power feed – after seeing it in operation, I’d love a power feed for a resawing bandsaw! Watch the video to see the unit in operation, resawing some blackwood.
There is a room dedicated to sanding. A whole room! It has its own dust collection unit, including two collection tubes from the sanding table. The table has some designs I am going to shamelessly steal. It uses those interlocking floor mats so the item being sanded doesn’t get damaged by the table. Underneath the large holes of these mats, there are smaller collection holes leading to plenum chambers underneath, which in turn have the dust drawn from them by the 4″ tubes.
The belt linisher is large. So large, it has a pneumatically actuated disc brake! What you can do with space (and 3 phase power!)
Evan has discovered a real distaste for wood dust. It lowers productivity, as well as being unhealthy. In the war on dust, the dust is loosing. Big time!
Something like 17Hp of dust extractor, located outside the workshop. And an engineering designed extraction system, with every run, and drop in diameter carefully calculated to ensure each machine has the right amount of dust extraction, and air flow.
On some machines, there is also a floor mounted dust collection box positioned where the shavings are typically thrown ready to be swept up and into the collection system. The filters self clean, and the system can even remain running when the truck arrives to empty the collection bin. A truck. That is some serious dust generation!
If the 17HP unit was left to run at full power for all machines, or one, the power bill would be phenomenal, so the unit detects which machines are in use (and how many), and powers up and down accordingly.
The small twin canister unit you can see in the photo is not the collector for the main workshop. It is dedicated to the sanding room (which is yet to have the latest upgrades to make it dust free).
An area just for oiling. Including a whole stack of drying racks. That is some serious oiling! No idea how much they go through, but it probably needs another truck!!
The jig room. Possibly the most valuable thing in the whole workshop. These are the jigs, the designs that are used to make each of the Dunstone Design range of fine furniture. In typical Dunstone philosophy, these jigs are beautiful. They are often made from ply (good quality ply) or MDF, and are exceptionally well made. Some have contact areas (where they are in direct contact with a curve of wood) sanded and smoothed as well as you would any piece of furniture. If a jig is well made, the resulting product is also improved.
There are jigs for everything, each filed away. When the team wants to make a particular model chair (etc), the box of the jigs for that item is bought down, ready to go. When you put a real effort into designing something, protecting the jigs for future versions is a definite investment – saving a huge amount of time, and ensuring consistency.
The cost is not in the materials used. It is in the time spent developing the shapes, and making the jigs. That investment pays off time and time again as the jigs are used and reused.
This is the pointy end, where it all comes together. From roughly sketching out the shapes, through to the shaping and smoothing of the final forms and intersections.
There is so much that you can learn from the photos here – techniques, attention to detail, how it is all bought together. Check out the bent lamination forms (and polyurethane glue is used pretty much exclusively in the workshop). The rows of chairs in various stages of finish. This is a serious production house, yet still making some pretty exclusive designs.
Evan said at one point he’d scream (or something similar) if he saw another Maloof chair. It is not that Maloof didn’t produce some stunning furniture and chair forms. The problem is that so many people just copy those designs, rather than branching out to produce something unique, and equally beautiful. Something that is a reflection of their environment, that promotes and enhances local timbers, rather than relying on a design from half a world away, developed by someone else, for their environment, and timbers.
The Dunstone Design showroom. I’ll leave it to you to admire the results.
Each window in the showroom is located specifically to reveal parts of the workshop, giving someone perusing the showroom planned glimpses of aspects of the workshop, showing where the items were lovingly produced. A woodworking version of feng shui perhaps?
It was a real pleasure to have free access around the workshops, and to have a chance to have a good chat with Evan, to really get an appreciation for the House of Dunstone. I got so much more out of that visit than I did from the whole recent wood show. Thanks for the opportunity Evan – much appreciated!
I feel inspired to design and make a chair of my own. Good thing I have a House of Dunstone BowSander!