To those of you who are regular readers of this blog, it will not be news to you that I attended the LINLEY summer school back in August. It was through this course though, that I became acquainted with the lovely Jonathan Rose (http://jonathanrosefinefurniture.co.uk), one of LINLEY’s master craftsmen. It was a shame that we weren’t able to fit a tour of Jonathan’s workshop into the busy schedule of the summer school, however to my delight I discovered that as part of a study trip with my college, Rycotewood Furniture Centre (Oxford), where Jon himself attended during his years of training, we would get the opportunity to visit him.
During the LINLEY summer school I had the chance to ask Jon many questions about the ins and outs of his business, and– of course I approached the subject of the gender balance within his workshop. He explained that there was only one female employee out of his eleven workers. Sarah Cave worked as a cabinetmaker for Jonathan for several years before she took on the role as the CNC (computer numerically controlled- machines) operator in the workshop. Jon explained how she had really taken to the equipment and showed a high level of skill and ability that even surpass him! I was interested to find out more about Sarah, as ‘female cabinetmakers’ alone are a rarity, but I supposed ‘female CNC operators’ are even more so…
How did you get into furniture making?
I actually spent much of my school and college years wanting to become a 2D artist, however whilst completing a GNVQ in Art & Design, I decided that I enjoyed making 3D pieces more and made one small piece of furniture during the course. My father was a toolmaker and CAD technician by trade, as well as a keen DIYer! I was very much influenced by this and after investigating what degree courses were available I applied for a place at Shrewsbury.
What is your background, where did you train?
I gained a BA Hons in Furniture design at Shrewsbury College back in 2003. The course was designed to teach you everything you needed to become a sole trader. We mainly worked on designing and making pieces in wood, but also did modules on Photography, CAD, Finance, design history, metal working etc.
After gaining my degree I found it quite difficult to get a job – I think because the industry is still very male dominated. I ended up working for Mark Wilkinson Furniture making curved kitchen cupboards and dining tables and progressed to the RnD (Research and Development) department. I was there for 3 years before starting work at Jonathan Rose Fine Furniture.
How does experience in making help with your CAD role? – would you say CAD workers are the new type of craftspeople?
I think having the experience of working at the bench for over 12 years before becoming involved in CAD has been a huge advantage. I understand how pieces are made and the processes the maker will have to go through to complete the piece. I’m now a cog in a wheel, providing components to the makers in our company. I have the knowledge and expertise with the 5 axes CNC router, but ultimately it is the maker’s piece to complete, and I’m guided by their requirements. CAD workers are not ‘the’ new type of craftspeople but it’s certainly ‘a’ craft in itself. By having the CNC routers within our company we have more control over what we do and a wider scope in the type of commissions we accept.
Has being female affected your experiences within the industry?
Sometimes it has been a very difficult experience with a few male workers in my previous workplace either being threatening or making sexual comments to me. I luckily had a good group of guys who stood up for me, but to be honest a male factory environment didn’t work for me. At Jonathan Rose I’ve never had any problems with that, so maybe I was just unlucky with my first job? I wouldn’t want to put anyone off, but I think you have to be prepared to have a thick skin as a woman in this trade, especially on the factory/production side.
What advice would you give to other women hoping to pursue furniture and craft as a career? – In particular CAD roles?
Be the best, if you do your job well you’ll get the respect in the end.
How do you think CAD technology will continue to develop and shape the future of the industry?
Of course, I think that more and more companies will invest in CAD & CNC machines, which if used appropriately will aid development. However there will always be a place for handmade furniture using traditional techniques, so don’t throw away your chisels yet!