Just recently I was watching Grand Designs and was mesmerised by this really cleverly constructed house set amongst nature in Cornish Woodland . Built with wood, using the art of steam bending – Tom and his wife Danie spent three years working on their project which would ultimately be their home.
I have to say, I think it is my favourite build so far. The overall aesthetic – and how they attached the new design to an older building. The result is stunning.
Tom and Danie were also running their business at the same time as well as looking after their young family. Brave. I’m really pleased to have grabbed a bit of Tom’s spare time find out how steam bending wood works, how they held it all together during their building journey and what is happening next with their handmade lighting and furniture …
Tom, you specialise in the art of steam bending. Both in your work, selling your furniture and lighting – and of course building your own home with this technique. How did you first start using wood in this way ?
At university, I had a project on materials and as I had never worked with wood, I decided to give it a go. The obvious question then was how do you bend wood. The rest is history !
Can you explain how steam bending works ?
Very simple; you find freshly cut good quality hardwood timber, you put it into a chamber which you then fill with steam for a certain period of time depending on the size of the timber, then you pop it out, put it into a metal strap to support it and bend it around a former so it takes the formers shape. You have to do the bending in around 1 minute, so you have to be fast. Then you put it in a drying room for a couple of days and it is ready to use.
Your home and journey of creating it were featured on Grand Designs with Kevin McCloud recently – was it a life long ambition to build your own house ?
Yes definitely. We’d be hunting for the right site for a long time, finding somewhere we could build, live and work, with land and woodland too was quite a challenge. I feel so lucky and although hard work, it was a lot of fun and very satisfying. Danie and I are used to working together but this was possibly the biggest project we’ve tacked to date, we both have a new found respect for each other, and sharing a home we’ve built together is pretty amazing.
What were the high and lows over the period of building and planning ?
The highs tended to be the little benchmarks like getting the frame up, getting watertight, turning on the heat, then when we took the ladder away and replaced it with a staircase ! The other massive high was when we tested the steam bent cladding on the building and it worked, it transformed the building from quite an austere sharp building to a gentle and tactile form. The lows, well there was a few… the planning took so long and being cramped up in the small cottage with no inside bathroom wore a bit thin towards the end. The tyre wall was a killer and 600 tyres later we will still never forget the physical ( and mental ) pain it caused.
I loved the overall look of the new build attaching to an older, already established house. What inspired you to fuse the two together ?
It was the idea of creating an architectural timeline… being able to identify which part of the building had been built by the original estate owners and then 150 yrs later the part which was built by us …
Did you manage to stick to the original £100,000 budget ?
Not quite. We didn’t have a clear budget at the start, this was a clever bit of tv editing. We had 100k in savings and knew we had to stretch as far as possible. When the quotes came in we thought we could bring it in for 150k-200k but it ended up going to 160k, so not too bad really. It is all down to doing most of the work and getting most of the materials from your own site and from your own skills.
Is there any sage advice that you can offer to anyone thinking of taking on the task of designing their own home ?
It sounds a bit obvious but I tried to treat building a house like making a really complex piece of furniture… I was so wrong ! The skill of the craftsmen is important but it is more about bringing lots of craftsmen and materials together just at the right time… Project maangement is the most important thing which is usually the reason a project fails to happen, goes massively over budget or ends in disaster.
What wood did you use for your home – and what do you generally use for the products that you design and sell ?
I love using English oak and ash but we used whatever we had in our woodland which was felled and available so larch, sweet chestnut, ash, norwegian spruce, beech, oak and sycamore.
How do you manage the business between the two of you ?
Since having baby no.3 Danie has had to take a back seat and focus on being a mum but it is great to be able to come down to the house and go through things with her as she understands the business so much so is a real help. We also do a lot of the designing together. A part of the business we both love and work well together on this.
Now that we are firmly in 2017 – what are you plans for this year ?
I no longer have the house as a distraction so the business is the focus. It is doing so well but is incredibly demanding; there are never enough hours in the day! That said I absolutely love what I do and feel passionately that through the products we create we are doing something very special and I am proud of that. I think this year will be all about developing new products and ideas based around using wood in ways which defies belief, new products which are based on craftsmanship, provenance and innovation ! We are going to be doing an exciting installation for London Craft week and all of our furniture is launching with John Lewis in the next few weeks which we cannot wait for.
Thanks, Tom !
If you would like to know more about Tom Raffield’s Luxury Lighting and Furniture Designs then you can find everything you need to know here at www.tomraffield.com
Hope you enjoyed this interview ? Have you ever dreamed of building your own home ? I certainly have ! Do leave me a comment under this post – I’d love to hear from you.
All images copyright Tom Raffield 2017.