Working in the Workshop with Master Artisan Neil Fyffe

Neil Fyffe is a designer, artist, craftsman and all-around master artisan. His portfolio of work is impressive and his woodworking experience spans more than 30 years. He is a qualified joiner but started his making career as an artist. He graduated from Edinburgh University in 1986 with a Master of Arts and set up his own workshop in 1993, commenting that he became “his own apprentice”, later taking on apprencies of his own.

I had the utmost pleasure of working with him on a recent project for my MA in Product Design Making exploring the use of 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies in traditional craft objects and making.

Pre-Work

Neil and I were introduced by Andrew O’Dowd from Napier. They had worked on a project previously which incorporated a Bluetooth speaker embedded into a chair.

Before meeting with Neil in his workshop we had a phone call to discuss the project and a follow-up digital design meeting over video chat where we sketched out some ideas and discussed different technologies that could be embedded into the design. As I didn’t want to take up too much of Neil’s valuable time, I had already narrowed down our scope to a table lamp. I felt this type of project was small enough in scale to be easily transported, it also works with an object that can be considered traditional and modern depending on its design. Additionally, this was the first time either of us had worked with Arduino components and I was going to be doing the testing and coding, often controlling an LED light is one of the first recommended projects for beginners. You can read more about the coding portion of this project in my journal post here.

Neil works often with carvings and while he doesn’t have much time for his wood art nowadays, he did show me a number of his previously completed pieces. So it was no surprise that the project started with the possibility of carving out spaces for the components out of a beautiful piece of elm he had in his workshop. We quickly realized that this may not be feasible in the time we had and that approaching the project from the idea of a casing/ box premises was a simple way to get going.

Sketching and notes during virtual design meeting (25/04/2022)

After our video meeting, I built a foamboard version of what we had discussed. As Neil had some spare wooden bowls he had previously made we decided to use one of those for the shade, and I found a plastic bowl I could use in the first iteration of our design ideas.

I sent Neil the photographs and measurements I had taken by email so he could look out some materials he had at his workshop before I headed down.

Sending photos of test run and measurements to Neil (28/04/2022)

I then worked on testing the components and writing code. You can read more about that here.

Workshop Day (05/05/2022)

Getting Started

Upon arriving at Neil’s workshop I was welcomed with a beautiful smell of wood shavings. Neil said it might be burnt elm from the day before but either way it was delightful. Neil’s workshop is bright and airy, with an array of materials to choose from and previous project spares to be inspired by. He has a combination of hand tools and power tools, commenting that his hand plainer was his simplest but best working tool (after I mentioned having some difficulties working with a hand plane in Ghana many years before).

Before starting with any woodworking I showed Neil the prototype I had made and the components I had brought with me (both the ones used in the test and the other sensors and components available in the kits I had purchased. Neil was very engaged with the technologies I presented, he was interested in how the components went together and what they could do. It was so much easier to discuss ideas in person with the pieces in front of us than over video, which isn’t surprising (however video did mean we could both be prepared).

While the main aim of this project was to explore not just the object but the making process as well – we were still both keen to have a nice piece in the end. We discussed a variety of options, such as infrared for use with a remote, a touch sensor, or even an air sensor (however with Covid we agreed that would be strange to turn the light on by blowing on it) the final decisions about using motion sensors were decided prior to the workshop day but we did have a look at the other centres in person before getting into the woodworking.

Working at Neil’s workshop in Selkirk

Design Decisions Through Making

It was fascinating and great fun to work with Neil, in part because we both like to make design decisions through the making process. Even though we had some idea of the design before we started – we didn’t have the exact details. There were still a few specifics that were to be decided on the day. Neil had set aside some pieces of plywood that he had used on our previous project and had leftover from previous work and we agreed that the stripe detail on the edge of plywood would be a nice addition to the lamp’s aesthetic. It is also a relatively easy material to work with – so it was ideal.

Neil also had an existing wooden bowl that he had turned for a previous project that was leftover so we decided to use that bowl as the shade. He selected this one because it looked similar in size to the plastic bowl I used in the mockup, it was an appropriate scale for what we were looking to achieve.

Neil also had some existing curved items in his workshop and we used them to trace and make the curve. We then used a router to create the cut-out for where the wiring was going to go. Neil skilfully cut the curve that would hold the lampshade and I sanded the pieces down on the rotary sander.

I had purchased two white strips one with a cool colour and one with warm colour and couldn’t decide which one to use for the lamp so put both in one click sensor in the future in future iterations of this project be developed further to allow for choice between warm and cool lights. (See more about the speculative design portion of this project here).

Other decisions we made during the design process included, changing the angle of the post from 90° to have a slight angle to add a bit more interest, moving the second sensor to the side (as the programming meant it was stuck on the timer setting – you can read more about that here). We also both agreed that the base would have a nice aesthetic if the width was the same as the shade and so we measured the base piece out and cut it as a rectangle, but once we had the piece in front of us we decided to trace the curve of the shade/bowl – as it would add something extra aesthetically to the piece. This serendipitously made placing the top motion sensor an easy decision in the centre of the curve as it too was round.

At each turn when a new challenge or opportunity presented itself it was easier to discuss ideas and suggestions by demonstrating with the pieces, and through the making process rather than having an exacting plan. This meant that the lamp “started to take on an aesthetic of its own” as Neil would come to say at the end of the day. This is the real distinction between ‘knowing through making’ or the making process in general rather than simply manufacturing or building. A lot of the decisions (and fun) wouldn’t have happened if it was simply a manufacturing exercise.

Working at Neil’s workshop in Selkirk

Blending Craft Objects and Making with Modern Tech

Throughout the day and during the creation of this lamp Neil and I discussed the use of technology in traditional craft objects. He was enthusiastic about the idea and he was interested to learn more. He did however state that learning the code would probably be too much for him but he liked the plug-and-play style components of the Grove Kit that we were using, which meant we didn’t have to worry about soldering wires etc. While Neil had not used this type of technology before, by lunchtime he had already started thinking of other ideas for projects that which this technology could be used. For example; making the custom cabinet with a small light that would turn on when the cabinet door was opened he did ask if the boards came with programs – which I told them unfortunately they don’t, but it would be a good offering idea because I agree there is a big difference between making something with kit parts and learning code which is a new and different language.

We carefully created openings and space for the technology to live seamlessly with the wood and it created a nice aesthetic – if I do say so myself – and it started to feel like we really were making something special.

Taking a Lunch Break

We would eventually decide to take a break, and I had the delight of enjoying lunch with Neil and his wife Dot in their beautiful farmhouse. I brought my own wrap from Marks & Spencer’s and Neil had what he called a ‘special pie’ which he needed to explain to me meant it was meat and black pudding (this was the part of the day my husband seemed very interested in when I told him about my day – asking what kind of meat was in the pie and then going to buy one the next day!).

Over lunch, we showed Dot the progress we have made and discussed the project along with other possibilities and projects that could be made. Neil shared his enthusiasm for the possibility of choosing a warm or cool light by the user within the lamp with Dot and she thought that would be a great idea for different times of day or tasks you might be working on.

I also shared with them the Samsung Smart Bike design story and explained how it was intended to encourage cross-generational learning and increased interest in traditional crafts (similar to what we were looking at together). Dot commented that she is comfortable with technology when she’s had a chance to get to terms with it but finds the initial starting sometimes to be difficult. This was generally because her grandkids jumped right without explaining how it works. I agreed that I had felt similarly with the Arduino beginner’s kit I purchased for this project because there was no start guide printed in the box. It did come with a QR code, which makes sense for a tech-based kit, but I still would have liked a small booklet or card guide to help get my computer connected to the board and walk through the first few steps. Even though I am quite comical technology was slightly intimidating at first.

A Master at Work

Watching Neil work was a great experience and working together on this project was a lot of fun. It was interesting to see how even with years of experience you can still realize an easier way of doing something after you’ve made it more difficult. Neil is a master carver and used his chisel to match the angle of the lamp post with the notch in the base, only to comment “Oh I could have just cut the post straight rather than angle the base” (N. Fyffe, 2022) – I’m sure that would have worked great but it was still good to see his expert skills in action.

Other Projects

Over the course of our day together, Neil shared how he started in woodworking by building his own instruments (mainly acoustic guitars). He has also worked on a number of other projects, with most of his work coming from architects or through his website. He noted that he had always found business through word of mouth but did notice once he had a website that work started coming through that.

One of his notable projects he had spare pieces left from was the Barton Hotel, where he was commissioned to work on the gables by the architects, which was a fine example of the type of work he usually works on.

We also spoke about other collaborative projects, including is work on a Canadian totem pole project up in Aberdeenshire. It was funny how we came to speak about this project actually. I was asking him about the tools he had in his workshop, commenting that my parents had a small dremmel when I was younger and I used it to make a totem pole project (but did not venture much into hand carving with chisels). He said that he has actually worked on a totem pole project with a team of Canadian craftspeople and that the chisels they used “looked more like spades” (because of their large size). He did get the chance to try out their tools and they shared some of their skills with each other. While they were each responsible for carving a particular portion of the pole, it was truly a collaborative project.

Coming together

The base of the wooden bowl Neil had created previously needed to be removed to give the lamp more of a shade appearance (rather than a bowl). Things started to come together. I sanded down the lamp post and fed wiring through, connecting it to the 2x LED strips we had attached to the inside of the newly modified lamp shade.

It did start to appear that the base of the lamp started to have a guitar-like feel to it, which was of course unintentional but interesting considering that instrument making is how Neil got started in woodworking. The way he approached the making of the box for the base by using a solid piece and cutting out the interior space – rather than starting from the idea of a cube of separate planes was an interesting approach but meant we could add the weight back in and the curve was easier to match with the top. It also meant we could have the stripes of the plywood as a distinguishing feature. In the end, the base does almost have a solid appearance – rather than looking like a box.

Finishing up for the day at Neil’s workshop

Unfortunately, when programming and testing the components before heading to Neil’s workshop, I accidentally blew the board (read more here) 😳 which meant we were unable to test it fully in his workshop, but I completed the remainder at home/ in the Napier workshop and shared the results with Reddit. Click ‘next post‘ to read more.

To see more of Neil Fyffe’s work be sure to check out his website at: http://www.neilfyffe.co.uk


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