Handmade Tyneside's Founder on Their Handmade Furniture Made From Sustainable Materials
The countdown to Living North’s Christmas Fair has begun. We caught up with exhibitor Handmade Tyneside’s founder Jamie Rothwell to find out about his handmade furniture, made from sustainable materials and sourced in the North East
Tell us a bit about your background?
I have called the North East home since 2002. I’ve always been into making stuff. As a teen, I was in a band – making music. Then as an adult, had jobs in set-design, lighting design for theatre and film, advertising production and over recent years, I’ve taught myself woodcraft. Essentially, I’ve always been interested in creating something – whether it’s music or tables!
What is Handmade Tyneside?
Handmade Tyneside is a one-man (me!) wood-shop and design business. I hand-make furniture, lighting and homeware from wood that I salvage from all over Tyneside and Northumberland.
How did you get started in business?
I’ve always liked to create things, but it was by accident really. I was making furniture for our house when my wife, Laura, and I first moved in – and I was doing all of this in the garden. Our neighbours started to take an interest and asked me to make a garden bench, and then someone else wanted a chair, and it grew from there. Eventually, it got out of hand, and Laura suggested a workshop might be a good idea.
How does your business work?
The biggest thing is salvaging wood. This was difficult in the early days because I had to scour Newcastle, or cheekily ask at building or renovation sites. Now it’s easier, people get in touch when they have something. I had an elderly woman bring me four mahogany table-tops which were made by her dad for the High Fell Working Men’s Club. They’re probably over 60 years old. I haven’t used them yet because they are so precious — I want to get it right!
When I have the wood, I have a number of standard lines that I make and then every year, I come up with some new products based on what I’m interested in, feedback, or what I’ve tested at home. I make prototypes of new idea – they start in our house and if it passes the family test, then it moves onto the next stage.
What makes your products so unique?
Every product is made from reclaimed wood that has been salvaged in Tyneside or Northumberland, I make a point to find out what the wood is, what it was previously used for and its age. Everything has its own story, which is often what people connect with. For example, there’s a large piece of white oak which came from Wallsend and used to be a dining table which was originally made on 9th of December 1954. Everyone who buys something receives a certificate that tells them the wood’s history, too.
Tell us about the most interesting wood you have reclaimed?
I like the plank lights because the wood is 150 years old – it came from old church doors from a renovation in Gateshead. But my favourite are the bottle openers which are made from the bar top of a working men’s club. The social club is a staple in Northern communities. The Bombers used to be a Disabled and Ex-Servicemen’s Club, it was an essential place for many people. In 2008, there was a campaign to save it from closure but, unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. The upshot was I was able to salvage some of the wood from the bar, the stage and the dance floor. I only make bottle openers from this wood – there is a nice, serendipitous link between the bar top and the bottle openers, I enjoy that! I should have enough wood left for the rest of this year, and then I’m going to have to find another bar top with a story.
Do you face any design challenges?
The biggest challenge is deciding what to make from the wood. Sometimes I have an idea and then the wood I source doesn’t suit it. All the wood is unique, and because it’s salvaged I don’t want to waste any. I’m always trying to produce a design that suits the wood the best. I like clean lines but am also conscious never to take the character away from the wood, like the knots or the natural grain.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m entirely self-taught so there is always more to learn and master. I’d also like to start passing skills on, perhaps with free workshops or holiday programmes for kids. It’s a satisfying and useful life skill to be able to make your own furniture!
What is the most challenging part of being your own boss?
I have to be told when to stop. I enjoy what I do and that’s a privilege, it also means I can get slightly obsessive. Before a fair, like Living North’s, I could work about 15 hours a day – which isn’t necessary or healthy.
What is your most treasured possession?
My set of tools. They were given to me by a retired carpenter, who I met at a fair. We talked at length about his career, the things he’d created and what he enjoyed about woodworking. Later, he got in touch to say he had old hand-tools that he wanted to give to me. I’m grateful to him, and I use them all the time. They were made to last.
Where is your favourite place in the North East?
I love hanging out at the Backyard Bike Shop at By the River Brew Co. It’s a recent, but brilliant addition to Gateshead. I go there a lot with our dog Lancelot, have one (or three) coffees and watch the Tyne go by.
You can visit Handmade Tyneside at Living North’s Christmas Fair which is running between 7th–10th November.