Trug-maker Bill Blair talks to Diana Noonan about his craft.
From a little red corrugated iron shed on the edge of Oamaru Harbour, Kakanui resident Bill Blair keeps alive the traditional craft of trug making. In his pinstriped collarless shirt, grey waistcoat, thick woollen trews, and gold-rimmed spectacles, he looks far removed from the 21st-century artisan he is – an impression that is further reinforced when I step into his workshop – for Bill is hopelessly in love with traditional tools.
Wooden handled saws, chisels, mallets, braces, and knives line the walls or spill from dusty boxes sitting on shelves around the room. But these museum instruments aren’t there merely for show. Bill uses them all in his daily work, and before we have even begun discussing trugs, he is regaling me with the virtues of Swedish Smora knives (he asked his partner to bring him back a collection when she was visiting Scandinavia) and explaining that he made the foot vice (which I’ve almost tripped over) himself.
Bill’s woodwork is in constant demand so although he’s happy to chat, he must also get on with his tasks while we talk. To that end, he straddles a seat and picks up a drawknife. This traditional woodworking tool, consisting of a sharp, slightly concave blade with a wooden handle at each end, is used to shave wood, and as I watch, Bill begins drawing it towards him as he whittles down a length of willow.
Long shavings are soon flying off the pole to cover the floor.
“The workshop”, explains Bill, was one of many that once stood on the site. Dating from the early days of Oamaru Harbour, the sheds were built around the 1870s or 80s and were used for the likes of blacksmithing and carpentry. To Bill, they epitomise the interconnectedness of crafts, with one occupation supporting the other.
Bill has not always been a woodworker. Although keen on woodcraft while at school, it was deemed an ‘unsuitable’ occupation so he first went to university before later working as a freezing worker, an offshore oil rig roughneck, and cycling through Africa. Becoming a trug maker came about via a rather circuitous route.
Bill’s good friend, a fellow artisan, and maker of wooden rakes (among other things) happened to be featured in a national magazine. The photos that accompanied the article were rather spectacular so the friend (and one of his rakes) appeared on the front cover of the glossy. Soon, the rakes were in hot demand – so hot in fact that Bill was roped in to take over the making of them!
Bill started making the rakes on a small scale (he was learning the craft as he went) but when friends suggested he might like to make trugs, and showed him some they had bought in England a few years before, his woodworking took a different turn. Using his friend’s trugs as a model, he developed his own version – and as sales soared, rakes took a back seat.
“Trugs,” Bill tells me, “are quintessentially English.” There is no style of trug other than the English trug. People may attach the word ‘trug’ to other receptacles but that is taking liberty. By definition, a trug is a curved, planked, nailed basket with a bark-covered handle and rim. Originally, trugs hailed from Sussex in Southern England where they were made from willow which was grown and coppiced widely – in fact, willow was grown all over Southern England right up to the middle of the 20th century. It was as people, at last, had the spare hours for ‘pastimes’ instead of non-stop labouring, that trugs came into their own.
Gardening ‘took off’ as a creative hobby in the 1700s and, with it, came the demand for a functional but also elegant garden basket.
Along with Hazel, Sweet Chestnut and Ash, willow would have been one of the dominant crops of the region. The wood was in such popular demand that it can be thought of as ‘the plastic of its day’. As a protective ‘coating’, everything was wrapped in willow wicker for travel purposes. Bill proudly admits to owning a refillable beer flagon with its own cocoon of wicker made by Oamaru basket maker Mike Lillian (who also made his lunch basket).
“Back then, looking after woodlands was a trade in its own right,” Bill tells me. “Now, this situation has almost disappeared, even in Europe.”
In North America (and also in New Zealand) the culture of managed woodlands never really developed in the same way as in England. Native forests were massacred and industrial plantation management was established. This may have been good for the trees that were grown but it did nothing to assist carpenters and craftspeople.
Luckily for Bill, he has been able to establish a connection with the few post-industrial managed woodlands that have since developed in New Zealand. Wood for the handles and rims of his trugs is sustainably harvested from a coppicing woodlot near Kurow. The willow from this site was planted by a former catchment board to create cuttings for planting as riverside stabilisation. When I spoke to Bill he was excited at the prospect of cooperating with a landowner who was planting Ash specifically for coppicing.
“I like to use the green wood of larger Ash trees if I can get it. The planks produced are superior to those that are sawn because, with green wood, you can do all the working down to size by splitting [Bill uses a tradition fro tool for this]. It saves you having to saw and it also ensures a long wood fibre because you’re not cutting across fibres.”
The drying of wood is also an important part of the preparation that goes into trug-making and Bill stores drying wood on the roof of his home. “I dry what I call ‘pussy willow’, although I haven’t positively identified it. It has the nicest bark and once it’s dried it goes a lovely red. Its texture is leathery and by the time I’ve polished it up with bees’ wax, some people don’t even realise it’s bark they’re looking at!”
The willow is bunged up on a rack on top of Bill’s house and the fresh air and sunshine do the work. Apart from the rich colour the drying produces, the other advantage of leaving the bark on the wood is that it acts as a strong backing strip. This prevents cracking and breaking on the extreme bends the wood sometimes has to endure.
As Bill continues his work with the drawknife, a visitor arrives at the workshop – but she’s not after trugs – or even a rake. She’s come to collect the wood shavings which she uses as mulch in her garden.
When I look surprised, Bill delights in telling me that the shavings are also sought-after as a lining for the nests of the little blue penguins for which Oamaru has now become famous.
I follow Bill around his workshop and by the time it comes to leave, we are back to talking about tools. He picks up a sideax lying on his workbench and weighs it thoughtfully in his hands. “It’s important to feel good about your tools,” he says, “but they also to be attractive. That’s why my trugs sell so well. They look good but they’re also functional and they work well. Nowadays, people want to leave the plastic behind and carry something beautiful out from the potting shed and into their garden.”