A quartet of perfection – furniture maker Tom Galt in profile

Cutting perfect dovetails requires skill, concentration, and a very bright light!

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Tom and his award-winning desk

If you ever find yourself in Shrewsbury, and feeling peckish, there’s a café above the shops on Milk Street that serves the best poached eggs on toast you’ll ever eat – probably. Perfectly cooked eggs, perfect bread made into perfect toast, and perfect homemade ketchup. Just three things on a plate that together reveal the chef as a person of rare talent. You see, with something that simple, there’s nowhere to hide – every single element has to be, for want of a better word, perfect.

I bring this up not as the result of a missed breakfast, but because it’s the best analogy I can find for Tom Galt’s work. His superb – and now award-winning – French oak writing desk pictured here is about as pure an example of its type as you could find. A broad sweep of immaculate and well-chosen timber rests effortlessly across a quartet of slim legs that seems to taper almost to a point, its flawless front perfectly smooth save for two drawer pulls that appear to grow organically from the face of the desk. And just like those eggs, everything is there, on a plate as it were, in all its natural splendour. There’s no intricate carving, no ornate inlay, and no rainbow of timbers, mainly because those things aren’t necessary. It would, in a way, be overkill. Here’s piece of furniture that was judged on those qualities most fundamental to good furniture, and not found wanting.

Winning the Celebration of Craftsmanship & Design New Talent Award in 2019 was the culmination of months of effort for Tom, and represents a significant – perhaps the most significant – milestone in his ongoing transition to full-time furniture designer and maker. The judges’ comments weren’t stinting in their praise, either: “A fully resolved design, immaculately crafted with exquisite hidden details. Elegant and contemporary with great poise.” Not bad for a man who only decided to take formal training in his craft just over three years ago.

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Side table in ash

 

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Judges described Tom’s desk as: “A fully resolved design, immaculately crafted with exquisite hidden details”

Background
Tom’s background is in engineering: a degree in the subject preceded 10 years working in recycling and renewable energy. The work was varied and Tom was successful in his field, both as an engineer and manager, but practical work – actually making something with his own hands – was a rarity, and much of his time was spent in front of a computer. Despite Tom’s success, the passion for woodwork he’d felt since his school days eventually won out, as he explains: “I decided I wanted to take a break from engineering to see what I could do with furniture making. I didn’t want it to be one of those things I always wished I’d tried. If I try it and it doesn’t work out then that’s OK, but I don’t want to regret not having tried it in the first place.”

Perhaps the major turning point for Tom came with the decision to take a one-week course at the Waters & Acland Furniture School, based in the English Lake District National Park: “It was a really intense week – I was exhausted by the end – but loved every minute of it. Before the week was out, I’d already booked myself onto the Designer-Maker course, which I started in September 2018.” So was it a shock to suddenly find himself immersed in the world of fine furniture making? Tom reveals all: “I’d made lots of things prior to going to W&A, but not to that level of quality. It was something I’ve always loved doing, but prior to this, I just didn’t have the knowledge, skills and tools to make furniture to a higher standard. I’d made a bed, dining table, coffee table, bathroom cabinet, etc. and while they still work well, they’re a bit rustic! “There was a lot of trial and error… I picked up some knowledge from watching YouTube videos, and bought and read a few woodworking books and magazines, but looking back, there were lots of gaps in my knowledge. I didn’t know how to use a plane properly, and I didn’t know how to sharpen a tool to a razor-sharp edge.”

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A third, hidden drawer can be released after removing the left-hand one

Waters & Acland Furniture School
Tom speaks in glowing terms about the tuition he received at the School: “I learnt to properly use the full range of hand tools. Cutting your own mortise & tenons or dovetails is the only way to improve – learning from what you get wrong and then trying again until you get it right.” The course focused on understanding and getting the best from hand tools before introducing industrial machinery into the mix. This foundation was crucial, and helped Tom to develop a better relationship with the materials he was using: “Working to a higher standard makes you think much more carefully about the piece of wood you’re using. When you go to a timber yard, you’re choosing between hundreds of different species – with the experience I picked up at W&A, I’m now a lot more selective about the board I pick for a particular design.”

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Fine craftsmanship and exquisite details come as standard with Tom’s work

Influences & design process
Tom volunteers the fact he’s a big fan of iconic Danish furniture designer, Hans Wegner – “In my opinion, his desks and chairs are hard to beat” – and although Tom’s still developing his own style, it would be fair to say that this influence is certainly visible in terms of the clean lines and elegant minimalism exemplified in his portfolio of work so far. While Wegner may not be an unexpected influence for an aspiring maker with a passion for sleek, handcrafted wooden furniture, Tom’s expression of admiration for the work of the legendary Dieter Rams while at Braun speaks of a designer seeking wider influences. “I agree with his principles of good design and try to follow them in my approach to creating functional objects,” says Tom of Rams’ much-cited ‘10 commandments’ for designers everywhere. If you aren’t already familiar then these are certainly worth a quick browse online. Words like ‘long-lasting’, ‘aesthetic’, ‘thorough’ and ‘useful’ seem extremely apt when read in the context of Tom’s furniture.

Tom’s experience as an engineer has certainly been beneficial in the workshop: a natural affinity for the accuracy required when measuring and marking out, an in-depth understanding of the Computer Aided Design process, and a wealth of practical experience taking projects from CAD to reality. “All my recent work has been fully CAD modelled before starting any making. I’m typically working on sketches and CAD models of one or two designs in tandem with making a previously resolved design. This allows me to see the finished form and refine it before I get to a point where I’m potentially wasting wood. The pieces I’m doing take ages to make, so when you start cutting up big slabs of oak, you want to be sure that the piece works – visually, ergonomically and structurally.”

Tom firmly believes in the benefits that can be reaped from a fastidious and comprehensive design process, as he tells me: “It’s easy to just leave aspects of the design and say you’ll figure them out during making, but whenever I do that it ends up taking longer as mistakes get made or problems turn up that weren’t properly anticipated.” When it comes to realising his creations, Tom sees the tools and techniques available as part of a continuous spectrum of options, and certainly doesn’t feel that using the latest CNC processes are any less valid than working with hand tools.

This view is part of a down-to-earth and pragmatic attitude to his craft: “In terms of pure satisfaction, it’s hard to beat hand tools. In order to run a viable business, it’s hard to beat power tools. For me it’s a question of economics,” Tom explains. “I can pay someone with a five-axis CNC router to process a few key parts of my design in a matter of hours, or I could spend a couple of weeks making jigs and doing them all by hand. If it allows me to make a piece of furniture financially viable, then I’ve got no problem with it.” And because absolutely everything must be hand-finished anyway in order to reach the lofty standards of perfection that Tom has set for himself, in many ways this is simply a case of machines doing the heavy lifting, while allowing the maker to focus on their craft.

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Ash desk with ebonised legs – one of Tom’s projects while studying at Waters & Acland

 

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Tom’s other work, such as this chair in ash, confirms his love of sleek minimalism

The desk
Like any great piece of furniture, Tom’s desk began with a careful choice of wood: “I hand sorted through a few tonnes of boards, looking for something that would work well, was stable and relatively free of defects,” he recalls. “I needed a good tone match between the two boards, as well as a balance between some medullary rays, but not so much as to distract from the overall design.” This care and attention to detail can be seen again and again throughout the piece. The flawless intersecting mortises in the legs are a work of art in their own right, and that’s before you learn that the outer surfaces of those legs are curved to a radius of 16m in an arc, which sweeps around the entire piece. Then there’s the immaculate inset drawer pulls, not to mention the neat hidden drawer, which is released using a brass mechanism of Tom’s own design. All in all, the desk took the best part of three months to make, plus many hours of design leading up to its making.

Clearly this exacting approach chimed with visitors at the 2019 Cheltenham exhibition, with Tom’s desk winning the New Talent Award, as well as finding itself in a very healthy third place for the ‘People’s Choice’ vote, an impressive ranking when you consider that over 300 pieces were on display, many of them from established craftspeople. This may have been helped, in part, by Tom’s willingness to engage with the public, staying on at the exhibition and talking to anyone who was interested in hearing about the desk as well as his furniture making ethos in general. The exposure he received as a result of not only exhibiting his work, but also committing to being present and visible for the duration, started to pay instant dividends.

A conversation with one particular visitor resulted in Tom delivering his most significant sale to date just two weeks later. There’s something deeply impressive about the effort required to achieve the pure, simple pieces Tom creates. Like many a great pop song, the final form is so pure and bold that it comes as a shock when you delve beneath the surface and discover just how much work went into achieving the end result. As well as continuing to expand his furniture making portfolio, Tom has built up a healthy following on Instagram, where he regularly posts photos and descriptions of the projects he’s working on. The most recent of which is a stunning frame and panel wardrobe in teal eggshell, which, at the time of writing, is awaiting its door pulls. This is surely one of many new commissions bound to come Tom’s way, and the future certainly looks to be an exciting place for this talented furniture designer-maker.

You can follow Tom on Instagram – @galt.designs – www.instagram.com/galt.designs.

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