Touch wood

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Nestled between a residential road of Victorian two up two downs in East London lies Nichols Brothers, wood turners. A family business, the factory has resided here since 1949, which makes for a burgeoning archive of 65 years worth of staircase design. Three whole outdoor lock ups houses their amassed collection of 2500 newels and 2500 spindles, one kept from each job.   I doubt even they keep count anymore. “How on earth do you choose, if you aren’t having one matched,” I said, my eyes bulging at the seams. Crumbs, I’d be in their for days trying to decide. “I try to steer people before they get overwhelmed,” said Geoff diplomatically.

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Besides spindles and newels, the odd four-poster bed and Edwardian porch, they were even working on a batch of cherry wood coat pegs on my visit. Not to mention offering bespoke dado rails, architraves, picture rails and skirting boards to match your existing, thrown in for good measure. The Nichols factory is a craft gem in a league of it’s own. From 9am to 7 pm they turn wood, the team of four, all born and bred locals. Come home time, I imagine they must have to dust themselves off like snowmen!

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That afternoon, 400 spindles were being turned, over a three – four week period using an 80 year old machine adapted and mechanized over the years. The old boy keeping watch.  Every spindle takes approximately 6-7 minutes to carve, some being turned 2 or 3 times.    “it can get monotonous for the boys, that’ s why we like a variety of smaller projects,” explained Geoff. Speaking of which; “you didn’t happen to carve the beautiful Edwardian porch, newly installed at the bottom of my road?” I asked. It broke my heart watching the old one rot to splinters.  I’d stopped to congratulate the owner, elated that someone cared enough to even pay for his neighbour’s side of the porch. Of course they did, even though they hastily pointed out they are turners not joiners.

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“Carved any staircases of listed buildings or famous boltholes? ” I chirped, coughing gently on some wood chippings. Geoff and Harry were humble on the subject; “ there is not a lot of glory to bathe in and we are too busy to reflect on it. The work comes in and goes out. Often we only find out it’s for a celebrity when the driver collects.” Harry, still the new boy after 40 years, mans the office. But finds the modern necessities of running a business ultimately distract him from what he loves most; working with wood.   “We come to work every day, to do what we love.

The essential tea making equipment....

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Geoff’s son works in the city and without a family member to take on the business, he fears the business may one day have to wind down.  “ You can’t !” I cry, when Geoff explains he may have to wind down the business one day; his son works in the city. Having left school at 15 and now 61 years of age, he is entering his 46th year in the business he took over from his father. He must be doing something right I tell him, the other lads have served for 30 years! If they close down, we’ll all be confined to the likes of Homebase for a one size fits all bannister. So I suggest all those planning a loft extension get down to Nichols’ for your bespoke, matching staircase, carved with pride by the last wood turning factory left in London.

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Love this architect's drawing tucked between pieces of wood, ready for the turn!

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