Crafting heirlooms from wood

Hendrikus De Vaan spends his days carefully crafting one-off pieces of woodwork. Taranaki Community News caught up with him to find out how he made the switch from the film industry, to master crafter.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what it is that you do?
My name is Hendrikus De Vaan (although Harrie is less of a mouthful), and I’m a woodworker. I make primarily one off pieces that are joinery based, and have deep roots in woodworking tradition, designed to last centuries.

I take a lot of inspiration from all over the world, but am heavily influenced by Japanese joinery in particular.

Some of the hand tools Hendrikus uses

My family immigrated to New Zealand from the Netherlands in 1996, so I mostly grew up in Taranaki, although I studied (film) in Auckland and Wellington, and recently lived in Europe for a few years.

You used to be involved in the film industry, so why, how and when did you become a woodworker?
When I moved back to NZ in 2016 I was still very actively pursuing film directing. I had just spent two years living in Budapest, and travelling internationally with my stop motion animated short film DISAPPEAR, which took out a few prestigious awards and was very well received by the industry. Like any creative venture, you need a thick skin in the film industry, but the hustle and grind was very much a daily thing.

Hendrikus on set for DISAPPEAR

I initially got interested in woodworking from the Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) character from the TV show Parks and Recreation. From there it was a deep dive into YouTube, forums, and various sub-reddits.

The thing that pushed me over the edge to try it was after I discovered Japanese Sashimono woodworking. Sashimono woodworkers create small pieces of furniture using no fasteners, which seemed very interesting to me.

Having never really picked up a chisel before, let alone worked with solid wood, I bought a $15 hardpoint saw, a $20 set of chisels, and dropped $400 on some Shapton water stones. I dismantled an old bed frame, and used the slats as timber for my first project – a through mortise joinery shoe rack.

The solid mahognay guitar

From there I kept going, hand tools only, and built a number of things, including a solid mahogany 3 string guitar, and a reproduction of an 18th century French Roubo workbench.

At this time I was still heavily involved in film, but after a long conversation with my amazing partner, Luca Szalmas (a very successful and talented artist in her own right), I decided that being good at something wasn’t enough reason to keep doing it. So from then I started pursuing woodworking full time, and have found peace and fulfillment in doing so.

The joinery Hendrikus uses

You don’t use nails or screws in your work, so how does everything stay together? 
Everything stays together with joinery. Theoretically, a lot of my pieces don’t even need glue, but I use it to prevent creaks. I use drawbore mortise and tenons a lot, which involves slotting two pieces of wood into each other and then securing them with an offset wooden pin.

I’ve recently done a lot of sliding dovetail work too, which allows for seasonal wood movement. Basically, with the exception of smaller items, I try to put things together without any metal fasteners, with the mentality that the glue is just there for insurance. There’s plenty of flatpack furniture out there already, I wanted to focus a lot on mechanical quality and durability.

Dovetails

What do you use to make a piece of woodwork and how long does it take?
I started out with using only hand tools, and I’m slowly getting back to those roots. Machines make for fast, accurate work, but they require a lot of setup (which is inefficient for one off pieces), and put out a lot of dust and noise – which is neither healthy nor enjoyable.

I use a combination of traditional Japanese tools, and western tools. I have hand tools ranging from brand new right through to over 200 years old. The added benefit of hand tools is that for the price of buying one industrial quality machine – you can assemble an entire hand tool woodworking kit.

In terms of timber, I use all sorts. I have a friend with a portable sawmill, so I get stuff from him sometimes. I also recycle a lot of my hardwoods, like Mahogany. I’ve actually bought very little timber, as I seem to get given a lot of wood from people and just don’t seem to run out.

I’d love to work more with other woods, but it doesn’t really make financial or environmental sense to do so unless I start to run low on my current supplies. I really enjoy making a table and being able to say “the Rimu is from a house that came down in Stratford, and the Sheoak was milled 2 years ago in Midhurst by a friend and me”. 

Ian working on the sawmill

All of my projects are naturally finished using boiled linseed oil and homemade beeswax paste. Sometimes I use shellac too. I really enjoy not exposing myself to chemicals on a daily basis, but that’s not the primary reason I finish my work naturally.

It comes down to my stance on creating heirloom pieces. A naturally finished piece can be refinished and maintained without first needing to be stripped down. This means that the piece develops a “patina” of use over decades, and tells a story. The Japanese often refer to this quality as “wabi-sabi (侘寂)”, the beauty of imperfection.

What is the most challenging thing about being a woodworker?
I think the hardest part is explaining why I can’t compete on price with the big box stores. My overheads are low, and my prices are very fair, but at the end of the day –  a lot of hours go into creating any piece.

A mahogany an oak table by Hendrikus

I don’t have a product line, so each piece undergoes contemplation, and is then brought through mostly by hand with a lot of thought and attention to detail. It means the work is better, but a lot of time goes into it vs whacking something together with pocket screws (not that there is anything wrong with that, it’s just not what I do).

And what’s the best thing? The best thing is when the first coat of oil goes on and the beauty of the wood really starts to shine through. And it’s immensely satisfying to build something functional.

I absolutely love film, but whenever I finished a project – that wasn’t really the end of the works journey. I’d have to promote it, do interviews, and wait for public perception of the piece before really knowing whether it’s a success, or not.

Sheoak shaving handle

With woodworking – if I build a table, it doesn’t wobble, and it means I can now put my coffee on it instead of on the floor – I have succeeded.

Obviously it’s a bonus if it looks nice and is well made, but there is a certain sense of satisfaction I get from making functional things.

What’s your favourite piece you’ve ever made?
Probably a coffee table I made out of a live edge piece of Sheaoak with a Rimu base. Everyone keeps calling it the “Vagina Table”, so I guess that name is going to stick. It’s now owned by a dear friend of mine. It’s nice knowing it will be passed down through generations.

The Vagina Table

I made it during a sprint of making six tables in six weeks, and this was sort of the result of everything I’d learnt on the other five tables.

If you could make something for any person from history, who would it be and what would you make them?
That’s a tough one. I’d really like to make something for Nick Offerman one day, as a sort of thank you for getting me into woodworking, but that will be a little while as making something for a very accomplished woodworker is nothing short of nerve wracking.

The main thing I enjoy about making things for people is when they appreciate the piece beyond face value. So I know that’s a non answer, but I would love for one of my pieces to still be in use in 300 years.

Hendrikus can also be found at local markets

I had an epiphany recently while watching a video on traditional Japanese house building. I had been trying to build everything to be bomb proof, but they mentioned that the reason why traditional Japanese houses lasted so long is not just because they are well built, but because they are well loved.

So moving forward, I want to put most of my focus into making things that people love enough to look after. That’s how furniture survives centuries.