Artisan furniture maker Dylan Pym in his Polstead workshop
PUBLISHED: 17:14 15 February 2016 | UPDATED: 17:14 15 February 2016
Tessa Allingham meets the talented craftsman who has perfected the art of steam bending wood
Strung up on a high beam in Dylan Pym’s lofty workshop in the south Suffolk village of Polstead is an effigy, a classic Bonfire Night guy, covered in sawdust and cobwebs, tightly-knotted twine holding the stuffing inside his legs and arms, his head with its rudimentary features, lolling to one side.
“My last apprentice!” Dylan laughs. “He must have done something wrong on the lathe.”
The guy looks down at Dylan’s lathe, his circular saw, and row upon row of chisels and pliers and adzes and clamps and hammers and vices carefully slotted into holders screwed to the walls. Light filters dustily through windows shrouded with looping Miss Havisham-esque cobwebs.
“If I cleaned them the place would fall down, and anyway I like spiders,” Dylan jokes. And it sort of illuminates the worktables. These are scattered with more tools, pieces of paper filled with carefully pencilled designs, boxes of nails and the odd abandoned mug of herbal tea, dominated by a chest of drawers in the making. The hapless guy looks down too on a fire burning cosily in a converted gas cylinder, heating the workshop and sending warm air upwards to dry the planks of wood stacked on the mezzanine.
The walls are plastered with old posters promoting the Polstice Festival and the Polstead Exhibition. Both are Dylan’s idea, a way of promoting local artists, makers and music. He’s a singer himself and plays the five-string banjo that’s propped up in one corner of the workshop. But it’s not surprising to hear that it’s wood that really gets him going.
“I love wood, I love trees. We plant fifty, a hundred maybe, every year on our land – chestnut, oak, ash, birch – but it bothers me that not enough people do that. We think too much about the now and not enough about tomorrow. We should be planting all our amazing hardwood trees for the generations to come.” We go up some steep steps to his ‘showroom’ where a few pieces await collection, and scores of photographs on the wall catalogue his work, characterised by smooth, sensuous, tactile curves. It doesn’t take much of a study of his portfolio to see that he’s going curvier as the years pass, to the point of even rejecting a flat-topped surface on a sideboard in favour of a wavy one.
“OK, you can’t put a vase of flowers on it, but it’s very comfortable to lie on!” A so-called Tall Girl chest of drawers curves to give the piece a ‘waist’. Another chest of drawers has smoothly rotund sides, like a generous belly. He’s working on the next stage of that concept, a tall cupboard shaped like a figure of eight. There are also the stunningly elegant dark oak chairs with spindle backs and generous elm seats. There’s something a bit fantastical and Gaudi-esque about it all. These pieces wouldn’t be out of place in an Alice in Wonderland world where things aren’t quite what they seem, where the expected and the ordinary have no place. Dylan’s inspiration is the curves and bends and flowing shapes of nature.
“There’s nothing straight in nature. Look at the quirkiness everywhere, the weird bends. That’s my inspiration. Straight is boring.” He achieves these quirky shapes by steam-bending wood. It’s an age-old skill whereby seasoned wood is softened in steam till it becomes pliable, before being quickly set round a ‘former’ and left clamped in place for several months. Once properly dry, the wood will retain the new shape, reprogrammed, as it were, to be curvy. Bent pieces are hung from the beams in the workshop, a stock of components for future pieces of furniture.
The day of my visit isn’t, sadly, a steaming day. Dylan and his workmate, Carl, do that in batches, firing up the old electric Burco boiler and sliding plank after plank into the 8ft steam box balanced on top of it. It’s rather a Heath Robinson contraption, but clearly does the job.
“Depending on the wood, it takes 20-30 minutes for the fibres to soften,” he explains. “We then pull it out of the box, quickly clamp on a strap with handles at either end, take an end each and bend the wood over the ‘former’ to create whatever shape we need.”
He works in local hardwoods, trees felled mostly within 40 miles of Polstead, after storm damage or as part of a woodland management programme.
“I like to see a tree in situ before getting it planked at the sawmill in Nayland. I like to understand the tree, a bit about where it stood and why it fell. It’s important because an oak from sandy soil will behave differently from one that grew on clay. It’ll be more brittle because water will have been drawn away quickly and will have different grain as a result.”
Dylan has lived on these 20 acres in Polstead virtually all his life. The collection of old farm buildings that include his (self-built) studio cluster near the thatched cottage where his parents – his father is Australian, his mother French – live and run the smallholding according to organic and conservation principles. They bought it back in the 1970s, and Dylan and his siblings enjoyed what sounds like one of those charmed lives of rural fiction where outdoor adventure, carefree roaming, and tending an assortment of livestock fill young days.
As an adult, Dylan worked as a shepherd caring for a flock of 150 mules, but when the storms of 1987 struck he turned his attention to finding ways to use the fallen wood.
“I couldn’t find a carpentry apprenticeship so I went to Ipswich college. It wasn’t easy because I’m severely dyslexic, but I learnt the skills and have been making furniture for over 20 years now.”
He is a true countryman. On a walk across the land adjoining his workshop, he points out clusters of newly-planted trees, some destined to be furniture of the future, others simply to create a habitat or provide fruit and nuts.
He goes a bit dreamy, looking up at the canopy above us, a tangle of young alder, silver birch, walnut, then tells me the story of how, as a boy, he would head to an ancient oak, not far from home. Its trunk was – is, as this tree still stands –hollowed out with age and possibly lightening strike. He would climb the tree, to the point where he could look down inside the trunk, then steel himself to jump the 15ft into its core. “Have you ever done that?” The question is rhetorical. “It’s an amazing feeling to be surrounded by tree. The first time I did it – I must have been a young teenager – I felt as close to actually being a tree as I’ve ever felt.” w
About Dylan Pym
Dylan sells his pieces at the Suffolk and Hadleigh shows and the Polstead Show at the end of August, which he set up and hosts in his barns. Otherwise, he works to commissions, finishing every piece with a discreet carving of the customer’s name and the location where the tree once grew.
He’s also had his moment of fame on the popular Channel Four programme, George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, when he steam-bent the timber frame for a spherical tree tent designed by eco-friendly design company, Luminair. All the test runs for the final structure were carried out in Dylan’s woodland.