Celebrating British Woods

Today sees the start of #GrowninBritain week, which raises awareness of the importance of developing a sustainable future for our woodlands and forests. 

#GrowninBritain recently launched a report, which looked at the state of the British timber industry. There were some eye opening stats in there, which clearly demonstrated that we have the potential to utilise our own woodlands and provide sustainable timber supplies.

I found it particularly staggering that out of all the timber consumed by the UK (1/2 million cubic meters annually) only 10% comes from our own managed woodlands. There is the potential to increase this figure to 20%, without impacting on trees currently standing in woodland. Currently the UK imports vast quantities of species, which grow natively in Britain. It seems crazy to me that we have a great natural resource right on our doorstep and yet instead we import, which has an environmental cost as we move timber across sea and road.

British wood

As a small workshop focusing on handmade fine furniture we're not using vast quantities of timber; therefore we are in the lucky position of not needing to worry about extensive supply chains. We are able to source great British woods by working with small, independent timber specialists, who allow us the freedom to rummage through and hand select boards, often specifically for each commission.

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Having said that, I believe every maker and workshop, large and small, has a choice to make about the values they hold and the woods they choose to use.  When I established Petrel I set out a few principals on the kind of business I was proud to put my name to. I wanted to create a business that was authentic and responsible, the choice to use only British hardwoods is a foundation of these values.

We have such a wonderfully broad range of timbers available in this country that we should be celebrating. I have worked with a range of our native species, some of which are extraordinary. The quality of our native walnut and oak in particular is second to none in my opinion and I have returned to them time and again in my pieces.

samples of British woods

I am looking forward this #GrowninBritain week to blowing the trumpet for British woods in all their variety, beauty and uniqueness. I hope the campaign increases awareness and use of our fine natural resource; it will be excellent for our own homegrown industries and pave the way for better management of our woodlands.

Petrel furniture sideboard in English brown oak and bog oak

Styling the woven bench: our cosy wishlist

Now that the weather has started to cool down, here at Petrel HQ our thoughts have turned to Autumn and we’re thinking about one of our favourite things, how to be cosy.

Petrel furniture woven bench

Over the summer, we launched our new woven bench; a beautiful and comfortable seat made from English olive ash, with a woven Danish cord seat. The bench is a piece that could work in many places: a hallway or conservatory, at a kitchen table or in a bedroom.

petrel furniture woven bench, waxed cord detail

The woven seat features two lines of coloured waxed cord laced through it, which were chosen by my wife and I. We wanted the combination of the colours in the bench to evoke the British countryside, with the soft golden tones representing the changing colours of the late summer landscape.

With the shifting of the seasons we’re coveting cosiness, so here is our wish list for styling the bench for ultimate snugness, featuring great British craft makers we love:

 

1.     A blanket for keeping our knees (and hard working furniture makers hands) warm from Ardalanish.

2.     We think the colours in this lovely cushion from St Jude's fabrics work perfectly with the yellow and green cord in the bench.

3.     When doesn’t a cup of tea help? We’d love to sit down with a brew in one of Leach potteries cups. 

 

What do you think of our suggestions? How would you style our woven bench?

The wonder of oak - part 1

 

At Petrel HQ, we are busy making for the upcoming Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design furniture show at the end of August, where we'll be exhibiting three pieces. We're really excited about showing our work there and looking forward to meeting people, who'll be able to see and get their hands on our work (a great thing to be able to do with furniture.)

We're passionate about the wonder and diversity of British woods at Petrel and one of the pieces we'll be exhibiting celebrates a wood often associated with the British Isles; the mighty oak.

Our design will pay tribute to oak in a variety of forms, including 4000-year old bog oak from the Fens and brown oak.

Brown oak is formed as a result of a beefsteak fungus growing on the tree, which reacts with the tannin in the tree and changes the colour of the wood, making it a glorious darker and richer brown, occasionally with dramatic streaks.

In preparation for making this piece, we bought an entire tree - a first for Petrel! This is a big outlay for a small workshop, but exciting too as it means we can get amazing quality, consistent colour and interesting details, which will feature throughout the finished piece. We searched long and hard to find the best possible brown oak available and were super lucky to get a superb quality specimen, from a great timber yard only an hour away from the workshop. 

These are our lovely boards (or boules as they are known when you buy the whole log) 

We hand picked this tree, as we loved the consistent deep hazel brown colour and small decorative knots (called pip - a cute name hey! But they can be a pain to deal with,  but give great character to the finished piece.)

The joy of hand picking your timber, is not only so you can get the details you're looking for, but so you also know the provenance of the timber. We believe wood is a precious resource and we take responsibility for crafting our work in woods that we can account for.

Buying from small, independent specialists, enables you to learn the backstory of the wood you buy. As I mentioned, this piece will also use incredibly valuable bog oak. 

I sourced a few boards from a renowned maker, whose dedication to getting the finest bog oak available, sees him travelling to remote fields in the Fens to unearth and assess massive prehistoric logs, to then arrange transport, cutting and conditioning. He has even built a series of custom dehumidifiers, to bring this incredible oak to a stable condition fit for fine furniture.

This process, from getting the oak out of the ground, to becoming ready for use, takes the best part of a year.  After that, once this fine material is on my bench having completed its 4000 year long journey, it is a unique feeling of responsibility. Working with bog oak demands I respect the material, cut economically, design with sensitivity and don't bugger it up!  

Now, hours and hours of careful, focused work will take this oak on to the next part of its story.

There's still plenty to do before we have a finished piece. But when it is completed, I hope our craftsmanship and our chosen design will show off this beautiful British wood and do justice to the formidable oak  tree.

You can follow our progress in finishing this piece on our twitter feed.

 

Come visit Petrel at craft shows this summer

 

We're really excited at Petrel HQ, as this Summer we're going to be exhibiting at a number of craft shows.

We are looking forward to previewing some beautiful new pieces, as well as talking to people and sharing our love for fine, hand crafted furniture.

We'll be at the Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design, 20-29 August.

Thirlestaine Long Gallery
Bath Road
Cheltenham
Gloucestershire
GL53 7LD

There is a  preview day on Friday 19 August which we'll be at, so we hope to meet some of you there.

 

 

 

Rippled box for jewels

A recent commission which left the workshop earlier this year on its way to a new home in Cyprus; what a beautiful gift.

A fine jewellery box in rippled sycamore with a copper coloured silk velvet lining.

 A single piece of sycamore was used for the box creating a seamless and continuous flow of ripples, it's a delight to look at.

Wood of this quality is a rare find. I wanted to do it justice by keeping the design simple and crisp on the outside and a delight to the senses when opening.

Luxurious silk velvet, a perfect place to store your precious jewels. 

 

 

 

 

Project linen press: The final 10%

 244 (1) - Not long now, how about some drawers and a few doors?... Ahh that final 10%

I can't believe where the time has gone, it seems like only yesterday that I hung up my apron as a student and embarked on the journey as a professional cabinet maker. 

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- Frame & panel frame in ripple sycamore and walnut for the back of the cabinet -

I am fortunate to have continued on in the same workshop and although not strictly a student I have had the talented John Lloyd on hand to help with tricky design and technical decisions.

This continuity and support has allowed me to progress well with the linen press, if I am honest I can't quite believe that I have managed to make something as complex and significant after a years training. Sure the year has been super tough and intense but much credit has to go to John for his patience and focus in making a professional out of a complete novice.

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- The bottom chest and top cupboard are separate cabinets, joined aesthetically with matched linking dovetails - no room for error here! -

I have spent this fantastic summer focused entirely on making a fine piece of furniture that will give pleasure and last many years. In many ways this piece represents the result of a years worth of hard work and learning, blood, sweat and tears in the truest sense. The finished press will act as a signature of the quality and attention to detail one can expect from a piece of petrel furniture.

So what's this final 10% about? Well, during the design phase you are able to break down the making process into a schedule which is used as a basis for cost and delivery. As a student the focus is on learning a skill and achieving a particular standard, time is not so much of a concern... oh how things change when the professional clock is ticking.

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- The cabinet back, lined with a sycamore frame and panel section, its a shame it'll be against a wall! -

Well after many weeks of solid work I am now presented with a fine cabinet which looks as if its nearly there, only a few doors and drawers and a spot of polish, say about 10%.

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- The top cornice, a fine line of sycamore give a frame to the piece, this technique is repeated in the base. -

The crazy thing is that the needle seems to have been stack at this 10% mark for a while now, that's not to say I've taken my eye off the ball or had a series of mistakes, on the contrary it's been an intense and focused period. The last 10% represents a distortion of time where energy is spent on many intricate tasks which although vital do not seem to move the project on, then suddenly as if pulling all the pieces together you complete in something of a flourish.

The images throughout this blog post show some of the stages of the making, this first major commission has been an incredible journey with the destination in sight... well only about 10% left now.

Project Linen Cupboard: Success is in the prep

IMG_1485 - Crunch time, making the cut -

After reviewing the images in my last post I was reminded of the beauty of walnut in its original form, cut from the same tree you get to see how the heart of the tree (often the darker part) and the grain runs through each consecutive piece. So often today we see only the end product, the industrial process is removed from view, we are presented with smooth, clean-cut surfaces free form the natural blemishes and much character.

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- A few of the boards joined and resting whilst I get on with the next lot -

In my previous city life I recall attending many meetings in large corporate offices, I remember how many of the walls and swish boardroom tables were extravagantly covered in glossy veneers.  Although this was clearly wood at some point in its life, the uniform matching of the grain pattern and heavy lacquered finish had somehow made the material seem unreal. In a way it is made to look ‘natural’ but in fact, sadly, so far removed.

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- This is in fact three boards of walnut from different parts of the tree joined together, this will become the side of the cupboard section -

With today’s technology it is relatively simple to coat man-made boards of MDF and ply-board with fancy veneers. As most industrial veneers are typically less than a millimeter thick its easy to match colour and grain pattern for large projects like fitted interiors and much of the high end furniture you see in the concessions of the luxury departments stores.

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- The joined board should match in colour and grain, can you spot the three separate boards here? -

I should probably state that I do not have a problem with veneering, I have used veneers in many of my projects, and it is an interesting, versatile and effective material. I do think it’s a shame, however, that a lot of the mass-produced and exclusive high-end furniture today is highly engineered, using in most part man-made board and veneers. I suspect the large furniture manufacturers’ arrive at this point because it’s easier, costs less and offers consistency.

My training has taught me the importance on choosing the right material for the purpose; in terms of making this is principally a technical consideration where movement of a natural form needs to be factored. After all a piece of handmade furniture should last generations, designing and making with the future in mind is key.

With this in mind I favour the use of veneer and man-made boards when technically necessary. The linen cupboard will in most part be made from solid walnut, I will use a high grade water resistant MDF for the door panels and veneer with a fine French walnut I have matched to the solid. There is no shame in this, in fact it offers the best possible technical solution to guarantee that this piece of furniture is enjoyed for many years.

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- Two boards of matching walnut joined together -

The burr is another exception when it comes to veneer. Wait, I hear you cry... what is a burr…or Burl as our North American friends refer to it?

A burr is essentially a highly decorative part of a tree found across many tree species and is much prized for its complex figure and pattern. When you are out and about I am sure you have all noticed trees with rounded outgrowths on the base of the tree or the trunk; this is generally filled with small knots from dormant buds or fungus. The stunning effect makes the material quite fragile and as such it is most often turned into veneers.

I managed to pick up some stunning examples of burrs on my last trip to the veneer supplier; I will post a few images of these in my next post.

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- Planing the joined boards to make sure they are super flat and the same thickness -

Well the point of all this rambling neatly brings me to the progress on the linen cupboard. I have spent the last week sorting through the planks of walnut in order to work out how to best cut the various components. After many hours of strenuous lifting, flipping, spinning and lifting again I finally made a decision.

In selecting each component I had two concerns:

1. Is it big enough?

2. Does it match?

The key to getting the right look for the cabinet rests squarely with these decisions. It is not just about colour but also about how the pattern of the wood flows around the piece. Getting this balance is tricky. Walnut is a bit of a pig to work, one one hand it has great character and colour and on the other it is full of knots and quite tasty to the woodworm; it brings a new meaning to pitfalls!

I have inserted various images of this process including the joining and preparing of the timber throughout this post, I hope you find them interesting.

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Once all the prep is done its time to start dovetails on a cupboard that's 1.5metres tall, this might involve a ladder...

until next time...

 

 

 

 

Project linen cupboard: Fine walnut

Here's a few snaps of the walnut in its raw form. Now onto the tricky task of measuring and marking. The key is to get the most possible out if this precious resource. Whilst economy is important it is also necessary to make aesthetic decisions on how the individual planks will join and work together. The goal here is to create harmony and balance between each face.

This is not only an economic imperative but also the respect for a fine material.

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Project Linen Cupboard: The Beginnings

It's nearly a year since I left a city career and embarked on my training as a furniture maker, its amazing how quickly time has flown by, it seems like only yesterday that I was unpacking a series of strange looking tools and shiny things on day one of the course. 

A year down and the start of the first major project as a professional cabinet maker is underway, the general feeling is one of confidence and excitement, of course this is mixed with a healthy sprinkling of 'oh crumbs'. 

Over the course of this project I will be sharing with you the journey from raw material to finished cabinet, along the way we will be stopping off to focus on techniques and some of the challenges faced in making a substantial piece of furniture. I will be sharing the fascinating process from translating a design on paper to the real thing. 

Several weeks ago I sent a pack of wood samples for consideration, the idea was to have a single wood for the main construction and provide definition and detail with a contrasting wood, this would carry on inside with the interior to the cabinet and draw sides to be made in the contrasting material.

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Sycamore, Walnut and cherry were packed and sent to the client for consideration with Walnut and Sycamore making the grade, it is going to be terrific to use this fine wood once again.

Now came the tricky part, finding some fine timber. 

The school has contact with a number of specialist timber yards and as makers we are encouraged to keep our eye out for high quality and interesting timbers. In fine furniture the quality of the wood is paramount, I have not yet brought timber without seeing it in person first, and I don't expect this will change. 

Thankfully the smaller specialist firms allow us to rifle through huge stacks of boards to find just the right selection of figure, colour and size. One such firm is a cracking outfit based in West Sussex called English Woodlands Timber, Peter the stock manager is not only super helpful  but will cheer you up with a seemingly exhaustible collection of Hawaiian shirts. 

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- You can just make out that shirt! - 

Walnut typically comes in what they call waney edge - this means that it hasn't been cut square and often has the bark still attached, this is typical for woods that are quite curved and misshaped, you generally have to double the amount you need to factor in the curved boards and waste from the edges. 

After a week of searching high and low for some fine walnut, our friends at English Woodlands came up trumps with a fine selection of French Walnut, I was lucky enough to be the first to see the boards and and got first pick. This meant I was able to match the grain and colour by picking from the same tree, several hours later I had selected 11 boards of the finest walnut I had seen in a while. 

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OK, it doesn't look much now but just wait until I start to prepare the timber, the colour is a subtle pink deep brown. 

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Here we have some sycamore for the drawer linings, as always its the last board that takes your fancy!

Tune in next time for the timber prep and matching the pretty grain and figure the design. 

 

 

 

 

 

It's Tambour Time

As my training nears it's end I have been trying to squeeze in a few of the more advanced techniques, the specialist features that you generally see on antique furniture - This has included cabriole legs and tambours, don't worry I'll explain what I mean by these in a mo. 

It's been great to practice a technique as an individual component rather than a large complex project, as well as developing my hand skills I have also enjoyed the freedom to experiment without fear of messing up a significant amount of work.

Furniture making is a tricky business, the stakes are progressively raised from the first cut all the way to the final rub of polish. I have learnt the hard way that the key to success - not only in making something fine but also within a realistic time - rests with careful planning and thoughtful execution, reducing errors is paramount. Throughout my training I have had numerous situations where I have spent days rectifying a silly mis-measurement or haphazard cut, in fact every time I now hear myself say things like "oh, it should be alright if I just..." it generally isn't.

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The Cabriole Leg - An elegant example of this popular leg design, it was wonderful to refine the use of hand tools including a spoke shave (seen behind the leg to the right) and rasps - the rasps came from a French company called Auriou which hand make each one, a joy to use. 

To practice some hand carving I shaped the foot into the shape of a 'duck's foot' perhaps too alarming a concept to share, although I understand this may now be presented to the student with the biggest mistake at the end of term, you never know it may become a close friend!

Next up is a Tambour, you often see this in cabinets or roll-top desks, mine is a smaller version made into a box - think swish bread bin, or if we're getting technical, Wikipedia explains it as 'a flexible, sliding, slatted shutter'.

The key to success is making the Tambour seamless as if an uncut piece of wood, I think I pulled it off.

The wood here is sycamore and cherry. 

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Thanks to Tom for being a hand model in the pictures.  

 

 

Project Reading Chair: It's all in the sitting

Image Here are a few images of the reading chair in its new home. After a few hours of re-arranging furniture to make way for this most generous chair we have settled on a space; close to a window for natural light and next to a fabulous vintage pub table to pop down a cup of tea and the current read.

After a week the chairs settled well, a few creaks - from the cord I hope! It is super comfortable and excellent to while away a few hours with a book or laptop. In fact I write this entry from the comfort of the chair, delightful.

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The Walnut oil finish was an experiment and I am delighted with the finish, it has worked so well.  The chair has a soft sheen and given a warmth to the grain, over time the wood will depend and take on a rich orange colour.

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- Shaping back into the arm was tricky, no room to hide here.

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- Check out that cord. My hands a still aching from this challenging weave, it took three days to complete, apparently trained hands can race through this in half a day!

Image- The curve around the arms and seat give an elegant relaxed feel to the design.

If you could see a similar reading chair sitting in your home, I would be most delighted to make another one so please get in touch.

I complete my training in July and have decided to stay on at the school renting bench space whilst I make the transition to a professional maker. I am thrilled to have a few requests for furniture from friends and colleagues of old, this should keep me busy for the next couple of months and hopefully make the step into a commercial world easier.

Talking of next projects here's some terrific news, I have agreed my first commission for a piece of furniture, a rather substantial linen press. Here is a snap of the wood samples sent out to the client, a selection of English hard woods and some Cedar of Lebanon for the drawer linings.

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Project Reading Chair: Danish Cord

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After many hours at the bench I am delighted to have nearly finished the reading chair. It is quite an incredible experience seeing something you have dreamt up materialise into a functional form.

Chairs are notoriously difficult beasts to get right, if it's not the proportion it might be the geometry, if not the geometry it might be the material - there is so much that can go wrong.

Before embarking on this challenge I kept hearing the comment "you really need to make a chair to make a chair" I never really got it until now. As the reading chair nears completion I am able to appreciate the consequences of my design decisions, the compromises made at the bench to make parts work together and the technical challenges of getting the right quality of finish.

Commercial considerations also need to be made, the choice of hand cut veneer which was laminated and pressed for the rear 'ladder back' of the chair took five days to get right, yes five solid days!. Sure, I am delighted with the end product but I would certainly change a few things if I were to start again, who know's it may end up being part of the core product range in the future. Anyway, let's save this retrospective analysis for a later post, yes the one with glossy pics of the chair in situ...and a coffee and cake road test under its belt. 

Before the finale I wanted to share with you a few images of the Danish Cord process. This was pioneered by the Danish School of makers and featured heavily in the designs and work of the great Hans Wegner. Many of Wegner's pieces have become design classics and Danish cord is still used today as a neat way of creating a seat within a chair. 

The essence of the practice is very simple, three cord lengths are used to weave around the frame of the chair to create a robust elegant seat. The cord is made from wrapped paper and fixed to the frame with little 'L' shaped nails, it is natural and organic and a wonderful challenge for the novice. So, without further ado here are some images: 

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The chair frame, glued up and ready for some oil and the cord. 

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Start by wrapping cord around the front rail and taking a looped pair to the back of the chair where it is fastened underneath by hooking over a spacial 'L' shaped nail.

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Here's a clearing image of the front to back section which is now complete. 

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Next weave across the frame taking the cord over and under the front to rear weaves, alternate weaves give a great pattern.

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The underside of the chair showing the weave pattern and nail arrangement, my fingers are shot and blistered tonight! 

I hope this was interesting, next post I will share some nice glossy pics of the chair at home, I hope I won't be too nervous to sit in it.

 

 

Project Reading Chair: A sweet milestone

Image Blood, sweat and tears and we nearly have a chair... OK not so many tears but a good few eye watering cuts along the way.

This project has been super challenging, working with curved surfaces was always going to be tough but my word I had no idea how demanding. Days have whistled by without much material progress whilst I got my head around how to handle marking, cutting and generally dealing with so many curved components which need to fit accurately together.

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- Marking up the rear legs to ensure the tenon holes are cut accurately on both legs, oh at a 20degree angle! -

Over the last couple of days I feel like I have reached a milestone, not only do I now have something that looks pretty much like a chair but my overall approach and understanding has matured. For the first time since starting this new career I actually felt competent and able to handle the material and tools without constant questioning. In many ways I feel like a professional; a cabinet maker if I may be so bold...Sure I have a long way to go before I have the depth of knowledge and experience to really call myself a craftsman but the signs of life are certainly there.

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- Tricky joints on the chair back slats, curved at every angle -

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- Fitting the rails has been a nightmare, the first one took me over two days! -

The next steps are rather fun, shaping the arms and legs into a gentle curve with a spokeshave and rasp and glueing up the frame before finishing with oil. I am trying to different oils, I wonder if walnut oil would work?

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- What a lovely arm and through tenon, it is going to a joy shaping this by hand -

Project Reading Chair: The catch-up

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OK, so how about we play a little catch-up? Here is a series of in progress pictures on my latest project a fine reading chair in English walnut. 

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Here's the board before marking out and cutting, stunning pattern hey. 


After the flurry of activity at the end of the second term - which culminated in the delivery of the auctioned console table to its magnificently grand new home and the completion of my first commission, a lovely keepsake box with feather inlay - I took advantage of a three week break to switch off from hand tools and catch up with friends, we also managed to fit in a well deserved break in the Scottish Borders. We stayed in a renovated potting shed cum pig sty, I highly recommend if you want a cosy bolt hole away for two - breathtaking scenery and walks right on the doorstep. 

Well it's back into the workshop with gusto, term three is all about taking my skills to the next level - think carving and curvy things -before that though I have a chair to finish; so let me bring you up to speed. 

During our second term we were all given the task of designing and making a chair, the more difficult the better after all this is about learning, so no harm in making the route steep and challenging. I wanted to make a chair comfortable enough to read and let the hours pass by perhaps even cosy enough to nod off on a Sunday afternoon. The design phase involved many drawings and mock up prototypes, chairs have tricky angles and many individual parts which need to be accurate to ensure a solid fit and a lifetime of use - Cardboard and selotape have become dear friends. 

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Here's a mock up with cardboard rear slats and a cushion, this is a quick and easy way to play around with form and proportion. 

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Arm: Mock-up fitted with cut out tenon to secure the arm to the front leg. 

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Arm: From mock-up to solid wood, notice the cut mortise to fit into the front leg. Next to shaping and fitting. 

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Rear Slat: From technical drawing to the actual thing. The rear slats are made up of hand-cut veneer planed smooth and vacuum pressed against a curved template. 

 

I have decided that this chair will not be sold as I want something at home to remind me of my craft and journey in becoming a furniture maker. I will use the design as a basis for Petrel's first product range, so if you think you would like something comfortable to sit on to while away an afternoon you may be in luck. 

Keep posted for the next stage - fitting the rear slats to the legs, Danish cord seat frame and home-made cushion oh and lets see if it all fits together. 

 

The first finished commission

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I am delighted to share some images of a rather lovely keepsake box I made as a first commission. It has been kept well under wraps as it was for a dear friends wife's 40th Birthday. This is truly a one of a kind box, I was honoured to be asked to make something unique for such a special birthday. 

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The box is made from solid American Black Walnut with a Ripple Sycamore lining giving a great contrast when opening. 

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The feather in-lay is made out of yew and hand cut into the american black walnut top, it was a tricky process as any gaps or rips would stand out like a sore thumb. The feather is made up from individual cut pieces of yew, arranged to create the lines and lightness of a feather. 

Happy Birthday Michelle, I hope it brings many years of pleasure. 

Console Table: We have a winner

I have been really touched by the response to this auction for the first piece of Petrel Furniture. Your bids and words of encouragement have meant a great deal. 

Congratulations goes to Raymond McCabe for the winning bid posted before 7pm. Raymond please contact me to arrange delivery of this fine table. 

For those who were unlucky or fancy having a piece of furniture made please do not hesitate to contact me. 

Thanks again 

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