The Timber Benders

This story about Don O’Connor and his partner Sue Ewatt appeared in Issue 41 – Spring 2014, written and photographed by Hilary Finch. Tragically, Don and Sue died in a car accident in November, 2016 – but their story as true artisans is as relevant today as it was then.

Surrounded by farmland in Coomoora, a self-confessed salmon swims against the tide of industrial progress. Don O’Connor is a timber bender, a popular trade in the 19th century but little known nowadays.

Before steel shaped the bodies of cars, bent timber was in steaming demand. Early automobile production used curved timber for hood bows and running boards. Horse drawn carriages preceding auto manufacture were largely made from wood; steam bent wheels, jinker shafts and numerous other components, kept the timber benders bending.

The inevitable stampede of progress; the popularisation of steel, chrome, aluminum and plastics saw the demand for this profession largely putter to a puff. Today, this skill is largely lost in amongst the boxes and bubble of Ikea pre-made.

The revival of this craft is testament to a request, barely audible over the din of mass manufacture, please Sir? I want something unique and hand crafted. More please?

An unassuming white arrow points visitors in the direction of the Timber Benders headquarters. Upon arrival, Don is stoking the furnace to fire his antiquarian machinery. “I get a lot of shed envy from the neighbours,” he says with a proud chuckle. Looking around it’s not hard to see why. This veritable treasure trove houses the oldest working examples of original timber bending equipment in Australia.

The vast collection of wooden wheels and cranks were made in Sweden in the 1850s and later shipped to Tasmania to form the basis of Launceston bending works, founded in 1887.

Over hot soup, bread, cheese and coffee Don and partner, Sue Ewart talk about their journey so far.

What do the Timber Benders make?

Don: Our niche in the market is that we do custom manufacture; we will do a one off. So, we get all these little odd jobs; weird jobs. They vary from obscure commissions such as a Viking ship hull to water- skis, wooden saddle clamps, bespoke window frames, furniture design, benches, trim and skirting boards.

So, there is still a demand for timber bending?

Sue: There does seem to be a revival in artisan crafts and an appreciation for timber decoration

Don: Last year we had requests for bent tables at airports; interesting design commissions. You can only do so much with straight timber and chrome, after that where do you go?

Sue: Unlike some old technologies, timber bending still has a practical application. We have builders requesting our services for arches, window heads, artists request sculptural pieces, the carriage industry still needs wheel rims and shafts and we do restoration work.

Don, what is it about timber bending that you enjoy so much?

It’s this great mix of working with the elementals all the time; using firewood for fire, water for steam and air to soften and bend the wood. When I go to work it’s a relationship between the elementals, the machines and me.

When you bought the business in 2000, what experience did you have?

Sue: (laughing) none!

Don: Well I had a lot of experience in patience as I had been a shearer for 12 years… I was used to heart break and patience.

Sue: We both fell in love with these machines when we found them in Echuca in 1999. When we took the lease on a year later, we were promised one month’s tuition.

Don: In the end in turned out to be eight days training on all this machinery!

You really did learn on the job then…

Don: I was a wood butcher for a start, now I’m a lot more skilled. I’m sure the machines help me. We talk about knowledge lost, but it’s still there. These machines couldn’t live in a museum, just like a human in a glass case, you would miss what it could do, think and feel. The machines often give me guidance when I’m wondering how to go about a new project.

What is your secret?

Don: The secret is to just give it a go, push it, poke it and if it won’t move, kick it- there’s got to be a way. There have been smarter people before us and they have left clues and information. Whether it’s bending timber or anything else, there is always a way. 

Story: Hilary Finch