After the pilot project

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2015

Is it a bird box? Is it a plane? Eoin Redahan visited the Aircraft Workshop in London, where decommissioned aeroplanes turn into the unexpected. 

A speeding truck brushed dust into the morning sunlight. As the fizz fell away, the road to Canary Wharf appeared in sharper focus. A pair of suited city boys walked towards the city before veering unexpectedly left, away from the thoroughfare and towards the river. These rogues – these creatures out of habitat – ambled along winding dockland streets, past crumbling warehouses, weeds, murals and renovated ship containers, until they found an eatery on Trinity Buoy Wharf.

Had they followed the path a little further, they would have seen the Aircraft Workshop simmering on the sleepy side of the Thames. Had they peeked inside, they would have seen a rocking chair made from an aeroplane seat and rows of coat hooks that once lived as armrest covers. And they would also have seen Harry Dwyer and Charlie Waller, the designers responsible for these clever creations.

From Rumble Strips to rickshaws

The Aircraft Workshop owes its origins to Kevin McCloud and his Supersized Salvage TV show. The tall, properly-spoken presenter of Channel 4’s Grand Designs fronted the programme in which a group of designers created saleable products from a decommissioned Airbus A320 – an aeroplane that was destined for death by landfill. Dwyer and Waller were among the chosen, albeit in a roundabout way.

Dwyer says, ‘A friend of a friend was working on it and he was looking for people. I know a lot of designer-makers, so he asked me about it. I was involved as more of a consultant than anything. I went along and they said, “Oh why don’t you do a casting?” It was a running joke where everyone kept saying, “The Casting Director really likes you. You’re still in it.”’

And part of it he became. The producers saw the darkly bearded Dwyer as something of a wildcard, someone who was willing to give form to bizarre ideas. They asked him to enlist a work partner for the programme. 

Despite the producers’ preference for an engineer, Dwyer insisted on working with Charlie Waller, a lean, easy-going friend from art school and former bandmate (Dwyer played keyboard as Waller sang for the Rumble Strips).

‘I wanted to get Charlie to come and do it because I knew he’d be better than an engineer,’ Dwyer says. ‘It was actually a better way of working because we’re more interested in doing the unusual.’
These unfettered thoughts turned aeroplane seats into rickshaws, aluminium fuselage into a domed pagoda, wing flap bearings into egg cups, plastic tray tables into magazine racks and curving, resin-fibre ventilation pipes into bird boxes.

Their fellow designers were equally innovative. Scrap metal expert Paul Firbank cut and polished aluminium seat bases to make futuristic desk lamps, and fashioned lampshades from the miles of disused wiring, while fellow designer Max McMurdo turned hunks of fuselage into office studios, complete with cloud-peering portholes.

After four months of freewheeling rickshaws, inflatable life jacket bags and aluminium sofas, the programme aired to an agreeable public. Murdo and Firbank shuffled off stage and back to their private endeavours, but for Dwyer and Waller, the show wasn’t over. In March, they created the Aircraft Workshop to streamline their aircraft creations and sail the tailwind of public goodwill. ‘If you can’t get a business to make money with a million pound TV advert, you must be terrible,’ Dwyer says. ‘So we must be pretty bad.’

Angle grinders and aeroplane bellies

Waller pads outside in bare feet, his bandaged thumb pointing across the water. It is only a mile from one of the UK’s commercial arteries, but the river is peaceful. The summer sky ripples on its mud-brown complexion. Lime-green algae stain the banks. An ancient tugboat hugs the dock below. The owners bought the boat for £1 on condition that they kept it in service. Waller and Dwyer also rejuvenate the obsolete, but they must make a living in the process.

During the TV programme, the designers had to find ways of upcycling every last fibre of the aeroplane. Now, they have the luxury of the smash-and-grab job. Whenever they hear of a decommissioned aeroplane arriving in Durham Tees Valley International Airport (featuring complementary scrapyard), they pack their angle grinder and haggling boots, and make for the north. Once aboard a knackered aeroplane, they quickly set about denuding the craft of its armrest covers, magazine racks and air ducting.

Waller says, ‘If you know the rest of the aeroplane is going to scrap, you can just take an angle grinder to the belly of it – knowing what bits of the pipes make good bird boxes – and cut them out. During the programme, with every little bolt we were thinking, “Well, one of the others might want to use this.”’

There is a sensible reason behind this narrowed focus. Some items made on the show are simply too labour-intensive to be commercially viable. As impressive as rickshaws and domed playhouses are, they don’t pay the rent like a good armrest coat hook. Other items, such as the stainless steel eggcups, cannot be made for a different reason. ‘We tried to get more of the eggcups,’ Dwyer explains, ‘but they’re actually valuable pieces of aviation equipment. They form part of the flaps on the wings. When manufacturers send out spare flaps, they send these bearings with them. They’re probably worth £500.’ The eggcups from the show sold for £22 each.

Pricing upcycled products is tricky when there are few bases for comparison. As with many products, the Aircraft Workshop products are prone to the public’s elastic whims. On the one hand, Waller and Dwyer could charge £100 for an item that cost 50p in the scrap dealer’s. On the other hand, they sometimes struggle to fetch fair prices for high-quality, labour-intensive products. Their hexagonal dog bed features a moulded sprung-foam base and a durable, washable seat cover. Yet, despite the quality of the ingredients, how many people will pay £145 for a dog’s bed?

Weight is also an issue when it comes to creating saleable items. Dwyer explains, ‘Everything is curved and thin on an aeroplane. It is quite difficult finding something heavy. When you want to make something that feels like high-quality to sell, you want it to be heavy. Weirdly, the eggcups felt solid, because they were made from solid pieces of milled steel.’

So, as some oblivious customer eats her egg from a £500 piece of advanced aviation technology, Dwyer and Waller are busy cutting and polishing other salvaged components. They are mass-producing magazine racks and creating three, five and nine-hook coat hangers for sale in Elemental, in nearby Shoreditch. ‘We’re trying to blitz the hooks,’ Dwyer says. ‘If we can get a really good stock of them, we can drop the price right down and have quite a lot of sales, instead of sitting around waiting for one big sale.’

They are also finishing their rocking chair, though this is mainly for the satisfaction of having brought an imagined object into reality.

Hook me an idea

A bin full of aluminium rests. A clock made from a Soviet plane’s EXIT sign keeps Cyrillic time on the wall. The rocking chair’s fuselage base awaits bolting. Coat hooks bask in a square of sunlight. What trails of mind bring these objects into being? How can you look at a tired old aeroplane and see a toast rack?
‘There are a good few tricks,’ Dwyer notes. ‘One way is to come up with products regardless of what you’re making them out of. People said it would be funny to make a bird box out of an aeroplane. Then, when we were rooting around, Charlie found the pipes.’ The rest, as no one said, was fibre resin birdbox history.

Another method is to look at an object and see what it can be turned into. For example, an aeroplane’s cargo bay door hinge looked uncannily like a toast rack. Waller says, ‘After you see something that looks like a toast rack, you think, “Maybe we can make a breakfast set. Is there something we can make an egg cup out of?”’

While the immediate focus is on aeroplanes, Dwyer and Waller are keen to re-use all manner of vehicles and machinery that would ordinarily get scrapped, melted down or sent to landfill. In this respect, the Aircraft Workshop is a small, but significant part of the waste solution. Dwyer says, ‘Recently, we went out to Jaguar Land Rover. 

They talked about recycling, how you can keep materials within a loop and the extra environmental impact of different processes. The actual recycling of material uses a lot of energy, so, if you are going to melt something down, it’s actually not that good for the environment.’

There is no doubt that Aircraft Workshop is a worthwhile enterprise, but time will tell whether it becomes a government minister’s dream – an environmentally benign initiative that is also lucrative. Either way, it would take a cold heart to begrudge them success.

As the interview peters, we go outside into the sun-drenched midday. Disused articles rest by the workshop wall. Among them stands an old ice-cream cart, revamped with a blue aeroplane seat as its centrepiece. I sit in as Dwyer cycles the cart slowly around the courtyard. ‘There is something satisfying about [upcycling] things that would have been thrown away,’ he says. ‘Now people are saying,
“I would buy that.” It’s very pleasing.’