Virtuoso woodwork - Q&A with designer Hal Watts

Wood Focus magazine
22 Sep 2012
‘Sycamore, 1956’ by Hal Watts

Maverick designer Hal Watts began his career as a mechanical engineer, but now works across a range of disciplines on projects that examine environmental issues. Michael Bennett discovers why wood is Watts’ favourite material.

Concerned at how little we know about where our objects come from, Hal Watts set about carving an entire chair from a single Sycamore tree due to be chopped down.

What inspired the ‘Sycamore, 1956’ project?

I found that with modern furniture there was a huge disconnect between the finished object and its material history. With plastic chairs, and even some wooden ones, the material has been worked and sanitised to the point where it is impossible for a consumer to recognise or know where it originates from or was made. ‘Sycamore, 1956’ makes this very explicit. Once you have seen the bark on the back you can imagine the tree it has come from and all the material that has been cut away to produce it.

How did you make the chair?

Sourcing a piece of timber big enough that it still has its bark undamaged was surprisingly challenging. Imported woods have their bark removed to prevent fungi being brought into the country. I found a small lumberjacking company that was really helpful and let me come out on a job clearing a wood [in Berkshire] for retirement homes to be built. I had chosen an oak tree to use but when it was cut down it was codominant, so I couldn’t use it. The only other tree large enough on the site was a sycamore. It is a really nice wood to work with and keeps a very pale finish like a soft wood but with much tighter grain.

Once I had the huge, blank slab of wood, I got the lumberjacks to cut a rough shape for me. I then worked it with a chainsaw in the workshop until it was close. I built a router jig on stuffing that I could adjust the height and angle of. This allowed me to cut very flat parallel faces. Then I used a CNC router to cut out the curves on each face and the back rest. I then cut out all the material between the legs using the router jig and a chisel. The whole chair was finished with a lot of sanding and a light rub of wax.

Speaking more generally, what materials do you like working with?

I really like working with wood and aluminium and I often find that they work really well together, especially pale woods such as sycamore. Aluminium makes a lot more sense to work with than steel, from my point of view. It is easier to work, lighter and doesn’t need to be finished to prevent rust, in the way steel does. Wood is my favourite material to work by hand, though. It just has so much more character than metals or ceramics.

How did you end up pursuing these types of projects?

I first graduated [from Imperial College] as a mechanical engineer and moved into biomechanics research, investigating the forces in the hand and causes of arthritis. I realised that research wasn’t for me and started doing freelance engineering work on small projects. Through this I met a design company called Troika and did some work for them. I realised I needed to study design if I wanted to get good at this kind of work, and got into the Royal College of Art studying Industrial Design Engineering, which I finished in June 2012. I feel very strongly about the environment and I believe that designers hold a lot of the cards that could help but are also responsible for a lot of the problem, so that’s why a lot of my work focuses in this area.

How do you make sure that you stay keen and interested in your work?

I try to vary the kind of work I do as much as possible. The type of work that I tend to do as a freelancer is very different from my own work and I think that’s important. It provides a kind of cross-pollination of ideas. I work quite a lot with other people as well, which keeps things interesting. As long as you work on things that are important to you, they always stay interesting. I think you only get bored if you start doing work that doesn’t challenge you and you don’t really believe in.

As a society, what can we do that we aren’t already doing to be more efficient with materials? Do you think that it is really possible to affect change or are we all doomed?

I don’t think we are all doomed, although it is very clear that we need to make huge changes to the way we live and consume. Often when this debate arises people say that we have to lead with the carrot and not the stick, and that it’s impossible to change people’s behaviour – designers are particularly fond of saying this. I think this is simply not true and a bit of a cop out. We change our behaviours all the time based on new products or technologies. I think we have to make change happen, and I don’t believe that government needs to play a much stronger role in this. Capitalism cannot be relied on to drive environmentalism, as it is not necessarily in its best interests.

On your bike

Copper from electrical wiring is a valuable commodity in parts of Africa, but the reclamation process that entails burning away the wire’s plastic casing is highly toxic. In Watt’s most recent project, he invents a bicycle-powered wire shredder that could solve the problem.

This project seems like a good example of a cost-efficient technological solution to a real-world problem. Do you think that despite worthy intentions, designers sometimes forget the crucial economic factor?

Definitely. During this project one person asked me if I’d heard of wire strippers and why would I go about designing all this stuff. Clearly the fact that it would never be economically viable to use wire strippers for huge amounts of wire hadn’t crossed their mind. I think especially when it comes to projects aimed at working in developing countries, people forget that many poorer people are fully aware that what they are doing is bad for them or their environment, but have no choice but to do this kind of work to survive.

Photo: Hal Watts’ wire reclamation project uses a converted bike to grind and separate copper wires from their casing, instead of the highly toxic burning method prevalent in the developing world. Watts is currently in the process of securing funding to take the award-winning project to a production stage.