Where I Work: Huw Edwards-Jones, master craftsman and canoe maker

The ups and downs of 2020 didn't see Huw Edwards-Jones change where he worked, but it did change what he did: he's used the time to switch from creating beautiful hand-made furniture to spectacularly beautiful canoes. He spoke to Toby Keel.

‘Being a craftsman can be incredibly boring sometimes,’ says Huw Edwards-Jones. ‘The only thing that keeps you sustained is knowing that there will be something beautiful at the end.’

He’s talking about the painstaking hours he spent creating a hand-built canoe in his Sussex workshop. It was a three-month labour of love by a man who’s a true perfectionist, but more than that: it was a new endeavour for a craftsman whose famous Spitfire table generated headlines around the world when it was unveiled.

Huw didn’t plan to change tack this year, but coronavirus forced it on him. ‘This lockdown was the final portcullis on people wanting one-offs — work dropped down to zero,’ he says. By chance, he came across a canoeing website during lockdown, and was inspired to create his own: a Canadian-style ‘semi-rocker’ of the sort used by the frontiersmen and trappers of the 18th century. Huge lengths of cedar in different shades were shaped into graceful curves, joined together and impeccably finished, decorated with inlays of suns and teepees, and a central compass design made from rock maple.

The worst job by far, Huw admits, was the epoxy resin coating — a horrible, 16-hour job that filled his workshop with toxic fumes as successive layers dried and were re-applied. But it’s worth the effort, in terms of the canoe’s durability. ‘I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t last for 100 years,’ he says.

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If it was chance that brought Huw into making canoes, well, it was chance that turned him into a craftsman in the first place. He started life in the merchant navy, and a kindly ship’s carpenter asked him if he fancied trying his hand at some whittling and joining; on leaving the seafaring life he moved into antiques restoration before going on to design and make some truly astonishing one-off pieces. It took him five years to find everything that went in to the Spitfire table, while other cabinets he’s made have taken many months.

Now, though, he’s going back to the water: his Peacepipe Canoes, as he’s calling his new company, won’t all be quite as ornate as this first one, but he hopes to turn them out in eight or nine weeks each. The finished article weighs just 65lb (29kg), making them incredibly easy to transport.

As for how they behave on the water? ‘I took my son down the river on the first launch,’ Huw remembers fondly. ‘The sound of the water the birds, the fish… it was just bliss.’

Go to office uniform

Jeans and a shirt – unless I’m stripping things down. In that case its overalls and masks.

Work soundtrack

Radio 4, Radio 2 – I normally listen to Steve Wright in the afternoon. Honestly though it’s just a bit of background noise.

Messy workshop or tidy workshop?

Messy, mainly — workshops aren’t often not messy! I have binges of clearing up and moving on, then get locked in a job.

But out of chaos comes beauty — that’s my excuse for not clearing up! It’s strange, but whenever I’ve seen people’s workshops that are immaculate, they don’t turn out the goods — not like you’d expect. Maybe it’s me, but that’s something I’ve found.

Best piece of career advice you’ve ever had?

There are many ways to look at life and try to find some sort of spiritual fulfilment and meaning. If motivated purely by financial gain then putting all one’s input into becoming a highly skilled craftsman would not tick this box. But although I wish the profession I decided on 45 years ago, of becoming a master cabinet maker and designer, were more financially rewarding, I have to say that I am proud of the body of work and the masterpieces I’ve made over the decades. These pieces will stand the test of time and will remain heirlooms when I am long gone.

I’m determined that my new undertaking, Peacepipe Canoes, will have the same ethos, attention to detail and expertise as I did in my former furniture design and making. In one of Bob Dylan’s songs he says, ‘Truth is an arrow and the gate is narrow that it passes through.’ What you put into something is reflected in what you get out — that’s a good universal rule for life in general.

You can contact Huw Edwards-Jones on 07835 094 508 to find out more about Peacepipe Canoes.

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