The ecclesiastical architect Sir Ninian Comper used to say that God was in the details, and most people interested in buildings feel the same. For me, it is the quality of timber detail that gives a well made building the ring of good craftsmanship the doors and windows, staircases and other fixtures and fittings.
One firm that manufactures a range of timber structures for the higher end of the market is Symm & Co, a leading building company founded in Oxford in 1815. Unusually, Symm carries out most of the specialist building trades itself, rather than employing sub-contractors.
Colin Angell, who taught woodwork in Birmingham before branching out into manufacture, manages the company’s Pershore-based joinery division. ‘Most timber experts tend to specialise in certain areas,’ he says, ‘but we’re more unusual in taking on projects ‘in the round’ as it were, joinery being only one element of an overall commission, although we do also do standalone projects a kitchen, for example, or a staircase.’ The company manufactures everything from doors and windows to panelling, library fittings and fine furniture. ‘We give the same attention to detail when making a skirting board as we do with a cabinet or dining table,’ says Mr Angell.
The joinery department works with architects and designers, whose concept designs are then worked up by an in-house design team of five draftsmen. The construction must be detailed down to the finest degree and all the mouldings and other elements drawn up to size.
At this juncture, any amendments can be made to the designs before they are approved. Then the manufacturing stage begins. Preparation of the materials, which may include such skills as veneering, turning and some architectural carving, is all done in-house. ‘We use more English and European oak than any other single timber,’ says Mr Angell. Once the components have been cut, they are hand assembled by bench joiners and cabinetmakers, after which they go to the polishing shop. Symm has embraced modern technology: as well as a fully-equipped wood machine shop, it has installed modern spraying facilities, although it still employs traditional French polishers and can supply joinery that has been entirely handmade in the traditional manner.
Symm has a particularly strong Oxford connection it has worked for every Oxford college but it undertakes projects all over Britain and has an important American east-coast market, with showrooms in New York and Atlanta. Most of its work is for private houses rather than public buildings, although it is currently tendering for a new library at the Supreme Court of Justice in Washington DC. Symm also undertakes important conservation projects; it carried out all the external joinery work for the National Trust’s post-fire restoration of Uppark, and is currently working at Blenheim Palace. ‘Basically, if it can be made in wood, we can do it,’ Mr Angell says.
Symm & Co: 01386 555129
- There are lots of ‘designer makers’ around, but you are generally better off using a good designer and then a good manufacturer
- Timber is hygroscopic?continually letting moisture in and out, whatever its age. Don’t aggravate it by subjecting it to extreme changes of temperature or lack of ventilation
- Avoid polishes containing silicon; once on, they cannot be removed