Friday 6 July 2018
Mark Tamcken is a maker inspired by the rich heritage of furniture making in England, as well as by the many incredible makers, designing and creating amazing furniture today. Mark's emphasis on the use of traditional hand tools and techniques is very much a feature of his work. A few years ago, he had the opportunity to undergo training at the world-renowned Edward Barnsley Workshop with some of the best craftsmen in the country and feels indebted to James Ryan and Stephen Rock for this life-changing opportunity.
Despite Mark's obvious accomplishment as a furniture maker, his feet are still very firmly on the ground. “Talking about myself as a furniture maker is a bit daunting,” Mark says, “I still feel like the amateur bloke having a go in the shed, hoping he might one day produce something even close to the amazing furniture of the designers/makers who have inspired me.” These include Richard Williams, Williams and Cleal, Andrew Crawford and James Ryan to name but a handful. “I also love the furniture of the Arts and Crafts greats such as Gordon Russell and Edward Barnsley,” Mark adds.
As a hobbyist turned semi-professional furniture maker, Mark is still juggling a part-time teaching job alongside producing just three or four pieces of furniture a year for private clients. Mark's childhood love of things woody, mostly simple woodcarving, was reawakened in his early 30s during a year in Tasmania in 1994. Beautiful furniture and stunning timbers inspired him to the point of buying blackheart sassafras (Atherospermum moschatum) boards and sending them back to England in a crate, determined to make something when he got home. This and a copy of Fine Woodworking magazine stoked his obsession with fine furniture with perfect joints, flawless surfaces and highly figured timber.
This out-of-control hobby became more of a serious venture in 2003 when Mark took the plunge. Taking a year out from his full-time job as a PE teacher, he set about finding private clients who were not family or friends.
“This was rather scary at the time,” says Mark. “I was largely self-taught and hadn't made that much stuff, although I felt that what I could do would stand up reasonably well against some of the makers I had seen around the shows.”
It was the couple of weeks Mark had spent training with David Charlesworth in Devon that kindled his passion for hand tools. “This transformed my making and opened my eyes to what could be done by hand with good quality and properly sharpened tools,” Mark says. “I also became good at cutting dovetails and making drawers. Cabinetwork with drawers I still find particularly satisfying and stimulating.”
Mark's early interest in box making was inspired by Andrew Crawford who he had met at a couple of shows and it was this meeting that ignited his love of decorative veneers. When Mark was accepted on to the Foundation Apprenticeship Scheme at the Edward Barnsley workshop in 2009 at the ripe old age of 45, this was the icing on the cake. They allowed him to attend on a part-time basis for a year and a half, something he believes he should have done 20 years earlier. “The emphasis on hand-tool work and precision to very fine tolerances was right up my street. I was able to fill in many gaps in my making,” Mark adds, “areas such as laminating, curved work, complex and compound jointing, as well as taking my hand-tool work up a few notches.” It was an incredible boost to his confidence.
Talking about his own style, Mark believes it would be “difficult to look at any of my furniture and say 'That looks like a Tamcken'.” But we're not so sure. When F&C first came across Mark's desk at 2012's Celebration of Craftsmanship & Design exhibition (CCD), we were blown away by the accuracy of his joints. The contrasting woods and expertly laid veneers showed such accurate execution; it would be hard to find such perfectionism anywhere else.
Mark's ethos of always working closely with his clients, giving them choice where appropriate, rather than trying to steer them down one particular road from the outset works well in broadening his creative palette a little and encouraging him to consider different solutions and styles.
Sometimes there are constraints in the brief, such as producing a piece to match other existing furniture. “I think I have improved as a designer a lot over the last three years,” Mark says, “and have been more adventurous with new techniques. Certainly having the right tools is a bonus and the recent acquisition of my first spindle moulder has opened up new opportunities for curved work.”
Mark has absorbed elements and techniques over the years from other makers or styles of furniture and he enjoys trying things he sees and incorporating them into his designs. An example would be the style of floating panel he often uses where the top and bottom edges are butted up to the frame whilst the side edges are fielded. “I first saw this style in an early edition of F&C in Alan Peters' 'Kelmscott Chaucer Cabinet',” says Mark. “Having spent an intense period of time at the Edward Barnsley Workshop it is hard not to be influenced by certain ways of doing things. To quote James Ryan: 'It gets into your DNA'.”
Mark's main aim is to make furniture that is functional, looks good with pleasing proportions, displays a high degree of craftsmanship and shows off beautiful figuring; he enjoys using burr veneers to this end.
While he has a desire to develop his own technical capabilities, he doesn't want to allow trying to be clever to get in the way of showing off the inherent natural beauty of the timber. He will always try and get the flow of the grain to work in harmony with the lines of the design, always book-matching elements wherever possible. Mark believes these techniques, “create balance and 'rightness' to the eye without it necessarily being obvious to the observer as to why.” He quotes Jared Spool as saying: “Good design, when it's done well, becomes invisible. It's only when it's done poorly that we notice it.” However, where the elements are close together, such as in a book-matched burr veneer in a tabletop, he will always strive to create very obvious visual impact.
Like most furniture makers, Mark says, “The most recent piece at any one time is usually my favourite, as it's usually better than the last one and I've probably tried something new.” This is certainly the case with the bubinga (Guibortia demeusei) desk he made for exhibition in 2012 that F&C so admired. He wanted to produce a visually stunning piece that incorporated a healthy dose of traditional hand work and a high degree of craftsmanship. Traditionally constructed drawers with dovetails, drawer slips and solid cedar bottoms were the order of the day. As it was his first time at CCD, Mark was extremely nervous about the exhibition and was anxious as to whether he would hold his own against some of the top makers who he knew would be exhibiting alongside him and would no doubt cast a critical eye over his work! He was pleased with the result and enjoyed getting a mention in F&C.
Earning a living designing and making his own furniture in a relatively small workshop presents all manner of challenges, both creative and financial.
The size of his workshop means that large commissions are difficult to manage and even with small commissions, there is a degree of logistical gymnastics required to function efficiently. “It would be great to have a dedicated space for assembly and finishing work,” Mark says, “and as a fairly gregarious kind of person, it would be great to have more bench space too. To be able to open up my workshop to one or two students would be ideal and certainly something I would jump at given the opportunity.”
Mark loves teaching and although the regular grind of teaching in the state system can be wearing, he loves the contact time with students, especially those oft-too-seldom times when a student gets enthusiastic about woodwork. Without his part-time teaching job, sustaining the workshop as a legitimate business venture would, at present, be challenging to say the least.
Finding the right clients is the key. Mark enjoys meeting people and has found exhibitions and shows to be the best way to do this. The last year saw him throwing his net a little wider than normal with the aim of raising his profile in the fine furniture-making world. This will be something he intends to sustain, going into 2014. He has recently ventured into making solid body electric guitars for himself and is investigating the possibility of developing this as an area for professional work.