BOYS IN THE WOOD
Hampson Woods was founded on a 17th-century staircase. Jonty Hampson and Sacha Gravenstein tell us all about it
I find the Hampson Woods founders sitting in the back garden of their local Clapton pub. It’s a hazy, pink hued evening, one of the first that's nice enough in ages to be outside, and they are enjoying the simple pleasure of drinking their ales in it.
Jonty Hampson and Sascha Gravenstein have been friends for years, but an opportunity to rebuild a beautiful wooden staircase at a 17th-century farmhouse was the starting point for their working relationship. With a shared appreciation and enjoyment for working with wood, and a desire to make straightforward, honest things, their ethos is a nod to the past, that runs counter to a throw-away culture and products that have been shipped in from elsewhere.
Can you talk us through your process?
Jonty: What we make is pretty much impossible to mass-produce so there's not a standard business model, as in you come up with the product in prototype form and then you outsource to machinery. It is always going to be made by us. It’s like a slow woodworking movement but that's probably not the right phrase to use – it’s almost turning back the clock a little bit. Everyone has things in their home that came from their grandparents, even if it is just a chopping board; but it’s simple and beautiful and it has lasted for five decades, and that's massive.
Are the serving boards you make out of one piece of wood, the product that best sums up your work right now?
Sascha: I think that was the product we initially focused on and we've added to; we started off with a small size, a medium size and a bigger size. Based on chats with people, we decided to do some other sizes and then we've started to develop other things using some different timbers that are also fantastic. We are working on these smaller objects, the spoons. Generally, they are all very simple everyday objects and that's what we like, we didn't ever want to do anything very complicated, just very simple and honest.
I went to Isle of Skye late last year and found these nice spoons that everyone seems to use for their porridge. I really liked it, and thought I'll try and see if we could make it. It’s not the same as what I saw, but it is inspired by that kind of old-fashioned, very simple shape. It’s got sharp corners so it gets into the bottom of a pan really well and it is a nice object, as well as being quite useful. And then, the little pegs are well, little pegs, that could be on coat racks or for hanging up pots and pans; they could be for all sorts of things. —
Is every piece different?
Sascha: Yes, it’s the nature of the materials we are using. They might be very similar – for various reasons we've kept them quite consistent, but they are always slightly different because they are all hand-finished, they are made from start to finish, it’s not an exact process. I guess when they are stood on end – people have said this, too – they start to look like a little group of people. They've got a little character about them, I think, it just happened that way.
Can you tell us why the provenance of the woods you use is so important?
Sascha: We just wanted to make sure that we knew where things came from and it was important to us that it wasn't from miles away or unknown origin. We’re really keen on that, so if we're using London plane or sycamore or elm, we like to know that it is from the UK and it is made here as well. Jonty: It's partly how it began – we know a woodsman that happens to be based in East London and he has various connections around London and he gets calls when it so happens a park ranger has cut a tree down. And at that point, it is quite logistically difficult, it would be easier to chip it but he, when possible, goes and collects it then and planks and dries it. The tree is either falling, or is in the wrong place or diseased when it has to come down. It’s then a three-year process until it can be used, and that fitted in with our provenance but also because it’s really exciting to know that this tree stood in, say, Russell Square.
Jonty: It took us months after working with the arborist in East London, to find suppliers that they knew everything about every tree they stock and sell, they know where it was and know the story behind it. It was a rare thing, and it was a no-brainer for us, it just had to be like that. Ideally, every single piece of timber would come from people’s gardens or city parks. Sascha: And that's exactly why we went around the more difficult route of asking loads of questions and trying to find the answers to them and making sure that we are happy with the stuff. When we're happy with it, we use it and that's pretty much it.
Which part of the process do you enjoy most?
Jonty: We finish everything in olive oil, because of food reasons and just because it’s very nourishing to the wood. We always refer to that as the glory job because it means you've taken the timber, you've processed it, you've sanded it and at that point it’s pretty much all that's left.
Is that a dip or a rub?
Sascha: It’s a rub, and suddenly you see more about it, more than you could have ever seen before that point. It brings out all the colour in the timber so it is like an, ‘Aah! That's what was there!' You think you know what was there but it reveals itself at the end. It’s like when your photo develops in the tray and you see the print for the first time. You knew you took the picture and you knew it was going to be good, but when you finally see it and you've gone through all that, it's always magic every time.
Jonty: I suppose at that point, it is becoming more yours in a way. Until that point you're still working with a raw bit of wood and until that point it might be getting smoother, it might be changing its shape, but until you've added something that isn't the piece of wood...It is at that point that the magic happens – and it is three percent of it, if that! It is the finishing touch.
Jonty: It is also really rewarding to hear the general feedback when stockists first see [the boards] them, it seems to be along the lines of, a genuinely handmade product that’s sitting among a roomful of generally machine made products that’s kind of immediate, it seems to bring smiles.
Sascha: It makes you feel you've not spent a lot of time thinking and doing something that's totally crazy. If you get the good feedback, you think it was something worth following and seeing through. Jonty: In an ideal world you can imagine smaller groups of people bringing their craft and trade to something and there being a collection of those things in reputable high street design shops. There's that kind of shift that's maybe starting to happen a little bit. It becomes personable and is immediately obvious in the product, if you look closely. That's a really satisfying thing from my point of view.
Sascha: I know that for someone, they are going to buy that [serving board] for whatever reason; for them, for a present and that they are going to see that same thing that I've seen, and I like that. I like to know that I've really enjoyed making it and I hope they really enjoy having it and seeing it. At the end that’s why I get a bit, 'Wow, look at that! Someone is going to have this nice thing and maybe think that too,’ and I kind of like that. It’s a nice thing to do.
Photographs Ivan Ruberto