Helen Welch loves making things and has been woodworking and making furniture for over 35 years. As an adult teacher of the craft for over 25 years, Helen set up The London School of Furniture Making in 2013 in South Tottenham, running regular courses for amateur furniture makers. Rachel Ho had a chat with Helen to find out more about her story and her love of working with wood.
Photo supplied: Helen Welch, founder of The London School of Furniture Making
Where did you grow up and what did your parents do?
I grew up in Islington during the 1960s and 70s when it was still a bit rough around the edges and Upper Street had no restaurants.
Throughout her working life my mum had a variety of jobs, from factory worker, shelf stacker to sales assistant in John Lewis. My dad worked a similar range of jobs including shopwork, hospital porter etc. He was a keen amateur photographer back in the day, but he now plays second fiddle to my mum's phenomenal gardening prowess. He does the composting while she does everything else. She's got a good eye for composition and colour so rightly her garden has won a few awards. When she's not in the garden she knits and crochets. She has a regular Sunday market stall in Holloway, where she sells her needlework and a few plants from the garden. I reckon she's busier now that she's retired than she was when she was working.
Describe your relationship to Tottenham.
When I was growing up I hated Tottenham. Even though it's just up the road from Holloway, it seemed so far away. I thought it was a miserable place, even more crap than Islington at the time. Plus, as an Arsenal supporter Tottenham was considered enemy territory so there was no love lost.
Over the years I began to realise that despite my natural aversion, it was a great place to pick up materials and supplies, with legendary timber merchants such as Priday's and Anderson's leading the way. Even though a lot of those businesses have now disappeared it's still a great place to have a workshop. I guess we're continuing a tradition of furniture making in the area that dates back a hundred years or more. Whether that will continue remains to be seen. As industrial estates a forced to make way for new housing developments, I suspect there won't be any room for us and we'll have to leave.
How did you get involved with furniture making?
I left school in 1984, in the middle of my second year of A levels because I was struggling, bored and no one there was paying me much attention. As luck would have it, I met some people at a careers fair who ran a joinery workshop offering free training so I jumped at the chance and spent six happy months with them before being taken on as an apprentice carpenter/joiner with the council. After that I trained as a building surveyor, but missed making stuff so after a few years I left and went off to study guitar-making instead. Eventually, I wound up making furniture.
Photo supplied: Helen Welch
What is The London School of Furniture Making and how did it come about?
I suppose the clue is in the name; we are a small woodworking school where we teach traditional furniture making to adults who are interested in how to do it the right way. We have beginner level classes and classes for more experienced students. We usually have only four students at one time, so there's a nice balance between formal teaching and relaxed conversation.
Running my own school was an idea that had been rumbling along since 2011. At that time I was self employed, making built-in furniture and the occasional bit of real solid wood furniture. I'd been teaching on and off at various universities and colleges for about twenty years and had a vague notion that I could probably do something similar from a space of my own. Tentatively, I started with a couple of students one evening a week, and then that grew into a day and now the school is open Monday to Friday during the day, with a regular evening session and occasional Sunday classes.
What advice would you give to women who want to start making furniture?
If you know that furniture making is going to be your career, then sign up for a full-time course with a college or university where you can obtain a recognised qualification and gain a thorough understanding of the practicalities of becoming a professional furniture maker.
If you can, find someone who is prepared to take you on as a trainee maker. That way you'll get a wider view of what the work actually entails. College is a great place for you to learn new skills and stretch yourself, but it isn't the same as work. Work is about being able to produce week in week out whether you feel like it or not.
Most women end up working for themselves. It's very hard to earn a halfway decent living on your own in London, so team up with someone else who can help share the workload/bills and has skills that complement your own. At least one of you needs to understand how to, and be willing to deal with the admin side of running a business.
If you just want to learn to make things for yourself, want to know more, want to be better than you are now and don't have time for a full-time course, then come to us. Our classes are very small so everybody gets to spend quality time with their tutor and nobody is left wondering when they'll be given attention. We'll give you the time and space to develop core skills over days, weeks, months and even years. We have several students who have invested a lot of time in themselves, and who are now becoming very good makers.
What is your favourite piece of furniture?
Without hesitation it's George Nakashima's Conoid chair. It's simply a brilliant piece of modernist furniture built using traditional carpentry techniques.
The design is fifty years old but it hasn't dated at bit. It's still fresh and exciting and looks like nothing else. Despite being made entirely of wood, it is very comfortable. I love it so much that making one has become one of our set courses.
Photo from The London School of Furniture Facebook: Helen with a George Nakashima's Conoid Chair
Favourite thing to do in Tottenham?
My favourite pub is Mannions and a pint in there after class is always welcome. Not a craft beer in sight though, so when I want something like that I'll pop into Craving Coffee or File Miles on Markfield Road. A stroll around the reservoirs at the Wetlands Centre is great, as is an amble along the canal and going for a drink in the tap room at Beavertown Brewery. In short, anything involving beer.
Find out more about the London School of Furniture Making:
Photo supplied: Helen with the team from The London School of Furniture Making