The joiner from Athenry who became a master craftsman
6 MIN READ
Just outside the village of Kiltullagh, County Galway, about ten minutes’ drive east from Athenry, are seven-feet high stacks of oak, sweet chestnut, olive ash and yew that have been left to dry for a year outside a large kiln. All this wood comes from native Irish trees some of which used to grow on the lands of Dromoland Castle in Clare, Westport House in Mayo and Kilshane House in Tipperary.
“I didn’t even do woodwork in school”
Step inside the workshop next door to the kiln and you might find, as I did when I turned up, Daniel Gill from Athenry at his workbench making fine furniture; chests of drawers and writing desks inspired by the style of 17th century furniture designer Thomas Sheraton and influenced by contemporary furniture makers from the east coast of America. Daniel was using a chisel to cut a dovetail joint for a chest of drawers when I arrived. But, remarkably, even though he began creating exquisite pieces here since 2011, Daniel is self-taught. “There’s no history of working with wood in my family. I didn’t even do woodwork in school,” he says.
“I started making little jewellery boxes”
He used to make office furniture – “all plywood and chipboard, there was no traditional wood working in it, I didn’t even know how to sharpen a chisel when I left” – but his heart was in finer work. “I started making little jewellery boxes and selling them at the Sunday market in Galway. By chance, there I met Seamus Conner, he’s a retired wood worker now in his sixties, but a really good craftsman and he was selling turned bowls. I became friendly with him and he brought me to his workshop one day and that was a real turning point for me. He pointed me in the right direction, any questions I had I could always ring him.”
“Only because it’s a passion, I keep going”
“I had a very small workshop at the time, as I was still living at home, and I was doing everything and anything; hanging doors, putting down floors, doing pretty much anything that people would ask me to do. I started doing the fine furniture work in my own time and, to be honest, it still only makes up a percentage. My Monday to Friday work here still can be any kind of jobs to keep the workshop open. The fine furniture side of things I’d say is still only 20-30% of what I’m doing. If I can get it up to 50% I think, realistically, that’s as much as anybody who’s making fine furniture can get it to. You don’t really get paid for the hours because the huge amount of time that goes into making a piece like a chest of drawers makes it difficult to make a living out of it alone. Only because it’s a passion, I keep going.”
The Enterprise Town at Athenry
On 6 May 2017, Daniel brought two pieces along to the Bank of Ireland Enterprise Town in Athenry. “They were pieces I’d been working on for nearly a year each, on and off, and they would be at the standard that I would consider to be fine furniture. One was a chest of drawers that folds out into a writing desk and that’s made out of some Olive Ash which came from Westport House – I source all my own timber and dry it in my kiln next door to the workshop – and the other was called a huntboard (like a tall sideboard) which is made out of some locally-sourced Walnut actually.”
89% discovered new businesses they didn’t know existed
Daniel’s experience was similar to that of people attending Enterprise Towns all across Ireland. In research carried out in 2016, 89% of people said they had discovered new businesses they didn’t know existed at an Enterprise Town and this happened even in the most tightly-knit communities. Often, locals might not have heard of new internet-based businesses that have a website and thriving social media presence but don’t have a shop on the local high street . 97% of people also strongly agreed that their Enterprise Town was good for local networking. “Before, people locally would only have known me from making cabinets and built-in pieces, basic cabinetry,” admitted Daniel, “so it was a good way to raise awareness of the finer furniture that I make now.”
“I tried out a few new things”
He used the event as a way of testing out how he might promote himself at the shows in the UK and the Netherlands where he showcases his speculative pieces and raises his profile. As he says, “I tried out a few new things and made up a new display board.” The board used photos to help explain to people at the event, step by step, how he made his fine furniture and the attention to detail involved.
“Gavin Duffy was very interested in what I was doing and gave me his contact details. He seemed well into his furniture and came across as being very genuine. The Enterprise Town was a very well organised event. There wasn’t anybody I spoke to in Athenry before the event who didn’t know about it and there was also a great crowd on the day.”
“Old antiques but given a contemporary twist”
Daniel explains how he has discovered his own personal style over the past few years. “The pieces I want to make are copies of old antiques but given a contemporary twist and made still usable for modern day living. For example, the writing desk, very few people sit a writing desk any more but I changed the compartments so it can hold a laptop so it looks like a traditional piece but is still very usable.”
He shows me the frame of a speculative piece that he’s working on in the workshop right now. “This is going to be another writing desk with two little drawers here and one in the middle and on top there will be a curved gallery of drawers. It’s made out of brown oak which has the same strength and characteristics of regular oak but it has the brown colour. As you can see everything is jointed and cut by hand.”
“I’m not just using hand tools for nostalgic reasons”
I ask Daniel why he uses traditional hand tools rather than power tools in his workshop (I have a quick look around and, no, there are no power tools to be seen anywhere). “I’m not just using hand tools for nostalgic reasons I use them because they’re faster for finer pieces of furniture. If you’re not running out fifty pieces of the same thing then by the time you’ve set up a machine to do the work you could have done it with a hand tool.”
“Hand tools give a much crisper finish. If you use sandpaper then the wood will get slightly rounded as you go through the grains to get it smoother while a hand tool will get a finish as smooth as glass and very crisp. That’s one of the hallmarks of fine furniture. You also get the attention to detail with the grain of the wood following the lines of the furniture.”
“Look at the grain on this, it’s like an exotic wood almost.”
Next, Daniel takes me out of his workshop to the walk-in kiln he uses to dry out his wood. “In here is the kiln and my timber store and a dehumidifier. Having a large stock of native Irish species allows me to choose the right parts for each piece . I also invite potential clients to browse through my timber store in search of the perfect boards. Everything out on the racks has been in the kiln. It’s a big selling point being able to tell people exactly where the wood comes from.”
Daniel shows off his special store of wood at the back of the kiln and it’s clear that he’s genuinely passionate about the materials he works with and the opportunity to use them to create exquisite pieces of furniture. ‘This is some yew here,” he explains, “that came from Dromoland Castle and this is some evergreen oak – look at the grain on this, it’s like an exotic wood almost.
We began our Enterprise Town initiative in late 2013, in Kells, Co. Meath. By the end of 2017, we will have supported local communities in delivering over 160 Enterprise Towns across Ireland. To find your local Enterprise Town click here.
See more of Daniel’s work on his website.
Photos of fine furniture: John Howard. All other photos: Neil Cubley.