A Handmade Life

After 2 decades of designing and building furniture, specifically with Scottish Wood, and with a new decade just beginning, this seemed a good time to take stock of what can only be described as an ‘interesting journey’.

For me it began in a tiny spare room in a terraced house in Alloa around 24 years ago. I had recently discovered a book by Anthony Dew on Making Rocking Horses. I had 3 young children at that time and worked as a jack of all trades on various building sites, doing whatever I could to pay the mortgage. The book appealed to my creative instincts and I thought I could make a fully carved rocker for my kids for Christmas. Although I made some successful carved heads from off cuts of roof trusses, I never did finish that rocking horse (well not yet!)  It was clear that a lot more machinery would be required, a better knowledge of the wood and more money for all the bits that went with it! The seeds however were sown, and it was time for a change.

School had never really appealed to me and I left as quickly as reasonably possible. I now however felt ready to be educated and I signed up to a college course. As my dad had been telling me for years, ‘it’s time you got a proper job!’ I like a challenge so I chose Civil Engineering due to its variety and discovered I really enjoyed learning after all. Two years later I had a good HND under my belt and an offer to go into the second year at Strathclyde University. I now had four children and a reasonable amount of student debt, so the choice was obvious but not easy. I moved back into the real world and worked wherever I could, mostly on small building contracts.

After a couple of years, out of the blue, someone asked “would you be interested in building us a kitchen?” By this time we had moved to Fintry and I had built a lot of the furniture we had around the house. With 4 children at, or soon to be going to the local primary school our house was a busy one. It wasn’t long before someone mentioned our child friendly, made to measure furniture and the word was out of a would be / could be furniture maker.

That was 20 years ago in May and the decision taken that day would turn out to be life changing. I set up shop in my garage and invested what seemed to be a lot of money at the time on planers, table saws, spindle moulders etc with no clue how to work them. I remember the highlight of that first job was completing a dovetailed drawer I was finally happy with. It took me a full week to make and I still had 26 more to go.

Despite the obvious lack of experience I completed that kitchen to my clients complete satisfaction, well they paid me at least! I continued to work from the garage for a couple of years before looking for larger, less domestic premises. The closest unit to home I could find was in Ruskie about a 35min drive away.

The Stables open for business with ‘Jimmy’ (my adviser) on the left

The second big decision, taking on rented premises, a big financial commitment for a relatively new and yet unproven business. I took on an old stable building attached to a farm that was being used as a stone yard. I negotiated a deal that off set my first years rent against the renovation costs to convert the stables into a usable workshop. By December it was complete and I had no enquiries, so I took on an 8 week contract to lay foundations for oil tanks and boilers and fit them ahead of a heating engineer team.

This was for 24 police houses around the West Coast of Scotland, including the islands of Mull and Islay. My Civil Engineering training came in useful as I had to leave the sites clear and ensure correct quantities of materials were in place ready for me when I arrived. The schedule was very tight and I was working on my own, so long hours and hard labour. The highlight of the job came when I received a phone call while at the top of a ladder drilling holes in a wall. It was mid-February on Islay in a howling gale and I could just make out a faint voice asking about a handmade kitchen, I was back in business.

I finished that contract in early March and arrived back at the workshop windswept, fit and raring to get started. Work started flowing steadily through the door and my Computer Aided Design drawing skills even got me some work producing templates for the stone company next door.

Ten years passed in the blink of an eye and I had a produced a varied portfolio of work as long as my arm. I had moved to larger premises at the same site, set up a saw mill and kiln, built dozens of kitchens and pieces of furniture, registered for VAT, deregistered, employed 3 people at different times, and let them go, Created the Glengoyne Distillery tasting room furniture, become a member of ASHS, the SFMA, SEDA, the Carpenters Fellowship, built oak frames, produced 2 major monuments for the SAS and the Forth Road Bridge as well as hundreds of signs and we had a son to complement our 4 daughters.

The most significant decision made during this time however, was the one to purchase an Oak woodland near our home village of Fintry.

Our connection with the stone company became a useful one when it came time to build roads and a yard for our own workshop. Again my Civil engineering knowledge came in handy as I was able to lay out the roads and drainage required which saved a lot of money. I also did all the donkey work and compacted (on a road roller) the newly laid stone for a couple of hours each night, on my way home from the Ruskie workshop.

Fortunately the stone yards owner was looking for a kitchen and suggested I build him one at cost in return for a road and yard at cost. Two years and 3,500 tons of stone later we finally had a finished access road and yard. Although we had planning permission for a barn style stone workshop the banks had just collapsed and were only lending to people who didn’t need it. Unperturbed we found an old mobile doctors surgery in the form of 4 porta cabins which I managed to get delivered for £1,000.

It took another £12,000 and 4 months’ work to turn them into a humidity controlled furniture making workshop.

Power was the next problem with the Scottish & Southern Electricity board wanting £25,000 for a 3 phase connection up front and in full. By this point we were running on empty and needed to cut costs and get back to work. We purchased an old generator from Ebay, moved the workshop across from Ruskie and started looking for work.

This came in the form of a natural edged Elm kitchen, something I had long thought about but hadn’t yet had the opportunity to design and build. It turned out to be my favourite kitchen and kept the wolves from the door (just).

By this time, we had purchased the field above our woodland and in March 2016, after 10 years of wishing and planning we finally planted 24,575 mixed hardwood trees.

In June 2017 we sold our family home of 18 years in Fintry and moved into a caravan next to the workshop. Six weeks before we moved in, with all our credit cards at max, again, I took the time to set up a spring water system from the hill side, install a sewage system and set up the site for the caravan.

With no mains connection, some research into how to survive off grid was also required. My civil engineering skills came in handy again and in the nick of time we managed to get everything in place for us to move in on the 1st June. Two containers now hold most of our household paraphernalia. The sale cleared off a lot of the building costs we had accumulated along the way and gave us a little well-earned breathing space.

Our new home

It was clear after the first year in the caravan that it wasn’t designed for long term living. All our clothes, in fact anything that touched an outside wall got damp or mouldy in a short space of time, it was full of vents, so very draughty and expensive to heat. Although by now we had planning for a house, it has been a lifelong dream to literally hand build our own home, so it will probably take a few years.

Recognising this point, we laid hardwood floors throughout the caravan and timber lined and insulated the inside end to end. We rewired and re-plumbed as we went, ripping out all the built in furniture. We then rebuilt everything from the kitchen table and benches through to the beds and wardrobes. We fitted a new heating system and radiators and Jacqui (my long suffering wife) made all the soft furnishings. So it is now a comfortable, healthy and economical place to live.

In summer 2019 we set up a new sawmill which will be used to cut the oak posts and beams for the house from our own woodland. Research so far suggests that straw bales offer the cheapest and possibly the quickest way to build well insulated walls. Oak cladding is a durable and beautiful external finish and maybe we could make our own shingles for the roof. This approach will give the project a tiny carbon footprint and more importantly make it affordable for a humble furniture maker and his family. So maybe with a little luck and hard work, we will finally complete our journey and move into our own hand made cottage on the hill.

This may also be the year I finish that rocking horse!  

Written By Steve McLean

16 thoughts on “A Handmade Life

  1. Nic says:

    You have all worked so hard. It is so nice to see everything coming together for you all. You are a special couple with a wonderful family. Steve do you think you will get Jacqui to move out of your beautiful caravan ??? Need to catch up soon x

  2. Mari Findlay says:

    I loved your story Steve, and what is apparent to me is that you were prepared to turn your hand to anything, which is a great inspiration to young people starting on their career/working life. Like you I didn’t like school and didnt do particularly well in that environment, but I went back to night classes and eventually ended up getting a degree later in life, but I do wish society recognised that skills such as yours are equally important as academic skills and we as a society encouraged more entreprenuers such as youself. Your furniture is stunning – what a talent!

  3. Jimmy (The Advisor) says:

    What a great story to see in print.
    I was so lucky to follow your story in real time as your friend (and advisor)
    We often discissed your new projects. I would point out the problems and difficulties that I could see.
    You would nod your head wisely, agree with me and do it anyway.
    To your credit you were usually right. Which just goes to prove an advisor is useful but trust your own judgement.
    I am delighted still to chat and share your thoughts. But I know that when I hear you say “Jimmy what do you think” I know I’ll waken up at three in the morning thinking I’m sure that would work.
    If anyone in this world deserve success its Jacgui and you. It will happen
    With kindest regards
    Jimmy the (sometime advisor)

    • Steve McLean says:

      Its friends and advisers like you Jimmy that make a journey like ours worth making. It may be the road less travelled, (for good reason), but we have been extremely lucky to have had you by our side to help negotiate its twists and turns. Its not over yet so I may have to call on you again soon to ask you “Jimmy what do you think”.

  4. Alan says:

    You are a real inspiration Stevie. I often use you as an example of hard work, ingenuity and resilience. Your work is beautiful. Alan

  5. Jim and Tracy says:

    Stevie , your the most upbeat, positive and have the most off the shelf ( no bun intended) ideas that we know. Here’s to years more adventures, that new home and success that you and Jacqui deserve

  6. Tania Adamou says:

    I had no idea you had done so much which I’m genuinely embarrassed to say…. Know how talented you are well that’s a given and I only wish I lived closer so you could deck out the whole house😊
    Very very proud of you xx

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