‘Timber has a soul’ - Meet one of Australia’s most pioneering furniture makers

Timbecon

“I want people to access this beautiful craft that is my life,” Phoebe Everill says, leaning over the rugged, timeworn bench that takes pride of place in her home workshop. 

As in her DIY videos, her hair is penned tightly back, she’s donned in a worker’s apron and poses in a proud, defiant stature, but quickly offsets any aura through an embracing smile. 

“My father was a fine arts printer, but at 50-years-old he retrained in cabinet making at Collingwood TAFE,” she says. “I spent a lot of time as a teenager at the end of his bench just watching and absorbing, knowing that making was important.

“It’s something that I’ve never questioned. It’s just something that I have to do.”

It’s the small details with Everill that paint a much deeper picture. The tiny diamond stud in her ear and faint, almost invisible tattoo on her left index finger go beyond her hardy persona. Small facets that forecast a tranquil, spiritual view of the world and her place in it.

Everill packed up her life as a carpenter in 2009 to study at the Sturt School for Wood, a path that led her to become the first accredited female maker / designer for Studio Woodworkers Australia. That she was the first, as recently as 2012, is a shame not lost on the woodworker.

“There have been lots of comments about the fact that (woodworking) isn’t a female occupation,” she says. “It was difficult and I had to deal with a lot of prejudice. But I don’t see any barriers. 

“My planning and project management was key to my success as a builder and carpenter, and the same skills come across into furniture making. 

“You need to be a great problem solver and you need to have empathy for the people that you’re working with. You need to closely listen to your client to develop a design, so there are no barriers there for females.”

Now based in the sleepy regional-Victorian town of Drummond, Everill teaches classes at a roaming, hillside property with “abundant blackwood”. “We have not yet dropped one tree,” she says. “For every tree we take, we plant 100 new seedlings. Everyone needs to be responsible for their own place.”

From this artisan’s nirvana Everill has quickly established herself as an in-demand instructor and one of the premier figures in the Australian furniture-making industry, taking over as chair of the SWA in 2012.

“You can go a certain distance yourself and then you need help, but it’s how you receive that help that decides how you develop as a maker,” she insists. 

“My greatest skill as a teacher is the fact that I love people, and I love watching people engage.

“Engaging with woodworking is spiritual. It’s a soul connection with this wonderful product that we make with – the timber. 

“You have to adapt to timber, you can’t enforce your will on it. It will provide you with all sorts of challenges and failures and I think that’s great.

“In our lives we avoid the whole idea of failure, but sometimes things break and fail and it’s about how you step through that. The fact that it’s not easy is fabulous. I love that my craft isn’t easy – I’d like to make a chair in a weekend but it’s probably going to take me six weeks and it might take three months.”

Everill speaks about timber in the same hushed tones that many ardent city-slickers reserve for fine art or morning yoga, adopting a reverence which belies her relaxed demeanour. 

“Timber has a soul…,” she says, pausing for effect before repeating; “Timber has a soul. All we’ve got to do is embrace it.

“I believe in having ‘faults’ and I mean faults in inverted commas because they’re not actually faults – they’re knots and cracks and I work with them. 

“I use my hands as closely as possible to the timber because that’s when I feel most connected. If a piece has no hand-working, it’s just a production exercise. Where’s the love? 

“In our 50s and 60s we’re all developing spiritually. The need to find things that enlarge us is often in craft, which is why people take up writing courses, singing, painting – woodwork isn’t the answer for everyone, but for some it is.” 

Woodworking is more than a hobby or a career for Everill, it’s one of the rare aspects of life that blurs the line between practicality and spirituality, between enjoyment and purpose.

“Craft is incredibly important to elevate us as human beings. I encourage people to take a risk, dive in, have a go. Put your toe in the water and let the whole process wash over you. 

“When I'm not making, I'm not happy, I'm not mentally healthy, I'm frustrated and stressed,” she says. 

“But when I spend time at my bench with an amazing piece of timber and a glorious tool I'm connected. Believe it or not I’m quiet. I know it's unusual because, you know, god I can talk,” she laughs. “But I'm calm.”

“This work is not about the products; the product is practically unimportant. It’s about my own mental health and about being connected. I find myself losing hours working a piece of timber by hand, as close as I can get with these hands to the timber.

“The best part is we’re making things that are functional. I can give it to my daughter and see it in her house, I can see her enjoyment and she can hand it on to someone else in the future. That’s pretty cool.”