Interview with Liz from Love Heartwood

Interview with Liz from Love Heartwood

 Portrait of Liz Pearson from Love HeartwoodLiz in her studio - image © Love Heartwood

If you want to tell those who don't know who you are and what your business is that would be a great place to kick off.

Good plan. Hello, my name is Liz Pearson. I am the founder and sole employee of Love Heartwood. I started woodturning as a hobby and Love Heartwood’s grown from my hobby. I've been turning for about nine or ten years now and I'm still learning all the time. I work on my own designs and produce those. I make jewellery, gifts and homewares. And toys too.

I sell some of those things through a couple of brick and mortar shops, and I am increasingly doing commissions, which is exciting. So people can email me and ask me to make just about anything so long as it’s something that I can make turn. I'm doing a couple of interesting ones at the moment; a mortar and pestle and I'm making a trophy base for a golf cup - both things I've never made before, but as long as I can think of a way to do it I go “Yeah okay!” And I also repair wooden toys.

You’ve got a repair service. We’re very much aligned on that. So how do you go about mending wooden objects?

Oh well it depends what it is. They're all very unique, especially since a lot of the toys that I get sent photographs of are quite old. Obviously they have sentimental value, so they tend to be things that were either handmade in the first place; I just have to take them as they come.

Some things I maybe don't have the ability to mend or it's a very specialist item but I'm a member of the British Toy Makers Guild, so if I get an object that I think is slightly beyond me or would benefit from more of an expert restoring it, I forward that email to the correct sort of person. There's a man in York who specialises in the most beautiful rocking horses. So when I had a lady ask me if I would repair her rocking horse I said “No, but you just go to this man: He will do it beautifully.” People want things mended, but they don't necessarily know how to do it or who to ask. I tend to be able to just find the right person and enjoy connecting the dots, which is nice.

It is so difficult to find someone who's got that specialist knowledge, similarly with UK manufacturing. So the way that we found each other was actually through Instagram. Someone said “Ooh I know just the person for that” and that's how it came about.

Absolutely. I'm actually busier now than ever. I'm slightly running rings around myself a little bit. I'm at the point now when I'm having to say to people “Yes I can do that for you, but in a month's time or six weeks’ time.” Up to this point I've never had to really think ahead. This is my 4th year of the business, so I feel like it's really established now.

Wooden ring box made by Love HeartwoodWooden wedding ring box - image © Love Heartwood

That’s great news Liz! Can you tell us why sustainability is key for Love Heartwood?

Really from when I started I was looking at my values. What makes my company unique? And at the time I thought; I have no idea! I mean you don't. I didn't know. I didn't start with an agenda, I started because I love making things. I love woodturning. But when I started digging deeper into my motivation, it came down to why do I like wood? Why do I like working with wood? And it came back to a connexion to nature, and looking after the planet. I, along with everybody else over the last five years, have increasingly realised the problem with plastic initially and then the other issues that we have with our disposable society. 

The business is reflecting my personal journey and I thought there's absolutely no point in running your own business if you don't make it true to who you are and what you are doing. So as much as I try to reduce, reuse, recycle in my own life, that's what I do through the business as well. I try in my production processes, I guess like you; to minimise waste. I try to use recyclable materials where possible. And I'm also now using wood that commercially would be thrown away: It would be chipped or burned so nobody else will be using it. Although the tree is still chopped down. So the wood that I use is not the trunk, which they would plank and use for commercial timber. I tend to use the piece called the crown, which is where the branches split. So I use all and any of the branch wood.

British wooden logs and timber

Brilliant. My next question was about where you source your wood from?

Partly from local tree surgeons. I’ve made all these contacts now I’ve been going for a few years. One of my customers is a nature reserve warden so whenever they are cutting back in the nature reserve, she will let me know and I can go and take branches away. I have a couple of friends who are tree surgeons so if they're cutting anything interesting, they'll give me a shout.

I've also discovered that not that far away from me is actually a sustainable timber mill. Sometimes I just need a piece of dry prepared wood for when it's really important that the wood doesn't move; if I'm making a box, or I'm making something where I have two pieces that fit together. I need a piece of wood that is stable, so it has to be dried out and completely flat. No knots or anything. I will go to them and they are certified by the UK Forestry Commission. And they don't just sell pine, they sell lots of different British hardwoods that are locally grown, locally harvested. But I know that they are all certified and sustainably produced there.

Is it all British wood?

I only use British wood. I made that decision quite early. As a turner you generate a lot of dust and a lot of exotic timber is very hazardous for health so I didn't personally want to turn it because the dust can get in your lungs and can be quite nasty. I also thought well if it does that to me I don't want to give it to other people and since I make a lot of toys I want to use the safest wood I can. So when I make the toys I use beech because it's very hard. It doesn't splinter.

With the darning eggs, they're made of beech. I've had it tested at a lab to prove that it is natural and not toxic in any way. So I can put the safety certification to it. 

Socko wooden darning eggs

You’ve been making Socko’s beautiful darning eggs since day 1. I was hoping you could talk us through the process of how you transform a piece of wood into these beautiful objects, and how you evolved that skill because I know that more recently you have tried a new technique with shadow.

If you’re turning the way I do “between centres”, there's a sharp, pointed piece of metal, another sharp, pointed piece of metal. One of these bits of metal spins, so if you have a cylinder of wood you tighten up the two points so the wood is centred in the middle and it spins, it’s all balanced. This is what we call “centred”. The difficulty is how to turn that cylinder into an egg shape. 

When I first tried it for you, the way I did it was by eye. But it's very hard to get the constantly changing curve. Our eyes recognise an egg shape but to actually reproduce one is not so easy! People tend to think that if it's a natural thing, it should be easier to produce, but actually straight lines and right angles are far easier to produce than a curve. So what I did was I produced a cardboard template - I printed out the shape of an egg, cut that out and chopped it in half so I could actually put it over my piece of wood. So I was doing it by eye and then holding up the template to see if it was fitting but doing it like that it's a bit of trial and error. It takes quite a long time so they weren't very fast to make and I had a tendency to sometimes get flat sections instead of being this lovely perfect continuous curve.

I then tried to make an egg using the shadow technique I’d seen on a YouTube video, but like a lot of YouTube videos, there wasn't enough explanation to show you really how you do it yourself. I had to go away and find another woodturner, who is actually in Australia, and he demonstrated the shadow technique to turn a sphere and I thought I can adapt it for the egg. I need to use two different jigs and to set up where the light comes behind you and falls onto the wood has to be in the right place. And the board behind with the egg has to be in the right place. Everything has to be the right place. And then it works!

Turning an egg using shadowTurning an egg using shadow - image © Love Heartwood

So then you go into a bit of a batch production.

Oh yeah, once it’s set I can just keep going keep going keep going. It's much easier and it also improves the shape because I'm not guessing, but it took a while to get used to doing it that way because you're not looking at the wood, you're looking at the shadow.

So the light falls on the wood, and then there's a piece of paper behind the wood and as you cut the wood away, you can see the shadow on the paper and you're trying to get the shadow to line up with the drawing of the egg.

Which when you’re using sharp tools and you're not looking at what you're doing... 

It felt really odd and I'm in the dark as well so I can't really see anything apart from the piece of paper. And you're just going by feel. It took a couple of days to get used to it and of course I've had to make curtains for the workshop using blackout curtain material so that it's dark enough to put the lights on and just see the shadow. Otherwise it was too bright and wasn’t working.

What would you recommend to anyone who wants to learn woodturning? How did you get into it as a hobby?

I discovered it doing a product design course because there was a lathe in the workshop I was using and I got to have a little go on it and I thought, gosh, I love doing this! It took me a few years but when I had the space I got my own lathe. But the way I learned how to use it was by going along to my local woodturning club. I just searched “woodturning near me”, found my local club and they did Saturday workshops. I went to the Saturday workshops and I just kept going and learning a little bit more from the other members. I also got a couple of very good books and there are lots of YouTube videos out there but I would warn people that they are of variable quality and they often show you something without explaining the fundamentals and they're not big on the safety tips on the videos, so I would definitely recommend learning from somebody who knows what they're talking about. Your local club, I think, is your best bet. The members will help you - they are people who want to do it for a hobby, so they are happy to give you their time and expertise for nothing, and it doesn't cost a lot to join a local woodturning club.

Union Graduate lathe in workshop

Union Graduate lathe - image © Love Heartwood

That’s great advice. So what have you got on the lathe right now? What are you working on?

The last two days I've been making tiny wooden beach huts, which are not even wood-turned because I'm working for another business called the Craft Box Club, which is local to me in Reading. It's a guy called Adam who runs an eco craft subscription box for people who want to do crafts activities but everything in the box is sustainably and ethically sourced and plastic free, so he said “Can you make me 900 beach huts please?” So that’s keeping me busy at the moment. I've just spent an awfully long day in the garden chopping very long pieces of wood into shorter pieces of wood. And then I'm going to cut them at an angle so they have little roofs.

I really like doing collaborations like you and I do because as a small business, you cannot possibly be able to create everything that you might necessarily need, so it's lovely to be able to help somebody like you with something like the darning eggs, and it's lovely to be able to help Adam and give him more versatility in the kind of kits he provides people because you know he wouldn't be able to make all these little beach huts. They're going to go into a painting kit so he does a video to show you how to prepare them, paint them, and you can make your own little beach hut. I’m looking forward to seeing them. 

I have this vision of you in the garden with an axe...

What I have, out of the loft, which I haven't used since we bought our first house almost 20 years ago, is an old manual mitre saw. People probably don't even know what it looks like but it's for cutting wood completely straight, so it's a saw on a frame and you [Liz mimes sawing back and forth]. I don’t know how many times I've done that. My elbow hurts. No power tools. Just do it by hand. Strong arm muscles - one giant arm and one puny arm!

Liz's workshop in a shed at the bottom of her gardenLiz's studio - image © Love Heartwood

So what next for Love Heartwood?

I am hoping to create some new toys for Christmas and I'm working on my sustainability goals this year, that's my main thing. I am in the process of switching my website host to a green web host. When you think I want to have a green website host, it's not obvious who to go to and I knew one already but I dug down a bit more and I have found one that I think should be good. So I'm in the process of trying to transfer, which is also awful. I'm not techie so it scares me. 

What is your favourite object to make? What do you enjoy making the most? Apart from Socko darning eggs, obviously.

My favourite thing to make is baby rattles, it's one of the first proper things I made and I still love making them because they have captive rings on them. So I take a cylinder of wood, and I cut down into it and I create a rattle with two rings on it. All from the same piece of wood. The first time I saw someone make captive rings I just thought “oh it's amazing!” People often think with the rattles you make it with the end separate and you glue it on or it screws in. No, it’s all one piece. It's never been apart and I like that people are amazed by how it works and wonder how could you possibly make that ring? It’s a mystery.

Wooden rattles made by Love HeartwoodWooden rattles - image © Love Heartwood

I’m going to have to place a couple of orders. I've got a few friends with babies on the way and that's a must have. As objects they just looked really tactile and beautiful. And obviously knowing the skill and love and craft that will have gone into them and knowing the story is just an added bonus.

I think the nice thing about them is the sound because with the plastic ones you don't really get much for sound, it's a bit miserable, doesn't do much in terms of acoustics, but with the wooden ones they're quite loud, so even when the baby is really tiny and they can't obviously hold it themselves, you can shake it near them and they really respond to it.

The one that I first made for my eldest son, has gone through all my children. All three of them, and it still looks lovely. I've put it in my little shoe box of baby things, my memory box and it will stay in there with the tiny babygrow and the little hat, all those things, and it'll look nice. Whereas the plastic things you might think I don't really want to keep; once the plastic things have been chewed you sort of think hmm no, I don’t want to keep that. Whereas my ones will still look great in 20 years’ time.

So when the boys have got families of their own...

Well, the rattle can come out again. The nice thing about beech as well as being very hard wearing is that it's naturally antibacterial, which a lot of people don't realise, so it does not harbour germs. That's why you use wood for chopping boards. And they did actually do some testing a while back. A lot of restaurants changed to plastic chopping boards because they thought they were easier to clean than wood and possibly would be more sanitary, but when they did some research into it, they discovered that actually the germs don't stay on the wood. They are killed off - the wood's naturally antibacterial because it protects the tree. You see: Living things are not silly, they have defences. If it came with a label on that said antibacterial, we would all know, but the point is that wood doesn't come with labels. 

So true. Just like wool, which has a lot of antimicrobial properties that don't get shouted about. Right, well Liz I won't take up any more of your precious time, but thank you so much for joining me and for talking us all through Love Heartwood and our collaboration.

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