Trugs are traditional shallow baskets made from shaped slats of wood, used for carrying garden tools and produce, and perfected in Sussex two centuries ago. Tony still uses original techniques to keep the craft alive from his workshop just outside Takaka.
“After I made the first one I was quite excited,” recalls Tony. “It just feels so natural, working with untreated alternative timbers. In winter you harvest your rims and handles and it’s such an enjoyable process. Taking a little handsaw, pottering along the river bank, and bringing timber home to render and steam. And with coppicing, it grows back.”
Tony is describing only the first steps in a precision process which results in a truly beautiful, and practical object. The frame is generally made of hazel or willow, with the slats forming the basket shaped from aspen poplar. The design also incorporates locally sourced copper boat-builder’s nails, while finishing strips (also copper) are salvaged from retired hot-water cylinders.
On seeing the final product, there’s an irresistible tactile quality to the combination of planed timbers and carefully assembled curves.
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“You can show people a photograph of a trug,” smiles Tony, “but when you actually hold one out to them, everyone wants to touch it!”
Tony has been in this unique line of work for two years now, after inheriting the business from his mentor and neighbour, Brett Hutchinson. Their association stretches back a long way, to when Tony mowed his lawn as a teenager. Always interested in carpentry, Tony and a young friend even constructed a bush hut on Brett’s property – which is still standing and is a popular neighbourhood destination today. After leaving school and working with the forest industry, Tony popped in on Brett one day for a cup of tea, little realising it would change the direction of his life.
“Brett announced that he’d just made his last trug,” recalls Tony, “and seemed quite happy to retire and focus on other things. My ears pricked up and I told him that in all these years I’d never actually watched him make a trug, or learnt how. And he said that if I was interested in taking over the business then he’d teach me.”
Tony describes the process of learning as casual, but intense at the same time.
“He was very gentle, but his attention to detail and commitment to quality meant that he would always tell me if something wasn’t good enough.” This extended to Brett retrieving an early trug that Tony had sold. “He told me I needed to go back over it, and he was dead right, you know. So I think I really learnt a huge amount from that.”
Tony particularly took to this venerable craft because his long-held desire to work in artisan wood crafts had always been frustrated by dyslexia.
“I told Brett that it had made any sort of woodworking in the past a battle, and he took out a tape measure and told me to drive a four-inch nail through the middle and forget it. Because trug making is all to do with feel, and done by eye. There are a few basic measurements, but it’s about knowing what is going to look good and also holds together well.”
Tony gained his skills over a season with Brett, but actually running a business would involve more than just that. And this is where Maddy – the cousin of his childhood hut-building friend, and now Tony’s partner – brings another set of skills.
“I do the accounts and other things,” explains Maddy. “The website is still a work in progress, and I update social media.” She jokes that Tony seems to have his own ‘magnetic field’ that somehow slows computers down whenever he goes near them, so their separate roles are ideally matched.
“In a partnership it’s important to realise where our individual talents lie. And it’s given us a confidence that I don’t think we would have come across individually,” says Tony.
He describes the process of creating a trug as “a full and focused day.”
“Add getting the base and boards ready, it’s three days, really. And then if you go right back to coppicing the timber, then probably a week in total.”
Tony claims making your first trug can make you “wish you were an octopus.”
“You’re trying to hold a drill and a hammer and a nail at the same time, and obviously if you press too hard you’ll break the wood. If you’re too gentle, or too slow, it will start to dry out. But once you get a rhythm to it, it’s quite beautiful.”
As well as the trug, Tony also makes an elegant flower basket constructed of a single shaped piece of timber, and then the much more complex ‘Devon maund’. Larger and deeper than a trug, the maund was originally used to gather and store produce like potatoes and onions.
Orders are dispatched in plain cardboard boxes, as the classic trug and maund designs are surprisingly robust. Dispensing with unnecessary polystyrene packaging fits with Tony and Maddy’s desire to run a sustainable business, and any waste left from the manufacturing process becomes either kindling or mulch.
“It’s really important to us because we do want to be part of something that is more gentle on the world and the environment,” says Tony.
Visitors are welcome at his recently built workshop on a rural property next to the Anatoki River, with stunning views of the ranges beyond. Tony is excited about landscaping plans to help ‘settle it in’.
“I’ve always been really passionate about anything to do with trees, whether it’s woodworking or planting. It’s a great blessing to have had all of this passed on to us, really.”
The Trug Maker
187 McCallum Road
021 239 6591