The recent ForestWorks Industry Gala Dinner brought a large convergence of industry members to Canberra’s Parliament House in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and, lucky for me, an opportunity to experience the nation’s capital for the first time.
As I did some research into the local timber industry ahead of the trip, I uncovered a business with a name that instantly fascinated me, and soon enough, an interview was booked with Thor’s Hammer in Canberra.
Upon arrival, Thor suggests we chat outside as the sun is out. I can see why; the Old Brickworks site where Thor’s Hammer is based is surrounded by beautiful tall trees and a stillness you can’t deny. Plus, it’s a stunning Canberra day. We sit on a makeshift seat, which is actually a log of wood, and I’m taken aback by the beauty of Thor’s surrounding workplace.
The Old Brickworks site is a complementary mix of vintage and contemporary, synonymous with the products produced by Thor and his tight-knit team of 15 employees.
Thor Diesendorf’s name has always been a great conversation starter. After being affectionately teased on building sites as a young carpenter, he ended up rolling with it, taking his namesake and turning it into his recycled timber business today, Thor’s Hammer.
“People on the demolition sites used to make fun of me and say “Hey Thor! Where’s your hammer?” The funny thing is that, for the business, a hammer is a really important tool of the trade, so that’s how it came about,” Thor recalls.
Thor spent his early days as an apprentice of Dutch furniture designer Paul Lynzaat, who would go on to become his mentor and friend.
“We used to salvage timber from housing demolitions together, and then the companies we were dealing with started to call us up, asking us to take the timber away.”
Thor explains that in the 90s, the demolition companies didn’t realise the value in the timber and wouldn’t save it.
“Now, they understand the value of it, and they will salvage it themselves and deliver it to us, for a fee of course!” says Thor.
Sadly, Thor’s teacher and friend Paul passed away only a few months ago. Poignantly, Thor constructed Paul’s coffin, a fitting tribute to the man who had such a profound influence on Thor and his work with timber.
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
Frustrated with the vast amounts of good timber being wasted at demolition sites all around Australia, Thor founded his then-small operation out of the Old Canberra Brickworks in 1994, situated in a quiet pocket of the ACT’s suburb of Yarralumla.
At the time, they were one of several businesses sharing the site. As other business moved out and onwards, Thor saw no reason to leave. By 1998, Thor’s Hammer had taken over the site altogether.
The extra space allowed Thor’s Hammer to grow into the thriving business it is today. Salvaging old timber that would otherwise be destroyed has always been a passion for Thor, who today boasts an impressive variety of stock.
More than just a recycled timber yard, the business has many facets. Thor’s Hammer is also a joinery and small sawmill. Thor and his team design and make unique furniture and architectural products on site.
By utilising timbers that would otherwise be forgotten, their products vary from custom-built furniture, to shop and hospitality fit-outs, each project telling a different story.
ORIGINAL AND BEST
Sitting with Thor at the Old Brickworks site, there is a hive of activity behind us as we chat about the renaissance appeal of recycled timber, and how trends in design have influenced his processes.
Thor explains that today’s design trends reflect a demand for a distinctive, one-of-a-kind style, a stark contrast to the business’ early days, when customers wanted their recycled timber to look like a new product – clean, consistent, and without any visible flaws.
“At first, we had to prove to people that recycled timber was as good as new timber, and we had to try and dress it back, make it look very clean, just like new timber would look.
“But today, it’s very much the other way around. People really value the look of the recycled timber.
“So now we’re dressing it back very lightly and, in some ways, it’s actually more expensive to do it that way, because there is a lot of dirt in the surface of the timber,” Thor adds.
Thor explains that the process of preserving the original characteristics of recycled timber can actually be very time consuming – a point I was surprised to hear.
“Back when we were trying to clean the timber right up, the cutters could go right underneath the dirt, which was fine for the really clean-look timber, but now we’re always just skimming over the top to maintain that unique look – and blunting our cutters really quickly!” Thor laughs.
However, it appears to be a process that works well for the team, and which is worth every blunt blade. Business continues to thrive as architects, residents and business owners seek furniture and interiors that tell a tale beyond the timber plank.
Walking around the site, I casually remark on a beautiful timber doorway for a storage shed. Overhearing this, a nearby staff member excitedly grabs an old piece of log wood and explains to me that it was made from the same original timber – salvaged, of course!
AN IMPRESSIVE SHOWREEL
The projects that Thor’s Hammer have worked on over the years are impressive, and Thor’s dedication to meeting the unique briefs are obvious.
“We like to work with the customer, so it’s great if people come to us with a bit of an idea.
“They often won’t realise the design constraints of timber, and how to make it in the practical sense. Sometimes people come to us with something we know is going to look terrible! So we like to have some input there as well,” Thor laughs.
2014 saw an increase in the number of commercial bar fit-outs around Canberra, which Thor attributes to the growing demand for natural timbers to be showcased across interior architecture
One project in particular appeared to me to epitomise the aims of this former carpenter and business owner. After visiting Thor at Brickworks, home owners and their Architect, Alanna King from Philip Leeson Architects, decided to fit out the Harvey Taylor House with carefully chosen
The majority of the timber selected was Spotted Gum, salvaged from the Bicentennial Basketball Stadium in Penrith, New South Wales.
Keen to make reference to the origins of the timber, Alanna specifically requested that the old line markings from the basketball courts be preserved for a special feature wall inside the house.
THE WOOD LIVES ON
Understanding the value of timber as a sustainable product, Thor is clear about the environmental benefits of using recycled timber.
Timber locks up the carbon that was bound from the atmosphere as the original tree grew, and Thor ensures his clients and potential clients are aware that it is only when wood is burnt or decays, that carbon is released. By recycling timber, the carbon is stored for longer, avoiding greenhouse gas emissions.
Any impact on the environment due to the operations of Thor’s Hammer is minimised through several practices, including the application of glues and timber finishes that are natural and low in toxicity.
When asked about what’s next for the business, Thor gets excited about the future, following his involvement in the “Design Canberra” festival last year, which included an exhibition showcasing the furniture designs from Thor and his team.
“I think we ended up having 400 people on our opening night through the exhibition, so it was really, really fun – and lots of work!” he said.
The experience has inspired plans for a new furniture range, and further development of the Brickworks site to accommodate the growth of the business.
“We’re also putting in a proposal for an artisan designers’ hub as part of that. Hopefully that will take off, open up the business to even more collaborations, and create a great synergy for the business,” Thor concludes.
Thor’s Hammer will be one to watch over the next few years as Thor, his team (and his hammer!) continue to strengthen the timber industry in their own, unique way.