Discover what goes on beyond our exhibition floors and past the security doors with our series of 24 podcast episodes.
There’s a good chance that as you listen to this podcast you’re sitting on a mass-produced piece of furniture – not that there’s anything wrong with that! But what if you could learn the skills to make your own?
Andrew MacDonald could teach you. He’s the Factory Supervisor at Cobb+Co Museum, our Toowoomba campus, where talented and knowledgeable people like Andy are keeping traditional trades and crafts alive. Find out how he does it and why it’s so important to keep the trade alive.
Andrew MacDonald worked as a furniture maker before studying sculpture. His art practice combines the practical knowledge and skills of a tradesman with originality and creative design. He has exhibited his pieces in galleries throughout the world. Many of the tools Andrew uses are traditional ones, rarely seen in modern workshops, which he has even forged and made himself. Andrew’s metal sculpture can be seen at various locations around Toowoomba and Brisbane.
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LC: Hi, Andy. How are you?
AM: Yes, I’m good.
LC: Thank you for joining us today. Can we begin by what’s a typical workday for you?
AM: Each day is different and I love that. Yes, sometimes it’s working with some volunteers, some old boys that come in and help me and we’re doing some restoration work at the moment, rebuilding a horse-drawn vehicle. But other times it’ll be building things for exhibitions or the shop – I’ve built things for Ipswich and Brisbane for the shops and also into interactives and stuff like that. But other times I get to repair interactives from exhibitions or things that the kids here break.
LC: And some of the tools that you work with have been used for hundreds of years. How did you come to learn how to use them?
AM: Oh, I guess it’s always been a passion. When I was at uni, I worked at the uni in the arts department for many years here, and I did an exhibition where I made a set of furniture, but I use tools that I made. So it took me a year and a half to make the tools. And then I turned around and made a full set of furniture just using those tools. So, yeah, a long apprenticeship at it really and a lot of research. And that’s the bit I loved about it, finding out what tools people use to do certain tasks in the old days.
LC: Well for the recent display Split, Sawn & Shaped, you took up the challenge to make a wooden wheel using only hand tools. How did you find that process?
AM: It was fascinating. It was also really hard work. Geoff and I, the curator here, he was my right hand man. We were manning things like the cross-cut saw to cut up a really hard log and you just suddenly realised, one, that you’re getting older but two, how strong blokes must have been in the old days. It is really hard yakka.
LC: And why do you think it’s important that we keep passing along these skills?
AM: I think really because we’re the last generation. Well, I am of the people that were actually using those tools. My father, my grandfather, once I’m gone, I guess my son won’t have any connection, or daughters, won’t have any connection with the people that are actually using them for a living. Yeah. And then there’s no continuity. And we’re finding that even with remaking wagon wheels, the continuity of the trade has been broken. So we’re actually having to relearn things. Experimental archaeology.
AM: I like it. Well Cobb+Co Museum is known for its hands-on workshops where people can have a go at trades and crafts like blacksmithing and leather-plating. Why do you think they’re so popular?
AM: I think there is a little bit of push back, a little bit of reversion to to actually using your hands like the modern way of making things now would CNC and 3D printers and such. And it’s so hands off, it’s all cerebral, it’s all in the brain and the programming and the app whatever it is and I think there’s an inbuilt desire to actually use your hands. And people are coming back to it, you know, there’s a real craze for spoon carving. I don’t know if you’ve heard that. Wooden spoon as it’s huge, huge on Instagram.
LC: That’s brilliant. Do you take any of the workshops yourself?
AM: Yeah, I run the one in rustic furniture, which is what I’ve developed over quite a few years. And I’m using a local timber species called Privet (Ligustrum lucidum) and it’s a pest species, everyone hates it and it’s in the creeks and it’s up in Maleny, it’s down the coast, it’s near Sydney and no one minds to cut down. But it’s a really strong, usable timber.
LC: I know that you work with metal as well as timber. What’s your favourite material to work with?
AM: Both. I like combining them. I have a real passion for aluminum as well. I’ve worked a lot on aluminum public sculptures and yeah I did a little bit of sheet metal work on the aircraft way back, back in the 80s. So I like aluminum, but metal and wood just love combining them.
LC: With your sculptures do you use traditional tools on those as well?
AM: Yes and no. Some of the early phases. For instance, if I’m doing some cast aluminum work, I might work on the original model with hand tools. But yeah, I’ve got quite a range of power tools as well at home as buffers and grinders and things.
LC: Well, a little birdie told me that you made the boardroom table at Cobb+Co Museum, which is quite distinctive, and we’ll put a link to a photo in the show notes so people can see your handiwork. But what else have you made that we might find around up there?
AM: Oh, there’s some wagon wheels, of course, on vehicles. One of the best ones, favourite ones I’ve made was like a peep show and it has a TV monitor hidden in. But you view it and it looks like an antique piece of furniture, but it has a reconstructed video inside it. Yes, that was good. That was fun to make. But unfortunately with COVID it’s out of circulation at the moment.
LC: Oh, that’s a shame.
AM: But also, there’s two bars I’ve made as well for functions. One’s the horseshoe bar and the other one is a like a market cart with wagon wheels on it and a canopy.
LC: Certainly made a lot of different things. How many wheels do you think you’ve made over the years?
AM: Not very many, really. Probably only about six. Yeah. I’ve got another four to make on this project we’re working on now. I’ve made two cannon wheels and that’s at Hendra. It’s been in the Queensland Museum collection for many years and it’s hard to move because it’s got no wheels on it. So one day that they’ll meet up.
LC: That’s good. Have you got a favourite thing to make?
LC: Yeah. Stick furniture probably. The rustic furniture. It’s each time you make one it’s different because the branches are different shape and you know, you make different height stools for kids or adults. So yeah, it’s just a lot of fun.
LC: Is your house full of rustic stick furniture?
LC: No, I’ve got a bit of a passion for pulling apart pianos, so I’ve got a lot of furniture made out of piano, recycled parts of panels of walnut and mahogany and such.
LC: Well, I think we’re going to wrap up now with our rapid fire museum in a minute questions. Are you ready?
AM: Here we go.
LC: Let’s see how far we can get in one minute.
AM: I’ll be brief.
LC: What’s your favourite museum object?
AM: The dinosaurs.
LC: What did you want to be when you grew up?
AM: A naturalist.
LC: Favourite museum memory?
LC: Do you prefer to work in a studio workshop or outdoors in nature?
AM: In the workshop.
LC: A highlight from your career?
AM: Public sculpture on Melbourne Street in West End, Brisbane. Still there!
LC: If you could do another job in the museum for a day, what would it be?
AM: Oh, I’d have to be Jim’s job wouldn’t it?
LC: CEO, good one to have a go at. What do people think you do at work?
AM: I think a lot of people say just play. I’m just in my playroom all the time.
LC: Your favourite hidden gem in the Toowoomba region?
LC: Took too long, we’re out of time! Well, thank you very much for joining us today, Andy.
AM: No worries.
LC: If you head to Cobb+Co Museum, you may well find Andy at work in the National Carriage Factory, where there are always plenty of interesting things to look at and opportunities to speak with artisans and crafts-people like Andy.
LC: Thanks for joining us on the Museum Revealed podcast. What did you uncover this episode if you’re interested in learning more view the show notes linked below. You can follow Queensland Museum on social media @QLDMuseum or head to our website at qm.qld.gov.au. While you’re there, sign up to our e-news list to find out what’s on at the museum. Until next time. Stay curious.