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The Art of the Bespoke at Lethenty Cabinetmakers

In an era of mass market globalisation, where most of the products we buy for our homes seem to be made by giant corporations on the other side of the world, it’s heartening to see that one Aberdeenshire cabinetmaking company is all about keeping it local.

Lethenty Cabinetmakers is one of the very few bespoke woodworking businesses in North East Scotland. They design and build custom made furniture and handmade kitchens to a very high standard. Uniquely, they also source most of their timber locally too.

It sometimes feels as though we are a bit out of our time.” says company owner, Graeme Winram. “So much seems to be imported these days - running a small furniture workshop in modern day Scotland may seem like an anachronism but I firmly believe that local design and production is more important than ever.”

Mr Winram established Lethenty Cabinetmakers in 2004 and the workshop is widely regarded as a centre of woodworking excellence.

Customers include some of the most prestigious houses in Aberdeenshire, including those owned by the National Trust for Scotland.

Lethenty Cabinet Makers’ new workshop is located a mile or so north of Blackburn in a quiet rural area. Their previous workshop at Lethenty Mill, near Inverurie, was destroyed in a major fire in 2017. Since then, Graeme and his team of five cabinetmakers have rebuilt their workshop and showroom in a new location and Lethenty Cabinetmakers are very much back in business again.

Although Lethenty Cabinetmakers have come to specialise in bespoke kitchens, they have made furniture both built in and freestanding, for every room of the house – everything from a delicate jewellery box to a carved four poster bed. They have designed and made home offices, libraries, display cabinets, wardrobes and beds. They’ve been asked to make cabinets for whisky collectors, guitar collectors and record collectors. They’ve made sculptural pieces, ecclesiastical pieces and pieces that are designed to complement the historical style of a period house.

They’ve worked in wee cottages and in grand mansion houses, for farmers and for Members of Parliament, for the local council and for the National Trust for Scotland.

It’s for their very special hand built kitchens that Lethenty Cabinetmakers are perhaps best known. A Lethenty kitchen is not a disposable product. They take pride in building objects of integrity using traditional construction techniques and very high quality materials. Fabulous design, the highest standards of workmanship and beautiful local timbers mean a Lethenty kitchen is a sound investment - performing perfectly and looking good for decades to come.

The company likes to keep in touch with local architects. “Some of our best projects come about because of our connections with architects and interior designers.” says Graeme. “We’ll shortly be hosting a CPD training day for architects. We invite them here to see our sawmill in action and show them how local timber can be processed, dried and used. Aberdeenshire is rich in beautiful hardwoods but it’s an almost totally neglected resource. We’ve made a stack of small sample pieces of beautiful burr Elm to give away – hopefully this will inspire them to specify local wood when designing new houses.

For Graeme Winram, using local hardwood timber for his work is a vocation. Very few companies process their own timber any more as it is so much easier to pick up the phone and order, say, a cubic meter of American cherry, perfectly dried and ready to use. Graeme values our local woods as something special and they give his work uniqueness. He loves to encourage his customers to use Aberdeenshire timber.

He sources logs of Oak, Elm and Ash from local farms and estates. Some trees can weigh two or three tons each. After sawing the logs into boards, they carefully stack them between spacers to air dry (one year for every inch of thickness). This allows the moisture in the wood to escape gradually and takes any tension out of the wood. It’s a long process but the results are worth the wait. A sign on the drying shed roof says, “Shhhh – relaxing timber. Do not disturb.” The timber is then further dried in their own kiln for a few weeks to fully condition it – ready for use in our centrally heated homes.

This is a very labour intensive process but the company believe that local hardwoods are uniquely beautiful and Graeme has long campaigned to raise awareness of this underused and fabulous resource.

Graeme and his team build their furniture and kitchens using traditional construction methods. There are no CNC machines churning out identical chipboard components. Graeme shows me a panel in one of his cupboard doors. The panel is not glued in – it has plenty of room to move about, though it fits snugly in a groove in the rails and stiles. The cabinetmakers know that the wood will expand and contract across the grain. If the design does not incorporate an expansion gap, the panel could expand, crack and even break the tenons of the door apart.

Sometimes, plywood is the best answer for stability, especially over large surfaces. They would ideally like every piece to be of solid wood throughout but practicality sometimes dictates the need to use plywood or veneers. They have long experience and will explain the pros and cons of all materials that you may think of. Most of their kitchen cabinets are made with an inner carcase of very high quality Scandinavian Birch plywood with solid hardwood edges.

Finish is important too. They will apply a high wear satin lacquer for kitchen surfaces. This is a fairly ‘bullet proof’ finish but they can also apply a finishing oil to furniture pieces which is a more natural finish. They also have a spray booth for painting which gives a good hard surface. Sometimes a beautiful hand applied brush finish is required.

Lethenty employs five cabinet makers – Steve, Phil, Sandy, Martyn and Sam. They are all fine craftsmen with more than 70 years of experience between them. This can be seen in their faultless work. They are perfectionists - often spending time on the parts you will never see. It’s very clear to see that they are proud their work and of what the company is producing. Some of the finished commissions have a small wooden plaque, etched with the company name, a note of the wood used and the date.

The workshop is clean, bright and efficient. It’s fitted out with a fleet of heavy duty woodworking machines, cast iron workhorses that are reliable and easily maintained. A dust extraction system collects all the sawdust – it is ducted outside to a large drum, where XXXX Their own biomass boiler is great for all the offcuts, shavings and solid lumps of any local windblown trees not suitable for furniture. The heat is pumped straight into the adjoining workshop.

Phil is running some lengths of timber through the spindle moulder to make architraves for a pair of French doors. He explains that if required, they can re-create any moulding pattern. It is a bit like using the old wooden moulding planes with their dozens of patterns. It is a lot faster by machine though!

Their showroom has a good range of items on display. As Graeme says, “it is essential to come in and see examples of our work. I usually show prospective clients around our workshop too.” You will not need much convincing once here as the colours, patterns, finishes, designs and the standard of craftsmanship of the kitchens and furniture is impeccable.

Who are the customers? “Although we have made furniture for hotels and company reception areas,” Graeme says, “most of our clients are private individuals in their fifties and sixties. It is unavoidable that our kitchens and furniture will cost a bit more than mass produced items but a truly bespoke design, made with integrity and high quality materials, is well worth the extra cost.”

For Graeme, it is more creatively satisfying to make an individual piece, even though that is not as profitable as making a run of pieces. Some customers have a clear idea of what they want, based on magazine pictures or images they have seen on line. Other customers need more guidance. Some clients have a tree of their own that has fallen down and want it made into furniture for their family as a keepsake.

There is no defined catalogue of standard items at Lethenty Cabinetmakers. They have always worked within a wide range of styles. Some clients ask for sleek and minimal designs while others are looking for the wild and organic. They also produce furniture that is designed to complement a period home.

“I feel that the client’s needs should come first,” says Graeme, “whether they are looking for overly elaborate or severely minimalist. I like it best when there is a good sense of collaboration with our customers - maybe I want to be more of a craftsman, than an artist!”

Graeme is inspired by designers such as James Krenov; simple, balanced yet precise work. Also by American George Nakashima; sculptural, bold designs often using exposed burrs and the natural edges of boards. His own history at Lethenty Mill with Alan Fyfe, who taught traditional furniture making, was also an influence.

“For me though, the greatest inspiration comes from the wood itself.” says Graeme, “I work intuitively and look at the patterns I see in the timber and what it suggests to me. Often it is surprising, what you find inside the timber, underneath the rough bark, the beautiful grains, spalted details and colours. It’s so satisfying for me to see the whole process through from a rough heavy log in a farmer’s field to a shimmering surface of a beautifully made piece of special furniture. A wood like local Elm is endlessly fascinating. The rich colours and swirling grain patterns are incredible. I think of a big log of burr Elm as being like a two-ton treasure box — chock full of fabulous beauty hidden away beneath the rough bark.”

Choosing your timber can be the start of a great adventure. Lethenty primarily uses local Oak, Elm, Ash and Sycamore.

Oak:

Oak is the classic furniture making wood – it is strong, solid and dependable. It has a warm golden colour and the local trees often feature masses of small pin knots and burrs. Quarter sawn boards feature beautiful silver rays running through the grain.

Elm:

Elm varies enormously, from a pale straw colour to a deep rich brown, sometimes streaked with green. Some trees are straight and clean grained, but many feature fabulous ripples and burrs. Cutting open an old Elm log is always an adventure, but it can also be a difficult timber to work with; as it dries the timber tends to pull, twist and crack, which creates waste. However, the wood that can be used is truly fabulous and worth all the effort.

Ash:

Ash is paler and is a lovely mild timber to work with. The bigger trees have darker wood in the centre which creates a dramatic contrast with the lighter sapwood.

Sycamore:

Sycamore is a much more subtle and calm timber. Closely related to Maple, it has a pale creamy colour and shimmering grain. It is used often for making bedroom furniture or for more delicate cabinet work.