Learning the trade

2008-04-15 00:00

INNOCENT Ndlela first thought of making a double bed out of yellowwood around three years ago, but he only began to work on the idea seriously in the second half of last year.

It might seem a long time to take to make a bed, but Ndlela has only his spare time for bedmaking, working after hours in the restorer’s workshop at the Museum Service in Prince Alfred Street.

Ndlela is general assistant to Rob Scott, the Museum Service restorer. Scott is a very fine cabinet-maker who had an exhibition of his furniture in the Tatham Art Gallery last year. Ndlela was inspired by watching Scott to create something for himself. He has worked at the Museum Service since 1991 — longer than Scott.

“I still have to finish the sanding and spraying,” says Ndlela, explaining that he has made the bed so that it can be taken to pieces — important if he is going to be able to get it through doors and around corners when he finally takes it home. “And I’ll have to buy a mattress,” he says, sitting on the slats and running his hand over the swan-neck pediment on the headboard. Even unfinished, the satiny appeal of yellowwood is there.

Scott and Ndlela show me the pile of timber the wood came from — pieces saved from old buildings, often with handmade nails sticking out, each of which has to be carefully removed by Ndlela. The telltale angled sawmarks on the beams show that it was pit sawn — cut into planks in the forest where the trees were felled. “You can still see the pits in parts of the Karkloof — the timber may well have come from there originally,” says Scott, who reckons the wood was probably felled around the 1870s.

Before Ndlela came to the Museum Service, he worked as a gardener. But now he helps Scott and is currently busy with finishing and sanding his work — he shows me a beautifully finished wooden frame from a large tapestry that he has been working on.

He also goes with Scott to buy timber, and buys wood for himself so that he can carry on with his cabinet making. I watch the two of them looking at two old Burmese teak newel posts, and discussing where they came from. “Innocent recognises wood species — and he knows more than he is letting on,” says Scott.

“The bed is practice — I am doing this one for myself,” says Ndlela. “Then maybe I’ll make other things to sell. But first, I’ll make two bedside cabinets — and maybe a wardrobe.”

He may not be a trained cabinet-maker, but he has worked out the technical aspects of what he is doing and he has the love for wood that a craftsman needs if he is to succeed.

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