Dorset crafts: Marquetry not a wind-up
Cabinet maker Luke Wycherley went from begging for work experience to making the finest watch winder boxes in Britain, reports Alasdair McWhirter
Published in February ’17
Despite working hard, Luke Wycherley struggled to get more than a ‘C ‘ in his GCSE’s. However, his dyslexia almost certainly helped to steer him to becoming one of the country’s most sought after cabinet makers. He now creates bespoke watch winder boxes, jewellery boxes and individual pieces of furniture, featuring some of the finest marquetry in Britain and his clients include everyone from the Royal Family and Bond Street jewellers to Aston Martin and Bentley.
At the age of 16 Wycherley finally received a reply to one of his poorly written emails asking for work experience. He was offered two weeks’ work with a renowned cabinet maker and, although the fortnight consisted almost entirely of sanding and sweeping up, he became hooked.
After studying in Yeovil and achieving distinctions in design technology and furniture making courses, Wycherley looked for a cabinet making apprenticeship – but with no luck. He started working at a local joinery company but after 18 months of making countless sash windows he contacted Halstock, one of the country’s leading cabinet makers. One of the directors showed him around the most impressive workshops he had ever seen. ‘I was told Halstock had no vacancies but I kept on pestering them and two weeks later I was given the job of a cabinet maker’s apprentice. As far as I was concerned, I was living the dream!’
Wycherley soon found himself helping to install some of the most beautiful kitchens, dressing rooms, cellars and gun rooms in the country. ‘I had never seen anything like the homes we were working in – they belonged to a completely different world.’
The cabinet maker who originally gave Wycherley his work experience, then got back in touch to offer him a job which involved being trained in specialist marquetry and, after much agonising, he decided to take it. It soon became clear that Wycherley was exceptionally talented at making beautiful and extraordinarily intricate humidors and jewellery boxes. He thrived on all the challenges thrown up by the clients’ requests – be it copying a coat of arms, finding an ingenious way to ‘hide’ a secret drawer or use marquetry to replicate a client’s handwritten message inside a jewellery box. Top interior designers and several well-known celebrities swelled Wycherley’s growing list of clients.
‘I decided I had to set up my own workshop in Buckland Newton, near Dorchester. For the first three months I carried on with my day job – working from 7.30 to 5.30 before driving to my own little workshop and then working from 6.00 to 11.30 at night. I spent all the money I made upgrading my tools.’
Wycherley soon started to receive commissions from Halstock, as the company was geared to building kitchens or creating all the doors and panelling for an entire house, rather than the minutely detailed boxes which Wycherley excelled at making. The orders kept coming in and Richard Miller, Halstock’s MD, eventually approached Wycherley to ask if would be interested in setting up a joint venture. Keen to be able to focus on what he was best at, Wycherley readily agreed and the company they decided to call ‘Little Halstock’ was born.
Little Halstock’s first commissions were four jewellery boxes for the world’s oldest jeweller, Garrard, and a watch winder box for eight Vacheron Constantin watches. ‘I have since been asked to make watch winder boxes in all shapes and sizes as well as all sorts of other things. I was recently asked to make a shot box to hold ten shot glasses, numbered to tie with the peg numbers for shooting parties. I never got bored because each job is different to the last and presents different opportunities and challenges. I have also learnt a lot about horology and take great care to make sure that my fully programmable watch winder boxes look after the watches they display as well as any modern equivalent.
A good cabinet maker is taught to work within a tolerance of 0.3 of a millimetre – precise enough to guarantee that dovetails fit and drawers run smoothly. However, Wycherley uses such fine materials that he needs to cut within 0.02 of a millimetre. He even takes the ambient moisture in a room into consideration. If it is too damp the marquetry will swell at different rates, due to the different species of timber he uses to achieve all the colours he needs, and that can cause the marquetry to buckle. On the other hand, if the room is too dry, the veneers will shrink and gaps will appear.
The veneers that Wycherley uses are only 0.6mm thick, which is about the same thickness as a finger nail, so they are extremely delicate. When fine sanding the marquetry, he uses a very old pad sander that was originally powered by a traction engine. He prefers it to any modern alternative but he still has to be extremely careful. ‘If you press too hard or apply pressure in the wrong place, it is very easy to sand through the whole piece, destroying hours of work in seconds.’
He creates the different colours on a pheasant or a cog in a watch movement, for example, by another very traditional technique – sand shading. It involves heating sand in a pan over a stove and placing the tiny marquetry pieces in the sand for precisely the right time. A few seconds too long, and the sand burns or scorches the veneer unevenly causing it to shrink as well as discolour. Wycherley is able to incorporate gold, silver, mother of pearl and just about any other material into his bespoke designs, making a set of initials, a family crest, or an ‘exploded’ watch movement even more personal to the client.
Wycherley makes boxes to whatever size and design a client wants, so each piece is unique. A collection of watches will still be perfectly displayed even when some watches are much larger or deeper than others, as the design includes a tailor-made space for each one. The level of craftsmanship and attention to detail also ensure that one of Wycherley’s masterpieces will last a lifetime.