TOMORROW’S TIMBER ARTISTS
Northern Beaches Secondary College is bringing out the next generation of masters in timber. COVERED. visited NBSC Freshwater Senior Campus to discover the secret behind it: teacher and furniture designer Ben Percy.
Ben says most of his students are surprised to learn that he never studied woodwork for the HSC himself: he simply enjoyed woodworking and had a “really nice and caring, compassionate” Design & Technology teacher in high school, pushing him to pursue teaching.
Halfway through studying his teaching degree at The University of Newcastle, Ben decided to upskill at TAFE to be a better teacher, resulting in a scholarship from the Australian Decorative & Fine Arts society. With a Certificate IV in Furniture Design under his belt, in 2012, Ben started his own business as a bespoke furniture designer and maker.
Nowadays, he produces work for exhibition, and local and international clients. He also teaches at NBSC Freshwater Senior Campus, where he learns as much as he teaches.
It is clear from a quick scroll through his Instagram that Ben is passionate about his students’ work. Posting a mix of his own work and theirs, he explains that being active in design informs his teaching because he’s able to share his knowledge with his students while still learning as a maker himself.
So what’s the main thing he’s learnt over his years of teaching? With a laugh, he says it’s how to fix mistakes.
“The students are good because they build themselves into problems that I would never ever let myself get into. And a lot of that is learning from discovery, learning from failure, which is how we actually improve and learn; so it’s looking at where I can actually let them make those mistakes.”
The classes are often made up of a mix of both experienced woodworkers as well as timber rookies. For those who have never set foot in a workshop, Ben says the development in their skillset is enormous, comparing the course to an intensive Certificate IV in Furniture Design.
“They’re really learning skills that allow the results of their work to become something above and beyond what would be expected for a HSC student.”
The students’ output is most certainly at industry level. Ben puts this down to the challenge oriented mindset of his students. Every year he sees a rise in the work’s average quality as the students aim to surpass an increasingly impressive benchmark. Past work serves as inspiration and for a lot of them,
the class becomes much more than merely a school subject.
“It’s very addictive. The reason why a lot of them get here early and leave here really late is that they just want
to be in the workshop because they enjoy it so much.”
The facts of Freshwater’s success are testament to this. Last year finishing in the top ten of the state, students’ work have been featured in Shape and InTech. The previous year saw the school take out first, second and tenth; the best results for a public school in New South Wales.
The challenge now is for Ben to maintain this success. The students’ drive is unwavering as Ben explains that they’re all shooting for the top spots. For him, teaching is incredibly enjoyable, but also challenging because they equal his push with their own motivation.
When he first started teaching, he had a small handful of students eager to push themselves as hard as possible. However each year that number rises as more students come to NBSC Freshwater Senior Campus to study furniture design. Now, every one of them is producing work that could easily be the top of the state from previous years.
“For me, that’s challenging because I need to be very aware of where the shortfalls are going to be, where the bottlenecks are going to be, and guiding them in projects that they’ve never even considered trying to make before.”
But there’s no point guiding someone to a level where they don’t have to think. Ben explains he prefers them to be heavily invested in critical thinking and the consequences of decisions.
If he’s recommending a student for a job with someone he knows in the furniture industry, he wants to be confident that they possess the necessary problem solving abilities, knowledge and skills. He loves seeing where his students end up; a few have wound up working in local businesses in the furniture realm. Others undertake apprenticeships in construction, whereas others see the class as more of a creative outlet and pursue alternate careers. One ex-student, is working as a learning support officer in the next room with the current students.
A massive enabler for the quality of the work is the school’s partnership with Britton Timbers. Through Ben’s own relationship with the company, Britton proposed the idea of supplying his students with standard grade Tasmanian blackwood. In return, Britton publishes the photos and interviews the students to give the industry more of an understanding, and that select, high grade timber isn’t the only way to produce quality pieces.
“By providing them with standard grade, which most architects and designers shy away from because of
the natural defects, these students embrace that timber and show that it’s not only a stunning grade but it’s actually cheaper as well. The first year they were blown away with the quality and now we’re on to our third year of support from Britton Timbers.
It doesn’t look like it’s slowing down any time soon.”