Skip to main content

Meet Your Maker // Birbecks Woodworking – James Birbeck


Meet Your Maker // Birbecks Woodworking – James Birbeck 

What started your journey with woodworking ?

I’ve always enjoyed making; From an early age, I would sit out in the garage with my dad (in South Africa) while he restored chairs, mirrors, or pieces of furniture he found at the local tip. As a career, however,  it wasn’t a deliberate choice but rather something that unfolded organically. I’m glad it happened that way.

It started with an apprenticeship in carpentry and furniture making in South Africa – which was a great experience and I guess laid the foundation, especially for my furniture making. I then got itchy feet and caught a flight to Scotland. I did a bunch of jobs in the early days from being a bar manager,  working in a timberyard and picture framing. I then started with a joinery firm, that was like being thrown in the deep end. You had to learn fast to keep your job – It was a lot of on-site making and installations, which was pretty new to me. After four years with them, I started my own joinery business, working out of my garage and on-site. After ten years I found my studio space at EOW and the rest is history. 

What designers inspire your work ?

I seem to be drawn to a lot of designers from the early to mid 1900’s such as Gropius, Albers, Grossman,Lloyd Wright, van der Rohe, Nakashima and  Bruer(just to name a few).  Whilst  a bit left-field from that list, I would also include Architects like Gehry and Foster.

What do you value the most in your design process and outcome ?

 I think my core values in design and (hopefully in the) outcome are: simplicity, functionality and the harmony between form and function.

What are your predictions for the future trends in carpentry ?

If only I had a crystal ball and an untapped market place ! 

Whilst it looks like painted fitted furniture is still on the rise, I think there does seem to be a renewed appreciation in traditional craft approaches and techniques.  In a world dominated by synthetic materials and virtual reality, natural materials help add a more human dimension and bring some kind of a connection to the outside world into our homes.

Which materials do you most enjoy working with ?

Solid timber ! I do like to incorporate other materials into my work when it feels right to do so, for example, brass pins and wedges.  I also really like working with Forbo Linoleum, which is  still made in Kirkcaldy, Scotland.

If you got to do a ‘dream’ commission – what would this be ?

I was once commissioned to create a piece of bespoke cabinetry that complimented an artist’s work. I really enjoyed taking this on, as I like the challenge of creating something both site specific and unique in its purpose. I would really enjoy more of this type of commission, but ideally it would be publicly displayed, accessible and interactive. This particular installation was in a large consumer goods headquarters in London – unfortunately I never got to witness its installation. 

If you could collaborate with anyone (deed or alive), who would this be and why ? 

Ooh that’s a tough one,  but I’m going to go with  Koma Furniture – Japan, a relatively small businesses and I just love the way they approach design, business,and social media; it feels human. 

What are you watching / listening / reading to at the moment ?

Listening to: Desert island discs, working my way through the back catalogue, it’s going to take a while.

     Watching: The Gentleman – TV series

     Reading :The Storyteller – Dave Grohl


You work out of EOW as a resident, what about our community works for you ?

Working out of EOW offers the opportunity for collaboration, whether that’s just bouncing ideas off another maker or physically collaborating on a piece of work.

If someone would like to start their woodworking journey – what would you advise ?

Take some classes to see if it’s definitely  something you wish to pursue. Start small, experiment and explore different areas to find YOUR passion, develop your brand, stay curious and always seek to improve your skills.

If someone would like to commission you – what is the best way to do this ?

I think the first step in commissioning someone is making sure their style and expertise align with your own vision. So, I always recommend looking at their website and social media. 

If someone would like to commission me,  the  best way to contact me would be

Photo credits to Connor Shankland.

Leave a Reply