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Putting heart and soul into the wood - along with a few fingertips at times

THIS WORKING LIFE

Master carpenter and furniture designer Ronan Hussey in conversation with Mary McCarthy

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Ronan Hussey

Ronan Hussey

Ronan Hussey

Finding the grain

Woodwork and music were my best subjects but I was no great scholar and actually left school briefly at Christmas in sixth year until the headmaster talked me back.

All the aptitude tests mistakenly pointed me towards hospitality management and by Easter of my first year I had dropped out of a course at Cathal Brugha Street.

My dad said there was no way I was sitting around doing nothing for the summer so he arranged a labouring job with a small building company.

A week in and I was deemed gifted with a hammer and offered an apprenticeship under master craftsman Damien McDonnell, who taught me everything about fine details and finishing.

Earn and learn

The carpentry and joinery qualification suited me as what I learned was directly put into practice and I liked that. It was also good craic.

The first year was 22 weeks in an educational setting, the second and third years 10 weeks and the rest on site and the final year was solely work, with requirements such as knowing how to build and make your own door and fit a roof.

Most of my friends had gone to college so I would go travelling with them for parts of the summer and never felt I missed out - the difference was I had money.

I have an apprentice starting this week and I'll try to pass on that there is so much more to carpentry and joinery than making doors - but you have to be open to it.

A trade is a passport to anywhere

In 2003, when I finished my apprenticeship, I went to Australia and South America with friends. I found it easy to pick up employment.

Having carpentry is a passport to well-paid work, especially in English speaking countries and even when you don't speak the language. In 2008, when I made a second working trip to Brazil, I built a sushi shop in Sao Miguel with builders who had not a word of English. In Australia, there was a particular respect for tradespeople. I learned a lot working with two Dutch architects making the most extraordinary houses.

Going solo

When I returned to Ireland and set up a carpentry business I was flooded with work - it was 2005 and everyone wanted attic conversions, wardrobe fittings and foundations in houses.

If you do a good job your name gets out there but while I had a lucrative three years my business acumen was poor and when the downturn came things went in the other direction. Until then my work had been satisfying but it then started to feel slightly one-dimensional.

I should have partnered with somebody and concentrated on commercial work instead of private jobs, but I was 25 when I set up the business and had not thought it through.

Burning Man

In 2008 a friend, Dave Smith, who ran a skateboarding festival, Kings of Concrete, asked me to make wood sculptures and skating infrastructure. It was the first click of the creative switch - it felt like until this moment my imagination was a tool I had not been using.

After that I took off for Brazil again and became obsessed with the geometric shapes on the pathways in Sao Paulo which had been designed by Mirthes Bernardes.

I was then asked by a friend to build artwork for the 2013 Burning Man festival in Nevada and, after that, I viewed what I did differently and felt I could not go back to full-time carpentry.

Creative economics

In 2014 I set myself up in a workshop in Saggart, Co Dublin, at Joinery Embankment where I started making cajons - wooden box drums - and then furniture.

All along I had been working on regular jobs for a steady income but in 2018 I started working full-time for just one main contractor, Frank Murphy Construction, and one designer, Karen O'Rourke, allowing more time for my own designs.

My set-up now is I have two contractors working for me and spend 30pc of my time on site doing fit-outs which leaves one or two whole days and weekends to work on my own furniture.

Turning over

I wake like clockwork at 5.55am - no alarm clock. I do my admin as soon as I get up and will be in the workshop for 7.30am.

I've lost many fingertips over the years. Those work accidents happen if I am under time pressure or stressed about money issues. I know the danger signs now.

It's serious catch-up time for carpenters now after lockdown. We installed perspex screens in the Central Criminal Court and some pharmacies but there was so much site work that could not be done.

Tools down

The workshop empties around 4.30pm and I stay on until 7pm or 8pm doing my own thing. Then it's home to make dinner and lunch for the next day and sketch ideas.

I chat to my girlfriend who lives in Belgrade. I am hoping she will move to Ireland later in the year.

Irish Independent