Nicholas Hamilton Holmes is a wood nut. Nick is the guy people bring random old wood from their backyards to. He’s the guy that can identify specific types of wood and assess the quality. He knows how to assess it, work it and turn it into functional furniture or decorative art. Through a love affair with design, craftsmanship and fine production, Nick Holmes has created a dream job for himself right here in downtown Hamilton. Hamilton is right in his name – it’s actually a family name and not just a fun nickname. If you visit HamiltonHolmes.com you will find a sample of some of what Nick occupies his time with; furniture design, millwork, custom framing, and more. The work is beautiful and endlessly impressive.
Walking into Nick’s workshop you figure out what he does in there as soon as the smell of sawdust and wood hits you. After that it all becomes pretty clear as stacks of wood in varying shades and grains fill the space. There are tools new and, some, very old filling the walls. There are giant tables, swept up piles of sawdust and wood shavings and a big MEC water bottle. It’s important to stay hydrated.
Nick Holmes is perhaps best known locally for his Shoreman’s Bench – but that’s just the beginning of his work. He makes all kinds of stuff some of which you will read about below and some of which you can find on his website. Nick is incredibly knowledgeable about wood and through our conversation and my visit to his workshop I must have asked him about 1,000 rapid fire questions. We summarized these into 10 questions which you can find below.
1) What kind of training was required to get you to where you are today?
I completed a short program in furniture design and construction at the College Rosement in Montreal. Although the program was short, it was a great introduction to techniques and tools. I think the best thing about the experience was learning how to work safely with very dangerous tools. That foundation gave me the confidence to grown and learn.
When the program was finished I did a 6 month apprenticeship at a Montreal shop. I learned a lot about the industry and where I was, and where I wanted to go. For the next 5 years I worked in high-end mill-work shops. Eventually, I had enough experience and confidence to start my own business. That was 3 years ago. Now, because of my experience in mill-work shops, I can offer both specialized mill-work contracting and design, as well as custom furniture building and design.
I continue to study woodworking and design through many different sources. From classic books to online videos, social media, and of course discussions with my peers. I work to get better at what I do, and constantly plan my progress in the ‘design industry’ (which is a moving target).
2) What was it like moving your products from Hamilton – to other cities and countries eventually?
Selling products internationally is a whole different business model than building custom furniture. When I work with local clients the process is organic and flexible. When I’m designing a product that I want to market to an international audience I need to consider things much more carefully–how will I ship it? What price point is acceptable? What details are worth including and what details are just too indulgent?
Then of course there is the personal side of business– meeting furniture sellers, convincing them that my work is worth their investment, and working out a sales model that works for all parties. To be honest it is massively overwhelming, but also very exciting and fun.
3) Your work is slow and precise and of a higher quality. It seems to me that in the last 5-10 years our culture has moved towards appreciating ‘old world’ craftsmanship in things. Why do you think this return to hand made items has occurred?
I think that culture works like a pendulum. It swings one way, and then swings back. The last 50 years in north America has seen a loss of quality objects, and a movement toward disposable everything. We are now realizing the terrible downside of cheap goods and are starting to re-invest in the things that surround us. People are now more willing to spend more money on something that they will really love and enjoy for a long time.
Also, as manufacturing and production of goods has almost completely moved to another area of the world, we are starting to get curious about how things are made. We think back to the skills that our grandparents had that they considered standard, and we realize that we’re basically useless at making anything. So when someone picks up a pair of knitting needles and makes a scarf, that’s incredibly rewarding. People are like:’ holy shit I made something that I can use! This is awesome’. That, in a nutshell, has been my experience of exploring ‘making’ since I was a kid.
4) What music do you listen to while you work?
I listen to all kinds of music. From CBC Radio 2 classical, to my own record collection, to podcasts–something is always on. I work long hours, often alone. So music is like my best friend.
5) What’s your approach to working with wood as an art? Where does your inspiration come from?
Art, and artisan work are two approaches to the same thing. Making furniture has always been a combination of engineering and decoration. The process involves considering all the details and options, and making something properly. Then process of making of that furniture is the use of tools to render the planned details. So it’s really a combination of consideration (design), and technical skill (production).
I’ve only recently taken these two elements to something I consider Art. It’s really the same thing, but the fun thing about art is that it isn’t as ‘functional’. The art object doesn’t have boundaries.
My recent series of wooden sculpture (‘Useful/Useless’) really played with form and function. It’s liberating to take the technical and design skills that I’ve developed while making furniture, and apply them to decorative objects. It is the most fun I’ve had in years–so i’m going to keep making art.
6) What’s your typical day like?
I really don’t have typical days! But if I did they would be a combination of planning and execution–emails, sketching, drawing, material purchasing, building, finishing, installing etc etc etc. Every day is different, which appeals to me
7) Is there any supportive technology that helps you do your job?
Yes of course! Despite my ‘classical’ leanings, I am very much a post-millennial person. Social media is huge, so cameras and Photoshop are important. And then pretty much everything else is on my phone–calendar, lists, calculator, email, etc. You know – regular stuff.
8) What’s it like to run your own creative business in Hamilton in 2018?
Hamilton is a great place to run a business. Our city is growing, so that means that I have more and more clients in my own neighborhood. I don’t have to go to Toronto because Toronto has come to me. It has been hard to find affordable working space, especially smaller spaces. But after a year or more of searching I found the perfect space at a good rate. I think Hamilton has a good foundation of cultured people, which means that I have people who get what I’m doing, and I can continue doing it.
9) What’s one thing you’re better at than most people?
Well I’m quite persistent. I stick to my goals and work hard – even when it seems fruitless. I think that is one of the keys to succeeding in a creative industry. You just have to keep driving at your goals, because no one will do it for you.
10) What’s one thing you’re planning to improve / grow / develop?
Other then everything? I would have to say everything! Especially developing products. It has always been my goal to produce high quality, high design products for the international stage here in Hamilton. I have a good start, but I’m still a long way away from where I want to be!
This is the first post in a new series. If you know someone who works with their hands in Hamilton and would like to be featured in a post similar to this one,
please email Biljana at (theinletnews @ gmail).