A cut above ... even as a high school student, Joe Chester enjoyed tinkering with timber. Photo: Simon Schluter
Joe Chester was managing a burger shop when he made a timber pendant for his then girlfriend. He cut the wood so it was multifaceted, like a precious stone, and painted each plane a different colour. She liked it, he made more and, about a year ago, he took them to a design shop around the corner.
They sold well, he expanded his range into homewares and now Chester spends more than 50 hours a week in the garage (or ''woodworking studio'') of his inner Melbourne share house.
I try to keep the colours as opposite from each other on the colour wheel as possible.Joe Chester
After giving up the burger job a year ago, he now splits his days between cutting, shaving and sanding timber and then waxing, oiling or painting it.
Tasmanian oak serving platters with a circular cutout at one end and glossy painted detailing around the edges take up much of his time at the moment. ''I made one for my mum for Christmas and by March I was in full production,'' he says. They come in two sizes and a huge array of colour combinations. He paints the edges of the circular cutout one colour and then the board's outer edge another. ''I try to keep the colours as opposite from each other on the colour wheel as possible … the colours make people think of lollies.''
Chester, who never completed the furniture design course he started at RMIT, has also studied signwriting and building and construction. He says that even as a child he enjoyed working with timber. Growing up in Tasmania, his father had a home woodworking workshop. Chester always chose ''design or making-oriented'' subjects at school.
''In year 11 and 12, I was making Huon pine soap holders every holiday period and selling them throughout the term,'' he says. ''That was pretty successful.''
After a decade in hospitality, he recently came back to ''tinkering around with timber''. ''I feel as if I understand it a little bit … the working of timber into an object is something I enjoy.''
And he finds others enjoy playing with timber as well, which is why he came up with his sets of irregularly shaped building blocks for adults. Again, they're multifaceted (sometimes painted) and you can arrange them, and rearrange them, at your desk or table.
Chester, who has called his workshop Treehorn Design, makes a point of using recycled timber and ''sustainably grown new stock'', including offcuts of offcuts. ''I like to recycle as much as I can,'' he says. ''In Tasmania, the feud about the forest industry has been going my entire life. I don't have a problem with managed forestry, but I do have a problem when it becomes something as useless as woodchips for export subsidised by the government. I have always felt it was important to do something more with the things that you have.''
He says most of his designs evolve as he thinks about what he could do with a particular piece of timber. While he might do a couple of sketches, a design is mostly worked out in his head.
''I do feel a bit weird about the jewellery,'' he says. ''I never would have thought I would have been making that. I am not the most fashionable man in the world. It's taken me by surprise how successful the work has been. I hope it gets better and better. I would like to really push it and do furniture and whole interiors.''