A not-so-little leap of faith

Phil Vanier’s leap from television commercials producer to furniture and cabinetry maker is about as big as it gets. But dig a little deeper and you start to uncover a common thread – a passion for craft, be it tangible or digital.

Phil’s former day job at an advertising agency wasn’t feeding his soul, whereas working with wood did. He’d even get scolded by the agency’s art department for trying to help on project builds. His little shed, out the back of his London terrace home, is where Phil got his creative, hands-on fix. When it came time to relocate to Tasmania with his family, Phil was ready to turn his passion into a full-time job, and so he carried the name with him – The Little Shed Project.

“I was working for big, big ad agencies and all I wanted to do was make stuff,” he said.

“When I was a producer, I was a very hands-on producer – I would build stuff with the art department.

“I was making stuff in the form of film and TV commercials, but it was stressful, and I sort of realised it wasn’t sustainable.”

Making a start in a new industry coupled with an international move would be a daunting prospect for most people. But not Phil, he had a plan.

“When I first moved here, I knew that it was basically impossible for me just to get up and running as a joiner or furniture maker because I didn’t have a clientele base,” he said.

“So my plan was to move here and work as a handyman and that got me meeting people in their homes. And of course, you start to chat.

“And once you do that, you go ‘I make furniture actually and here’s some of my stuff’ and they go ‘We’ve been thinking about having a dining table made’, and it doesn’t take long. Soon with some solid word-of-mouth referrals it just sort of snowballs.”

Phil’s move to Tasmania meant working with new, less forgiving timbers. Where he described timbers like American Black Walnut as “buttery”, he said Tasmanian Oak was the opposite and quite brittle. However, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“I’d worked predominantly with White Oak, Red Oak, American Black Walnut, Ash – those European and American species and they work very differently, there are no two ways about it,” he said.

“Simple things like running Tasmanian Oak through a thicknesser in the wrong direction can really bite you in the ass. It’s brutal. But at the same time, it’s also very stable. The moisture content can be really consistent and you get this great consistency of finish.

“It’s just different and you just have to learn the qualities of that timber, which is great. I love it.”

Phil believed the high demand for Tasmanian Timbers stemmed from a combination of accessibility, brand awareness, and cost. He said there wasn’t one stand-out, sought-after timber in The UK.

“People haven’t grown up with just one ubiquitous timber around them,” he said.

“They very much have that here (in Tasmania). Everything that goes into houses like architraves, skirting boards, trims, everything is Tas Oak or Blackwood – it’s everywhere.”

“I think people have grown up with it and like it, which is a very legitimate reason for them to want to have something made from it.”

Now well and truly established in Hobart, Phil has worked on some remarkable projects, like Cascade House’s Tasmanian Oak kitchen. The design of the home and kitchen were done by Core Collective. Phil is also drawn to the more obscure, one-off requests from clients. It’s what has him “coming back for more”.

“I’ve wanted to build a business where the deal is that you come to me if it’s a little bit odd and it serves a particular purpose, even if that purpose isn’t perfectly congenial to how you would ordinarily make it,” he said.

“So for me, it’s all about the process of making that one-off piece and once it’s made, I can’t wait to move on to the next project.

“I want it to go and have its own life and do its own thing, and I’m not really fussed if I ever see it again; I just love making things.”

Pictured is Phil’s joinery fabrication at Cascade House. Architecture, interior design and joinery design by Ryan Strating at Core Collective Architects.

Dressed and VJ Timber for joinery from Brock Build and timber supply by Britton Timbers Australia.

Bluckhead timber from Woodley & Co. Brass handles designed by Ryan Strating and fabricated by Xanderware: CNC Laser and Router Cutting Service. Stone benchtop by Honed Australian Basalt.

Phil sources Tasmanian Oak from Britton Timber and McKay Timbers.

Images of Cascade House by Adam Gibson.

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