When trees in London are felled, they often meet their end in a chipper. But what a waste of beautiful wood – oak, beech, ash and even London plane. As a carpenter, the aptly named Robert Brain put his mind to the task of how it could be reused.
After two years working on his supply chain, Brain found a way to turn scrap into gold, milling the trees, seasoning them and handcrafting them into bespoke furniture without ever leaving the city to do it.
Having worked for bespoke furniture makers, and top-notch contractors and designers, Brain had a lot of experience to draw on before he launched his company RHMB from his Hackney workshop in 2015.
“But I’m not an ambulance chaser,” he jokes. “No one likes to see a tree come down.”
One of the trees he’s currently seasoning is a 10-metre century-old beech from Kensington Gardens. The tree was felled last Easter because its roots were decaying. Illness or decay are the primary reasons London trees are felled, Brain says, although property development and HS2 are also significant causes.
After the Royal Parks felled the beech, Brain cut the tree up into boards in the park. “You then air-dry the timber for a long time because you don’t want to dry it too fast,” he says. “Then you dry it in the kiln, which is where the beech is now. It will be ready to use early next year.”
He keeps his eyes open and, if he sees a tree come down, he’ll pick up the phone to ask if he can take it off their hands. “But I’m not an ambulance chaser,” he jokes. “No one likes to see a tree come down.”
His network of suppliers is growing all the time, although “procedure” still means that tree officers may find it simpler to send the tree for chipping than let a carpenter get involved, with the associated issues of ownership and paperwork. “But trees are coming down every day, so it’s a question of what we want to do with them.” Of course, Brain could just nip down to a regular timber yard, but uniqueness, provenance and sustainability are at the heart of his business.
“Sustainability is not my main motivation because that should inform everything, whatever you’re doing. For me, I’m more invested in the wood when I know where it’s come from. I’ve put my hands on the living tree. There’s a connection that I wouldn’t get if I just drove out to the timber yard.”
Provenance and saving local trees from the chipper also appeals to his clients, who are invited to see their piece in production. Brain’s bespoke furniture, beautifully designed and crafted, has so far ranged price-wise from a side table (£810) to a cocktail cabinet (£10,700).
He shows me the latter – a stunning pale-pink-hued cabinet of lacewood from Euston, lined with ash from the HS2 site in Ruislip; his eyecatching geometric mirror wall cabinet also has lacewood from Euston and ash from a garden in Kent; and the elegant sideboard is in oak from Wandsworth and lacewood from a street tree in Camden.
“It’s about getting something you can’t get elsewhere,” he says. “You’ve invested in a piece of furniture for your home, and these come with an extra layer of interest, a story.”
Rob Brain’s furniture and joinery can be viewed at rhmb.co.uk or call 07939 553887 to find out more.