We approach two garden sheds with the doors wide open, and from inside there emanates a racket that gives the impression of some fairly robust sawing and hammering. Along with the haze of sawdust that fills the air and has settled on most of the lawn, it is clear that there is some energetic woodwork going on inside.
A wooly jumpered man, bearded, with a smiley face appears from the sawdust mist. This is James Peggie, a man content in his own world. Working between two garden sheds at his home just outside Dunfermline, he is transforming redundant whisky barrels into beautiful cabinets and a range of home accessories too.
Along with wife Anita, they have set up a small company with the name Rustic Simplicity. And the name does say it all. The objects James crafts are simple, sturdy, and rustic. Simple, doesn’t mean plain. The cabinets, which are oak and pack a punch in the weight category, have the wow factor, and whatever size, shape, and dimensions you require James is happy to give it a go.
“We work very much on a one to one basis with our customers. They contact us, generally through facebook, and ask whether we can make them a particular cabinet, with or without the stained glass effect, and I go ahead and make it. When it is finished, they are under no obligation to buy it. But thank goodness, so far, every one we have made has been bought.”
Not a joiner or carpenter to trade, James spent many years as a sheet metal worker, and thinks that when you have worked with tools for so long, then you can turn your hand to most trades.
This enterprise is in its infancy, the couple felt the sting of the recession, when their catering business went under, forcing them both into finding alternative jobs. Anita headed for a local nursery, which she loves, and James took up a job in Dobbies Garden Centre.
It wasn’t until May last year that he thought that his foray into woodwork may actually provide him with both an escape route from Dobbies, and a satisfying career that he really enjoys.
Getting back to how he started up the business, James, a self confessed skip raker, was on the lookout for some firewood and a few broken up pieces of a whisky barrel landed in his possession. Recognising good oak when he saw it, he thought he would try to make something out of the wood, rather than burn it. He made a small cabinet – he liked it, Anita liked it, as did everyone else, and the rest if history.
I ask about the stained glass featured in some of the cabinets which is just enchanting.
“I had been on a tile cutting course,” he says, “and if you can cut tiles, you can cut glass – I had all the tools anyway,” he says modestly.
“I did read a book out of the library to give me some ideas,” he smiles.
Looking at the range that he now produces, it is quite an impressive list, considering he shyly says that his corners could be better. It adds to the rustic charm, I think.
So far, he has produced tables, cupboards, coat rails, menu boards, egg rack, chairs, TV cabinets, drinks cabinets, wine rack, mirrors and frames, and he is open to any suggestion.
The whisky barrel style cabinets are the best seller, the unique curves and occasional numbers stamped on the wood from their time as casks add to the charm of these bespoke pieces. Some of the wood has circular stains on them where a tap has been added to the barrel to check the progression of the contents.
James doesn’t try to sand any of the imperfections away, these are the little things that make each product different from the last.
The wood comes to him from the distilleries up north, in the Inverness, Dufftown area, and they come already broken up. So he will get lots of ends (lids) and the stave is the curved wood. James says that these barrels were originally used in Spain as sherry casks, or Canada as Bourbon casks, then bought up by the whisky industry afterwards.
“Some of this wood could easily be 300 years old,” he says.
Can you imagine the cost of a 300-year-old piece of furniture? Obviously, as each piece is unique to the commission requested, prices vary, but they are still astonishingly inexpensive.
Both Anita and James make it clear that money is not their god, they are honest, hardworking people who don’t want to put their cabinets out of the reach of the average person’s pocket.
As long as they get by, and James can make a living, they are both happy.
“I do find it funny that people assume that when they ask for a smaller piece of furniture they expect it to cost buttons, but in reality, I still have to do the same amount of work, but I am just using smaller pieces of wood,” laughs James.
So is he looking to expand his business? “Not at all. I am happy working five days a week in the shed, and at that rate I can produce up to three cabinets a week. As long as my order book has a few things in it for the next few weeks, then I can rest easy.”
The basis of this business is to use as much recycled material as possible to create something beautiful for the home. He doesn’t claim to be using 100% recycled goods, he does have to occasionally pop down to the local timber yard to pick up pieces of wood that are longer than the average whisky barrel, if required.
But he is making them all himself, alone, busying away in his shed.
Apart from selling on their website and facebook page, the couple have attended quite a few craft fairs – preferring to take their goods up to the ‘Exclusively Highlands’ fairs in Inverness and Aberdeen, as they find their work is more in demand in that region, and also the fairs themselves have a reputation of only having high quality goods on display.
Oak is heavy, but these cabinets will still be delivered to you with just a £15 delivery charge. You can’t ask for a better deal than that.
So, is there anything that James can’t put together.
“No, don’t think so. If you have an idea in your head, then I will have a go!”