Francois (Faf) Smuts

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The early years

Twelve years old Faffie Smuts told his mother that one day he would make beautiful furniture from wood and that in time he would own a sawmill. He also told this to the careers adviser at school.

After Tulbagh High School and two years of army conscription, Faf went to Knysna where craftsmen were known to work with indigenous hardwoods. This was in 1980 and he was looking for a teacher. A week later he was back in Tulbagh with disappointing news. He told the family that everywhere he went, he found softwoods in hidden places in the luxury hardwood furniture. “They are cheats”, he told his mother.

Faf’s mother worked as secretary to N C Krone, Tulbagh’s trend setting winemaker at Twee Jongegezellen. She knew that the Krones had a classic Cape dining table and chair set made from Knysna hardwoods. From her boss, the South African pioneer of cold fermentation of white wines, she learnt that this set had been made by Kluyts and Co., a craft studio that Faf had not visited while exploring Knysna.

Within 1981, Faf was apprenticed at Kluyts, where he found only craft skills and honesty. He was to remain there for five years, specializing in the vital finishing touches of grand furniture.

Watch out! Pupil takes over school

Knysna is the home of South Africa’s great indigenous forest, and this is where the crafting of fine wooden furniture developed. The 20th Century saw small craft studios blossom throughout the district, and most of them took on apprentices to ensure skills were maintained. But with ever increasing competition, in 1982, the apprentice craft furniture makers were told that training was being discontinued. Faf Smuts was 23 years old, in his second year of apprenticeship at Kluyts and Co. He refused to accept this as the end of his ambitions. He had endured two years of military conscription, just so he could follow his heart into the world of wood. He complained and refused to leave the factory.

Eventually he was told; “If you don’t like it, you can be the teacher. If you are prepared to teach the other kids, all of you can stay”.  That was the first clue that Faf was going to be the wood whisperer. Faf spent his work hours teaching and asking questions, in every corner of the workshop.  He remained the learner teacher at Kluyts for the next 4 years. In his own work, he specialised in providing the finishing touches to the final products.

Faf moved from Kluyts and Co. to Marlene Grace Meubels in Hennenmann in 1985, where he finished his apprenticeship shaping fine furniture for others to finish.

The lone craftsman

Faf Smuts arrived back in Tulbagh in 1988, after eight years of skills training. He brought little else with him. Apprentices don’t amass financial capital. He then set up as a restorer and repairer of furniture in this historic town. Tulbagh has South Africa’s only street of original Cape Dutch houses with matching interior fittings and furniture. There are dozens of similar eighteenth Century houses in the general neighbourhood. From these, there was a stream of work, but it did not allow for Faf’s creativity. He was born to fill this world with creature comforts for humans, made from wood.

His break came with the opportunity to convert the most ancient of hardwood trees into the basic shapes that fit human needs, with a large mechanical saw, purchased in 1997.  At first, the saw was only used to make the small quantity that Faf needed to make individual items of furniture, working alone.

Richard Oncke

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Richard left school in Malmesbury in 2000 and immediately started working at Faf’s lumberyard as a general labourer and apprentice. This is his story (in his words):

“At that stage the sawmill side of the company was quite small but a good platform for me. Uncle Francois was the best thing that could happen to me.  Furniture maker of the best quality and attention to his fine detail.  Really a woodwhisperer.

“I start at rockbottom entry level, broom in the hand.  At that stage uncle Francois just started the sawmill a few years ago.  He was working on this huge log-breakdown horizontal bandsaw machine.

What a Rolls Royce machine.  You literally sit on the machine that runs on a track while operating it, cutting logs with diameters up to 1 metre and length up to 12 metres long.

“I climbed the ladder quite fast, have a lot of leadership and a passion of helping uncle Francois building this business.  At the moment, I manage the sawmill from maintenance up to the finished product and love to bring the rustic element of furniture to the table.”

 

THE LUMBERYARD

Though there is no showroom, there is a 3 hectare stockroom of uncut or split logs, lying in the open air, weathering. And there are hundreds of hectares of unwanted or unnecessary trees available as raw material, capable of giving shape to masterpieces.

  • Bluegum (40 different species of Eucalyptus)
  • Poplar
  • Yellowwood
  • Stinkwood
  • American Poplar
  • European and American Pine
  • SA Pine
  • Birch
  • Fruit trees (pear, apple, naartie, orange, fig)
  • Wild and cultivated olive
  • Discarded railway sleepers of multiple origins

THE CONCEPT GALLERY

Home
• Complete wooden house, from multistorey to multi-bedroom, to wendy house
• Log cabin, plank or American weatherboard
• All inclusive kitchen
• Dining tables, chairs
• Coffee tables
• Bar
• Beds
Studio / Office
• Desks
• Board room tables and chairs
• Wall cabinets and display
• Paneling
Farm / Stable / Garden
Hardwood has an extraordinary lifetime, especially when boron-treated. Faf has a large scale boron treatment plant that can be used for even the largest outdoor item.

• Farm/vineyard/orchard poles
• Garden benches
• All fencing, pergolas and exposed woodwork