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Bringing old Australian timber back to life through upcycling

Woodworker Luke Feiss in his workshop in country Victoria
Luke Feiss in his workshop.

ABC: Corey Hague

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A chance encounter with a historic building in regional Victoria inspired Luke Feiss to reimagine what old timber can be turned into.

He can even identify the piece of wood that planted the seed: a large roof beam from an old Cobb and Co building.

Cobb and Co was established in 1853 and quickly became one of Australia's largest companies, building horse-drawn carriage stations all over the country.

Today there isn't much demand for horse-drawn carriages, but the table that Luke created from that old piece of timber is still going strong.

"It's our kitchen table and it was the first thing I ever built with reclaimed wood. After 15 years it looks a bit rough, but we've had plenty of family meals around it," Luke says.

He's made many pieces of furniture since then, but his enthusiasm for creating with old wood hasn't changed. Reusing old materials to create new and better products is known as upcycling.

Despite having worked with wood for such a long time, Luke never truly knows how a piece of timber will look until after he begins working on it.

"My buzz is that I start with an old piece of wood that looks terrible, and in an hour it's beautiful."

"Sure it's got nail holes and dents, but it's got a new life—you open it up. I'm constantly surprised," he says.

Aside from the environmental benefits of recycling old timber, there is another aspect that makes old wood so appealing: the dryness of the timber, which makes it incredibly strong.

A restaurant table made from recycled timber.
A restaurant table made from recycled timber.

Supplied: Luke Feiss

That doesn't mean that it's easy to work with though, as it takes a lot of effort to get the wood straight enough to make things out of it.

And there's another challenge for people who make new things from old wood: finding it.

Luke is always on the lookout for timber to recycle, but many people don't have the patience for what the process entails.

"You can knock a building down in a day and put everything through a wood chipper, but it takes me a fortnight with a crowbar and a hammer."

"You can't buy timber like this anymore, it's going to run out one day."

After being commissioned to build furniture for restaurants, bed and breakfasts and private homes, Luke is now branching out into building planter boxes for community gardens and even learning how to bend wood.

As long as he's busy working with reclaimed timber, he's happy.

"I understand that compared to mass produced furniture, what I do is a bit of a luxury. It's handmade and it takes time, but I like making it myself."

A before and after shot of treated timber.
On the left is some bluegum timber after being stripped, on the right is the finished product.

Supplied: Luke Feiss

War on Waste is a campaign run by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to raise awareness of Australia's waste problem. It coincides with the launch of a television series available to Australian audiences. For more stories, visit War on Waste.

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