I’ll be honest here. A particular reason I chose this week to revive my blog is because I was asked along on an Ercol factory tour and new season preview, and figured it’d be the perfect event to get me out there photographing and writing again.
Thanks to Ciara for the right-hand photo
Ercol is a nostalgic brand to me. I grew up admiring my grandma’s nest of ‘egg’ tables, which always got pulled out for hot chocolate time, or turned upside down to play ‘boats at sea’ when we were very little. So it was a treat to take the train out to Ercol’s impressive HQ in Princes Risborough, Bucks, and see how some of their furniture is conceived, designed and made all under one roof.
The sprawling HQ was purpose built about 15 years ago and feels very unlike a typical factory. Surrounded by the Chiltern Hills (the heart of of traditional furniture-making country) and also housing the showroom and factory shop, it’s the thoughtful and human-centric design you’d expect from this well-loved British manufacturer. If you’re strangely into weird and wonderful machinery (and oodles of lovely oak timber) like I am, the factory is a dreamy place to visit. So many machines engineered to doing one job well, from precision-angle drilling to sucking sawdust away into the biomass burner that powers the building.
Of course some jobs are best done by hand, such as the gent we spoke to whose job it is to analyse all the cut timbers for grain and colour variances and sort them into co-ordinating piles, ready to be assembled into drop-leaf tables or panelled doors for a sideboard.
Here’s the Bending Room, where the raw ‘green’ oak is steamed in big ovens to make it soft then bent into shape to form many of the signature curves of Ercol pieces. Some of the metal frames are as old as the Ercol company, and new ones are made for each new design. It’s a mix of heavy machinery and the dexterity and skill of the guys working here – one of whom has clocked 37 years at the job – to get the perfect curve without splintering or cracking the timber.
The polishing zone, where the raw pieces are given their coats of lacquer then blasted through an infrared oven to harden them up.
Finally, many pieces are finished by hand. We saw a classic Windsor chair get its spindles and back assembled in a matter of minutes. With hands and eyes on the pieces at every stage there’s built-in quality control, and that care is evident in the final pieces of furniture.
There was just time for lunch in the nicest canteen ever and a quick browse around the on-site retail showroom before we had to hop back on the train. No time even to check out the on-site factory outlet shop, but my aunt lives in this neck of the woods so I reckon I’ll be back soon.
Thanks to Ercol for having me.