Woodworking has often been seen as a male preserve, with men far outnumbering women in the wood-based studio crafts. Yet the women of Aotearoa have a strong history of working with wood, one which dates back to the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, and encompasses woodcarving, woodturning, furniture and carpentry.

Women, like men, have been drawn to woodworking for both practical and creative reasons, delighting in wood's special qualities and the challenges and rewards it brings.

By Rigel Sorzano

Decorative woodworking

During the Arts and Crafts movement, women took up woodworking with such enthusiasm that, according to craft historian Ann Calhoun, "from 1890 to 1910, woodcarving was the pre-eminent Arts and Crafts activity for women in New Zealand".[1] Decorative woodcarving and 'art furniture' by women regularly appeared at local art societies, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, and the 'art and industrial' exhibitions of the time, and furniture like Jessie Elmslie's walnut settle, carved in about 1891, became a distinct feature of local craft production.[2] Arts and Crafts practitioners often sought to express a local identity in their work with designs based on local flora and fauna, or derived from Māori carvings, and the Fenton and Buchanan chair from c.1910 is a particularly vivid example.[3]

Chair by Edith Fenton and Martha Buchanan, c.1910. The carved design on the front stretcher of this chair was inspired by the paepae (base board) of the pātaka (storehouse) Te Oha at Auckland Museum.

Auckland Museum, F183

While its popularity declined, women's carving did continue into the 1920s and 1930s, sometimes on an "heroic scale": Ruth Nelson, born in Hawke's Bay in 1895, carved mantlepieces, doors, and other architectural carvings, such as the altar for the Woodford House Chapel, completed 1928-1930.[4]

Ruth Nelson, Altar, Woodford House Chapel, 1928-30. Nelson's carvings were usually created as part of a building, as with this magnificent altar for the chapel of her alma mater, Woodford House; she also carved the the chapel lectern, and the head prefect's chair. Nelson played a central role in bringing Steiner education to New Zealand, and establishing what is now the Taikura Rudolf Steiner school in Hastings.

Photograph: David Frost / Ann Calhoun Image courtesy of MTG Hawkes Bay

On display with the tables, boxes, coffers, chests, plaques and screens in the Women's Section of the 1939-1940 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition was a "pocket knife carving", more than 1.5 metres long, by Jane Brenkley of Hawke's Bay.[5] Brenkley was a self-taught artist whose sketches, paintings and carvings were "sneaked in between housework, mothering, farmwork and midwifery".[6] Pocket knife and paintbrush in hand, she applied creative ornamentation to all kinds of domestic items, from egg cups to tables, drawing on the natural world around her, and including a great deal of Māori imagery.[7]

Carved table by Jane Brenkley, 1947. Brenkley was a prolific and versatile artist, whose work included carving, needlework, and painting. Brenkly carved this occasional table with a small pocket-knife, combining carving, staining and pokerwork to painterly effect on the top. The base, with its carved figure and paua shell eyes, reflects her interest in traditional Māori design.

© All Rights Reserved Te Papa, PF000236

Women Woodworkers in the Studio Craft Movement

In the 1970s, woodworking began to claim a place in New Zealand's flourishing postwar studio crafts movement, and women were involved from the outset.

In Christchurch, Noeline Brokenshire had been carving, then turning wood since at least the mid-1960s, and the scale of much of her work was "staggering", with bowls up to 20 inches in diameter.[9] Mary Bartos, who trained as a woodcarver and began turning in 1972, also enjoyed working at a large scale: "Little dishes don't somehow gel with me. I seem to work better on big pieces of wood".[10] For Brokenshire, wood exerted "a strange, potent and everlasting attraction",[11] while Bartos was “addicted to the excitement of what I can find in a piece of wood".[12]

That "excitement of discovery" was also important for Gael Montgomerie, who became interested in woodworking while doing an architecture degree. After working for several years as a self-employed designer-builder, Montgomerie became a full-time woodturner in 1985.[13] In the 1990s she began to introduce colour to her work, doing most of her turning in readily available sycamore rather than rare timbers, and embellishing the surfaces and rims of her vessels with paint washes and decorative elements.[14] Montgomerie shared a workshop gallery with woodcarver Jill Gibens, who began carving in the late 1980s, and designed and made the crozier (pastoral staff) for Bishop Penny Jamieson's ordination in 1990.[15] Gibens' love for "the sensuous warmth, smell and feel of wood" was evident in the design and finish of her spoons, bowls and figures, which often incorporated bird or animal references.[16]

Gael Montgomerie, Growth Ring Series, 1995. Sycamore (maple), paint, copper, bamboo, h 120 x dia 230 mm. In 1990 Montgomerie began to explore the potential of adding colour and surface decoration to her work, using locally available sycamore for its paleness and sustainable qualities. This vessel from her Growth Ring series is enhanced with rich, painterly colour, the twined bamboo 'growth ring' at its neck symbolising the wood’s connection to the living tree.

All Rights Reserved © Gael Montgomerie Collection of Ruth and David Waterbury, Minnesota, USA.

Studio Furniture

Noeline Brokenshire established New Zealand's first woodworking journal, Touch Wood, in 1983, and she was the inaugural secretary of the Furniture Group, a national studio furniture association set up in 1986.[18] The 20-odd members included three other women: Karen Hight, in partnership with husband Peter; Ilana Becroft; and Harriet Lukens.[19]

Becroft and Lukens were trained woodworkers, Becroft with a first-class diploma from the London College of Furniture. A self-employed furniture-maker from 1976 to 1979, she taught woodworking at secondary school before returning to self-employment in 1992-1995.[20] Lukens joined furniture maker Carin Wilson's workshop in 1985, and worked on the boardroom furniture commissioned by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council in 1986.[21] Both women exhibited at the Furniture Group's "Design for Living" exhibition in 1987; Becroft's voluptuous rimu filing cabinet received favourable comment, as did Lukens' curved walnut screen with silk panels painted by artist Juliet Batten.[22]

Ilana Becroft, Rimu Filing Cabinet, (1987). Furniture-maker Ilana Becroft made this filing cabinet for the Furniture Group 's "Design for Living" exhibition in 1987. It incorporates both heart and sapwood rimu, and thin veneers were laminated to form the curving sides.

© All Rights Reserved, Ilana Becroft

"I've always thought that filing cabinets were very ugly," said Becroft. "Normally they're hidden away. So this filing cabinet is made to look good in a living room. It can double as a coffee table and is on small castors so it can be moved easily." Above the main drawer sits a smaller one, perfect for pencils and pens.

© All Rights Reserved, Ilana Becroft

Out of the woodwork...and into the woodwork

Lukens and Becroft were members of Women Woodworkers Incorporated (WWI), a grassroots organisation set up in Auckland in 1984. WWI aimed to "advance women in the fields of woodwork, carpentry, joinery, building, cabinetmaking, wood turning, carving and all allied skills".[23] Like Montgomerie, Becroft and other WWI members designed and built their own houses, and also taught woodworking to other women. Important WWI initiatives were the women-only vocational carpentry course at Carrington Polytechnic, Auckland, and TAWA, an organisation which offered women-only training in carpentry and other work-related skills.[24] These, and other woodworking courses such as those run by the YMCA and the Canterbury Workers' Education Trust, offered women an opportunity to acquire not only the skills, but the confidence needed to work in the building industry, and to undertake their own building projects.

Although the Carrington and TAWA courses did not continue past 1990, many of the women who took them carried on, with 28% from Carrington's first six courses going on to employment in the building industry, and others "looking for work and continuing [their] interest with evening classes and tool use".[25] Women builders were still very much in the minority, but they were starting to come out of the woodwork.

In 1986, Women Woodworkers Inc (WWI) was successful in establishing a 12-week women-only carpentry course at Carrington, sponsored by the Department of Labour. This photograph may have been taken by Sandy Chadwick, who was a tutor on the course, and also taught carpentry and joinery on other women-only courses initiated by WWI. Instruction took place partly in the workshop and partly on site, where women gained a range of building experience.

All Rights Reserved © Deborah Radford Women Woodworkers Incorporated Archive

Header image: Jessie Mitchell Elmslie, Carved settle in walnut and Australian locust, c. 1891. Te Papa, GH025202

Elmslie, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, was taught to carve by one of her father's parishioners, and made this piece when she was in her early twenties. It also functions as a chest, providing storage under the hinged seat. 

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

Buy now


Sorzano, Rigel. 'Out of the woodwork', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.


[1] Ann Calhoun, The Arts and Crafts Movement in New Zealand 1870 – 1940: Women Make Their Mark. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2000, 86.

[2] Calhoun, The Arts and Crafts Movement in New Zealand, 87-91; William Cottrell, Furniture of the New Zealand Colonial Era: An Illustrated History, 1830-1900. Auckland: Reed, 2006, 198, 374

[3] Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, At Home: A Century of New Zealand Design. Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 2004, 17-18.

[4] Calhoun, The Arts and Crafts Movement in New Zealand, 91; Ann Calhoun, Arts & Crafts Design: Like Yet Not Like Nature: Sources for a New Zealand Story. Wellington: Ann Calhoun, 2015 (e-book available here) p.274.

[5] Richard Wolfe, Jane Brenkley: A Path Through the Bush. Napier, N.Z.: Hawke's Bay Cultural Trust, 1999, 14.

[6] Jillian Lloyd, "The Art of Jane Brenkley". Art New Zealand 82 (Autumn 1997), 66-69, 66.

[7] Wolfe, Jane Brenkley, 11, 14.

[8] Peter Cape, Please Touch: A Survey of the Three-Dimensional Arts in New Zealand. Auckland: Collins, 1980, 139.

[9] D Wood, "Futuring Craft: New Zealand Studio Furniture, 1979-2008." PhD Thesis, University of Otago, 2012, 95 (Caption, Figure 83); Cape, Please Touch, 142; "Clay, Wood and Wool." CSA News 27, September 1969, n.p.

[10] Mary Bartos, quoted in Adrienne Rewi, "Mary Bartos—Woodturner." New Zealand Crafts 44 (Winter 1993), 26-27, 26.

[11] "Noeline Brokenshire Woodturning 5-16 November". CSA News 93 (Oct /Nov / Dec 1980), n.p.

[12] Mary Bartos, quoted in Adrienne Rewi, "Mary Bartos—Woodturner", 26.

[13] "Gael Montgomerie: Woodturner and Designer-Builder." Touch Wood 11, March 1987, 3-4, 4.

[14] See, for example, "Craft Galleries of New Zealand", New Zealand Crafts 46 (Summer 1993), 32; Helen Schamroth, "Gael Montgomerie", in 100 New Zealand Craft Artists, Auckland: Random House, 1998, 57.

[15] Robin Gardner-Gee, "The Bishop's New Clothes." NZ Crafts 34 (Summer 1990), 11-13; Heather McPherson et al. (eds.), Spiral 7: a collection of lesbian art and writing. Dunedin, N.Z.: Spiral, 1992, 98. Jamieson was the seventh Anglican Bishop of Dunedin, and the first woman in the world to be ordained as an Anglican Bishop: "Penny Jamieson", (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Dec-2018.

[16] Jill Gibens, in Heather McPherson et al., Spiral 7: a collection of lesbian art and writing. [Dunedin, N.Z.] : Spiral, 1992, 98-99.

[17] Email from Sally Burton to the author, 27 August 2018.

[18] D Wood, "Futuring Craft", 93, 97. Originally the Association of Designers & Furniture Makers New Zealand, it later became The Furniture Group: Independent Designer/Furniture Makers of New Zealand Inc.

[19] D Wood, "Futuring Craft", 97.

[20] Email from Ilana Becroft to the author, 25 August 2018; WWI Newsletter No 1 (Sept 1986), 2-3.

[21] WWI Newsletter No 2 (Dec 1986); Lynette Mulvay, "New Zealand Design and Woodwork in Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council Headquarters." Touch Wood 11, 13-14, 13.

[22] "Strokes and Art Attacks: Women Working With Wood." Broadsheet, November 1987, 42-43; Marc Zuckerman, "Crafts Council: Design for Living." Touch Wood 13, November 198727; Bob Bassant, "Design For Living." New Zealand Crafts 22 (Spring 1987), 5-7; Robyn Turner, "Designs on Furniture." New Zealand Home and Building, October/November 1987, 171-173.

[23] Rules of Women Woodworkers Incorporated, 17 September 1985, 1 ("2. Objects"), WWI Archive.

[24] See Vivienne Shakespear, "Women Woodworkers." Broadsheet, Dec 1986, 11-12; WWI Newsletters No 1 (Sept 1986), No 2 (Dec 1986) and February 1987; Christine Herzog and Deborah Radford, Lessons in Process: The TAWA Story. Auckland: Auckland Workers' Educational Association, c.2005, 6.

(Note: TAWA is not an acronym, but based on the Tawa tree. The organisation was wound up in 1990.)

[25] WWI, "Introduction to Carpentry and Joinery for Women: Carrington Technical Institute. Outcomes from Feb/March 1986 to Dec. 1987", n.d., WWI Archive.