Woodworking is synonymous with this country due to the excellent quality of our native timbers. The rich, deep coloured woods have fascinated furniture makers for years.

Furniture is not the only thing that wood has been used for. Many crafts people have used our plants to make functional domestic objects too - from ponga vases to spoons.

By Finn McCahon Jones

Colonial Cabinetmaker Johann Martin Levien

After cabinetmaker Johann Martin Levien arrived in Wellington in 1940 he remarked: “Now I myself have travelled round the world and collected woods in various parts, particularly in South America, to which rosewood and others are indigenous, and have found nothing equal in figure to some of the woods of New Zealand. . .” He was so taken with the native wood of Aotearoa he wrote a book - The Woods of New Zealand and Their Adaptability to Art Furniture which lists local woods and their uses written in a way to communicate the various patterning, toughness and best uses.

Through his collecting and knowledge of woods, Levien became an enthusiastic advocate for native timber, and three years later, in 1843 traveled back to England with the sole purpose of establishing a warehouse for the manufacture and sale of New Zealand woods.

Levien’s business was so successful that he never returned to New Zealand. Famously, Levien lined an entire room with totara and hinau, for the Baron of Rothschild, in England.

Beautiful timber

New Zealand’s native timber was seen as being so plentiful and inexhaustible that exploitation of the forests took place well into the 1970s. Little was done about forest management. Certain trees like matai, kauri and kohekohe have always been prized by furniture makers but most other native trees ultimately became boxing materials, firewood or pulp. It was only in the late 1970s early 1980s that the greater population began to wake up from the colonial mindset that governed the country.

Marquetry and parquetry

Renowned Bohemian cabinetmaker Anton Seuffert fell in love with native New Zealand timber after seeing it at the Crystal Palace exhibition in London (1851). He packed up his family and in 1859 moved to New Zealand to establish a cabinetmaking business. Anton and his son William specialised in fine furniture and jewellery boxes decorated with exquisite marquetry – which is the technique of inlaying pictures of contrasting coloured woods. Their marquetry was so fine that on one occasion they were accused of painting images on the surface rather than inlaying it!

Box with inlaid woods, made by Anton Seuffert, c.1870

Anton Seuffert © CCBY Te Papa GH007245

Nearly 100 years later Sovereign Woodworkers Ltd (1949-1992) was established in Whanganui. Sovereign was the inspiration of Austen Brasell who developed a range of wooden items inlaid or laminated with native timbers aimed at the tourist market. Sovereign was probably most famous for their ruler with a strip of native woods running down the middle. Sovereign made over 100 different designs which mostly feature strips of wood or parquetry – which is the technique of laminating geometric shapes together.

Ruler showing the different colours and textures of NZ native woods, made by Sovereign Woodworks Ltd, Whanganui, late 1960s

Sovereign Woodwork Collection © All Rights Reserved Whanganui Regional Museum, 2014.54.25

Ponga wood

While the forest timbers were being used to make high end objects a curious craft emerged using the stumps of the tree fern or ponga. I was told that the earliest ponga vases were made by Te Arawa Māori for the tourist trade coming to see the Pink and White Terraces in the late 1800s. From empirical research the first ponga objects were made from the fiberous trunks of the tree, which were carved into vases and jardinières and other curiosities.

Turned ponga vases became popular in the 1930s. Whitcombes and Tombs advertised ‘distinctive’ tree fern vases and Farmers advertised ‘absolutely unique’ ponga powder boxes, ponga stud boxes and ponga ash trays. Schools taught ponga carving in woodwork and womens institutes took up making and selling vases.

Pupils with ornaments and other articles made from ponga tree fern stumps and supplejack canes. The works of the clock, which is electrically driven) are made from parts of an old alarm clock.

New Zealand Herald, Vol LXXII, Issue 22588, 28 November 1936. © CCBY Papers Past

In Cambridge, Waikato Ponga Craft was established by Ken Hoyle. His business sold ponga vases that had been turned on the lathe, and then kiln dried. These vases became popular during the 1960s-1970s craft boom, adorning rooms around the country. Ponga Craft is now called Fern Wood New Zealand, and the vases remain popular with the tourists because of their unique patterning.

Ponga wood vase made by NZ Ponga Craft. These vases are made by turning fresh ponga logs, then kiln drying them.

© All Rights Reserved New Zealand Museum of the Everyday, 00513

Wooden Spoons - Levi Borgstrom & Courtney Petley

Levi Borgstrom came to New Zealand from Sweden in 1951 to become a builder, but here he found a love for native timber and the old Swedish craft of wood carving. In 1970 Borgstrom began carving spoons and ladles for domestic use. Borgstrom would wander the edge of the Manukau Harbour looking for materials which he would fashion into his art. Borgstrom acquired an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of New Zealand timbers and their individual qualities.

Wooden spoon made by Levi Borgstrom, 1974. Carved from kowhai tree wood.

© All Rights Reserved Auckland Museum, M1605

In 2017 Courtney Petley started her business Petley making wooden kitchen implements, after giving up her job in the fashion industry. Petley started restoring furniture as a relaxing activity which evolved into a business making woodenware. Although not formally trained in woodwork Petley's eye for design has helped evolve her business "I've got an obsession with geometry and I think that kind of shows in my work. I like clean lines and I like sharp angles." Courtney Petley’s first commission was butter knives for The French Café in Auckland, now she supplies a number of shops around Auckland as well as selling at the Cross Street Markets. Petley gets most of her wood via donation, usually leftovers from house renovations or salvaged firewood. Petley is passionate about using recycled wood "I think it's a nice continuation of such a beautiful resource that we are so lucky to have."[1]

Courtney Petley carving a wooden spoon. As pictured on her Instagram account, 2018

@petley_ © All Rights Reserved Courtney Petley

Header image:  Bust made from a carved punga fern stump, by Brewster's Punga Works, New Plymouth 1931-1940. All Rights Reserved, Puke Ariki, A96.980

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


McCahon-Jones, Finn. 'Wood Working Tropes', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.

Further readings 

THOMAS HEATON, Career in fashion gives way to wood for Courtney Petley. Originally published in Cuisine Magazine. 2017

Petley Store 

J.M. Levien, New Zealand Journal, New Zealand Fancy Woods, 25 August 1849.

Christine Nana, Sovereign Woodware. Kete New Plymouth.

Brian Peet, The Seuffert Legacy. Auckland: Icarus Publishing, 2008

Nancy Swarbrick, Story: Logging Native Forests. Te Ara Website. accessed 28 February 2018