Craftsmanship on WheelsThis specialized woodworking is best appreciated in the driver's seat
Synopsis: Scott Gibson of Fine Woodworking visited the woodworkers who turn out the meticulously veneered interior woodwork for Rolls-Royces and Bentleys. In this article, he talks about the craftsmanship involved in these cars and in Morgans, which have a frame made of ash that is crafted in just over a day. There’s not a lot of demand for these cars, but there is plenty of work, and often, the clients’ requests are unusual enough to keep the repetitive work interesting.
Cradled in a plump leather seat, behind a door that closes as solidly as a bank vault, I’m staring at a dash and console in perfectly matched walnut burl veneer. It is a Bentley Turbo R in midnight blue, just off the production line. I have seen plastic dashboards in every incarnation of cracked old age, and all this polished walnut is a lot to take in. The man from the factory seems to know this, as he must know it of every first-time traveler in a Bentley. He’s smiling faintly as he roars down the narrow country road, veering around trucks and sailing through a trail of mud left by a farm tractor.
If I had been buying the car instead of just riding in it to lunch, I could have had trim in bird’s-eye maple, wenge, quilted mahogany, burl elm or anything else. Whatever the wood, it will be protected behind six coats of hand-rubbed lacquer, a finish capable of withstanding a direct hit from a Cuban cigar. Owners of new Bentleys and Rolls-Royces—some 1,600 of them a year—want this level of finish. That’s one of the reasons people pay $200,000 for a Rolls or Bentley when the same money would pay for a lifetime of Chevrolets.
Both owned by Vickers PLC, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces are built in Crewe, a railroad town between Manchester and Birmingham, England. Unlike London or Oxford, Crewe is not a town where tourists will spend much time, but Crewe is the place where buyers go to work out the design details for one of the most exclusive motorcars on the planet. And the woodworkers who turn out the meticulously veneered interior woodwork for these cars take pride in knowing that.
About 80 miles to the south, in Great Malvern, a much smaller work force builds Morgan sports cars. A Morgan is a good deal less expensive than either a Rolls or a Bentley, but you will have to wait a lot longer to get one—up to six years in the United Kingdom. One reason buyers will wait so long is that these cars are still coach-built. Unlike a Chevrolet, or even a Rolls-Royce, a Morgan is made by hand-fitting steel or aluminum body pieces to a separate frame made of ash. Morgans, the company says, are the only production cars that are still manufactured this way.
These two car builders are among the last in the world to give any serious consideration to wood or to woodworkers. A handful of other luxury car makers and custom shops aside, the rest of the world has turned to injection-molded plastic and robots: faster, cheaper, more uniform and less hassle.
From Fine Woodworking #120
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