Brothers are chips off the old block

Brothers are chips off the old block

A man called Henry Venables started out as a timber merchant in Shropshire back in the 1860s. Today Chuck and Paul Venables – his great, great grandsons – are plying the same trade. Kate Copestake reports.

The offspring of noted business dynasties have always had to prove themselves to friends, relations and bystanders who scrutinise how they hack the family trade.

If it’s your great, great grandfather whose name is synonymous with oak and the supply of bespoke joinery, cabinet-making and all things wood, the pressure to prove your mettle is even greater, and on it goes…

But when you’ve not only absorbed the family business by osmosis since you sat playing with the fine-turned beech moulding of your high chair, and when your father absolutely insisted that you not only learned a skill but became renowned experts before getting your fingers on the family jewels, then you’ve earned your spurs.

Brothers Chuck and Paul Venables have both spent their whole lives living and working with wood, from selecting from forests growing the raw material to the production of the finished, hand-crafted product. Consequently, they’re renowned and respected experts in bespoke joinery and the sourcing and supplying of European hardwoods, and oak in particular.  

Venables Brothers Limited, trading as Venables Oak, are both timber merchants and joiners, based in Cheswardine near Market Drayton, Shropshire. The name forms an unbroken link with the brothers’ great, great grandfather and timber merchant Henry Venables and dates back over 150 years.

Family archives show photographs of the Venables Halt on the railway line near Stafford, where timber was loaded and unloaded onto freight trains for collection and despatch. That same Venables sign from the now-defunct signal box today sits over the entrance of the company’s oak framed (and self-built) offices and sawmill in the depths of the countryside at Chipnall.
The company in its present form was founded by Chuck, 54, and Paul, 59, in 1999. And therein lies a tale of a switchback ride of graft, growth, accreditation, fame, redundancy, conflagration, bank foreclosures, divorce and the memories of being left standing with just your car keys in your hand and your family business in pieces.

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Some people simply dissolve; others keep going. Our brothers took up hammer, chisel, skill and talent and went out as a jobbing chippie (Chuck) on building sites and to work in timber yards (Paul), because it’s your responsibility and that’s what you do. It was earlier that year when the brothers saw Henry Venables Ltd removed from their ownership.

“We were just about to sell the historic timber yard in Stafford for around £4m,” remembers Chuck. “We had a full order book, a viable company, a history and a future. As we had a £4m borrowing facility, our bank thought it the perfect time to retrieve their money, and that was that. We walked away the same day, turning our backs on what had been the family business.”

But Chuck’s motto is “fortune favours the brave”, a statement brilliantly illustrated when, almost broke and without a guaranteed income, he decided to buy a redundant and derelict single storey chemical laboratory just up the road for less than a song. It had no planning permission but plenty of noxious tanks, pipes and dials to get rid of, and is now a stunning family home.

Chuck and Paul started again a month later, buying the derelict Chipnall village sawmill.

“It’s like it was waiting for us”, says Chuck. And the orders came in. The brothers finally bought back the Henry Venables Ltd name in 2013 and the company now trades as Venables Oak, employing 25 timber workers, joiners and office staff at Chipnall. The company is now the UK market leader in the provision of oak beams for construction and has a turnover of £9m.

“Our work has taken us far afield, including the Caribbean, and given us the opportunity to work on both private new-build and public listed restoration projects,” says Chuck. “That’s included York Minster, following the devastating fire of 1984, St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle following that fire in 1992, and the supply of the timber work for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

“We provide oak beams and frames to heritage restoration projects across the UK, and also supply cabinetry and joinery, but the skill and craftsmanship of our joiners is the same whatever the job, so our domestic customers get the same level of quality in their own homes as the work demonstrated in our more famous restoration projects.”

Brother Paul is the expert in timber, Chuck says, with a mix of brotherly adulation and professional respect: “Paul can look at a living oak and not only assess its grade quality, but also identify how many cuts he can get out of it and what it will be used for.”

Chuck himself advised the Building Research Establishment (BRE) on the development of the British Standard for the grading of oak beams (now BREEAM) and was the first grader in the UK to be certified to Grade BS5756. The majority of Venables’ oak is French grown and is sourced and purchased in France.

“I remember the first time I went to France to source timber”, says Chuck. “We had used all of our prime grade oak on the restoration of the roof of York Minster following the fire. I drove the length and breadth of France looking for a sawmill that could supply the quality of oak I was looking for, only to find that our Grandfather had been dealing with the owner for fifty years previously. There’s an invisible unbroken thread that runs down through some families.”

Paul chips in: “We carry the largest stocks of oak beams in the UK and are the number one supplier of European oak to the trade. We supply the very buoyant oak frame market which produces oak framed buildings such as garden rooms and studios, garages, conservatories and orangeries.

“Our construction clients come to us for air and kiln-dried oak, in addition to green oak, for use in their timber framed buildings. PEFC [Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification] and FSC [Forest Stewardship Council] timbers can be supplied, and we can saw anything to size – this can help with transportation issues. We have longstanding relationships with sawmills so can source exactly the type and grade of wood that is required for each project, whether it’s oak, elm, beech, sycamore, ash or cedar.”

Venables Oak supply the whole solid wood package, from windows, doors, floors and staircases, onto fitted or unfitted kitchens, garden rooms, conservatories and libraries, for new builds, renovations or restoration projects.

“We don’t simply work with the inside of a home, we encourage our customers to consider their gardens and driveways,”says Chuck. “We design and make solid wood gates, fences and garden furniture and structures such as pavilions, gazebos and pergolas. As well as our domestic customers we also work on interior and exterior projects with hotel and restaurant owners, and we’re as proud of our work there as we are of our more famous restoration projects.”

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The company has recently invested in both solar roof panels and a locally built biomass boiler, which converts all wood waste from the sawmill into a free heat source for the entire plant. The brothers have also recently begun to dip a toe into the hungry beast that is
social media.

“Customers can already buy timber packs, doors and flooring online, and new publishing media such as Twitter and Facebook give us the opportunity to share news of our latest projects and ranges,” says Chuck.

“Our Pinterest site offers us an online showcase to reach out to a much wider and also possibly younger audience, for example, new homeowners who are looking for real craftsmanship and individuality that can be applied to their personal specifications
and designs.

“It’s helped us remove the ‘exclusivity’ and stuffiness that can be associated with bespoke joinery. If we can persuade the flatpack generation that joinery is an investment, lasts longer and looks better, then we’ll be taking the Venables name into the next century.”

Chuck’s son Tom, a trained mechanic, has now started to learn the family business. “The Venables name is part of a long tradition of English bespoke joiners and furniture makers,” says Chuck. “Paul and I want to ensure that this continues, but more importantly, that quality, individuality and craftsmanship is available to everyone, in their homes and businesses, and can be passed on. I only hope that Henry approves.”