Table no. 129 from barrel no. 128 with legs made of barrel hoops. Photo: Walter's Wood Idea AG
It all began with a shoe rack. Walter Amrhyn’s family has owned the villa Schloss Buholz for more than 380 years. When the renovations were finished, Walter Amrhyn was still looking for a suitable shoe rack for the entrance. As a trained carpenter, he wanted to make it himself. While he was searching for the right material, he came across the remains of an old must barrel that had been lying about in the garden for a few years. And so without further ado, he took the warped wood and used it to make the shoe rack.
From then on, he couldn’t get the idea out of his head: he wanted to make furniture from barrels. The problem: the old wood from the barrels, the staves, had to be straightened first. With a pan of boiling water on a gas stove, he was able to produce the steam this requires. It was possible to straighten one stave a day with this method. He refined the process and founded his company, Walter’s Wood Idea. True to his word, he has been turning his furniture ideas into reality as the barrel table maker since 2007.
But his creativity doesn’t stop at tables. Walter Amrhyn has produced shelves, drawers, sideboards, beds, stairs, side panels for coffee machines and even whole bars from his unique material. And he also works with the hoops that held the staves together. He turns them into exquisite table frames and accessories such as mirror frames, lampshades and bottle holders.
The pieces of furniture he makes don’t just have strong characters – they bear the patina, traces of ageing, cracks and discolouration left behind by their former contents. Sometimes they even have the indentations left by the hoops or the spigot holes and the spigot itself. Each piece is one of a kind. The staves that form the parts always come from a barrel, usually made from the finest oak, but sometimes chestnut or fir. And each barrel tells its own story – a story about dark cellars in Switzerland, Italy or France, about the fermentation and ageing processes and the colours that the wines have left behind on the wood over the decades. Here the rule is: the more, the better. Perhaps there are even a few drops of the finest vintage as well?
To avoid changing the character of the barrel wood significantly, the surfaces are left slightly uneven. The wood is oiled without adding any colour to retain its original appearance, a unique look that exudes a welcome warmth. Amrhyn doesn’t have to look far for discarded barrels any more. Word of his business has spread, and he gets phone calls from farmers. He drives to wineries and breaks down the barrels before he starts sorting. His own wine cellar serves as the store for the sorted wood from more than 270 barrels. Here it awaits new customers. On his website Amrhyn documents the origin, age, type of wood and contents of his barrels and even shows what has been produced from them.
As Amrhyn makes all his furniture to order, a visit to the material store is the first step in his work and an important one. Because it is the customer who chooses the table legs: will they be staves, chrome steel or iron? The first ideas for the future table usually emerge straight away during this visit. The cellar is also where the wood is worked. For a while a specialist straightened the wood, but now Amrhyn handles this step himself: moisten, press flat and then dry with care. The process can take up to a month depending on the thickness of the wood. So it’s hardly surprising, then, that it takes eight to 16 weeks to complete a table. At the end, each table is given a certificate with the barrel number, winery, vintner and a photo of the original barrel. If it’s possible, Amrhyn serves a bottle of the last wine that was stored in the barrel – table wine, so to speak. And some of his customers, not least the wine lovers among them, take a trip out to “their” winery. This brings the story full circle, from making and storing to enjoying.