The Woodworkers of Rayonier: New Zealand’s Sam Middlemass | Rayonier Stories

The Woodworkers of Rayonier: New Zealand’s Sam Middlemass

In the forestry industry, it’s our business to grow the best trees to make lumber for building and DIY projects. Woodwork DIYers found solace in their craft throughout the pandemic, which gave us the idea: let’s seek out some of the best wood-based DIY projects out there. We started with a contest for our own employees, and they didn’t disappoint! Today we’re featuring Sam Middlemass, who built many beautiful projects while staying home during the pandemic.

New Zealand has been one of the most successful countries in keeping coronavirus at bay. But that doesn’t mean its citizens got to skip lockdowns. On the contrary, their lockdown periods were stricter and longer than here in the United States. That gave Northland Forest Manager Sam Middlemass some extra time—and extra challenges—in creating his DIY wood projects.

The Obsession Started In Primary School

It’s not every child who has the opportunity to take woodworking in school these days. However, in New Zealand it was offered as part of Sam’s primary school curriculum. And from that simple grade school instruction, a full-blown passion developed.

“After school, I worked as a fencing contractor like my father did for the bulk of my childhood, until I was employed by Rayonier,” says Sam, who’s based in Whangarei. “So my work has always involved wood in one way or another.”

Sam is humble in describing his approach to woodworking: “I focus on prominently timber and reasonably rough construction. Everything I’ve made is pretty much all for outdoor application and doesn’t require a great degree of craftsmanship. To give you an idea, one of my favorite tools is the chainsaw!”

Sam and his son Max in front of a beautiful view from the top of one of Rayonier's Hawke's Bay, New Zealand, forests
Sam and his son, Max, during a hike in one of our Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, forests.

The Special Challenge Of Procuring Wood On A Small Island During A Pandemic

People from around the world have different opinions about the United States in general. However, if there’s one thing they all agree on, it’s that we are spoiled in terms of the variety and availability of consumer products. And according to Sam, wood is no exception. 

“One thing I found very interesting with this DIY contest was seeing what types of pieces were made in the States. I’m always amazed at how many types of wood working tools and materials are available there. Here in New Zealand we typically have locally-grown pines, so to get black woods or eucalyptus, etc., you usually have to go to a specialty store.”

You can view some of the winning U.S.-based projects in our other Woodworkers of Rayonier articles.

Sam added procuring any type of wood for projects during lockdowns was even more of a challenge due to an unprecedented run on supplies.

“Luckily, I have my wood pile under the house, so I had to be resourceful and made due with what I had on hand.”

Like many houses in New Zealand and other coastal areas, Sam’s is elevated, which provides the perfect spot to store wood.

Covered porch with built-in benches built by Sam during the pandemic
During the pandemic lockdown, Sam made numerous home improvements, including building this porch with built-in benches.

The Cape Cod Chair That Became A Picnic Table Bench

One of Sam’s favorite projects was a beautiful picnic table bench combination which he made at the request of his wife.

“It came about because my wife mentioned that she wanted a version of a Cape Cod chair. I had no idea what that was, so I looked it up and thought it was rather ugly! So, I sort of figured out how to redesign it and that’s how we got the picnic table bench. I started it one afternoon and finished it the next morning. If I made another one now, I’d probably bang it out in an afternoon.

“I put the table together pretty quickly but it actually does work and I’m quite proud of that. And the satisfaction you can get knowing that it was done by just looking at a picture! I like to look at something and make it better and customized. I never make something exactly from someone else’s design.”

During New Zealand lockdowns, Sam and his wife took advantage of the time to do some more extensive woodworking projects, including changing out their back porch for a more functional design.

Sam's design of Cape Cod chairs, which can be made into a picnic table by removing the back rests and turning them upside down
Sam invented this clever variation on the chairs his wife wanted. You can take the backs of the benches off and set them on the bottoms of the benches, turning them into a picnic table!

His Favorite Project And Favorite Woodworking Tools

Insofar as his favorite project ever, Sam says: “That would have to be when I extended the decking on our house and made it much more useful and less narrow. I expanded the width and did away with the kink in the decking. That’s probably the piece that was most useful.”

Like his craft, Sam keeps his woodshop simple. Set up in his garage, he keeps a skill saw, an angle grinder, a jigsaw and other basic tools. 

“My favorite DIY tool at the moment is an angle grinder with a sanding disc attachment. This is used to make joints fit neatly if they don’t, round edges and create shapes in softer wood types, such as finishing off chainsaw-carved bowls or platters. It removes wood much faster than an electric sander and I’d hate to have to do what it does by hand.”

Like our other contestants, he emphasized that you don’t need a lot of fancy expensive equipment or tools to create functional wooden pieces.

DIY wooden plant stand Sam made with a pink flowering potted plant on it
Sam emphasizes building functional pieces that don’t require too many fancy tools, like this plant stand.

Sam’s advice for aspiring woodworkers: start simple and seek inspiration

Sam’s no-frills designs speak to his core beliefs about woodworking: it should be simple, fun and rustic. 

“Crikey, my only advice would be to just give it a go. It’s not hard. Particularly these days with screwing things together, we’ve got the power tools for it—so get into it. Start rustic first and work your way up to the higher-level skill stuff.

“I thought this competition was fantastic because of the fact you get to see so many quirky projects that other people have made. It inspires you to expand your horizons when you see somebody else’s creations.”

We can’t wait to see what Sam comes up with next!

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