Hobby leads to Kiwi wood collection

By Merania Karauria

Two-and-a-half years ago Wanganui man Eric Allen decided he needed a hobby.

He said he "liked the stuff" from his school days when everybody had a Sovereign Woodworker native timber-sample ruler and equally well-known pencil case with its swivelling laminated lid.

Another compelling reason for Mr Allen to collect the pieces was that Sovereign was a Wanganui business based in Tawa St, Gonville.

"It's a Wanganui icon and a lot of people were affiliated with the factory."

He knew a woman who used to press the rimu heads - a tiki head made from a mould, that became salt and pepper shakers, a wine corkscrew, a bottle opener or coaster holders. And there was the Wanganui Collegiate student who went to the factory after school to press the paua eyes into the tiki heads.

Founder Austin Brassell was an engineer by trade. Before setting up the factory in a vacant shop in Tawa St in 1949, he worked for a few years in his home workshop.

There, he developed a woodturning hobby into the production of a small range of inlaid and laminated wooden souvenirs which he marketed mainly in the metropolitan centres.

One of his most successful products was his 12-inch Sovereign ruler named from a wordplay on "ruler", which was inlaid with 18 samples of native timbers.

Mr Allen mainly buys on Trade Me; he's a serious collector and says he "has to have what comes up for auction".

He kicks himself for passing up one or two items when he first started, thinking they were too costly. As with auctions, it depends who's bidding on the day. Some avid collectors are out there and the prices can jump from $60 to $120 in five minutes. "If it was not for the internet these pieces would not be available."

Mr Allen's collection is vast, about 120 pieces altogether. But there are still some prize pieces he'd like to add. "They are beautifully made," he says, and he prefers to buy pieces that are still in immaculate condition.

Most of the pieces are practical and were used in households.

They include egg cups, bowls, a tea-pot stand, plates, sandwich trays, glove boxes, pipe holders, little tables, 21st birthday keys, clothes brushes, a wishing well ashtray, picture frames, native bird trays, sherry trays, letter openers and a letter holder.

Following the success of Austin Brassell's home-based business, he employed Arnie Burling and Wyn Hart and, soon after, the trio established a partnership in 1948.

Sovereign Woodworkers was established in Tawa St a year later.

Mr Brassell was a committed native forest conservationist at a time when it was hardly considered an issue.

He spoke of this in a 1949-1950 Sovereign brochure. He also also established the milling and wood preservation company Wood Enterprises (Pizac).

Mr Brassell retired about 1970, to discover wood carving.

He died in 1985.

Throughout the summer holidays the Chronicle will profile a number of local people with a passion for collecting. If you know someone who would be suitable to feature in this series, contact the newsdesk on 06 349 0728 or email news@wanganuichronicle.co.nz

- Wanganui Chronicle

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