Lara Knight – 8 October, 2019
Thor Diesendorf is one of Australia’s demolition-to-furniture pioneers and I’ve been following Thor’s Hammer for a while on Facebook. A recent video collaboration with Stirling Machinery caught my eye because Thor’s team seems just as excited about old timber.
Recycling includes dusty/heavy/repetitive work, and staff churn can be an issue, so I thought I’d ask about maintaining a happy crew. (We included the video after Thor’s answers so you can see the team in action.)
Thor’s Hammer has been in business for 25 years and has a large, passionate upcycling team. Can you give us an overview of current roles?
4-5 staff in our Recycling team – de-nailing and metal detecting timber, grading and sorting by species, grinding and brushing big posts and beams.
2 staff picking out orders and loading and unloading trucks.
3 in our Dressing team – sawing and final drying timbers, making decking, flooring and other profiles.
6 in the Joinery – making bench tops, front doors, tables and custom designed furniture.
3-4 in Design and Sales – helping customers with their projects, designing front doors, bench tops, tables and furniture.
1 position part time in marketing and social media.
2 running the business and admin – office manager and general manager.
You’ve been recruiting steadily as recycled timber grows in popularity. How have team members contributed to growth at Thor’s?
The team is really important at Thor’s Hammer. The managers of the Recycling, Dressing, Joinery and Sales teams take on a lot of responsibility and we also have really skilled tradespeople in the team machining timber and making joinery and furniture. We often have people start casually in the Recycling or Dressing teams and then after a year or two start an apprenticeship as a Timber Machinist or Cabinetmaker, or or just skill up informally within the business.
What are some of the attributes you look for a new team member? Are you hiring for skills or attitude?
It would depend on the position, but attitude is always important. If someone is a keen hard worker and a quick learner they will always do well here. We also appreciate people coming on board who have skills that aren’t already in the business.
How important is training at Thor’s?
Training is really important as there is a lack of experienced people in working with solid timber in the ACT. We do start a lot of people at a lower skill level and have to train them up as quickly as possible. We have a skills matrix which helps show people the path to learn and progress here at the Hammer, and we are also working on training manuals for each area where the staff and their manager can tick off the various skills needed for the area of the business they are working in.
You have some unusual daily activities for a timber yard. Can you tell us what they are and how they make a difference to morale?
Our work is really physical and I’ve always personally needed a warm up and stretch before work to get my body loosened up for the day and prevent injuries. Sometime back around 2000 I put it to the staff and everyone was keen so we started doing warm ups with the whole team. We have an exercise physiologist, Bud Chapple, who comes in every 6 months or so and helps people do the work more efficiently and safely, and Bud developed a quick warm up sequence. Everyone does that and then a few of their own stretches and then we all play handball. It’s a good chance for everyone to loosen up and also to make sure everyone is properly awake and ready to concentrate – we do use some pretty serious machinery here and I think it’s also a factor in our excellent safety record.
Back when we first started we used to spar for our warm up but that ended up getting a bit wild and creating some animosity so we’ve found handball is a bit more cruisy and better for the team!
Another thing a bit different here is that we have a few dogs at work. They get tied up while we are on shift but hang out with us during warm ups, smoko and lunch. My dog Ziggy is a super friendly fluff ball Samoyed/Kelpie cross and she gets to hang out in the showroom on Saturdays and entertain the kids when families come in.
Timber recycling and woodwork are still male-dominated industries but you have several women on your team. How has that come about?
When we first started it seemed to be hard to find women who were interested, but the last ten years or so things have really changed and we regularly get women applying for positions and also younger women coming in for work experience. I do think it is really important to make sure you provide a work place free of sexism or negative attitudes if you want to attract and retain women on your team. I have occasionally had to deal with some attitude from older guys in the past but that hasn’t been an issue for a long time. I also think once you have a few women on the staff, especially doing physical work, then other women see it and apply for positions.
Do women bring something different to the business?
It’s great having more of a balance on the team. Every person is different but maybe on average women have a bit more attention to detail and they might be more often better communicators, so both of those skills are great to have in the team. One big thing that it does is sharpen up the guys a bit and improve their behaviour. It seems to stop some of that sort of tribal stupid behaviour that guys get into sometimes. I think they say much the same with co-ed schools – that the boys do better educationally with the girls there.
If a maker is transitioning from a one-man band to their first few employees, what advice would you give them?
Are you charging enough for your work? Will your charge out rate cover the cost of employing people – realistically it needs to be around two to three times what you are paying them.
It’s a big responsibility employing people – work place health and safety, HR issues, paying people to the award and the list goes on. The responsibility is on you as an employer to provide all these things and if anything goes wrong you can end up in court. I would highly recommend using a company like Employsure or becoming a member of an industry body which can help you with workplace safety and HR issues.
How would you like employees to remember their time at Thor’s Hammer?
I would hope that people will have learnt a lot and gained heaps of skills which they can use in the future. I also want people to enjoy their work and learn that there is lot of satisfaction in being productive and making things efficiently – especially as part of a team. That’s how I was taught – that it’s no use making something perfect if you made it slow. It’s a key difference between a real tradesperson and a hobbyist.
Also I really hope people will gain problem solving skills. Not just to learn one way to make something or perform a task, but to be constantly looking out for a better way to do it, or to be able to solve new problems when they come up. The carpenter who taught me used to say that everyone makes mistakes – even the best carpenter – but a good carpenter fixes them. Problem solving skills give you that self reliance and independence which is getting harder to find in these days of specialisation and technology.
You had a huge move this year, shifting 600 tonnes of timber, machinery and manpower to the old Tip Top factory in Griffith. What do you have planned for the extra space?
It was a lot of fun doing up the old Tip Top factory (which was in a state of disrepair) and adapting the space so that Thor’s Hammer would work in it and making the whole place shine – exactly like what we do with recycling timber but with a whole building!
It was a huge year. I’ve never worked that hard in my life before for so long, and some of the staff put in huge hours as well.
There is actually less total space than we had before so we did a lot of careful design work for the new space to make our operation safer, better laid out and more efficient – better for the people who work here and better for our customers. We now have the capability to produce a lot more, more efficiently.
It was a great opportunity to think things through in terms of flow and rejig everything. The workshops are set up so there is a flow from timber arriving, to de-nailing and processing, to dressing, to the joinery and then ready for the customer to check and pick up or delivery. We have also set up a half height wall around the assembly end of the joinery so that visitors and customers can easily see what is being made or look at their job in progress.
We also have a much better display space than we had before – customers can easily see all the things we do and understand how we can help them. Good samples of all our recycled timber species and the different finishes we can achieve, our bench tops and flooring and posts and beams are in our showroom. And there is a new gallery space upstairs for our furniture and other exhibitions. It’s called the Mixing Room Gallery (it used to be the old dough mixing room for the bread), and currently the Canberra Glassworks has the Klaus Moje Glass Award exhibition running in there. Our next exhibition will be running as part of Design Canberra in November and is called 10 Tables.
Where can people see more of your work?
Heaps of buildings, commercial and public spaces around Canberra including Akiba, Bentspoke, Capital Brewing, Grease Monkey, Kingsborough, Reconciliation Place, the Arboretum, the National Botanic Gardens, the Australian National Gallery, the Australian National Museum, the ANU. And many Canberra houses where a front door, floor, kitchen bench or dining table gets lots of use and enjoyment.