The Bookbinding Toolmaker

Posted by admin in Local Stories : The Craftsmen

When a young Frank Wiesner first came to cabinetmaking as an eager teenager in 1940s Germany, he had no clue that his fledgling career path would later lead him halfway across the globe to regional Queensland, nor that a client’s one-off request for a handmade bookbinding press would someday see them shipped as far and wide as Africa, South America, Europe and Hong Kong, as they are today.

Frank comes from the old guard of traditional European wood craftsmen. From the age of 14, he apprenticed under the strict, yet highly skilled Master Schirrmacher in Berlin, and much of his early work involved post-war restoration work. “It was tough, but he taught me a lot”, says Frank. And after almost 70 years on the job, there’s no doubt he’s still passionate about what he does.

In Frank’s words, his master was old and “a little bit cranky” but he instilled in Frank the value of his trade, and with it, an appreciation for tradition and a respect for old-fashioned discipline; something that has kept him in good stead over the years.

In 1952 he journeyed to Australia, answering a call to work for the Victorian Railways “There were about 600 of us who came out – young men from Germany,” he says. The move was unlikely and unplanned, and while his new job wasn’t exactly woodcraft, he instinctively found ways to keep his skills alive – making furniture from odds and ends of salvaged timber wherever he went. “I never really left it [cabinetmaking] because I would always make presents for people or build things for myself,” he explains. “If I shifted place I’d make furniture for the room or I’d just make a chest of drawers out of anything that I found lying around.”

He eventually established himself in full time cabinetmaking in 1970 and later – after a chance request from a customer to build a home bookbinding press in 1989 – Frank found his niche. “I’d never made one before, but I said yes anyway,” he recalls, with a cheeky laugh.

Handcrafted with Huon pine and featuring his hand carved timber threading, Frank’s presses are now sought after by artisan bookbinders across the globe – from Paris to San Diego and many places in between. “They go all over the world and they make people so happy,” he says. “It’s very satisfying. The things that I make for people spend years in their homes – they live with them.”

Today, at a very sprightly 80, he still clocks up an eight-hour day in his backyard workshop on the outskirts of Toowoomba; a working day that is always punctuated with a 10am tea break and some of his wife Joan’s baking. Showing few signs of slowing down, he says, “I think work keeps you young.” So it sounds like you’re doing what you love, Frank? “Oh yeah, I love it. I’ll never retire – why would I?” he says, adding “Every job I do is a bit different, so it always keeps me interested.”

When pressed on whether he considers himself a craftsman he says, “Some people never achieve that mastery simply because they’re not that way inclined. They’re happy to just stick with their trade – but I’m not one of those people,” he tells me. “No, I’ve always gone beyond, you know? I’m always trying to find new ways of doing things, better ways to do things. It’s just how I am.”