Sovereign Woodworkers Ltd: 1949 - 1992


Sovereign Woodworkers Limited was established in a vacant shop in Tawa Street, Gonville, a suburb of Whanganui in 1949 by Leonard Austin Brasell, Arnold (Arnie) H. W. Burling and Edwin (Wyn)  H. Hart. [Wanganui Chronicle, 21 April 1949]

The company had its immediate origins in Austin Brasell’s own home workshop a few years or so before. Here he developed a woodturning hobby to produce a small range of inlaid and laminated wooden souvenir ware 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” – with 18 samples of native timbers. [Wanganui Chronicle, 10 March 1967]

 Sovereign pencil case 008

Sovereign ruler and pencil case

The success of Brasell’s home operation soon required staff, so he employed Arnold Burling, followed soon after by Edwin Hart and the trio established a partnership in 1948.

In 1949 a shop in Gonville was rented, Sovereign Woodworkers formed and a nearby vacant lot purchased for a timber store. Two more staff members were employed.

During the 1950s and 60s the company bought several of the surrounding Gonville shops, established a country-wide distribution and, by the late 1960s, had expanded to employ 20 staff and over 100 different lines of wooden souvenir ware. [Wanganui Chronicle, 10 March 1967]

In 1967 the company opened a new factory on the site, using one of the adjoining shops as a retail outlet.

Picture Tour of Sovereign Woodworkers Factory - 1960

 Sovereign Ware Woodwork outlet

Sovereign Woodworker’s Ltd factory and retail shop, Tawa St., Gonville, c1970

 

By that time Sovereign was at its zenith. Brasell explained some of the process at the factory opening.

“Each different species has different characteristics, and some woods present problems which must be overcome.

In general terms, the ornamentation of our woodware is accomplished by choosing laminates of different native species to produce attractive colour patterns.

The wastage of wood in sawdust is very great.

The time required for one item, such as a box lid, to proceed through the factory from raw material to finished product is weeks or months. This is necessary to ensure adequate drying after each glueing process”. [Wanganui Chronicle, 10 March 1967]

Brasell retired as manager in 1970 but remained as the company chairman. Sovereign Woodworkers continued under the management of E. H. Hart and later under Chris Hart and Brasell’s son Rodger, but changes in the tourist market during the 1980s saw the company downsize to six full-time staff.

In 1992 the firm was placed in receivership after a potential joint venture with a Taiwanese investor fell through. [Wanganui Chronicle, 11 June 1992]

About 1995-6 the Gonville factory was purchased and New Zealand Timber Arts with Ian Cragg as manager continued to produce laminated woodware for the souvenir market.

New Zealand Timber Arts moved its operation to Bulls in 2000 thus ending the 50-year association with Gonville.

 

Sovereign Products


In the first couple of decades of its existence Sovereign produced some of the few quality New Zealand-made souvenirs available at the time. The firm’s products were frequently also used as engagement, wedding and birthday presents.

A total of around 70 timber species were used, mainly during the first decade of operation. Many of these must have been largely experimental as commercial supplies of timber from such species as rata vine, monoao, kowhai and kawakawa are next to non-existent. About 23 timbers were, however, commonly used over the years.

Items from the first 20 years often have a tawa or taraire base but radiata pine later replaced these native species as they became increasingly unavailable.

Two Sovereign products are well-remembered by school pupils of the time – the iconic timber-sample ruler and equally well-known pencil case with its swivelling laminated lid. Other popular lines were turned powder, trinket and fruit bowls and bookends.

About 1967 the company introduced a small range of tawa (?) Monolignic Ware but this seems to have been unpopular with buyers and survived only a few years. A small range of Washable Laminated Woodware was introduced about the same period. This remained on catalogues until the late 1970s

Brasell No. 5 Dish

Sovereign Brasell Ware

 
No.202 Leaf dish Sovereign Monolignic Ware  
No.402 Tray - 4 compartments  Sovereign Washable Laminated Ware
Unknown No. 009 Egg  Sovereign Woodware 

Other lines also appear to have been less than popular and were quickly dropped from the company catalogue – the bread knife introduced in the late 1950s was deleted by 1961.

 Sovereign Brochures  & Advertisements from 1946 through to 1977

 

Leonard Austin Brasell (1914 – 1985)


Sovereign’s founder, Austin Brasell was born in Carterton in 1914 and brought up there. He moved to Wanganui in the 1940s. A committed native forest conservationist at a time when it was hardly considered an issue, Austin Brasell outlined his viewpoint in an early brochure.

“Most of the accessible bush, especially in North Island has already been milled and cleared for farm lands …….. Some scope exists for the extension of milling and the use of various “beeches” of South Island, but the future timber supply of New Zealand is dependant upon careful preservation and regeneration of the remaining forest areas, the limitation of the use of valuable native species to special purposes, and the more general use of such exotic species as Pinus radiata, now coming to maturity in large afforestation areas.” [Sovereign brochure, 1949-50]

He also preferred to use Maori names for trees/timbers and always included a pronunciation guide in his brochures which contained a table of the timbers commonly used, their distribution, description, supply and uses.

In addition to Sovereign Woodworkers Brasell also established the milling and wood preservation company Wood Enterprises Ltd (Pizac). He retired about 1970 to discover wood carving, a hobby he developed to extend to Maori designs and restoration of carvings on Koriniti marae on the Whanganui River. In 1980 he published Woodworking for New Zealand, a manual for woodcarvers which outlined techniques and patterns. [Woodworking for New Zealand, 1980]

Austin Brasell died in 1985.

 

Labels and Backstamps


Brasell Period: 1947- 49 

Round yellow paper label: “New Zealand /Timbers”
Green label with timber names and “Made by Austin Brasell

 

Sovereign Woodworkers Ltd

Circular green paper with "Sovereign" - early 1950s
Black with gold/silver lettering, - 1950s
Gold with black lettering - 1960s similar to above
Gold with stylized bowl (#67) and row of samples - 1970s?
Gold on black woodturning (as per backstamp) - 1980s
Printed backstamp of woodturning & ‘Sovereign Woodware’ – 1980s
Black on Gold: Monolignic Ware – 1967 - 1970
Washable Laminated Woodware – 1967 to late 1970s

 

Timber List



Commonly used species in bold

  1. Aka tawhiwhi…………Metrosideros fulgens
  2. Aka……………………Metrosideros perforata
  3. Akeake……………….. Dodonaea viscosa
  4. Black Marie………….  Nestegis cunninghamii
  5. Haekaro……………… Pittosporum umbellatum
  6. Heketara……………..  Olearia cunninghamii
  7. Hinau…………………Elaeocarpus dentatus
  8. Horoeka……………… Pseudopanax crassifolium
  9. Horopito……………... Pseudowintera axillaries
  10. Houhere……………… Hoheria sp.
  11. Kahikatea…………….Dacrycarpus dacrydioides
  12. Kaikawaka…………...Libocedrus bidwilli
  13. Kaikomako …………… Pennantia corymbosa
  14. Kanuka………………  Leptospermum ericoides
  15. Karaka………………  Corynocarpus laevigata
  16. Karamu……………….Coprosma [robusta] ?
  17. Kauri…………………Agathis australis
  18. Kawaka………………    Libocedrus plumosa
  19. Kawakawa………….... Macropiper excelsum
  20. Kohekohe…………… Dysoxylum spectabile
  21. Kohuhu………………  Pittosporum tenuifolium
  22. Koromiko……………..Hebe salicifolia
  23. Kotukutuku……………Fuchsia excorticata
  24. Kowhai……………….  Sophora microphylla
  25. Mahoe………………… Melicytus ramiflorus
  26. Maire………………… Nestegis lanceolata (White marie)
  27. Maire-raunui…………  Nestegis cunninghamii (Black maire)
  28. Makomako…………...  Aristotelia serrata (Wineberry)
  29. Manawa………………  Avicennia resinifolia
  30. Mangeao…………….. Litsea calcilaris
  31. Matai………………..  Prumnopitys taxifolia
  32. Matipou……………… Myrsine australis
  33. Miro…………………  Prumnopitys  ferruginea
  34. Monoao……………….Dacrydium colensoi
  35. Ngaio…………………    Myoporium laetum
  36. Orihau………………..  Neopanax colensoi
  37. Pink Pine……………..  Dacrydium biforme
  38. Pohutukawa………….  Metrosideros excelsa
  39. Pokaka……………….. Elaeocapus hookerianum
  40. Porokaiwhiri …………   Hedycarya arborea (Pigeonwood)
  41. Puka………………….. Griselinea lucida
  42. Puketea……………...  Laurelia novaezelandiae
  43. Puriri…………………Vitex lucens
  44. Putaputaweta………..   Carpodetus serratus
  45. Radiata Pine …………Pinus radiata
  46. Ramarama……………. Lophomyrtus bullata
  47. Rangiora………………Brachyglottus repanda
  48. Rata………………….. Metrosideros robusta
  49. Raukawa……………….Panax edgeleryi
  50. Red Beech…………… Nothofagus fusca
  51. Rewarewa…………… Knightia excelsa
  52. Rimu………………..   Dacrydium cupressinum
  53. Rohutu……………….. Neomyrtus pedunculata
  54. Silver Pine…………    Dacrydium colensoi
  55. Tanekaha……………  Phyllocladus trichomanoides
  56. Tarata………………..   Pittosporum eugeniodes
  57. Taraire………………. Beilschmiedia taraire
  58. Taupata………………  Coprosma repens
  59. Tawa …………………Beilschmiedia tawa
  60. Tawhai .......................  Nothofagus menziesii (Silver beech)
  61. Tawhai-raunui……….   Nothofagus fusca? truncata?(Red beech, hard beech)
  62. Tawhero ………………  Weinmannia sylvicola
  63. Titoki………………….Alectryon excelsus
  64. Toro…………………   Mysine salicina
  65. Totara………………   Podocarpus totara
  66. Towai………………    Weinmannia racemosa
  67. Turepo……………….. Paratrophis microphylla
  68. White Marie…………    Nestegis lanceolata
  69. Yellow Wood………    Coprosma linariafolia

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No.012 (Replacement) Cheese board.

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Sovereign Woodware by Christine Nana is Copyright Act 1994