One of my secret pleasures is traveling up the A470 from South to North Wales with work. It’s a long but stunningly beautiful trek through the Brecon Beacons, Mid Wales and the Snowdonia National Park to reach Caernarfon and Anglesey.
At the halfway point is a tiny village in Powys called Llanbrynmair where the old village hall is now the Machinations Visitors Center. It was always the perfect stop off on my way up to North Wales and on the way back home as it has a cafe.
The food and hospitality in the cafe was initially the main attraction (try their homemade soup and cakes – absolutely stunning!) but I also found the really quirky, weird and wonderful wooden exhibits really interesting.
It’s not just a cafe as there is also a kids playbarn and a rabbit village outside. As I like anything quirky and ‘arty-crafty’ this was the perfect watering hole on a long journey.
I noticed that they also had their own brand Timberkits for sale in the cafe which are manually operated or motor driven DIY wooden models. The kits are beautifully designed with a lot of attention to detail that can inspire and really bring out children’s creative skills. There is nothing more satisfying for children than building a hands-on model from scratch and then seeing it move – far better than mind-numbing video games.
Every time I stopped for a break at the cafe there was something new and interesting to look at and on the downside, a ten-minute coffee break always ended up being far longer as I got engrossed in the wonderful exhibits in their permanent working model display ‘Machinations’ and their fabulous Timberkits.
Machinations is one of a only few permanent exhibitions of Contemporary Automata (mechanical moving models) open to the general public in the British Isles
I have stopped off in the cafe many times over the last 5 years and on my last visit decided to find out who was behind this intriguing business.
I spoke to Sarah Reast the Director of Timberkits, who took time out to give me an insight into how the business came into existence and the way it developed.
Interview with Sarah Reast – Director of Timberkits
Who are the people behind the business?
Timberkits was founded by my parents, Eric and Alison Williamson in 1993. I took over in 2012 so that they might retire although Eric still has an input in the designing process. Eric has an interesting and unusual mixture of skills in engineering and visual design and woodcraft which is what makes our models so unique.
Alison was the Administrative Director which made her the unsung hero in the office but key to the development of this quirky little family business.
Today the team is made up of myself, Luise, Nicky, and Eric. I do designing, marketing, and other non-routine projects. I’m the one who gets on the road to attend outlets, events and explore new opportunities and generally troubleshoot a huge myriad of issues from machine maintenance to unloading lorries.
Luise actually runs the show, without her it would all implode very quickly. She looks after all our customers, deals with production management is chief model maker and rules the warehouse – if we leave a box out of place we are in trouble!
Nicky does dispatch and model making and Eric has a mainly consultative role in design with the occasional original masterpiece still making its way into the range. We use other specialist external contractors for individual projects.
Eric and Alison have run their own craft businesses for 40 years and have a history of making luxury rocking horses and bespoke commissioned automata amongst other things.
Timberkits, as we know it today, was born of a desire to enable a more mass market to enjoy building mechanical models rather than have them as lone exhibition pieces so they developed a range that would be affordable and span different interests and ability levels.
You design some very intricate Timberkits – how long does it generally take from the idea to seeing the boxed kit for sale in the shop? And is there a design process?
The ideas may come from us and sometimes they come from customers or fellow enthusiasts submitting experimental prototypes which we then adapt to our house style and production techniques.
Experience in mechanical model making gives us a sort of phrase book of engineering possibilities for creating movement in different ways and then our job is to combine those ‘phrases’ into a complete combination that brings a whole character or machine to life.
We prepare sets of parts and drawings that then go to our factories in China where they are manufactured in large numbers.
Even then there are quality control measures to get through and I have to visit China every year to maintain good working relationships and learn about their production techniques which then inform our design approach.
Both we and the factories use old traditional methods of production, drawing tables, age-old hand tools and trial and error. There is very little Computer Aided Design (CAD) or automation in any of it.
Do you supply Timberkits worldwide?
Yes, we have distributors in America, China, and Australia but our main market is still the UK. We send goods out all over the world to a huge variety of customers both wholesale and retail.
Our customers are very difficult to define because they may be attracted but the themes of our models as much as the craft itself. They tend to be all ages and from all sorts of walks of life and we do have quite a few really obsessive collectors who have become great friends and ambassadors.
Yes, we have 2 educational kits, one featuring cams and the other featuring linkages. We hope to do a third about gears to complete a comprehensive introduction to primary engineering principals.
Each kit offers prescribed combinations of mechanisms to test out the principle but the customer can also freely experiment with ideas of their own and then really let their imaginations go in decorating and modeling a subject to animate.
These kits were developed in schools and fit into the UK Key Stage 2 Design Technology curriculum perfectly but are equally bought by adults wanting to have a go at designing automata but need a starting point or those who want a rainy day project for the kids at home.
Kids always surprise me with their unfettered ingenuity. Playing is the most important part of designing so we really need them to lead the way.
We have done the occasional commission but given the time it takes it is not commercially viable. We did produce a Torture Rack for London Dungeons which was a bit grim especially as it features a person being torn limb from limb (don’t worry, it had elastic joints so pinged back together quite easily).
Our Demon Dentist, soon to arrive on the shelves is a little brutal too but has been massively embraced by a global dentistry fraternity which says quite a lot about them….watch the website for that.
The total concept of wooden kits, model displays, cafe, rabbit village and play barn all fit together like the fingers of a glove – was this intentional from the beginning or was this something that evolved over time?
My Mum and Dad are very eccentric so whilst it was an obvious marriage of elements to them it might not be to anyone else! They originally had the factory here on site and had also amassed their own private collection of contemporary automata from a variety of artists.
They decided to build the visitor center on the front of the factory as an outlet for the products and a place to exhibit their collection. At that point, visitors could view the production floor and see Timberkits being made from plank through to finished box of components.
As for the Rabbit Village, it was just an idea that happily proved to be very popular and entertaining. The site tries to provide a little bit of something for visitors of all ages and is not marketed as a destination but as an interesting stop along the way to somewhere.
When manufacturing transferred to China, the factory space became available which I then converted into a play barn in order to extend the viability of the center over the winter and keep a trained team of staff supported all year round.
Do you get a lot of foreign visitors?
Yes but at least half our footfall is from travelers within Wales as we have become known as a good halfway point for many with easy parking and good leg stretching potential for kids and fresh home cooked food in the cafe. Word of mouth and ensuring repeat visits are our mainstay marketing tools.
Have you any future developments or different kit ranges in the pipeline” Yes, the Demon Dentist as I mentioned earlier and next will be a little clapping figure designed to be given as a congratulations gift.
We try to alternate complex expensive designs with simple cheap ones to keep everyone happy. We are also working on some new circuitry that can be added to the motor bases to enable customers to add sound effects to their model.
www.timberkits.com is our website which is pretty comprehensive and features the company history and the team members as well as our shop and galleries, news and advice on construction.
Our Facebook page is the most popular of the Social Media sites and is a lively place to find the latest updates, competitions, links to associated pages and other artists.
We welcome direct contact through any of these platforms and are very responsive so if you can’t find exactly what you need don’t hesitate to get in touch.
We don’t do craft or toy fairs ourselves but many of our wholesale customers do so if you want to know if Timberkits have a presence in your area, please just ask.
Timberkits is like Dr. Who’s Tardis!
Whether you are on a business trip, on holiday or just passing through the Machinations Visitor Center is an absolute must! Young and old there is something for everyone to look at.
Perfect for kids as they can either visit the playbarn or feed the enclosed rabbit village and feed the bunnies. Inside is the quirky working model exhibits and you can also purchase the Timberkits featured in this article.
The Dragon Cafe provides breakfasts, mains and a great selection of cakes and sandwiches. I have tried everything over the years and I can guarantee that the food is beautifully prepared cooked and presented – it’s delicious! – you can check out the menu here…
The Machinations Visitors Center is located in the middle of Llanbrynmair village – you can’t miss it – there is a large sign ‘CAFE’ at the side of the road.
It has its own car park and there are toilet facilities on site.
Cafe Draig (Draig is Welsh for Dragon), Old Village Hall, Llanbrynmair, Powys, Wales, SY19 7AA, United Kingdom
Tel: 01650 521552 (or ++44 1650 521552 – if you are calling from outside the UK)