A Rothbury business has been named best start up in the Northern region in the Rural Business Awards 2021-2022 and will represent the North in the national finals in January.

Otter Handmade, makers of bespoke wooden furniture, is the brainchild of Rothbury’s John Holt and was set up early in 2020. John, who had worked as a chartered accountant for the previous 25 years, has loved handcrafting wooden furniture for over 40 years and decided to act on his dream of turning his love of design, craft and construction into a business just as we were all about to spend a great deal more time at home.

John walks, photographs and sketches every day and says he is inspired by the peace and nature that surrounds him. “Northumberland provides inspiration in shape, texture and colour that continually influences Otter Handmade’s work. As a lover of our local wildlife, I get enormous pleasure from frequent sightings of deer, red squirrels, badgers, foxes, hares, adders, bats and a wide range of birds. I was delighted when otters were sighted in the River Coquet a few years ago.  I sponsor otters in wild life sanctuaries and decided to use this play on my surname to name the business.”

John’s materials are natural, his techniques traditional and his pieces designed to become clients’ family heirlooms. The furniture celebrates the nature and beauty of wood and is designed to be a pleasure to use with soft close drawers, gently chamfered edges and handles that welcome clients’ hands.

He told us “Each piece is handmade using traditional techniques such as dovetails and mortice and tenon joints: they are nail and screw free. Upholstery is handmade in our sewing studio using natural fabrics especially silks, linens and wools.”

John only works with timber from sustainable sources or uses rare woods recycled from old furniture bought at auction. He supports other British artisan businesses in sourcing his handles, hinges and catches. He recycles his own waste into bags of kindling donated to people living in fuel poverty. His sawdust goes to local children for their pet hutches. Large orders are rewarded with the planting of a native broadleaved tree sapling so the timber used is replaced. Otter Handmade’s sustainability has been recognised by National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise at Newcastle University who are using the business as a case study for their Net Zero Campaign.

Much of Otter Handmade’s bespoke work has so far been designed for traditional houses reflecting their rural heritage. “Shapes and designs reflect the history of the houses and cottages I have worked in offering designs and solutions that avoid contemporary building practices. For example restoring wooden shutters to the centuries old, deep stone walls of a shepherd’s cottage or replacing an architect designed RSJ with an oak beam in the kitchen of a grade II listed house” John explained.

During the COVID lockdowns, John undertook a series of outdoor commissions that deliberately reflect the traditional shapes of local farm buildings for modern purposes. A large BBQ shelter is reminiscent of local oak framed barns and a double roomed outhouse is positioned carefully in the landscape framing a client’s favourite view with a shape based on traditional Northumbrian shepherds’ huts.

John said “I am now working on a furniture collection specifically designed with modern properties in mind using beautiful wood and shapes to fit into contemporary living spaces and modern lifestyles. Some of this collection will be on display at Christmas fairs in the region in December.”

The RBA judges commented on the breadth and diversity of John’s designs. In its first 20 months Otter Handmade has created kitchens, a library, desks, shelving units, blanket boxes, jewelry boxes, settles, welsh dressers, display cabinets, pantries, boot rooms, breakfast bar stools, drying racks, hat and coat stands, Children’s Christmas Eve boxes, and much much more.