Woodworking his way around the world

Pierre Barnes works on a project. Photo Zack Mains
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Pierre Barnes' passion for woodwork has taken him all around the world. Zack Mains reports.

The room fills with the smell of saw dust, work benches surround the empty classroom, as only the sound of sandpaper can be heard. One man glides a wooden chair leg against the jagged, rough edges of sandpaper. Pierre Barnes discusses his passion for woodwork, a passion that has taken him around the world.

Pierre Barnes, 51, woodwork teacher at Saint Francis Xavier College, in Beaconsfield, has built it all; bed heads, desks, clocks, wardrobes even an outdoor pond. As a craftsman, he has an eye for small details, details that one can find beauty that remains unknown by those without the same drive. Pierre has that drive. “Woodwork is about being able to transform something from a piece of wood to something that’s useable and aesthetically pleasing.”

He blows the settled saw dust from the desk creating a whirlwind effect before placing the unfinished chair on its side and applying a coat of shellac. While he goes through the motions of staining it is clear his mind is somewhere else, he discusses where his passion for woodwork truly begun.

“I was about 14 years old and I did a little bit of woodwork in year 8 through to year 12 and I did my trade as a cabinet maker,” he recalls, “It’s one of my big interests and I thoroughly enjoy it. In many ways, woodwork was an escape.”.

Pierre grew up in the Eastern Transvaal of South Africa. Born in 1966, he was the youngest of three and says life was tough growing up in a crime ridden country, “Crime in South Africa is bad. Crime is bad and it’s getting worse, there is a civil war that’s coming I believe,” he explains. “We’d been broken into, they had broken into our property more than once, with guns, we had to leave the country.”

Pierre had grown up surrounded by crime, it was something that he never wanted for his own family. In 2001, he and his wife Annette decided to move to England to provide a better life for their two daughters Alicia and Elismarie.

“If our country was seen as a war zone, we would have been asylum seekers, but because it’s not declared a war zone, we can’t claim asylum, so we had to move out of the country by our own means and it cost us a lot of money, and we had to start all over in a new country.”

England was that country and it was a tough move. Pierre was the only one in his family to know English, but even that wasn’t much. He didn’t have a house or a job and the first few months were particularly rough; “We stayed in a caravan park, in one of their little bungalows for about two months.”

If was through all the hard times that he always had the support of his wife Annette, 45. He glances over at the picture of her that sits on his desk; “We’ve been married for 24 years now.”

Annette and Pierre met in 1993 and where married just eight months later. Annette spoke about some of her husband’s characteristics; “Pierre knows where his responsibilities lie in terms of providing and supporting his family, he is undoubtedly, above everything else, a very loving father to his daughters and a husband to me.”

Annette walks around her family home in Berwick pointing out project after project, each one with a different story “…this decorative mirror he made for my 21st birthday back in South Africa. This clock was his first project in Australia.” The smile on her face proves there is an undeniable connection between the pair. “He is always hammering away in his shed, designing a new project for school.”

Pierre Barnes and wife Annette in front of Pierre’s clock. Photo Zack Mains.

She is quite used to Pierre bringing home projects from school but it was when he brought home a student that she was shocked. Julian Gianetti, 22, is a past student of Pierre’s, however now under the same roof Pierre is no longer his teacher, but his father-in-law.

Julian met Pierre’s daughter Elismarie and started dating in high school, after five years of dating the pair are now engaged and are planning a wedding. Julian moved into the house after an altercation with his step-father left him without a place to sleep.

“The main thing Pierre taught me was to stay strong and look forward. He is both a father figure and a friend to me.” Julian explains, “He is a very generous and caring person who has always supported me through tough times.”

Pierre can’t help but smile through these kind words, “That’s what is rewarding about being a teacher.” He continues, “Seeing children developing into their future, when you start with them they are basically raw. The day they right their final exams, you can see that they have developed into something.”

“Pierre is certainly a master craftsman” says Julian, but even masters can make mistakes. In 1997, during a routine project a blade from an industrial spindle came loose and cut off three of Pierre’s fingers.

“I didn’t know straight away, I switched the machine off and then I was walking back to my office and I felt my hand was numb. I looked down and there was just a mess hanging there.” He recalls.

“I had two surgeries, and they were able to sew one finger back on, but not the other two. Then about six weeks after the operation, I was working with a big hammer, and it slipped and I actually hit the piece of metal that came out of the side of my finger back in.”

He laughs to himself, even when recalling injuries there’s a certain spark in his eyes that doesn’t quite compare to anything else. A spark that is present when you are passionate about something. As Pierre is about teaching woodwork at Saint Francis Xavier College, in Beaconsfield.

Pierre is no stranger to moving, after being in England for six years Pierre and his family moved to Australia in 2007. It was an easy decision for Pierre; “I didn’t want to stay in England, it was too crowded, too many people and teaching there was difficult.”

It has been a long road for Pierre Barnes, a career that has spanned three countries, eight schools and three other learning facilities. But he finally feels settled, Saint Francis Xavier holds a special place in his heart,

“I’ve been here 11 years now at Beaconsfield, its where my daughters were taught and where they met their current partners, it has been a special place.”

With that, he places the brush down, he lifts the chair back up from its side position, stands back and says to himself; “Another one done and dusted.”.