Rejecting MDF and chipboard in favour of solid timbers, the founders of Neptune embarked on a mission to find the best materials for the job, as co-founder John Sims-Hilditch explains to editor Suzanne Imre.
It was a gut feeling that morphed into a ‘certain stubbornness,’ laughs Neptune’s co-founder John Sims-Hilditch, that led him and partner Giles Redman to a fundamental decision about the materials they would and wouldn’t work with.
Early on in Neptune’s history, as the business progressed from garden furniture to designing kitchens, John and Giles made an important agreement: they would never use MDF or chipboard in any of their designs, focusing instead on solid timber frames and super-strong birch ply panelling for all the cabinetry they produced, and oak or tulipwood for furniture. It’s a commitment that still stands today, and John explains why: ‘It goes back to our founding principles of ‘doing the right thing’. Even at that early stage, I was aware that you need an awful lot of glue to make MDF and chipboard which couldn’t be good for people’s health, nor was it as durable as solid wood, and it simply wasn’t nice to live with.’
From a sustainability perspective, John notes: ‘The wonderful thing about working with natural timbers is that they are organic. With sensible practice, they will easily regenerate – removing vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. Today, our timber comes principally from the Appalachian Mountains, where trees have been planted at a faster rate than they are felled for over 50 years – currently at a replacement rate of 2.5 times.’
The duo therefore source timbers based on their durability, tactility, and beauty – always selecting the right material for the right purpose. Oak was top of the list. ‘Oak has a long history in British furniture-making,’ explains John, ‘it’s incredibly strong but also naturally beautiful – it doesn’t need coating or finishing. I consider it a king amongst woods because of that.’ Teak was selected for outdoor furniture for its high oleoresin content which means it performs well in harsh weather, and tulipwood for painted pieces because of its durability and perfectly smooth surface that carries paint well.
John was also an advocate for birch plywood for the inset panels on cabinetry, as they gave doors a rigid dependability without being heavy or clunky. Ply is created using thin sheets of wood which are layered over each other at right angles and built up to create a strong, stable panel that won’t expand or contract according to climate in the same way that solid timber will. ‘We use a similar technique in the central panels of our framed tables such as Arundel and Suffolk,’ adds John. ‘We take 6mm thick sheets of oak and cross-bond them to achieve a super-strong panel that won’t warp, thus dramatically improving the performance and life of our tables. This technique isn’t widely used because it’s hard to do, but we believe it’s worth it.’
With Neptune’s 100-year vision influencing all their design and material decisions, it was important to find a way to protect the timber without detracting from its natural beauty. Step forward IsoGuard®, which John and Giles developed with a specialist coating company based in Belgium. Unlike a traditional varnish or veneer, which leaves a sealant layer sitting on top of the wood, IsoGuard® works on a penetrative level, soaking into the wood and binding – at a micro-cellular level – to every piece of raw cellulose that it finds, coating it in a protective film while leaving the wood surface looking and feeling naturally beautiful. That tactility of timber – alongside its beauty – plays an important role in Neptune’s choice of materials. ‘Touching wood, you feel grounded; walking on wood, you feel grounded,’ says John. ‘Having wood in our homes brings us closer to nature, a place where we can feel happier and calmer. And it’s that sense of serenity that we seek in the natural materials we employ in our furniture.’