In this month’s Behind The Brush interview, we’re getting to know the duo behind the innovative upcycling business Rock Terrace, Sam Wheeler and Catherine Harrison, who create unique furniture, lighting and clocks from unloved drum kits.
Most days start with a pot of hot coffee, walking the dog, then coming back and checking my emails. I’ll head into the workshop, put some music on and get started.
Customer orders take priority, then replenishing stock for the website and shops we supply. Once that is done, I’ll usually start working on a fun new design, test new paint finishes and different upholstery techniques etc.
I explore the local reclamation yards at least once a week to source timber to make our pieces and on Saturday we have a stall at Wells Market, so I’ll often spend the whole of Friday making pieces to replace stock sold the previous weekend.
I don’t really have a normal day! I stage and photograph all of the stock, update our social media accounts, liaise with customers and stockists and run the website.
I’ll always try and squeeze in a couple of hours each week to go horse riding. I’ve ridden since I was a child and miss it terribly if I have to skip a week or two!
Being creative. My favourite days are those when I can work on new designs without any guidelines. I love standing in the workshop and thinking “That drum, that paint, that fabric”.
Seeing people’s first impressions of Rock Terrace. I love it. Some people get it straight away, others think it’s a terrible waste of drums (I should add, all of the drums we use are broken, damaged or have been rescued from sheds, barns and garages. Plus, everything Sam makes could – in theory – be turned back into a drum in the future) and some just burst out laughing! Thankfully it’s usually a positive response.
We have a fabric shop in Machynlleth, Wales, so I have always known a bit about upholstery and the suitability of different fabrics. I play the drums too and have a habit of collecting old and broken kits.
In 2012 it got to the point where I was running out of space in my studio and Catherine was threatening to have a clear out, so I made an armchair out of a bass drum and a couple of smaller drums and upholstered it in lime green fabric – it was pretty outrageous!
I put in in our shop to sell and needless to say, it didn’t. I gradually toned it down by removing all but the main bass drum seat, eventually swapping the bright green fabric for tan leather. At that point, it sold immediately. I made a few more seats and started experimenting with other designs including clocks, wine racks and tables.
We bought a rusty old Rock Terrace sign at an auction in Wales about 6 years ago. It’s actually the name of a road in Machynlleth where our fabric shop is. We had the sign hanging up at home and when the time came to name the business, we just thought it was a great fit. I have used a photo of the original sign in the header of our website.
Some of the original name ideas that were being thrown around were pretty awful. I remember “Drums for Bums” probably being one of the worst!
It’s important to take on feedback, whether positive or negative, and adapt where necessary.
When we started Rock Terrace, I was just randomly making things. Now there’s more structure. We listen to what our customers and retailers like, and that’s what I make. It can’t just be an indulgence any more. For example, I love upholstery, but our clocks and wine racks are really popular so I make more of those than I do seats.
The importance of time away from work! We’re both very motivated with Rock Terrace and it can be tempting to work 7 days a week, but it’s just not realistic. It’s important to factor in a little bit of time to relax. Having said that, we’re both always on duty to some extent and never leave the house without a stash of business cards.
Glastonbury, without a doubt. We were invited to furnish some backstage areas at Glastonbury Festival in 2016. We lent the organisers furniture and clocks for several artist dressing rooms and one of the artist liaison tents where press interviews took place. They chose bass drum tables, cymbal and snare drum clocks and floor tom seats.
Definitely, the whole thing was so exciting! I put a unique QR code on every piece, so if somebody wanted to buy something they had seen backstage, they could just scan the code with their phone and be taken straight to the relevant listing on our website.
Afterwards, all of our ‘Glastonbury stock’ sold within a week. Our customers loved the idea of a little piece of backstage in their homes.
If you’re making something – whether it’s furniture, clothes, anything – stay true to your own style.
Our early stock was a bit of an incoherent mix! When I look back at old photos, I can see that I was making pieces that weren’t necessarily to my taste. Nowadays, I consistently make things that I would like in my own house and that’s how we have developed the look of our brand. Everything is quite rustic and woody, without being too masculine.
Start small, start part-time and keep your costs down.
Rock Terrace began as Sam’s hobby and we’re slowly and carefully expanding. Although it was hard work and time-consuming, it meant we could still work our day jobs and weren’t relying on a certain number of orders per-month to survive, allowing us to enjoy the process.
For my side of the business, there are so many wonderful free resources online. I used YouTube to learn how to set up a website, followed interior design and photography bloggers to pick up tips on staging furniture for photos and I design our flyers, posters and business cards using free online templates.
For Sam, one of the challenges has to be self-promotion. He’s modest. When a customer first sees our stall and tells me how clever the designs are, I can join in and talk about how talented Sam is. For him, it’s a bit different; he can’t exactly join in and say “Yes, aren’t they wonderful? I’m very creative and skilled!!” He’s spent his career selling – and I know he’s very good at it – but it must be very different when you’re selling something you’ve made.
Since we bought our first home together in 2010. We had been renting and were so excited about being able to decorate and furnish the cottage in our own style. We sourced pieces from second hand shops, antique fairs, auctions and even the local tip in Aberystwyth.
I loved that house. It was an old, wonky stone cottage and we decorated it accordingly.
For the first few months I thought Sam didn’t like the bin men because he would always “forget” to leave the rubbish and recycling out for them. It turned out that he was just looking for excuses to go to the tip! Every time we went we would come home with something for the house. I suppose that’s not strictly upcycling, but we’ve been salvaging for around six years.
Coffee, music and a free stretch of uninterrupted time! Simple, but it works.
It’s a bit dull, but I like to be organised. If the dog needs walking or I know my email inbox is full, it’s hard to concentrate on work.
Being given a difficult brief or challenge. I was recently approached by a customer who was short on space, but wanted a bass drum stool and a bass drum coffee table; two of our largest pieces! I made a multi-purpose bass drum table with detachable legs and added a concealed upholstered seat on the underside of the drum, which can’t be seen from above. The table can be turned upside down, the legs unscrewed and it becomes a seat.
For photography staging ideas, Instagram is fantastic. I follow hundreds of accounts, the majority of which are interior designers or furniture shops.
I also find shopping quite inspiring! Larger department stores can have such beautiful window displays and clever layouts – Liberty and Selfridges have to be my favourites. At the other end of the spectrum, small independent businesses are sometimes even more striking because they have to be creative with the space (and probably funds) available.
Firstly, I have to source drum kits. The workshop is full of every different size of drum, plus a supply of hardware, drum skins and cymbals.
When I come up with a new design, I will make a prototype and live with it for a while – literally! We put a new piece in our home and use it for a few weeks to make sure that it’s durable and fit for purpose. For instance, making sure that a footstool is the right height and the type of fabric I have used is suitable. I’ll also bring it to our market stall and gauge customers’ responses.
Once I am happy with the design and confident that it will sell, it will be listed for sale on the website.
The multi-purpose bass drum. It took a while to come up with the design, but I’m pleased with the finished product. It’s practical and a bit of a talking point. I like showing customers how easy it is to unscrew the legs and flip the table upside down, revealing the secret seat!
It’s hard to choose, but I love the snare drum wine racks and the floor tom drum bedside tables. The latter design is one of our best sellers.
To keep gradually expanding and re-investing. Long term, we’d love to get Rock Terrace into more shops. I’d also like to work with more interior designers, hotels, bars and music venues. Short-term? I would like a bigger workshop!