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“I like making things and can't stand sitting in an office.”

While it seems these words could be uttered by quite a hefty portion of the white collar workforce, London based Justin Holmes actually means it. This is a man who gave up his well-paid engineering job to learn the craft of one of the oldest professions around: cabinet making.

“When I worked as an engineer/designer I was forever having to come up with solutions to problems I knew nothing about,” he says from his workshop under a railway arch in Herne Hill. “The cabinet making was a conscious decision to do something simpler and more elegant and feel like I could achieve at least some level of expertise.”

And Justin’s expertise could not be more niche -  nor more London, for that matter. His company, Element’ary design, incorporates two parts: sash window restoration (“initially prompted by a terrible cash flow crisis”) and tool making.  To his delight, both parts require the use of hand tools, traditional techniques, and real timber, and both result in artistry appreciated by several generations of users. 

While feedback about Justin’s skills with sash windows is glowing, it seems that the world heaved a collective sigh of relief when he began making screwdrivers. 

Hand turned from smooth beech and oiled by the maker himself, every element of Justin’s interchangeable screwdrivers has been carefully considered - from the weight of their ergonomic handles to the flat sides that prevent them rolling off work benches. 

Like all the best inventions, this one came about when Justin couldn’t find any screwdrivers he liked.  A linseed oil finish makes Justin’s screwdrivers far easier and more comfortable to grip than their slippery, blister-inducing plastic counterparts, while a magnetic screw chuck fastened with an O ring solves the problems traditionally associated with four-way screwdrivers by locking in the accompanying interchangeable bits. (Justin’s screwdrivers will also accommodate any standard bit, naturally.)

Indiana-based chairmaker John Hoffman has said what every other new devotee feels as soon as they use it: “It’s like the maker was reading my mind.”

The integrity of Justin’s design may well be because neither the original screwdriver, nor the subsequent screwdriver set (which includes a shorter, squatter screwdriver designed for working in tight spaces) were originally intended for commercial distribution.  

“I designed them as I thought a screwdriver should be and for my own use,” Justin explains.  

Or perhaps the design’s integrity can be attributed to Justin’s training at the RCA – an industrial design course designed for people with an engineering background rather than a creative arts background. 

“It was intended to bridge the gap between artists and engineers who are usually very different kinds of people.  Design is often treated as a separate discipline to engineering, but there is no reason why this should be so.”

In any case, it wasn’t until much later that Justin decided to take his inventions to a design trade show and the business expanded.  These day, Element’ary has customers across Europe, the US and Japan – and now, for the first time, Australia.

While turning screwdriver handles from his workshop while the trains rumble overhead unquestionably has its charm, Justin says it’s the sash windows that he can really lose himself in. 

“I can zone out making sashes,” he says. “No screaming power tools or MDF dust.” 


The Elemen’tary screwdriver and screwdriver set are available now.