Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Forest Ware 1982-1993

Seven years ago, George and I worked in an apple packhouse with Tom and Colleen Walker. It was full-on, with little time for small talk.  In May this year (2018) we stayed a night with them on our way round the South Island and Tom mentioned in passing that he and his late wife Beth had made and sold ceramics. 
Turns out, Tom and Beth were the makers of Forest Ware, who we had been trying to track down for about five years. And he was right under my nose all along! 
I recorded a couple of interviews with Tom and he generously allowed me to photopgraph his photographic catalogues - which gives us a record of just about everything that Forest Ware made. The  photos below are only a small selection. 

Below are Forest Ware's tiny owls which Tom has kept for 25 years. Moulded by Tom and hand decorated by Beth. The largest is about 4 cm tall. 

This is Tom's story. 
In the early 1980s Tom and Beth Walker were living in their 12-metre house bus in Hastings. Tom was working full-time, so Beth took up hobby ceramics. She discovered a real talent for decorating and soon she was teaching two nights a week.  One of Beth's vases won top prize at a huge ceramics show in Pennsylvania, which gave her the confidence to start decorating pieces at home. Tom began making their own bisque blanks rather than buying them and soon they realised they were making a saleable commodity. 
They added a small electric kiln to their new house bus and moved to Hamilton. Hazelwood Ceramics Studio at Te Rapa invited them to park in their yard and plug into their power.  Tom built a caravan that served as a workshop and could be towed behind the bus.  The owner of Hazelwood Ceramics showed Tom how to copy shapes, and he began making moulds and pouring and fettling. A part-time bus driving job gave them a steady income.
Some of their shapes were blanks from Ceramic Studios but most were copies, with minor changes and different decoration to avoid copyright issues.  Tom would buy a shape he liked and make a mould from it. He only ran into trouble once. When he began making figurines based on Murray Ball’s popular Footrot Flats cartoons, friends warned him that Ball would prosecute so he stopped making them.
In those early days they made mainly souvenir ware for tourist shops in Rotorua, Taupo and Waitomo.  Small native bird figurines and plates which Beth hand-painted with bird images were big sellers, and cheery yellow glow-worms were popular at Waitomo Caves. 

Tom told me that withouth Beth's artistic skills they would not have been able to make Forest Ware.  Sadly, just as the business was really taking off, Beth was hit by a car when she was crossing the road and spent months in hospital and months more recovering. As her strength returned they bought a property at Waihi where they lived in the bus and used a small building and the caravan as workshop space.
After the move to Waihi business boomed. By now they were making a wide range of ornaments as well as souvenir ware. Big sellers included frogs in different poses, owls, dolphins, a pair of American Indian figurines, Ewoks (from the Star Wars movies) and Garfield figurines.  Cookie jars sold for $32-$35.  Kittens and puppies were also popular.  

In the souvenir range they sold thousands of little dishes hand-painted with kowhai and other flowers.  They experimented with dinnerware but ornaments were easier to make and sold better. Decoration techniques included hand painting, ceramic transfers, and spray painting.  Almost without exception a clear glaze was applied over the top.  

 Below is a little souvenir vase which Tom still owns.  It is signed LA Walker. Beth's full name was Lisbeth Ann.
Most of their product was sold at shows – the huge Auckland Easter Show, and others in Wellington, New Plymouth, Whangarei, Hamilton and Hastings.  There were also smaller A&P shows.
For three weeks in the summer Tom and Beth parked up in the holiday township of Whangamata and sold from their bus. This would generate about $10,000, and for extra income they sometimes charged 50c each for people to look inside their bus, still a novelty in the 1980s.

To prepare for shows they packed all day, filling their trailer with three tonnes of product. Then they would drive their 12-metre bus and trailer overnight to the venue, stopping for a brief sleep along the way.  The next day was spent setting up, then they sold for the duration of the show, anything from two to 10 days. Then they would pack up and drive home through the night.
Next day they would start preparing for the next show in three weeks’ time. They worked long hours, often seven days a week. Tom would start at 7 am and often he was in the workshop until 9.30 at night waiting for a firing to finish so he could turn off the kiln.
The business did not make a fortune but it made a living for Tom and Beth and they felt good about what they created.   As can be seen from the display pics above, they made an amazingly large range. Here are their little animal egg cups - which will be sure to add to the never-ending debate of who made what! 

 The wine cask below was modelled from scratch by Tom and hand decorated by Beth. Tom used two discs from a disc plough to form the original shape. A set like this was given as a prize in the TV show Sale of the Century.

Unfortunately by 1992-1993 Forest Ware was no longer profitable and Tom and Beth closed it down. Cheap imported ware, which looked fresh and new, edged them out of the market. About 300 Forest Ware moulds were sold to other studios and the rest were given away or broken up and sent to the local dump.
In partnership with their son they soon began a new and very successful business as balloon clowns.

FOREST WARE MARKS – note that not all Forest Ware was marked 

Hand Painted by LA (Beth) Walker. 

 The usual stamped Forest Ware mark.
 The mark below is on the base of a souvenir bird plate.


  1. Is it within the scope of this site to give a very approx. value of a piece? I have just discovered a lovely piece of Forest ware. it is an owl similar to the little ones you showed but about 80cn high. has a lid looks like a cookie jar. has very distinctive stamp on bottom showing forest ware NZ. Such a fascinating story - thank you for sharing that!

    1. Hi I am sorry but I don't attempt to give values for items. The only way to find out is to put it on TradeMe or some other site and see what it brings! I will add though that Forest Ware is not yet especially well known in the collecting community so if I were you I would not expect a high price. Perhaps you would be best to keep it on the kitchen bench to bring you joy.