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Future-proof fabrications - Wirksworth's TDP, setting new trends with recycled plastic

PUBLISHED: 00:00 19 September 2019

The Wirksworth seat in purple

The Wirksworth seat in purple

as supplied

Catherine Roth visits TDP, the Wirksworth business that is not only achieving national success and setting new trends but at the same time doing its bit for the planet by using recycled materials

Rob (front) and Luke in the workroomRob (front) and Luke in the workroom

TDP is a small family business that is transforming plastic waste into locally designed and handcrafted outdoor furniture. Based in Wirksworth its range of products includes benches, chairs and picnic tables, personalised furniture, such as memorial and commemorative benches, as well as planters, nest boxes and children's furniture. Despite being made from plastic they look remarkably like their wooden counterparts - not only in design but even down to the wood grain effect finish.

In the six years since it started making furniture TDP has used over 2,500 tonnes of recycled plastic waste in its products. Indeed, every kilogram of recycled plastic it uses is the equivalent of 630 bottle tops. Rob Barlow, Managing Director, says, 'Just last year we converted over 650 tonnes of waste plastic - that represents just under 0.4 per cent of the 173,913 tonnes of ridged plastic waste recycled in the UK in 2017. That's not bad for just eight of us in rural Wirksworth where only three of us actually make the furniture!'

Not only do the products help to reduce the amount of plastic going into landfill, they are also maintenance free, which appeals to TDP's customers who include local authorities, schools, sports clubs and pubs as well as the general public. The furniture does not rot, splinter or crack so can be left out all year round in any conditions without the need to re-stain or repair, and it is also vandal resistant. By its nature the pieces are a lot heavier than wood so will not blow away, such as the bespoke planters outside the bus station in Matlock that weigh half a tonne each and had to be lifted into position by crane. The benches are also ideally suited for sea fronts and marinas as they are not affected by salt water and one of TDP's earliest orders was for seating on Canvey Island in Essex. There are now 100 benches placed along the beach front as well as picnic benches on the sand.

At the recycling plant molten plastic is poured into moulds etched with a wood grain pattern. This is left to set for an hour before being pushed out and left to cool - a process Rob likens to Play-Doh albeit on a somewhat larger scale! It is these plastic planks that TDP then orders in to its Wirksworth factory where they are cut to the required size and made into furniture. Every piece is built to order so colours and measurements can be customised.

Aaron at workAaron at work

To keep up with the ever-increasing demand for its products, with orders mainly from the UK but also from places as far away as Kathmandu, TDP has recently invested in a new machine that is programmed to drill holes in each plank, reducing the time from up to ten minutes to just 30 seconds. It is also used to engrave words and images onto pieces.

Whilst the more traditional brown and black furniture colours remain the most popular, more people are requesting the colourful chairs, benches and tables, with schools and sports clubs often ordering items according to their colours.

Rob says, 'The Cromford Chair comes in brown and black. Then we added a choice of colours for the chair and we're finding now that people are starting to buy the colour ranges to brighten up their gardens and a golf club recently ordered a set of bright purple chairs with black tables.' He smiles, 'It's a new trend we're starting!'

Due to a steadily increasing range of products, the indoor showroom that has only been open for two years has already been extended once and there are plans to add an outdoor area in the next few months to display some of the larger items.

In situ on the beach front at Canvey Island in EssexIn situ on the beach front at Canvey Island in Essex

However, nothing quite beats seeing the pieces in situ. Rob says, 'Someone came across one of our benches next to a footpath and was interested in ordering one just like it but didn't know what type it was. They rang us and I asked them to read the unique serial number that we include on every item and was then able to tell them what the bench was they wanted!'

TDP is currently developing its brand new 'Find a Bench' app so people can see where particular products are located, particularly if they live some distance from the showroom.

Although the benches are a relatively recent venture, TDP's story begins long before its current success when Rob and his wife Anna founded the company - Trade and DIY Products - nearly 30 years ago. Outgrowing the site it occupied in Duffield, TDP moved to Wirksworth in 1999. Its core business remains as a trade supplier providing and manufacturing a range of products for the construction, building and landscaping market. However, increasing competition from cheaper imports meant growth was limited in the market. That's when the idea of making furniture from the recycled plastic planks they sold came about.

Planters incorporating a bench in situ at MatlockPlanters incorporating a bench in situ at Matlock

Alison Harlow, Commercial Director, says, 'We made one or two by hand and from there it grew and grew and grew! At 
first Rob was making all the pieces himself before his son joined him and just last year they have taken on a third person 
to meet demand.'

Rob is a graphic designer by trade and when adding new furniture to the current ranges starts by sketching ideas before considering the limitations of the material he's working with. He says, 'You can't do all the things with plastic that you can with wood, such as carving and dovetail joints. You also have to look at the feasibility of production and ensure it will be structurally safe.' Once Rob is happy with the design he begins to build prototypes before creating the finished product.

Inspired by the Peak District, most of the pieces are named after Derbyshire places such as Bakewell, Cromford, Dovedale and Tansley.

The latest 'Wirksworth' range - so called because it was commissioned by Wirksworth Town Council - was designed to be more elegant by hiding as many of the fixings as possible. Rob says, 'Fixing the furniture together can be a challenge. It's not easy to glue together so we use fixings like screws and bolts. I don't mind seeing the fixings as I think it looks more honest but it does look more elegant without.'

Seats in use at Chatsworth Bowling ClubSeats in use at Chatsworth Bowling Club

The Cromford chairs are also the result of design development as they are lighter in weight, so making it easier for people to move them around. The Cromford Chair is Rob's own particular favourite. He says, 'I'm still waiting to make a set for myself. I've had the barbecue for two years and have been waiting to make a table and chairs but there's just been no time for me to do it as we're so busy with orders!'

From a solitary bench in the middle of a field to picnic benches on the beach, TDP is turning recycled plastics into functional, quality furniture.

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