What’s the nutshell version of how you launched Niwaki?
A. ‘I was working at a tree nursery in Japan and using Japanese gardening tools. When I came back to work in England, I quickly realised the tools in Japan were much, much better. Straight away I thought: hang on, why would I want to use this ladder when I could have an amazing three-legged Japanese one? Why would I use these secateurs when I have a pair of Japanese ones? For a few years I carried on using my Japanese tools and didn’t think about it, but people kept asking me: “Where’d you get that? Can you get me some?” I would say, “Oh, you can’t get these, they’re from Japan.” I said that enough to think: that’s a silly response. Soon enough, I was ordering a big 20-foot container filled with Japanese ladders. This was back in the early 2000s.
What’s so good about Japanese ladders?
A. ‘A regular four-legged step ladder is fine when the ground is flat and generally hard and firm. But the moment you’re on anything soft, irregular, gravelly and not necessarily completely flat, four legs – especially when they’re very close together – are a disaster. Three legs, when they’re wide apart like ours, are much safer, more stable and able to deal with slopes and soft ground. They’re also welded rather than riveted. All the step ladders you get from the DIY store are pop-riveted – that’s the weak link in them – whereas these are welded at every point. Yes, they’re more expensive, but I’m getting a better ladder and hopefully I’ll still be alive in six years’ time.’
Makes sense! When you started out, were you selling to pros or hobbyists?
A. ‘It was to gardening friends and contacts of contacts. I was working in a nursery in Sussex, so I had a lot of gardening people coming and going. Gardeners tend to be very nice, chatty, sociable people who like showing off, sharing what they’ve got, snooping around other people’s gardens and gossiping. So if you can make that work it’s brilliant, as people like sharing what they’ve discovered. That helped us a lot at the very beginning – just word of mouth.’
And how has the brand grown since then?
A. That’s exactly it – we’ve become a brand. At the start, I was simply buying products and selling them. But very soon we realised that people were calling our products Niwaki – “Oh, look at my Niwaki clippers, aren’t they great?” So we put more emphasis on the idea that, yes, they were buying a Niwaki product. My wife Keiko is Japanese, so we would visit our suppliers and right from the start we were talking directly with manufacturers. A lot of work was spent on honing in on an essential range and working out which of our manufacturers would want to work with us not just to rebrand their products, but to make additions and changes. To make them our own.’
Some of your products are more like art objects than tools...
A. ‘The bottom line is it’s a tool that you get dirty and do manual work with. But the Japanese have a beautiful way of making everything as nicely as possible, and as well as possible. It looks good. It feels good. And I mean, yeah, you can dress it up and make it look like an exquisite art object, but it’s made to be used and to get filthy. There’s a great balance there.’
And what about Japanese shears?
A. ‘The worst thing you can buy is a big, heavy blade stuck in a plastic handle. A Japanese pair of shears is a piece of steel riveted into a wooden handle. If you draw an outline of them on a piece of paper, they look very similar to what you’d buy at your local DIY store. But with simplicity, you need quality. The steel itself is much, much higher quality. It will be drop-forged, which is the standard Japanese forging technique. And it will be finished and sharpened by hand. There are no nuts and bolts, stoppers, cogs, gearing or gimmicks to make them look like they’re going to be really good but then fall apart quickly. Most things you buy nowadays immediately start to go downhill, but these get better as they get older.’
Functionally better or aesthetically more beautiful?
A. ‘Your attachment to them grows as you learn how to sharpen them and as the wood becomes your wood. You stain them with a bit of sweat and a bit of toil. So it does actually lead to them becoming functionally better, because you’re enjoying using them. I have a pair of shears I’ve been using for 15, 20 years now – they’re still as sharp and, on some days, they’re sharper than when I got them.’
Now, of course, you’re selling beyond your gardening circle. Who’s your customer?
A. ‘These are good enough tools for a professional who knows what they’re doing and is going to really work them hard for eight hours a day. But if they’re that good, they’re good enough for anyone. A huge amount of our customers are not even keen amateurs – they’re homeowners who appreciate having something a little bit nicer. During lockdown, in particular, we were finding new customers like that. The idea that because you’re a beginner or not a serious enthusiast then you should have a bad tool is ridiculous. You should never have a bad tool!’