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Workshop industries

by Ian Hunter

New Zealand is a nation of tinkerers, so it is not surprising that workshop industries have long been important to New Zealand’s economy. In 2008 more than 90% of the country’s manufacturers were small workshops, employing fewer than 20 people.

A nation of workshops

Workshops are small manufacturing businesses, typically employing fewer than 20 people. They tend to carry out all or most stages in the production of their products, using a range of craft skills.

Workshops are dominant in industries as diverse as clothing manufacture, panel beating, signwriting and design. Together with factories (larger manufacturing businesses employing more than 20 people), they make up New Zealand’s manufacturing industry.

The importance of workshop industries

Workshop industries are very important to New Zealand’s economy. In 2008 more than 90% of New Zealand’s manufacturing enterprises employed fewer than 20 people. Workshops in the creative industries have helped to build New Zealand’s international reputation for ground-breaking design and communications.

Successful workshops may expand to become full-scale factories, so workshops can also be seen as the first stage in the life cycle of a firm’s economic growth.

Manufacturing nation


In 1884 the New Zealand Manufacturers’ Association was formed in Dunedin. At the association’s inaugural dinner, the guest speaker asked rhetorically, ‘What nation can exist in modern times that is composed entirely of tillers of the ground and shepherds of sheep? ... We are contributing our mite towards the building up of a State which may eventually occupy a prominent position among the nations of the world.’1


The workshop in New Zealand’s industrial development

The small workshop was the backbone of New Zealand’s early industrial development. New Zealand industry was not dominated by large foreign-owned enterprises, as was the case in some South American countries. New Zealand’s economy developed later than the economies of those countries, and was further away from the main markets in Europe. Also, New Zealand’s rapid population growth from immigration created a strong domestic market for its locally made products. Together, these factors discouraged large international companies from setting up in New Zealand and allowed local workshops to flourish.

Because of this, New Zealand entrepreneurs dominated the industrial landscape. At the core of this economic expansion was the small firm relying on the personal capital and expertise of one or two owner-operators and their staff.

Most tradespeople acquired the tools of their craft during their apprenticeship, so the main set-up costs for their business were a building and some land. Often their home, shop and workshop were under one roof. Sometimes apprentices lived there too, and family members were frequently vital to the business.

Workshops as places of discovery

Workshops have a special symbolic and historical importance to New Zealand culture. They help to define New Zealanders as a nation of ‘tinkerers’ – practical, resourceful people with a tradition of innovation. The workshop is traditionally a place where ideas are tested, and it has played a part in building the idea of ‘Kiwi ingenuity’.

In 1895 Ernest Hayes began his small engineering business from a 7-square-metre farm shed in Ōtūrehua, Central Otago. There he invented and manufactured a remarkable range of agricultural tools and implements. His best-known product, the parallel wire strainer for farm fences, was patented in 1923.

The South Island high country farmer Bill Hamilton and his staff spent many hours in the workshop at his farm at Irishman Creek in the Mackenzie Country in the 1950s. There they found the isolation, concentration and equipment necessary to perfect the world’s first jet boat.

    • John H. Angus, The ironmasters: the first hundred years of H. E. Shacklock Limited. Dunedin: H. E. Shacklock Limited, 1973, p. 38. Back

The first New Zealand workshops

New Zealand’s early industrial workshops were a wide range, from tailors through to umbrella-makers and pumice works. The most common types of workshops in 19th-century New Zealand were aerated-water manufacturers (the early version of modern soft-drink factories), grain mills, brick-and-tile works, coachbuilders, furniture makers and breweries. There were more than 100 of each of these enterprises spread around the country, most employing fewer than 10 people.

A large proportion of small manufacturing industries were owned by business partnerships. Working with a partner, instead of as a sole trader, could provide additional capital or special technical assistance, sales or marketing expertise, or access to particular clients or markets.

Workshop industries typically made their products to order or in small batches.

Pop to coffee


The aerated-water industry was once based on a nationwide array of small workshops. Its place in New Zealand’s cultural life has been taken over by the coffee roasting industry which supplies freshly roasted coffee to the country’s cafés. In 2009 the New Zealand Coffee Roasters Association (NZCRA) had 61 members, from Kaeo in Northland to Wānaka in Otago. NZCRA runs the annual New Zealand Barista Championships to find the country’s best coffee maker, who is then eligible for the international competition.


Aerated-water makers

By 1890 New Zealand had 112 different aerated-water manufacturers, employing a total of just 260 people. They typically employed only two people, making their own local brand of soft drink and bottling it in either clay jugs or glass bottles.

In the 20th century it became easier and more economical for city-based firms to deliver goods to smaller towns and urban areas. This began a process of industrial concentration, as some soft-drink makers took over or merged with others. The aerated-water workshops gave way to a small number of much larger industrial plants.

Furniture makers

Highly skilled cabinetmakers, upholsterers, woodturners and others working in the furniture trades were among the early European immigrants to New Zealand. As the market for their work grew, and powered machinery replaced hand tools, some of these small workshops expanded to factory size. However, the small furniture-making workshop remained common well into the 20th century.

McGregor and George Wright were brothers who trained as carvers and gilders in Scotland before coming to New Zealand in the 1880s. They set up business as picture framers on Wellington’s Lambton Quay, supplying ‘a large stock of handsome mouldings specially selected for the colonial trade’.1 The firm of McGregor Wright was still operating in 2019, by then on the Kāpiti Coast.

Iron foundries

Some of the best-known names in New Zealand manufacturing, such as Masport lawnmowers and Methven bathroom fittings, began as workshop-scale iron foundries, casting molten iron in moulds to make a huge variety of durable objects. Another noted foundry was set up by Henry Shacklock, who had trained in Britain to make the moulds into which molten iron was poured to cast individual iron parts. He migrated to New Zealand in the 1860s, and opened a small iron foundry in Dunedin. In 1873 he designed and built a coal range specially suited to the type of coal and the small houses available to his customers. It became so popular that the workshop was converted entirely to making these Orion stoves.

By 1894 Shacklock’s firm had become a full-scale factory employing some 40 workers.

Engineering workshops

The fast economic expansion of the colony gave many workshops the opportunity for growth. Brothers Alfred and George Price, who migrated from England to New Zealand in 1868 as qualified engineers, took advantage of this. They rented a small shed in Onehunga, Auckland, and designed and built their first product: a machine to strip flax. Within 12 months the Price brothers had sold 100 of these machines and employed six staff.

To take advantage of gold mining in the Coromandel, they transferred their operations to Thames in 1871 and made mining equipment, water pumps, ships’ engines and machinery for the flax and timber industries. Later they made ships and railway wagons.

In 2009 A. & G. Price was New Zealand’s largest heavy-engineering company, employing more than 100 staff.

    • Quoted in William Cottrell, Furniture of the New Zealand colonial era: an illustrated history, 1830–1900. Auckland: Reed, 2006, p. 92. Back

From coachbuilding to panel beating

Despite the growing domestic market, not all workshop industries followed the trend of expanding to factory size. Small workshop industries such as saddlers, furniture makers, blacksmiths, coachbuilders, soap works, tailors and small brickworks continued operating into the 20th century. However, very few of those survived into the 21st century, as new technology and cheaper freight replaced small-scale craft production with cheaper imported products.

Faced with this foreign competition, many workshops shifted from manufacture to repair. Among bootmakers, repair work replaced manufacturing from about 1900. Many watchmakers were forced to give up manufacturing even earlier. Coachbuilding is an example of a local workshop industry that survived and even grew into the early 20th century.

Making coaches in New Zealand

Horse-drawn coaches were generally too bulky to import in large quantities, and from the mid-19th century they were made and serviced in New Zealand.

Some local coachbuilders made models especially designed for New Zealand conditions. The Auckland firm of Cousins and Cousins produced the speedy Auckland Roadster gig, the Waikato buggy and the Spring dray, ideal for transporting milk cans to creameries.

By 1916 there were 183 coachbuilders in New Zealand, employing an average of eight staff. However, this buoyant workshop industry was eliminated by the invention of the motor car.

From making coaches to repairing cars

The first cars imported into New Zealand did not immediately displace the horse and cart. However, by the mid-1920s New Zealand had the highest rate of vehicle ownership per capita outside the United States.

Highly trained coachbuilders tried to adapt their skills to the automotive assembly industry, and the government placed tariffs on imported cars to encourage local assembly. As vehicle technology advanced, the industry required a knowledge of motor engineering beyond the scope of local coachbuilders. Instead a panel beating industry, often staffed by former coachbuilders, developed to repair and service the steadily increasing numbers of automobiles in New Zealand.

In the 2000s almost every small town in New Zealand had at least one panel beating and automotive workshop.

Workshops in the 2000s

In the 21st century the workshop is still important in New Zealand manufacturing. In 2008 small workshops with five or fewer employees made up just over 6% of employment in the manufacturing sector, and accounted for more than 6,000 enterprises.

A few traditional workshop industries such as blacksmithing, glass-blowing and jewellery-making have reappeared as artistic crafts. New workshop industries have also emerged. One example is the design workshop, which combines traditional craft skill with modern marketing and distribution.



A Workshop is a place where work, either physical or mental, is carried out, and something is being produced from it. It can be defined as a small factory with no more than 20 staff, yet some very large worksites, such as Dunedin’s Hillside railway workshops, used the term even when they employed over 800 staff. Recently workshop has also come to mean a short intensive course for a small group, with an emphasis on problem solving.


Workshop designs for the world

The New Zealand designer and furniture maker David Trubridge sustains a traditional workshop culture from his Hawke’s Bay design studio. Inspired by travel in the Pacific, Trubridge began producing innovatively designed furniture in 1985, working as a lone artisan. In 2001 he received international acclaim at the Milan Furniture Fair with his Body Raft – a wooden lounge seat. This success resulted in a change to workshop-scale production.

Even into the late 20th century New Zealand workshop industries primarily served the local market. Trubridge’s products, however, were distributed to a global niche market. A similar example is the Pāpāmoa-based engineering business of Blokart International. It was founded by Paul Beckett, who invented an innovative land-yacht in 1999. In the early 2000s the company exported most of its product to Australia, Europe, Asia, and the United States. This workshop had only seven employees.

The digital age, when information can be transmitted worldwide in virtually no time, with no cost, offers further opportunities for workshop-scale production at a great distance from markets.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ian Hunter, 'Workshop industries', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Ian Hunter, i tāngia i te 11 o Māehe 2010