When you’re setting up a cafe, every aesthetic and functional detail gets taken into consideration, from the floor color and texture (tiles, wood, cement?) to the walls (barn wood? subway tile?), color scheme, workspace and flow, and even the sound system. Then, when that’s all done, you fork out what is possibly the largest chunk of your budget on an espresso machine and equipment which will most likely look identical to any number of cafes in your surrounding city (if not the entire world).
Sure, there are always alternative options—if you’re the engineering type, you could take apart a Synesso and create custom isolated espresso group heads (a la Aunty Pegs), or go all out and install a Modbar, but what can you do if you want a regular espresso machine—just with a little bit more unique character?
Well, in that case, you get on the phone and call Dan Schonknecht of Specht Design in Melbourne. Chances are you’ve already stumbled across a photo of one of his creations, whether it’s the leather-bound Slayer 0001 espresso machine that graces the St. Ali bar, the striking blue La Marzocco Strada machines at Vertue of the Coffee Drink, or even one of the sweet little one-group La Marzocco GS3s in someone’s home kitchen.
Having previously worked as general manager of a high-end cabinet making business, Schonknecht set up Specht Design just 10 months ago, swiftly building an impressive portfolio of espresso machine customizations that have already found their way around the world. To learn a little bit more about the unique creations and the man behind them, I sat down for a digital conversation with Schonknecht from his studio.
What led you to focus on coffee equipment in this way?
I have owned various coffee machines over the years and the stainless steel and plastic felt very cold to me. I’m a cabinetmaker/furniture maker by trade, so I thought the obvious way to add some warmth was to make a timber handle for the portafilter. I started searching for suitable wooden lathes and chisels and before I knew it I had made my first handle, and it instantly added a better feel to my machine. I slowly started making additional items for my machine and was really happy with the way they were turning out.
I really only intended on doing this as a hobby to fill in my spare time, but kept noticing that people on a coffee forum that I subscribed to were asking if anyone knew of someone making timber handles for coffee machines. I finally made the decision to offer them to other coffee lovers and I started to see a real demand for them. My wife and Rick Bond (aka The Coffee Machinist) convinced me to start up an Instagram account and start posting pictures of my work to see if anyone else was interested in my products—it took off faster than I could keep up with and now it’s my full-time business!
I take a very restrained approach to the way I customize machines and I always try to keep the original soul of the machine and simply refine it. I have a lot of respect for the people that have put in effort into designing these machines, therefore I take that into consideration when customizing them. Besides the paint and timber, I want people to have to take a second look to pick up on the minor yet well-thought-out modifications I carry out.
What is the most ambitious or most off request you’ve had so far?
The most ambitious was being asked by St. Ali coffee roasters to customize the first Slayer espresso machine ever built. It was the first commercial machine I ever laid my hands on and they knew that too—I was shitting myself! The only request by Salvatore [Malatesta] was that he wanted leather and walnut and I had to somehow incorporate that into the machine. It was well received thankfully!
Do you have a favorite machine brand to customize?
I love working on all machines, but I have a real soft spot for La Marzocco GS3s, as they launched this whole crazy adventure! They are amazing little machines that have so many parts that can be customized and look amazing with a bit of love. I always get excited to work on one.
Many of the machines you’ve customized seem to have a collaborative nature, with leather workers or engravers. Who have you worked with in the past, and how do you find the experience of co-working on a piece?
So far I have commissioned Kyle from Pretty Polly Designs for all my laser engraving work as he is a great guy who will do anything for his clients. He always does a great job and is super creative, really helping me translate a lot of my crazy ideas! I have also commissioned Elisha from Chocolate Brownie Leather for the leather work on a couple of machines I’ve worked on—her leather work is amazing and she was responsible for the laser ether leather back on the St. Ali Slayer… I have a leather back on my own machine by Elisha and it just adds a touch of charm to it.
I have commissioned Bond for a couple of projects now as he has a brilliant mechanical mind and translates all of my technical modifications, like changing a GS3 display from blue to red. We have a few very exciting things cooking at the moment! I also collaborate with Craig Milton from Brewtech on many projects—he handles all of my servicing and technical issues. He has been an amazing support and has given me so much valuable advice.
What are your goals for Specht Design?
I love the fact that I get to manage every aspect of my business as I do it all on my own, but that is not sustainable. So I would love to be able to slowly expand and train someone passionate about coffee and timber to assist me and learn the fine skills of this trade, to eventually have a team of passionate creative people to build awesome machines together.
As much as I love being a one-man operation, I want to be able to offer my product to the world and the only way I can do that is to expand. It would be amazing to think that one day I could have a well-oiled team running a workshop and a showroom to welcome clients to—a space that my team loves to work in and a space that clients can see machines on display in and just come and hang out and drink coffee in!
Have you got any big projects coming up?
I have so many exciting relationships building in the background that I will keep you posted on as they progress—on the machine front, I do have a two-group Slayer and a La Marzocco Linea that I’m working on that are going to be pretty special!
What would your ideal customization project be?
I really love to experiment with different materials and commission other trades so it would be awesome to have a client drop a machine on my bench with no budget and just say “Go for it.”