Focus On: Sealey Furniture, a place for everything and everything in its place

Focus On: Sealey Furniture, a place for everything and everything in its place

If you want built-in furniture, why not look to a local cabinet-maker or carpentry firm? Such as Leicestershire bespoke furniture makers Sealey Furniture, which demonstrates the very high level of skill and environmental awareness found in Britain's small workshops

By Abby Trow
Life without built-in storage is intolerable. But you need design that suits your room. Limed oak storage with cream leather on door and drawer fronts

The term built-in furniture still has slightly negative connotations of rather nasty laminated stuff put into alcoves in estate houses. But built-in furniture can be very lovely, and crucially it enhances your home life hugely - as anyone who's moved into a property with no-where to put anything will know. So don't suffer from storage deprivation, seek out local furniture talent, exemplified by small companies such as Sealey Furniture in Leicestershire - which incidentally celebrates its 40th anniversary this year (1977-2017) Pictured above: limed oak units with leather door finish.

There's always the issue of where do we want to put our business. A high street brand? An international designer brand? Or the cabinet maker in the local town?

Increasingly more of us would choose the latter when it comes to furniture, especially if we've been recommended someone by a friend.

And Keith Sealey of Sealey Furniture shows why it's invariably a far more pleasant and rewarding experience to commission a kitchen, bathroom or built-in storage from a local craftsperson: 'I've always loved meeting clients and talking to them about what they want, and going away and designing something that's interesting and meets their needs exactly,' says Sealey, who started his career as a furniture-maker in the late 1970s and set up Sealey Furniture in 1977.

It may take up to three months for the Sealey workshop to make a kitchen, but it'll be a fine piece of craftsmanship.  A hand-made wooden kitchen will cost from £30,000
Simple and modern, a low oak bench seat/coffee table
Bespoke timber island unit with LED lighting in cupboards and an integrated wine cabinet
A bespoke American black walnut wine cabinet for a client
Birch wood bathroom furniture with wall-hung cabinets
Tulip wood kitchen and storage wood, spray painted

Sealey - who's up and running at full steam after his workshops had to be rebuilt following a fire caused by a faulty fridge - says small companies such as his have a huge advantage in that they can do anything. 'We can make very utilitarian products and more intricate pieces that will become heirlooms of tomorrow, such as bow-fronted chest of drawers.

'We make built-in furniture or free-standing pieces using only FSC-certified woods. You have to think about how long you expect to be living in a place..so if you'll be moving at fairly regular intervals it makes sense to commission furniture you can take with you.'

But of course built-in furniture does add value to a property, and there's no doubt that it makes life better... to have great bookshelves with cupboards and space for your TV screen is a joy, as it having a bank of wardrobes across the width of your bedroom. So they are worth investing in.

And Sealey doesn't shy away from the fact that bespoke furniture is always going to be more expensive than going to Ikea and it can be quite a major investment. 'Wood from sustainable sources isn't cheap, but what people are paying for is the labour. For us to build a kitchen takes two to four months. It's very labour-intensive work. And one of the issues I do wrestle with is that the furniture we make isn't something everyone can afford.'

But craftsmen such such as Sealey don't want to become furniture farms, churning out product. 'I've always worked with a small team - at the moment there are just three of us, me and twin brothers Chris and Alex Boam. I'm in my 60s and it's great to have talented young furniture makers to work with.'

Master craftsman Keith Sealey flanked by the terrifically talented furniture-making twins Chris (left) and Alex Boam in their Lutterworth workshops
Smart burr elm office with built in desk and storage
Lacquering a Lilipad, Sealey's tablet computer stand, in the workshop
Tulip wood home office/den shelving and storage units, spray painted black
Leather topped oak desk and credenza, desk has steel legs

Collaborating with interior designers

Sealey is the furniture maker London interior designer Melanie Nelson turns to to make the pieces she designs for her clients and he likes the variety of work he gets to make for her projects. 'We make wine cabinets, storage units, but also free-standing pieces such as desks and credenzas. There is an element of engineering when you work with an interior designer because you have to work out how to actually make their designs.

He cites a challenge that came up when building a kitchen, where a meter cupboard that could not be moved sat behind some new cupboards. 'Reading the meter was going to be a problem, so we came up with the the solution of putting in a periscope, which got around the problem!'

Sustainable wood is good

Sealey is a committed environmentalist and he feels wood from sustainable/managed forests is the best material to make furniture from. 'Running an eco-friendly business is incredibly important to me. I hate to waste any wood and buy only FSC-certified timbers. US black walnut is popular at the moment, but we use mainly European oak, and some veneers if clients want a rarer wood finish.

'When we're doing work for clients who have land we ask them to plant a tree to compensate for the tree we're using to make their furniture, and they're nearly always delighted we ask them to do this.'

He adds that perhaps contrary to what a lot of us may think 'you can get a phenomenal amount of useful timber from one tree.. it will keep a wood turner, a carpenter and a fine furniture maker going for a long time.'

The well-equipped Sealey workshops collect their wood waste and use it in the wood-burning stoves to heat the space in winter.

And the workshop uses little in the way of noxious chemicals, using water-based paints and natural oils and waxes to treat wood. Glues remain an issue, however, though the industry is working on cleaner products.

Local connections

While Sealey Furniture clients are spread far and wide these days, local people know the workshops are there and that they're welcome to drop in with a small chair or stool that may need fixing. 'People come by with pieces that need a new bit of wood and we'll turn it for them,' says Sealey.

The great thing about workshops like these are that they're living proof that British craftsmanship is alive and well and there are plenty of people who value having fine furniture made for them, even if it means waiting for a several months for it to arrive.

'I do love my work. It is a labour of love because you don't get rich doing it, but you are making furniture that will be in use for a very long time,' says Sealey.

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