Furniture is the perfect showcase for timber’s selling points, illustrating its aesthetics, strength, versatility and variety. From early times to the present day these attributes have appealed to furniture makers and now, in these eco-conscious times, sustainability can be added to the list of positives.

The look and feel of timber are obviously attractions for those buying furniture, but they’re big factors in furniture makers’ choice of the material, too.

"I love working with timber – the different smells and feel when you’re cutting it – and it’s malleable too," said Keith Sealey, owner of Leceistershire-based Sealey Furniture.

It’s a sentiment shared by Richard Johnston of RJ Furniture, who completed a course in furniture craft at the City of Glasgow College last year after a 20-year career in IT.

"It’s so satisfying – everything to do with timber is lovely," said Mr Johnston.

Lifelong Love Affair

Sean Sutcliffe, founder of Benchmark with Terence Conran in 1984, has a lifelong love of timber.

"It’s probably the first material that any of us start making things in, so we form a relationship with it very early on."

For Mr Sutcliffe, this developed into professional appreciation of wood’s properties.

"It’s incredibly versatile. From building houses and bridges, to fashioning beautiful turnery or decorative inlays – whether it’s structural or decorative there’s almost no end to the variety of things that you can do with it." Bespoke Bathrooms To Bat Boxes

Sealey Furniture produces everything from gates to free-standing furniture and kitchens and bathrooms.

The work is bespoke and often the staff of four will work with interior designers and complete the furniture and cabinet making for an entire property.

"We’re very flexible and never do the same thing," said Mr Sealey.

"A lot of design goes into it, trying to interpret what the client wants and whether it’s practical for us to make it. That in itself can be a challenge."

Seventy per cent of the company’s work is in upmarket properties in London so a recent commission was very much out of the ordinary – a box for 700 pipistrelle bats. The 1400x700mm bat box was made for a local church which wanted to entice the animals from the building.

It had to be waterproof, so Finnish birch plywood was chosen after careful investigation to ensure the glues were bat-friendly.

"We worked with a zoologist to design the box; the shape and the gaps between the elements inside," said Mr Sealey.

"The interior also had to be removeable and include a heated mat for temperature control."

While Sealey Furniture uses birch plywood and MR MDF for cupboard carcasses and veneered boards, for solid timber it turns to oak, American black walnut and North American maple.

In the past it used a lot of American cherry but it seems to have fallen out of fashion, with clients prefering lighter colours.

"They might want to match or complement a piece of furniture they have so we try to find something that goes with it and then make suggestions," said Mr Sealey. Douglas fir is the only softwood used, specified for gates or other external structures.

"It’s hardwearing and durable and comes in big sections," said Mr Sealey.

The company’s suppliers include Whitmore’s Timber – the first one Mr Sealey opened an account with when he started 38 years ago – and James Latham plc.

When it comes to finishes, Sealey Furniture uses a two-pack polyurethane lacquer, applied in-house.

Paint colours can be made up to meet the client’s preference.

"At the moment, gloss and matt finishes are popular. Satin was a few years ago but it doesn’t tend to get a look-in now," said Mr Sealey.

Backing British

Richard Johnston, who is establishing a workshop following his recent graduation, is "playing around with different materials" but he does like to reflect his Scottish roots in his choice of timber.

His latest piece is a console table made from whisky barrel stays. The timber is American oak, but is steeped in an indisputably Scottish product.

"I worked in the drinks industry in IT for many years so I had an affinity to whisky and always wanted to use the oak to make something," said Mr Johnston.

The table uses the natural curves of the barrels while the flat surface shows the timber’s colours and grain.

He is now working on a side table in whisky oak.

He likes to use Scottish timbers where possible and has local supplies of oak – which he describes as "extremely nice to work with" – and elm. Benchmark was the first furniture workshop to receive ‘Grown in Britain’ chain of custody accreditation.

But its use of homegrown hardwoods is limited by supply.

"Anything that helps promote the health and wealth of British woodlands has to be a said. That concerns him.

"The trouble is, once a sawmill closes another won’t open to replace it.

"There’s not the money in the business to fund a sawmill start-up. It’s a serious threat to the UK hardwood trade."

While species choice is subject to the whims of changing taste, Benchmark does its best to champion particular timbers.

"The vagaries of fashion are a problem for the timber industry," said Mr Sutcliffe. "If you have, say, a lot of cherry trees in your woodland and it goes out of style for 15 years, it’s like having your cash frozen in the bank for 15 years.

I’m all for trying to promote whatever timber is most in need of a market."

Spreading The Species Selection

Recently Benchmark has been promoting ash because the double blight of chalara in Europe and emerald ash borer in the US puts the species under serious threat.

"I want to make this the decade when ash got used and prized, because 10 years from now we’re not going to have a lot," said Mr Sutcliffe.

He has also tried to champion cherry, which is "long overdue a renaissance". The trend for character and pippy oak continues to feature and Benchmark also uses waney-edged boards in the finished piece "so people see the bark and associate it with a tree".

Mr Sutcliffe also likes the colour and character of elm, sourced from Scotland, and he’s a big fan of sycamore for kitchens and laundries.

"It’s the wood that carries no taste, absorbs no taste and it scrubs clean," he said.

Some clients have a species in mind but Benchmark offers a lot of guidance. "I’m interested in finding out about the character of the piece and then choosing the appropriate wood," said Mr Sutcliffe. "I also see a lot of gender in timber. I see oak, elm, ash and coarse-grained woods as being very masculine.

Meanwhile, fruit trees and sycamore are much more feminine and therefore more suited for delicate and beautiful bedroom furniture."

He also likes to use London plane for projects in the capital "because there’s a kind of rhythm to it".

Like Richard Johnston, Mr Sutcliffe prefers to finish furniture with oil, which stands the test of time and can be repaired easily if necessary.

"We do still use some lacquers but we’re increasingly using oil," said Mr Sutcliffe. "We make a lovely piece of wooden furniture that will last 50-100 years but the lacquer will fail after 10-20 years, whereas oiled furniture looks its best 100 years from now