Selwyn House is formed by Sean Best and Ellie Smalls, who met studying Fine Art at Leeds Arts University. Always drawn to making things, Sean bought a second-hand lathe and began teaching himself woodturning. An all-consuming obsession for understanding and working with wood followed, and after making the move back to Ellie’s home county of Derbyshire in 2017, they formed Selwyn House, combining their creative talents to create small-batch handmade serve-ware & homeware from the best British-grown timbers they could get their hands on.
Their work is now stocked in several independent shops across the country but is always made individually by hand at their Derbyshire workshop.
We sat down with Ellie to ask her a few questions about Selwyn House and the unique processes they use.
1) What inspired you to go into woodturning – tell us about Selwyn House and your origin story?
Sean used to work at a secondary school in the Technology department, so first started using a lathe there. He bought a small second-hand lathe pretty cheaply, and the obsession began! He really just started making pieces that we’d use at home – our candlestick design is still pretty similar to something Sean made way before ‘Selwyn House’! We were very fortunate to be able to leave 9-5 jobs and move back to Derbyshire in 2017, where we used the workshop at the bottom of the garden to start making the pieces we wanted to use when we had family and friends around for dinner – boards, bowls, plates and utensils.
2) Any type of formal training in woodturning? If not, how did you learn the craft?
No formal training in turning whatsoever! Sean has always had an interest in knowing how to make things, right back to when we met at university many years ago. So he’s entirely self-taught, picking things up along the way from working at the school, Youtube, meeting our suppliers, and from my very rough ideas of ‘I’d quite like something like this…’ – our joint background in Fine Art means we’re both quite good at experimenting with materials and processes until we get the result we have in our heads. We think you always learn the most just delving in and doing it – especially with wood, there’s so much variation between species, even piece to piece – so we’re still always learning and what works for one timber might not work at all for another!
3) If you could sit down with anyone (living or dead) and have a beer, who would it be and why?
For the past year or so we’ve been very grateful to have been kept exceptionally busy making our pieces for stockists – so at this moment the chance to stop and sit down just with each other and have a beer would be enough!
4) Any advice for aspiring future pro woodturners out there?
Get a respirator – don’t even second guess it, just buy one! Every woodturner who’s ever had something fly off the lathe at their face will instantly know the value of taking the precaution to put the mask on. And in terms of making pieces, we’d say try not to compare yourself to other turners – because the originality disappears a little when you’re influenced by the ‘right’ way of turning. Find a design you like – not even necessarily in wood – and make pieces you’d keep in your own home.
5) Can you tell us an interesting thing about your process/ materials?
We source only British-grown timber. Quite often we’ll know the provenance of the tree and where it came from. What most people probably don’t know is how long it takes to get the raw material – for example, we had an Ash tree sawn for us which we won’t be able to use for at least another 4 years while we wait for it to dry! We work with lots of suppliers who are exceptionally passionate about the timber, and it is infectious – we’re quite adept now at spotting the outside of a tree, or the end of a log, and knowing it will make something good!
6) What do you enjoy most about your venture and what has been the hardest part?
The best part is working together. I’m sure lots of couples couldn’t spend every hour with each other, but it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. The hardest part is probably just how physical it can be – it can be really exhausting at the end of a long day of turning or sanding, or lugging pieces of timber about – but every day beats sitting in an office so we’re always aware of how lucky we are!
7) What’s the next step for you and your business?
Well, we’re very excitedly preparing to move workshop soon, we can’t wait! It will allow us a much bigger space, better power and lots more light. We already know the quality of work is going to improve so much once we’re in, but it will also mean we can work more efficiently, and hopefully, get another member of the team, and buy more lovely timber!
8) What is your go-to recipe – whether to impress friends or simply share with the family on a weeknight?
We love food but so often we’re not really following a recipe – it’s just what feels right with the ingredients we have. If we were having people over for a relaxed get-together, these are probably the two recipes we’d go for – Margheritas and Chipotle chicken.
The Margaritas (Serves 2)
- 1 double shot Tequila Blanco
- 1 double shot Triple Sec
- 1 double shot sugar syrup
- The juice of 1 lime
Shake all the ingredients together with a handful of ice cubes. Serve between 2 glasses (no salt on the rim please!) and try not to have too many!