When she was 15 years old, Sallie Plumley received three gifts from her grandfather that changed her life: his wedding ring, his own handmade bed, and his woodshop. While each gift had a particular significance, it was the woodshop that gave the young artist the inspiration to make what came next.
“I spent as much time with my granddaddy as I could manage,” recalls Plumley, who is now the owner of Sallie Plumley Studio. “I wanted to be just like him, so I enjoyed spending time in his woodshop where I learned to value patience, attention to detail, and excitement about new projects.”
During her summer breaks, Plumley couldn’t wait to get to her grandparent’s beach house – not only to play in the ocean, but also to make things. There, she would wake up every Thursday morning to attend the Cape Fear Woodcarvers Club with her grandfather where they used all kinds of tools, like the radial arm saw, to create magnificent wooden sculptures.
“My imagination was sparked, and I began to love working with wood,” smiles Plumley.
Over time, she began to appreciate the act of making valuable things and designing objects for ease of use — homes that flow well, coffee mugs with perfect handles, and furniture that is both beautiful and functional. At Virginia Commonwealth University, Plumley’s skills grew as she earned a BFA in Crafts and Material Studies with a concentration in furniture design and woodworking. After graduation, she put her degree to work immediately by taking a job in a Richmond woodshop that specializes in traditional furniture.
In 2017, Plumley went out on her own and built her own business — one that incorporated her childhood experiences and combined them with the new skills she had accumulated. Thanks to her grandfather’s gift of creativity, Sallie Plumley Studio was born.
Today, Plumley builds timeless, custom pieces for a growing base of residential and commercial clients. Every piece Plumley makes requires a different process. She uses a combination of machine and hand techniques, depending on what the project requires. She prefers to start with broad ideas, sketching each of them out and then working through the technical details. Once her customer chooses a final design, Plumley goes straight for locally sourced and naturally dried woods whenever possible. She says that wood shopping is one of the best parts of her job because it gives her a deeper understanding of the materials that bring her creations to life. “Digging through slabs of wood, and looking for character, color, cracks, knots, and beauty is a process that I really enjoy,” says Plumley. Once she has the materials, the entire process can take several weeks to a few months depending on the complexity of the design. Along the way, she often uses may of the tools that her grandfather left for her in his shop.
Examples of her work can be found in Richmond at Urban Set Bride and at Tabol Brewing Company, where she recently collaborated with other craftspeople in her shared shop space in the North Side. Her residential work can be spotted in a number of historic homes in Church Hill and the Fan District, as well as throughout Washington D.C. “I often find inspiration in the people around me and in my own life experiences,” explains Plumley. “Most of my work consists of commissions and is influenced by spatial problem solving. My goal is always to help my clients establish spaces that reflect who they are, so I enjoy getting to know my customers throughout the process.”
When Plumley is not making commissioned pieces, she crafts furniture and wooden items for shows and for her own home. She says that she sees these pieces as opportunities to take risks and try new things without consequence. “I enjoy the experimentation phase of my work and I always look forward to how my own life experiences show up when I make work for fun.”
As Plumley’s business grows she hopes to inspire other craftspeople along the way. Her advice to other Richmond artists and creators is to simply keep making things. “Fear of failure is often the thing that makes makers so hesitant to create. But, if you aren’t making things, nothing gets done,” says Plumley. To view Plumley’s latest creations, visit sallieplumleystudio.com and follow her on Instagram at @sallieplumleystudio.
Photo by Jen Brown, Stone & Laurel.