For Sallie Plumley, handcrafted furniture turns a house into a home.
When Richmond furniture maker Sallie Plumley mentions being gifted, she’s not talking about her considerable talents. Plumley’s favorite gifts came from her grandfather: his wedding band, with instructions to give it to the man she wanted to marry someday; a classic wood bed frame he built himself; and his woodshop, complete with tools.
Along with those tangible gifts, Plumley’s grandfather shared his values, his eye for natural beauty, and an appreciation of family traditions.
Framework of Memories
If this story is not already enchanting enough, consider her grandfather’s name: George Bailey, just like Jimmy Stewart’s character in the classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. Now 29, Plumley was 16 when “Daddy George” died and left her these things. “He was my favorite person in the whole world, and all I ever wanted as a kid was to be just like him.”
In many ways, she is. “Furniture building isn’t just a man’s world—it’s an old man’s world,” admits Plumley. “I know a few other women in this field, but not many.”
Plumley spent childhood summers with her grandparents in Wilson, North Carolina. “Daddy George was a regular blue-collar guy who ran an ice plant,” she says. “When he retired, he taught himself how to build furniture as a hobby, and he built a ton of stuff.” Her fondest memories are of watching him work in his magnolia-shaded, vine-covered shop.
Her grandparents also owned an old cottage at Topsail Beach. There, Plumley would follow Daddy George to his Thursday morning Cape Fear Woodcarvers Club meetings. “Every week, I sat there with a bunch of 80-year-old men and a cool old dog while they carved wood birds, smoked cigars, talked politics, and shared war stories,” says Plumley.
When Plumley entered Virginia Commonwealth University, she intended to major in sculpture and photography. “I didn’t know what to do with the woodshop,” she says. “I wasn’t aware that you could study woodworking in school,” she says. But that would change.
A Leap of Faith
Her husband, Charlie, fell in love with Plumley the night she told him about her grandfather’s gifts. “I told her I hoped that one day I might have the honor of being the man who would wear that ring,” he says. Not long after, that wish came true. Now he’s her biggest cheerleader.
“I got to watch Sallie discover and develop her woodworking talents at school,” says Charlie. Plumley earned a degree in Craft and Material Studies, with a concentration in furniture design and woodworking. She worked for a traditional furniture maker in Richmond before taking what she calls “a leap of faith” to form her own company in 2017.
Plumley currently shares space and equipment with four other independent woodworkers in a large Richmond warehouse, and she stays busy year-round. “One of my favorite things to do is pop by her studio, and every time it blows me away,” says Charlie.
Building a Brand
Soon she may be undertaking a big project for a corporation at Arlington’s National Landing. Preliminary discussions include a large dining table, two conference tables, and two sofa tables. The designers have asked Plumley to burn QR codes into the wood so admirers can use their mobile phones to learn more about her studio.
It’s a long way from her first commissions. One of those projects—for her parents, Susan and Tillman Bailey, who still own the family beach house in Topsail—is especially intriguing. “We wanted a smaller table that could expand when we have a crowd,” says Susan, “so Tillman asked Sallie to make a French extension table like one he had seen in an antique shop.” Sallie studied the table, with its clever, hidden sliding leaves, and replicated it for her parents. As an added flourish, she embedded her grandmother’s collection of shells in an exotic turquoise river to look like they’re floating.
A cherry sideboard came next—with epoxy details and door panels covered in navy grasscloth. Furniture with similar epoxy features—embedded with lapis, charcoal, copper flecks, or ground mother of pearl—are now popular among Plumley’s clients.
“From the time she could hold a crayon, Sallie has been creating things,” says Susan. “This is where Sallie is meant to be, and this is what she is meant to be doing.”
Finding Beauty in the Rotten and Broken
Plumley is known for her careful selection of wood—almost always locally sourced from a few trusted suppliers, such as Genuine Timbercraft. “I like to incorporate tree knots and sapwood where appropriate as a testament to the tree’s life and natural beauty. Trees speak for themselves.”
Plumley finishes her pieces using natural oils, rather than stains. “I don’t love gloss. If a customer says the finished wood is beautiful, it’s not because of me. God did that.” Her favorite wood is walnut. “It’s so beautiful, and you simply can’t screw it up. If you come to me for a beautiful walnut table, it’ll be handcrafted out of real walnut, not pine that’s been stained to look like walnut. For me, this is about integrity.”
Plumley frequently incorporates a plank’s “live edges,” into her projects, and she often stabilizes surfaces by pouring equal parts of epoxy, creativity, and love into the areas that need reinforcement.
Furniture Built for Gathering
Carefully chosen, personalized furniture transforms a house into a home, Plumley says. About 40 percent of her commissions are local, but she ships all over the country, and always has a waiting list.
“A lot of people come to me after numerous crappy furniture purchases,” she explains. “The tipping point is when they can’t find what they want in a store. Customers want clean lines, timeless design, and really well-made construction—something that will last for generations.”
Her pieces promote fellowship—dining tables, island countertops, media centers, benches, fireplace mantles. Each project begins with a conversation to understand the customer’s vision. Projects are priced according to size, materials, and complexity.
Richmond architect Thomas Townes and his wife, Myra, were searching for a custom dining table when they noticed the handcrafted tabletops at Richmond’s Tabol Brewing. They soon learned Plumley collaborated on the project. “The work she was doing was outstanding, and we liked the fact that she was local,” says Townes.
Plumley created a large table out of live-edge walnut slabs inverted onto each other, with an epoxy river of charcoal mica powder and real powdered copper details, supported by a base of ebonized white oak. It consistently attracts attention, says Townes. The couple is already talking with Plumley about designing additional pieces.
Alyssa Schwenk wanted a unique table for her Richmond home. “I was aghast at the prices at furniture stores, especially when I considered the actual quality, so I decided to explore custom,” she says. She collaborated with Plumley to design a table that checked all the boxes. “I knew I did not want the standard four legs and four corners,” says Schwenk. “I wanted something mid-century with textures and colors.”
The result is a natural walnut table with copper-infused epoxy details and a wide, angular base that features bronze and stainless steel tension cables for extra stability. “The table is stunning and really well-designed,” says Schwenk. “It gets tons of compliments, and everyone recognizes it as something super unique and special.”
Robert and Susan, a retired couple in Virginia’s Northern Neck, commissioned a dining table from Plumley to reflect the angles of their home and to capture the colors of the water surrounding their property. “Those who visit are astounded at the beauty and depth of detail of this table, and how the colors dance on it as the light changes throughout the day,” says Susan.
From the James to the Potomac—business continues to flow for this young and talented artist. SalliePlumleyStudio.com
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue.