Made in Lancashire - David Thornber Handmade Furniture

A Sawley dining table

A Sawley dining table - Credit: Archant

David Thornber decided against working in the church and moved home to the Ribble Valley to start a business. Roger Borrell reports.

Shaun Hobkirk, Rory Ismail, David Thornber, Taylor Fox and Oliver Longden

Shaun Hobkirk, Rory Ismail, David Thornber, Taylor Fox and Oliver Longden - Credit: Archant

A childhood spent in his grandfather’s traditional joinery workshop in the Ribble Valley village of Chatburn gave David Thornber a lifelong passion for woodwork.

But years later, as a newly married man, his search for good quality furniture for his first family home ended in disappointment. It was eye-wateringly expensive, poor quality or lacked any individuality.

That experienced stayed with him and it provided the driving force behind the foundation of his company, David Thornber Handmade Furniture, based on the Primrose Mill Business Park in Clitheroe.

David talks with passion and considerable humour about his company, which has a team of five and a growing reputation for making quality, bespoke furniture at sensible prices.

Oliver Longden screwing on a handle

Oliver Longden screwing on a handle - Credit: Archant

He was born and bred in the Ribble Valley but studied for a sports degree at university in Southampton. ‘I decided not to pursue that as a career and instead started a furniture making business in my garage,’ he said.

‘My dad and granddad were joiners in Chatburn and that business developed into a funeral director’s. I remember as a kid going to the workshop full of old fashioned tools and seeing them making the coffins.’

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He learned some of the basics as a youngster but David is modest about his abilities. ‘I’m not a cabinet maker,’ he said. ‘In fact, I’m the least qualified of a team that includes two apprentices. My skills are running the business, the marketing and in design. Also, I understand how to make things come together.’

Faith is important to David and his wife Rebecca, a doctor at Blackburn Hospital, and they were asked to lead a church. But David wanted to follow his dream and moved back to the Ribble Valley, where they now have a daughter, Erin, aged 13 months.

‘The business in Southampton was small and we felt it had a better chance of growing up here.Of course, it was also nice to be back with the family,’ said David, who went to Ribblesdale High and played cricket for Chatburn.

‘Manufacturing is easier in the north. For a start, the only furniture makers’ training college is in Accrington and the only guy who can train both cabinet makers and painters lives around the corner.

‘You also find more people here who want to do a practical job. All the saw mills are in the north so that reduces haulage costs, too.’

While the business makes bespoke furniture from scratch, its specialism is creating standard designs which can be customised to the client’s desires. If you want a dresser with glass doors or open shelves, that’s not a problem. They use top grade solid oak and pine with Farrow & Ball paints and upholstery in Harris Tweed. Different styles are given local names, including Downham, Waddington and Ribchester.

It’s not aimed at the very top end of the market but typical customers are people between 30 and 60 with higher than average incomes who want quality without breaking the bank. A dining set can start at £1,000.

‘Our unique selling point is that we personalise the furniture,’ he said. ‘We have basic designs but there are thousands of options the clients can request. The big companies can’t do this – you have to have what they’ve got but we are small enough to customise. We don’t sell through retailers so that also helped to keep prices down.

‘We are a manufacturer and a retailer in one company and not many do that. There’s no manual with all the answers to running a business like this so we have had to learn along the way.

‘We’ve just been to the Grand Designs Live show. It was our first show and we saw a lot of visitors and we received large numbers of enquiries.

‘We are growing every month and in 12 months we’ve gone from a team of two to five. It has meant we have had to learn a lot of lessons very quickly. Growing at such a pace can be painful. A year ago having five grand in the bank was great, now it’s bad!’

David speaks with passion about his team. ‘I’ve been really keen to build a company that will create jobs for local people and the team we have here is terrific.

‘I love our clients, but the most important people to me are the people who work here. We want to grow slowly and remain a speciality company with outstanding customer service. We don’t want to be the biggest but we do want our brand to become a well-known and respected name.

‘What excites me in life is seeing people really enjoying what they do. This business is all about people…people coming to work and being excited about it, coming alive when they walk through the door.

‘Building the business online allows us to operate at a national level but there’s a lot of business coming from local people. We really get to know our customers – we don’t give orders a job number, we use people’s names. We speak to them several times and the attention to details means many are repeat customers.’

David has strong beliefs but you could never accuse him of taking himself too seriously. ‘I’m passionate about the Ribble Valley and its people,’ he said. ‘Faith is important to me in life and in the business. We rely on God the whole time and we are always praying…that we’ll sell the stuff and then produce it on time!’

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