A man walks into a coffee shop and sits down (at a table and chair he didn’t build – because this man is me, and I don’t know the first goddamn thing about building furniture). Soon, another man joins him (this one has an awesome beard, and though he didn’t build this particular chair and table set he most assuredly could have – though his version would have undoubtedly been far cooler and better made) and begins to speak reverently about tools in a way reminiscent of how old movie samurai speak about swords. The conversation is rife with invocations that extol the virtues of certain indigenous woods, litanies dedicated to the importance of the trades, and excited odes to furniture built from reclaimed materials. It is without a doubt one of the most stimulating and entertaining conversations I have had in weeks – few things are as engaging as talking with someone about what they are really excited about.
Meet Sean Wrafter – owner of Wrafterbuilt Salvage and Reclaimed LLC. He just started a furniture business in Buffalo, NY.
Wrafterbuilt is a blue-collar-turns-white-collar-makes-heroic return-to-blue-collar kind of story – After dropping out of college in 2000 Sean got his first taste of professional woodworking when he responded to a newspaper ad (and doesn’t the idea of a newspaper ad being the catalyst of this story just seem cinematically perfect?) and ended up working for an artisan who trained him as a finish and trim carpenter. But in his mid-twenties Sean wanted to pursue some other career options and ended up moving into sales, working for a variety of companies selling advertising and setting up pro-local marketing programs in cities all over the northeast for City Dining Cards (their drink deck is a working photographer’s best friend!). Sean spent a lot of time on the road the last few years working these sales jobs, but continued to hone his woodworking skills making furniture for himself and friends. “Any time I’ve needed extra money or had the misfortune of not having a job, I’ve picked up my tool belt and been able to provide for myself” Sean told me when I interviewed him “My decision to come back into the trades and start building furniture was very organic, but only recently have I gained the confidence to start showing it to other people. It actually took me a while to realize how much people liked what I was doing, someone actually had to bring it to my attention. Once I started paying attention to how much people liked it I kept doing it.” Sean left his sales position and started focusing on his woodshop and furniture full-time this summer.
There’s something sexy about the furniture Sean makes. I’m not sure if it’s the age and character of the wood, the functional design, or even something less tangible like the feeling of accumulated history in the materials he builds his pieces from. His farm tables and benches are robust, timeless, and smell like hard work and craftsmanship. I stopped by the launch party for his new furniture line last weekend at Ró furniture in Buffalo and the place was madness – packed to the doors (and spilling out onto the sidewalk) with people loving the collection Sean debuted. Wratferbuilt has become a brand that came suddenly out of the dark and obscure and found itself suddenly in the spotlight – everyone is talking about it.
Why such a big deal about old wood?
Sean broke it down to me like this: Most of the wood used in reclaimed furniture is barn wood; beams and planks taken from old rural structures and put to new uses, often with a high price tag attached. This is the kind of wood used so often in the furniture lining the stalls of kitschy country markets that I’m too scared to visit (there are so many horror movies that start that way) and in high-end urban boutiques that I’m too poor to shop in. Sean doesn’t use barn wood – his materials come a from a place closer to home.
Approximately one out of every five houses in Buffalo are abandoned right now, as are many of the old industrial structures that are so ubiquitous in a city with a manufacturing history like Buffalo’s – these buildings are where Wrafterbuilt gets most of its lumber. Sean reiterated to me many times during the course of this project how mystified he is by the value people in other cities he has traveled to put on reclaimed materials while Buffalo seems so quick to devalue something he sees as a precious and limited resource. “We have a wealth of this wood that everyone else in the country wants and they can’t get. And we throw it away and burn it, because we have so much of it that we don’t know what to do with it.” Sean sees the use of reclaimed materials not just as an aesthetic choice, but as one of conservation as well – every piece of reclaimed lumber he gives new function to is a living tree that doesn’t have to be cut down.
The wood that Sean reclaims from these derelict or demolished buildings is what he turns into the tables, benches, decorative objects and other products he creates in his woodshop. “Everything about the reclaimed look, the way it feels, and the history behind it is important. “What I’m trying to do is find a customer base that appreciates the aesthetic and the character behind this material that I find and cares about it like I do. I think that if you live in Buffalo, and you love Buffalo like so many people who I know do, you are going to appreciate everything about this reclaimed lumber that comes from here.”
“Buffalo is big enough to be interesting, but small enough to be really intimate. Buffalo doesn’t have everything that NYC or Philadelphia has to do, but if you put the effort in you can find something interesting to do here almost every night. I think it’s natural, coming from a smaller area like Western NY, to want to seek out somewhere ‘bigger and better’ but I’ve spent so much time traveling over the last few years and I really appreciate Buffalo now when I come back.”
There are young people in Buffalo succeeding, people who have decided to stay here and make a difference – often (as Sean points out) in spite of the political and economic climate. Entrepreneurs, local non-profits, and craftsmen like Sean are the driving force behind this unsure transition, moving away from the city’s industrial past and towards a more contemporary interpretation of Buffalo’s local culture. Wrafterbuilt is proof that even the refuse of this city can be the building blocks of something new and desirable – and the transformative nature of Sean’s reclamation and building process seems wholly appropriate as a metaphor for the changes happening here.
You can check out Sean’s furniture and designs by visiting the Wrafterbuilt website