Meet the craftsman whose celebrity clients include Sir Paul McCartney
- Credit: The Coastal Craftsman
Mundesley-based furniture restorer Graham Hicks has worked for some of the world’s biggest names.
His ‘CV’ includes world-class museums - including the V&A, The Wallace Collection and the Science Museum - as well as The Houses of Parliament and the House of Commons.
He has also installed furniture into some of the UK’s biggest banks, French polished his way around the Church of Scientology – under close observation – and says at one point he even worked for one of the world’s richest men, inventor Ruben Rausing.
But perhaps one of his most memorable jobs was the time he “tried to be cool” while working for Sir Paul McCartney. “I couldn’t quite believe it was all happening,” he says.
At the time, Graham was living and working in the south east and was invited to the “quaintest building you’ve ever seen” in Sussex to do some polishing. At first he says he didn’t know who the property belonged to, but a representative of the company, a well-known builder who had recruited Graham, eventually told him.
“It was the place he used to go to to write,” Graham says. “It’s not his home. So we went to a second house and there was more work there – that turned out to be where he put up Michael Jackson when he came to visit. It was incredible.”
After he “passed the test”, Graham got more work at Sir Paul’s studio. “I ended up polishing the contents of the control room, which is where the mixing desk is, and I thought ‘well, I wonder if I’m ever going to see him?’ Linda was alive back then, he had peacocks running around – not too flashy, but very nice.”
One weekend, Graham had been left the key and was working in the control room, alone. “I was polishing away and I heard a noise but I didn’t think anything of it and then I looked through the big glass, out to the studio, and he walked in. He sat at the piano and he played the intro to Lady Madonna as a warm up. All I was thinking was ‘wait til I get home – they’re not going to believe me’. That was cool.”
Later, Sir Paul brought Graham a salad roll and he had tea with him and Linda.
Graham began his career as a furniture restorer straight out of school. As a child, he says he wasn’t academic but he was practical, forever taking things apart and then putting them back together. “I could mend anything,” he says, “so that was always a strength.”
He wanted to work in stage lighting but his father, who worked for Lloyds Bank, got him an interview with a “brilliant shop fitting company” called Cass-White.
He had never done woodwork before but says it was the most magnificent training. “It was extremely thorough and every time you got anything wrong, you went right back to the beginning, so it taught me a real discipline.”
Going on to the main floor, with the “real craftsmen” was all a bit daunting, he says, but after his training he decided to stay on, to give back to the firm which had trained him. He also became an apprentice trainer, himself.
In the early 1980s, Graham became self-employed. He worked out of his garage, then rented a workshop and relied on the Yellow Pages to bring in new customers. Early work was mainly commercial, and it paid well. “I remember saying to a friend ‘I think I will have made my money by the time I’m 50’”, he says. And then the recession hit.
In the early 1990s, Graham and his wife, Melanie, sold their house and his workshop and moved to Norfolk. They knew the area well because they had always holidayed here, particularly on the Broads. Graham’s parents had also retired to the county and lived in Aylsham.
“Melanie and I both looked for a house rather than an area or a location and that brought us to Mundesley,” he says. The house – which they are still in now – was “a gem”, he says, and in those days it was also relatively cheap.
It needed some work doing to it, which Graham did. “We didn’t have a lot of money but you could still do your labour, so we did the house up in the early years,” he says. His parents eventually moved from Aylsham to Mundesley and into the house next door.
“They did ask first!” he laughs. “They ended up being our next door neighbours, which was very helpful with Eleanor growing up. I could just put her over the wall.
To pay the bills, Melanie returned to London, for work, and Graham stayed in Mundesley where he brought up their one-year old daughter, Eleanor.
“Norfolk is quieter, it’s beautiful,” says Graham. “We always knew it would be a completely different pace of life, moving up here, and the worry was ‘will I still get work?’ It did take a while.”
The move meant that Graham had missed the opportunity to advertise in that edition of the Yellow Pages and with no social media, it left running a business challenging. “I had to wait nine months before I could advertise, so what do you do? You put notes in post office windows, you do flyers – nothing works.”
But when the next edition of the Yellow Pages came out, complete with an advert for Graham’s services, work started to come in.
“My first real job was for a lady in Cley who owned a manor house,” he says. “She had bought a French armoire that she couldn’t put together – that’s all it was. She’d only just bought the place and of course it was right up my alley. I could do most things she wanted. It gave me the start I needed.”
From then on, business did well. He built up new contacts and found new customers but around 10 years ago, Graham’s mother died and his father asked to move in with them. When he, himself, became ill, Graham gave up work. He looked after his father for around seven years. “He lived with us at home and then Covid happened. He didn’t die from Covid but he was ill during Covid and passed away. He reached 96, so he did very well. But I’m not a born carer. It wasn’t easy for either of us.”
Graham always knew he would return to work, but to do so during Covid was extra challenging. “It was terrible,” he says. “Nobody wants you in their house.” During that time, he built himself a workshop and, with the help of Melanie, his wife, and daughter, Eleanor and her partner, rebranded his business, setting up shop as The Coastal Craftsman.
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In some ways, he says the pandemic has actually helped because it’s brought more people to the area. “It’s on fire, isn’t it?” he says. “The restoration market. It’s starting to take off now.” Television shows like the BBC’s The Repair Shop have certainly helped, but so too has Graham’s rich knowledge base.
As well as French polishing – a historic and highly skilled method of rejuvenating wood – Graham can also replace mouldings and brassware and restore and repair items including staircases, panelling, floorboards and large pieces of furniture. Nowadays, he focuses mostly on individual projects, but also works with interior designers and holiday homeowners.
As a cabinet maker, he says he can “make and repair anything”, although restoration and French polishing tend to be the bread and butter of his work.
“If I see a piece I will see straightaway how it will look, in my mind’s eye,” he says, “so I can explain that to the client. The best bit about it is when you take it back – it doesn’t happen every time but most times – you get a ‘wow, look at that!’”
To find out more, visit coastalcraftsman.co.uk or follow @coastalcraftsmanuk on Instagram.