IN 1988, NEIL COULSON started a job as an apprentice locksmith with North East company Lewis Lock and Safe. He had a natural aptitude for the job, and quickly developed an interest in safe work. In 1998, he left Lewis to start his own business, Crest Safe and Vault. As the business grew, Neil realised that he was recovering
old ‘vintage’ safes, with little real value, limited security applications and no interest to the scrap man.
Neil is naturally curious, so decided to ‘do one up’ and use it as a drink’s cabinet. first attempt was acceptable – not great – but visitors to his workshop seemed intrigued by this. Simply seeing a safe in an unusual colour in a sea of grey, gold and silver started many conversations. Over several years, Neil began to experiment with restoring old safes, carefully re-finishing the bodywork and practising with paint finishes until his work really began to get noticed. Which culminated with the refurbishment of the ‘milk’ safe for Chubb in 2011. Although this work was interesting, and the finished items could look quite splendid, the fact that the end result was still usually a lowgrade safe didn’t really justify the amount of effort required to effect the transformation, or the costs involved. Looking at luxury safes manufactured in Europe, Neil thought that it was time the UK had something worthwhile to offer too.
In 2010, Neil relocated the business to larger premises in Sunderland, where he invested over £500,000 in showroom facilities, a custom-built spray room with full extraction and most importantly a multi-axis CNC milling machine.
He knew that it was pointless trying to manufacture his own carcasses, as in order for the concept to work he’d have to be able to offer insurance rated units. With a wide range of proprietary units available in the UK (many of which are manufactured in Eastern Europe or Asia) it seemed that he’d be spoiled for choice.
“It was another major learning curve”, said Neil, “and we quickly discovered that as with most other things in life, you get what you pay for. We’ve invested heavily in plant and equipment and learned new techniques that allow us to produce a world-class finish. I quickly discovered that a safe’s rating has little to do with its overall aesthetic quality – no matter how secure its rating suggests it might be.
“Some of the models that we trialled took many days of work before we could achieve anything like a satisfactory finish, I realised that this wasn’t a good way to go on as this was a crazy amount of time to spend on a carcass before we even began to build the interior or re-finish the boltwork. We needed to be more choosy. The answer was to deal with manufacturers with whom we could have some direct input (in other words, if the quality is rubbish, we can tell them!). Which led to us taking the decision that for our own bespoke safes, we will only use British manufacturers.
“This was a good move and we now know that we can expect a consistent quality in our supply chain. Of course, we have competitors, but as the trade and end users are discovering, building a luxury safe is more than painting a metal box in a different colour and sticking some MDF shelves inside – yes, we’ve seen this.”
And so, alongside Crest Safe & Vault, a new brand – Coulson – was born. Everything that they build is made to order. There are no ‘stock’ items. No pricelists.
Neil Coulson loves his cars: “There’s a company called Overfinch who custom-build Range Rovers – they take a car that’s a production line model, then they rebuild it. It’s still a Range Rover underneath, but it’s now beautifully built to the customer’s exact specifcation. Titan Black do the same with Rolex watches. Coulson do it