Designing with Urban Wood is a growing trend. This is exactly the reason Leigh and Cliff Spencer, the founders of the woodworking company Alabama Sawyer, love to showcase the timber.
Alabama Sawyer designs modern, environmentally sustainable products from urban trees in the Birmingham, Alabama area. Since they began, they’ve diverted hundreds of logs from the landfill and transformed them into award-winning furniture and products for homes and businesses.
One of these unique pieces of furniture was the overall winner of the 2017 Made in the South Awards, transforming a downed urban tree unto an eye-catching wood slab dining table.
What is Urban Wood?
Urban wood lumber fills the same needs as traditional lumber, but the height and width of urban trees vary greatly because they grow in more unpredictable environments. Unlike traditionally managed timber, no two trees or boards of lumber look much alike. While some urban lumber could be mistaken for the finely sawn lumber, other boards come from surprising species or show untraditional character. Urban wood is beautifully unique. Urban wood is often used by woodworkers, designers, artists and homeowners seeking materials to create a special, customized look.
What Wood Species is THAT?!
If you’ve never heard of hackberry wood, you’re not alone. Hackberry is a durable wood that looks like a hybrid of pine and ash, with yellow undertones and a heavy straight grain. Hackberry is a challenge to dry, making it a less popular wood species to find at your local lumber store. However, in Birmingham, Alabama, it happens to be abundant.
Their favorite thing about working with hackberry? “Even thought the trees tend to grow in crazy directions, the wood, once dry is very stable. The urban trees get lots of beautiful grain patterns which is unique in the lighter color, and if finished right, it does not tend to amber over time”.
Award Winning Urban Wood Furniture
Their award-winning piece was a dining table made of four large hackberry urban wood slabs. This eye-catching, understated design, sealed with hand-rubbed oil, allows the wood to be the key design feature of the table. The signature wishbone-shaped iron legs continue the simple yet elegant design. These legs are cast at the city’s iconic Sloss Furnaces—a campus of blast furnaces from the 1880s that’s now a National Historic Landmark.
Why Urban Wood?
When they arrived in Birmingham, they discovered that almost one hundred trees per week were being cut down in the city. Working with local wood services and developers, they began designing and selling pieces of various sizes, from cutting boards to writing desks. “It would be complicated enough to focus on just the fieldwork or just the design process,” Leigh explains. “But we’re very dedicated to doing both—figuring out ways to make sure this wonderful resource is not wasted.”
Collaborating with each other comes easily. Leigh, a graphic designer, handles the business’s day-to-day operations. “I come in with an initial idea based on what the market is asking for and what materials we have,” she explains. After a bit of brainstorming, she and Cliff hone the design and its technical requirements. Cliff, who has a woodworking background, then crafts the look of each piece.
The initial steps of air-drying and milling the wood take place on a lot just out-side of town. Everything else happens at the large-scale wood shop they rent inside the Make Birmingham coworking space. “We’re surrounded by jewelry makers and painters, which is very inspiring,” Leigh says.
Looking Toward the Future
Three years in, the Spencers aim to grow the business, ideally putting out a new collection every six months. A 2018 resolution is to get a state of the art custom drying kiln that will increase capacity and decrease lead time. They also hope to begin working with other metals produced in Birmingham, such as brass, as well as marble mined from a nearby quarry. In the meantime, they’ll continue to spotlight unique tree species like the hackberry.
Special thanks to Alabama Sawyer and Garden & Gun Magazine for sharing this great story.