Alabama Sawyer, Birmingham
The Makers: Cliff and Leigh Spencer
Hundreds of downed Birmingham trees that were bound for area landfills as trash are now living out lives in homes and office buildings as valued treasures.
Alabama Sawyer is the company behind that transformation.
The husband-and-wife team of Cliff and Leigh Spencer brought an approach they started in California back to Cliff’s home of Birmingham and the result has been a business racking up accolades while it makes a difference.
“We came here and I spoke at a design conference in 2014, Design Week Birmingham, and it was there that I met Bruce Lanier, who is the founder of MAKEbhm,” Cliff Spencer said. “He was looking for a woodworking component at that time to start MAKEbhm. He was interested in the urban timber operation and it was just simpatico.”
The more Spencer began looking into setting up shop in Birmingham, the more reasons he found to do so.
“I found that all of the other businesses I needed to work with – other woodworkers, the tree services, architects – just took to the idea,” he said. “Everybody was saying, ‘Yes, let me help you,’ rather than, ‘No, it’s going to cost a fortune. It’s too hard.’ Everyone here in Birmingham and in Alabama was very cooperative. It just took off. It had legs here.”
It didn’t hurt that Birmingham is one of the most forested urban areas in the country.
“The trees in our city I’ve always felt are an integral part of the identity of the place,” Spencer said. “It’s a perfect opportunity for this kind of business to grow.”
Alabama Sawyer works with tree services, homeowners and others to divert logs that might go to landfills or fireplaces and takes time to mill them, dry them, prepare them and turn them into furniture or other products.
Birmingham and other areas are full of many of the woods that Spencer enjoys.
“We’ve identified about seven species that are our favorites to work with and are the most abundant in the area – the most dependable species,” he said.
They include a number of types of red and white oak, walnut, pecan, hickory, elm, sweet gum and hackberry.
The latter two are “trees that everybody considers trash trees,” Spencer said. “Actually, there are some of the most beautiful grain patterns inside of them.”
In fact, it was a hackberry table that earned Alabama Sawyer a “2017 Made In the South” Award from Garden & Gun magazine.
“Not such a trash tree anymore, according to us,” Spencer said.
Alabama Sawyer has developed its own line of furniture and other products and will do commissioned works for companies or individuals.
The most popular item is a countertop compost bin the company has shipped all over the country and to England and Australia.
Alabama Sawyer has worked with Sloss Metal Arts at Sloss Furnaces to produce dining tables and other products.
They recently shipped a set of hackberry sputnik tables to Haint Blue Brewery in Mobile.
The company has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Martha Stewart Living, The New York Times and Garden & Gun. In July, Alabama Sawyer took top honors in its category for branding in the AmericasMart Home and Gift Show’s Icon Honors 2018 awards in Atlanta.
“It’s a good validation of the hard work we’ve put in,” Spencer said.
Spencer hopes he can convince others in the Birmingham area and beyond to see the beauty in trees after they’ve lived out their lives.
“A tree has value currently when it’s standing,” he said. “It provides shade, it provides landscape appeal, helps to stop soil erosion, provides oxygen – a lot of good qualities when it’s standing. When it comes down, it’s a nuisance and considered a waste product, a hazard. It’s got to get out of there super-fast and get it out of sight. That material has a lot of potential for us.”
He said it is a minor tweak that could help his company provide something of lasting value.
“We’re trying to get in there and adjust that process a little bit so that we can save those logs,” he said.
The product: Original furniture and wood products made from urban timber.
Take home: Noaway Counter Top Compost Bin ($175).