If you’ve never heard of hackberry, you’re not alone. A
durable wood that looks like a sophisticated hybrid of pine and ash, it’s often neglected by commercial furniture manufacturers in favor of more common tree species. But in Birmingham, it happens to be abundant—exactly the reason Leigh and Cliff Spencer, the founders of the local woodworking company Alabama Sawyer, love to showcase the timber. For their planked dining table, which takes about six weeks to complete, they turned four large boards into a 90″-by-36″ eye-catching, understated design, sealed with a subtle hand-rubbed oil that allows the natural grain to stand out. The signature wishbone-shaped iron legs, which Cliff initially modeled out of foam and wood, are cast at the city’s iconic Sloss Furnaces—a campus of blast furnaces from the 1880s that’s now a National Historic Landmark.
That emphasis on local materials and manufacturing makes up the core of the Spencers’ design philosophy: Playing off the farm-to-table ethos, the husband-and-wife team dubs it “field to studio.” They first started rescuing urban trees that would otherwise be destroyed while running a custom cabinetry and furniture business in Los Angeles. After Cliff gave a lecture on the subject at Design Week Birmingham in 2014, the couple decided to launch Alabama Sawyer, before moving their new business (and their two children) to his hometown two years later.
When they arrived, they discovered that almost a hundred trees were being cut down in the city every week. Working with local wood services and developers—who were more than happy to reduce disposal costs by handing the logs over to the Spencers—they began designing and selling pieces of various sizes, from cutting boards to writing desks. As Alabama Sawyer’s reputation grew, city arborists and timber-loving neighbors added their own fallen trees to the supply. “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.”
For one of their first projects in Birmingham, the Spencers worked with a local Montessori school that was forced to cut down a group of red oaks to expand, transforming the trees into paneling for classroom ceilings and funky stumps for play groups. A couple of months ago, the pair took on a similar venture for the Birmingham Zoo, this time converting a massive 7′-by-5′ cherry stump into the centerpiece of a new amphitheater.
Watch: An interview with Alabama Sawyer’s Cliff Spencer
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—past projects include shop windows for Saks Fifth Avenue and movie sets in L.A.—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.
Three years in, the Spencers aim to grow the business, ideally putting out a new collection every six months. 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 neglected tree species like the hackberry—as they have with this seriously handsome table.
> Planked dining table, $6,700 from alasaw.com
MORE MADE IN THE SOUTH:
>Home category and overall winner: Alabama Sawyer
>Home runner-up: Mollie Jenkins Pottery
>Home runner-up: ME Speak Design
>Home runner-up: Moore & Giles
See all winners and runners-up
2018 MADE IN THE SOUTH AWARDS
Now accepting entries for the ninth annual awards. Learn more.