Sons of Sawdust: Finding Heritage, History, and the Future in Reclaimed Wood

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You’ve heard of a phoenix rising from the ashes. But brothers Matt and Ben Hobbs, with Matt’s wife Shayna, rose from dust and wood shavings to launch Sons of Sawdust. After personal loss, injury, and distress, the three started a small, handmade furniture company in Athens, Georgia, using only salvaged, 100+ year-old wood. What they’re able to create from the deconstructed floors and walls of old school houses and train depots is nothing short of remarkable. But it’s the family tradition and heritage behind their craft that keeps them going.

Woodford Reserve knows a thing or two about hand-crafting and heritage; we shared some bourbon and spoke to the Hobbs brothers about the challenges and rewards of working with reclaimed, salvaged wood, and the stories behind each piece of furniture.

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Flavorwire: Heritage is a huge part of the Sons of Sawdust brand — it’s right there in your name. Can you talk a little bit about your specific heritage, and what brought you to woodworking?

Sons of Sawdust: When we were kids, our grandfather always brought us into his woodshop and gave us the opportunity to work alongside him as he was building things. Often times he would give us a few scrap pieces of wood, some nails and a hammer, and tell us to build something. It’s funny to think back to some of the things that we built and how silly they probably were, but in our minds we felt like true craftsmen. Pa taught us how to explore our creativity without any boundaries. We don’t necessarily remember him ever telling us what we were doing was right or wrong, we just remember his gentle way of guiding us as we were building things.

When we were probably around 10 or 11 years old, we started a business with our grandfather called Rustic Treasures. We would go out with Pa and deconstruct old barns. We would then take the reclaimed wood back to the shop, clean it up, and build birdhouses from it. Now, over 20 years later, we’re pretty much doing the same thing, just on a larger scale. Even our children are interested in being a part of our business. We bring the kids out to the shop and guide them the same way that our grandfather guided us, helping them build little benches and props for their toys. Our hope is that as we continue to learn and grow, we will be able to share with our children the same things that are grandfather shared with us. He handed down to us an incredible legacy and it’s extremely important for us to honor him and the things that he taught us. Who knows, maybe one day our kids will be running Sons of Sawdust and hopefully passing down our legacy to their children and grandchildren.

How is working with salvaged wood different from working with new wood? How does the raw material inspire you, project by project?

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Working with reclaimed wood is extremely challenging. We only work with wood that is at least 100 years old. As the years have passed, the wood has had time to age, which causes some of the wood to warp and twist. This makes our job of building furniture especially challenging, because each piece of wood has to be individually inspected to ensure that it will work with the specific project that we are working on. There have been many times where we’ve had to rework furniture after being almost finished with a piece, because one of the pieces of wood was too warped.

The process of working with reclaimed wood is completely different than working with brand-new wood. Wood that you buy at a lumberyard is all dimensional. This means that the wood has been kiln-dried and planed down, so that every piece is the exact same dimension. Since we don’t work with new wood we can’t necessarily say that it would be easier, but sometimes we imagine what it would be like to walk over and grab a piece of wood and be able to work with it without having to think about how straight the board might be. We also have to de-nail each piece of wood that we use. So, there’s a long process that goes into prepping the reclaimed wood we use.

The reclaimed wood that we use definitely inspires us. We started this business in a really tough spot. We were in financial ruins and struggling to get by. There were times when we even felt that we were washed up, castaways, forgotten and that we had nothing to contribute anymore. So as we work with reclaimed wood which often comes from forgotten, abandoned structures, we’re reminded of how our lives have been reclaimed through our passion of working with wood, saving it, and making it beautiful. Our lives have been reclaimed by this old forgotten wood.

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Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on, either for sentimental reasons or your pride in how a difficult project turned out?

I think that one of our favorite projects that we’ve ever worked on was not a project where we were actually building, but a project where we were deconstructing. We were contacted by man who owned a train depot over in Acworth, Georgia, which was originally built in the 1870s. The depot was quickly deteriorating, but fortunately, most of the depot was still intact, and there was a lot of great wood that we could salvage. It was one of the most difficult deconstruction jobs that we’ve ever taken on. This train depot was massive and was definitely not built to ever be taken apart. It took us over a month to deconstruct, as we painstakingly removed each piece of wood, board by board. The wood that we salvaged from this train depot is some of the best wood that we’ve ever seen. Not only was the wood amazing, but the story was amazing.

This train depot was a passenger train depot, but it was also used to transport cotton out of Georgia into the rest of the country. It was the hub in the South for shipping out cotton by train. We’ve even seen some of the old photos of the train depot while it was still functioning, and they’re incredible. Knowing that we were able to take a historic building, save it, and keep it from rotting to the ground or being demolished and hauled off to the landfill, is something that we are so very passionate about. It’s so inspiring to us to know that we get to be a part of saving history. It also makes our furniture extremely unique, because each piece is a limited edition. Once the wood is gone from a certain structure that we’ve deconstructed, we’ll never have that exact same wood again. I think that this is part of what people love about what we do. They know that there’s a story behind the furniture, and that they’re going to receive a unique piece that is unlike anything else out there.

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What’s something you hope customers get from your furniture and wares?

A big part of who we are and what we do is all about continuing the story of how we got started and also the legacy of the wood that we use. Our hope is that our customers will appreciate the uniqueness of each piece, and that they will carry on the story of the wood that we save. Every time we deliver a table to a customer’s house, we think about the memories that will be made around that table. The conversations, the arguments, the laughter, the food, life itself. We hope that incredible memories will be shared around our tables, that kids will grow up remembering the conversations that happened around the table. We also hope that our story will live on through each piece of furniture that we build, that our story will be shared, and that it inspires others.

Do you have a particular ethos or a spirit that carries you through every project?

We like to think that our grandfather — who we affectionately called Pa — is here with us on each and every project that we work on. In the early days, we would use one of our grandfather’s hand saws to make the first cut of every piece of furniture that we built. It was our way of bringing him into what we were doing. Since he’s not here with us anymore, we wanted to do something that would make us feel like he was in the room and present, guiding us through each and every piece of furniture that we built. We would not be where we are today if it was not for his influence. When we have a difficult decision to make we always ask ourselves, “What would Pa do?” [He’s] a driving force in who we are and what we do.

What’s next? I know you are moving from an online-only store to brick-and-mortar… What are some challenges involved there, and how are you facing them?

Having a showroom will give us the opportunity to invite people into our world, to see our furniture in person, and to give potential customers a way to visualize what our furniture might look like in their home. Having a storefront in our mind is going to solve more problems than it’s going to create. People are constantly showing up at our woodshop from all over the country just wanting to see where we make our furniture. This is really exciting, but it also can be very distracting. Having a storefront where we can direct these fans will help keep us on track as we produce months’ and months’ worth of orders. We are extremely excited to have the opportunity to take our business to the next level and open up a showroom where people from all over will be able to come and see our work on display.

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Do you have a “dream project” that you hope to one day tackle?

There are so many different projects that we would love to take on. It’s hard to narrow it down to just one. There are deconstruction projects that we dream about, there are furniture products that we dream about, and there also projects outside of furniture making that we dream about. One of the things that we hope to be able to do in the future is buy a plot of land and actually save buildings as a whole. We get so many contacts reaching out to us about old historic buildings that need to be taken down, but if we had a place to put them, we could save them entirely and restore them. We dream about having that land and having a whole little “village” of historic buildings that could become shops, restaurants, venues, and more.

I read a quote that said you once bought wood from a schoolhouse built in the 1890s and that the property owner’s grandfather was the founder. Do you save these stories? To what extent is what you do also cultural preservation/restoration?

We absolutely try to keep every story intact. We actually mark the wood that we bring in so that we can remember where it came from. It’s extremely important for us to keep the story alive, and we always share with our customers where the wood came from in the piece of furniture that we build for them. They love knowing that their furniture was once part of a greater story. We definitely think that what we do is significant from a cultural preservation standpoint. We try to get as many photos as we can of the buildings that we deconstruct. Those images are so inspiring… It’s really incredible knowing that our ancestors walked on these floors.

These century-old buildings that we deconstruct were built by hand. They weren’t mass produced. They weren’t made as cheap as possible. They were built to last. Our ancestors put their hearts and souls into building America, and they weren’t as concerned back then about cutting costs and maximizing profit. They were concerned about doing things right. Doing things with integrity. Building something that they could be proud of. So it’s extremely important for us to make sure that we honor their efforts by keeping the story alive of the structures that they built with sheer strength and determination.

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Now that you’ve received so much attention, are you keeping up with orders? I spoke to another artisan who said national exposure caused her to become borderline overwhelmed. How can handmade scale up without sacrificing its ethos or driving makers insane?

We’ve been fortunate enough to find some amazing people who work for us. They’re more talented than we are, and just as passionate about what we do. One of the things that makes us so unique is the unique strengths of our founders. Each of our strengths is in a different area, so we don’t step on each other’s toes. The synergy that we have between the three of us is incredible, it’s our secret sauce. We often talk about how it wouldn’t be possible for either of the three of us to do what we have done with Sons of Sawdust without the others. So, instead of being fearful of national exposure or rapid growth, we’re actually excited about the opportunity to take the small business that we started to the next level. We know that so many people are already inspired by our story.

Our dream is not necessarily to grow our business so that we can make more money; our dream is to grow our business so that we can make a bigger impact. We want to inspire those people out there who are struggling, and in a tough spot. The people who are where we once were — we want to give them hope. We want to let them know that they are important, that they have value, that they’re not washed up and that all they need to do is look for an opportunity and make sure that they don’t miss it when it comes their way. In many ways our business was an accident. It wasn’t something that we planned for. It just happened that the opportunity came our way and fortunately we weren’t too far gone to see it. Every day we wake up with gratitude in our hearts, knowing that the success that we are experiencing is truly a blessing and not something that we ever want to take for granted.

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This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length.