City Trees Are These Artisans’ Niche

Leigh and Cliff Spencer’s Alabama Sawyer makes its niche in the recycled timber of Alabama’s “urban forest.”

Photos by Cary Norton

“We get really interesting trees,” says Leigh Spencer, one of three partners in Alabama Sawyer LLC.

The company, as its name indicates, is lodged somewhere in the midst of the Alabama wood stream — 23 million acres that make up the third largest commercial forestland in the nation.

What allows Spencer to see singular trees rather than that forest vastness is her company’s niche within Alabama’s largest city.

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“A tree in the urban environment is not part of a farmed monoculture,” explains Leigh. “It can be a walnut tree next to a hickory tree, reflecting the environment in color and in difference in grain. And the more unique, the more problematic. They can have wires and nails in them, which is one of the reasons they are not put into a big saw mill.”

Leigh and Cliff Spencer, the married partners in Alabama Sawyer, are shown here in the drying shed off campus from their workshop at MAKEbhm, where they and six full-time employees craft custom furniture and home furnishings from urban lumber.

Housed in MAKEbhm, a shared DIY/Maker workplace in Birmingham, Sawyer is both a miller of wood and a maker of wood products — expertly designed and crafted products milled from superbly quirky stock.

“Alabama has the second largest urban forest in the country, the collection of trees within a city,” says Cliff Spencer, Leigh’s husband and business partner. “The urban forest creates the pallet of the town — the canopy of these great, beautiful trees.”

Cliff runs the production side of the company, from procurement of the logs to milling and then crafting the wood into products — furniture, plus smaller items that are mostly for the kitchen. There are 13 pieces of furniture on the website (alasaw.com) and 15 kitchen and home accessories, such as a cutting board, ice bucket and mini wine rack. Furniture, says Leigh, accounts for 80 percent of gross sales.

Garden & Gun and other lifestyle and trade magazines regularly feature Alabama Sawyer’s portfolio, after only two years of operation.

Alabama Sawyer set up shop in MAKEbhm in 2016, after the Spencers moved from Venice, California, where they had been running a custom cabinet shop for eight years.

“My skill set is to make it and help others make it and try to figure out good things to make,” says Cliff. “I run the wood shop and work with Leigh and Bruce on the design.”

Birmingham architect Bruce Lanier, the founder of MAKEbhm, is the third partner in Alabama Sawyer. “I’m more of a strategic partner and help with the design side,” he says. “I just try to act as a sounding board in their husband-and-wife partnership.”

Lanier crossed paths with Cliff Spencer at Design Week Birmingham beginning in 2014. Even before completing the move to Birmingham, where Cliff grew up, he was pitching his ideas on the urban forest.

Soon after setting up shop at MAKEbhm, the company won a $100,000 award in the 2016 Launchpad competition, the state’s leading awards program for startups.

“Getting a $100,000 investment took us through 2017 in a healthy way,” says Leigh. “We used it to hire people, to get ahead on production and also for marketing. We didn’t need to tool up. We already had our tools. But it was definitely good for getting our footing.”

Leigh leads the business side of things, including the marketing. Most of the sales are online.

“We work with a few great e-commerce partners with our small product. Since 2014 we have been working with Food52, and they are a great partner in sales and marketing.

“We were featured in Garden & Gun last fall, which sparked a lot of interest. PR has been amazing. We’re rebuilding our website, and we’re on Instagram and trying to reach out to people more directly. The trade folks are great. Interior designers have pages of things they need to fill up, and we can give them something unique, which benefits them in their relationship with their customers.”

At the other end of the business, Cliff’s work begins with procuring the raw material, those interesting trees.

“We work with contacts as far away as Florence, and, if we can make it work, the logs are delivered. But most of the material is within 50 miles of the Birmingham area,” says Cliff.

“We’ll work directly with the tree services. ‘Are you cutting any pecan logs?’ or ‘We like these seven species.’ Some of the tree services operate their own landfills. Irondale has tree graveyards, basically, and if you are allowed, we go out and mark logs and have them brought to us. We encourage clients to work with tree services and, instead of dumping it, to take it to Alasaw. Lastly, we just secured a contract with the city of Mountain Brook, an agreement to work with the public works department to select logs from their debris pile, and we’ll send a truck to pick them up.

“We can have that with other cities, like the city of Birmingham. We describe that as an untapped opportunity, a real opportunity for job creation.”

Expansion is on the minds of all three Alabama Sawyer partners, and the next step will likely be facilitated by strategic partner Lanier, who is one of the developers working on a second phase of MAKEbhm, called M2.

“M2 is about ‘What do you do when you grow up?’,” says Lanier. “It’s a question that’s faced by Alabama Launchpad, Innovation Depot and other innovation environments. You reach the level where you understand the process and what are the paying points, and you are ready to sign a more conventional lease but don’t want to abandon the idea of working around like-minded people and have to flee to an industrial park.”

“I want to get into this new space and grow sales and profit and to be able to have more people working for us in jobs they can grow in and depend on working with their hands,” says Leigh. The company currently has six full-time employees and one part-time.

“We want to continue to do this work as a larger company that can grow and make an impact,” agrees Cliff. “If we can do this for 20 or 30 more years and see new companies like ours that do similar work, we can affect the associated industries that we work with. If we can effect some change like that, then, when we are done, it can be an understood, normal process that whenever a tree comes down, there is automatically a use for it.”

Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama. Cary Norton is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor.

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