By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
For Leigh Spencer, co-founder of Alabama Sawyer, the history behind Premo Factory’s building and its recent renewal presents a perfect metaphor.
The factory, built in 1920, was set to be demolished but Chad Stogner and his team at Elegant Earth saw its potential and recycled the old building to create a modern factory that focuses on the trades.
That aligns with what lies at the heart of Alabama Sawyer, a company that obtains fallen trees from Birmingham’s urban forest and uses them to create environmentally sustainable products.
Spencer and co-founder Cliff Spencer have spent much of the pandemic settling into the company’s new home at Premo Factory in Norwood.
“In between the scrap yards and the palette factories, it’s a little slice of heaven,” Leigh Spencer said.
Before the move, Alabama Sawyer had been operating in multiple locations, based in a space at the Avondale co-working operation MAKEbhm. They were also milling their wood at a facility in Bessemer.
For several years, the Spencers had been renting wood storage space at Premo Factory.
“I grew attached to the property and just kept envisioning our shop and milling operation all in one place,” Spencer said.
They will have some pieces in The Arbor, which has relocated to Premo, and will be selling urban wood out of their wood barn, but it’s about the trade.
“Our space is a factory, not a showroom,” Spencer said. “I can show people samples they can take home and we can visit the work in progress. They can see the process in real time.”
Attracted by the Trees
The Spencers initially established a professional woodworking brand in Los Angeles.
Leigh Spencer, a California native, was working as a graphic designer.
“Since graphic design is intrinsic to business, that prepared me for the creativity and structure needed to build a business,” she said.
Originally from Birmingham, Cliff Spencer relocated to Los Angeles to work in the film industry, where he gained experience in professional woodworking shops working with experienced woodworkers.
The couple established their first wood shop in California, where they sourced wood through a partnership with the City of Burbank, diverting urban trees from landfills and instead using them to make furniture and other products.
In 2016, they made the move to Birmingham drawn, in part, by Alabama’s large urban forest.
The company’s official tagline, “Trees Fall Y’all,” says it all.
“Urban trees are hidden gems within the confines of the city, which could easily be missed,” Spencer said. They are also more challenging to work with.
What gives urban wood a unique character also makes it a risk and undesirable to large mills who are looking for consistency.
Urban trees are also a product of their surroundings and can grow around many things, Spencer said. The wood can contain objects like wires and bullets. Alabama Sawyer once found part of a transformer embedded in a tree.
An estimated 75% of the wood that Alabama Sawyer mills and utilizes in the products they create comes from the Birmingham area.
“We have 6,000 square feet of storage full of lumber we have gotten from tree services,” she said. “The rest is from regional wood sources. Occasionally, we buy something from my home state of California, for old times’ sake.”
Alabama Sawyer obtains their trees from local municipalities, businesses and homeowners through local tree services.
The company’s technicians then cut the wood into slabs and lumber, which is stacked and left to dry for at least six months before it’s finished off in a kiln.
That dry lumber then makes its way to the wood shop, where it becomes a piece of furniture, countertop or even a home accessory.
“The wood tells a story,” Leigh Spencer said. “We try to work and design in a way that doesn’t take away from that. … By the time the project is done, the process generally does reveal something interesting – a story, a lesson, a new idea, hopefully a feeling of satisfaction.”
Alabama Sawyer works with interior designers, architects, builders and suppliers throughout the nation, creating products and contributing to builds with materials created in Birmingham.
“An important purchase like a piece of furniture deserves careful consideration of all the resources involved, from raw materials to transportation to the labor,” Spencer. said.
The company also has the opportunity to work directly with homeowners through their Tree Concierge service.
If someone has a tree that is suitable for milling, they can reach out to Alabama Sawyer to give it a new life.
“We can only accomplish that through the tree services,” Spencer said. “The tree service is crucial, since they have the equipment and resources to take a tree down and transport it to us.”
Tree Concierge is at its best when the homeowner wants Alabama Sawyer to utilize the wood to create a piece of furniture or as building materials in their home.
“Those end up being some of the nicest pieces,” Spencer said. “Often, the tree is taken down when the homeowner is building an addition or a new house and the wood can go right back in the build out.”
Alabama Sawyer’s work and products have garnered national acclaim. They’ve earned recognition from Goop, Martha Stewart, Dwell magazine and The Wall Street Journal.
After a pandemic lull in the second quarter of 2020, business has been booming locally and nationally.
Just before the pandemic, Alabama Sawyer worked on the re-design of Birmingham’s Hot and Hot, as well as the Equal Justice Initiative construction in Montgomery.
One of the company’s current projects is with the Jones Valley Teaching Farm’s new Center for Food Education. Projected to be completed later this year, the facility will be the location of field trips and educational programs for local students, community gardens and culinary programs.
“Next year, we’ll be working on the ALDOT 59/20 City Walk with Brasfield and Gorrie, which is exciting,” Spencer said.
“We are building out a finishing booth in the immediate future,” she added. “We are also developing more training to fill our need for more skilled labor.”
For more information, visit alasaw.com.