Once “Trees Fall, Y’all,” the dynamic duo of Cliff and Leigh Spencer get to work.
By Sarah Campbell | Photos by Catherine Mayo
Cliff Spencer has the woodworking know-how. His wife Leigh handles the business operations. They collaborate on design. Together, they and their mighty team of six employees rescue hundreds of logs from the landfill and give them second life at Alabama Sawyer. Started in 2016 by the Spencers and Bruce Lanier (founder of MAKEbhm), the business combines a mill, a working woodshop, and a design studio to “treecycle” the lumber within downed area trees.
“If a tree falls down in a forest, it should decompose there…But if it falls down in an urban area, in an urban forest, it’s going to be hauled away and put into a landfill,” Leigh explains.
Enter Alabama Sawyer. “Another way to look at it is in terms of being resourceful, both in a socially conscious way and in an economic way…the typical thing to do is cut it up, put it in a landfill, chip it, make it go away,” Cliff says. “But all of that material there we see as a resource, as an opportunity, fuel for the engine of growth. There are jobs in that material, there’s good design in that material, there are good products, there are solutions—design and home and corporate solutions—all in this raw material.”
Cliff grew up at the base of Shades Mountain “working with wood, cutting firewood, hauling it around, and just…building things.” In middle school he discovered theater, in high school he started building sets, andafter college he moved to New York City to pursue the stage. “To pay the bills, I started working in wood shops,” he remembers, including working in display design for Saks Fifth Avenue. Theater led to film work, which prompted a move to L.A.
All the while, between film gigs as an art director and set designer, he worked in a wood shop. But then something shifted. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m done with this crazy, gypsy existence of the theater and film world. I’m much happier doing woodworking.’” He and Leigh (a native Angeleno) met in 2001, and as he notes, “She was impressed with my woodworking skills, so that made me want to do it more.”
Cliff opened his own furniture (and later cabinetry) shop in L.A. in 2004, after a stint working in Aspen. That stint flavored Cliff’s business with a signature thing it’s been known for ever since. “In Colorado, I started to find unique sources for wood, people with their own sawmills who would mill their property or other people’s property. Interesting, unique material. Interesting, unique wood—urban timber.” And something else happened, too: Leigh officially joined the business. A graphic designer by day, she had been helping out with the books, marketing, and PR at night. At the end of 2008, she left her job to work with Cliff full time, and they built the business back from the recession.
“There are jobs in that material, there’s good design in that material, there are good products, there are solutions—design and home and corporate solutions—all in this raw material.”
In 2014, Cliff spoke at Design Week Birmingham and essentially outlined the milling part of Alasaw—as an idea for someone (else) to do. Alabama has the second-largest urban forest in the country, and the reception his talk received demonstrated opportunity and interest here. He’d been wanting for years to be closer to his family, and he and Leigh knew business in California was expanding—which would mean a long commute for a big enough work and storage space. Two years later, after a year of set up and Cliff traveling back and forth, he, Leigh, and their kids made the successful leap to Birmingham. Alabama Sawyer took up residence at MAKEbhm, a coworking makerspace in Avondale, and hasn’t looked back.
Today, in Homewood alone, Alabama Sawyer handiwork graces Big Spoon Creamery (pecan, naturally, to tie into ice cream), Creative Montessori signage and play structures, and quite a few neighborhood homes. The business has grown and keeps growing, but this time, the Spencers are staying in Birmingham.