One look at their woodshop in Watkinsville is enough to reveal that Matt and Ben Hobbs aren’t ordinary carpenters. If you asked the two brothers, who run a furniture business called Sons of Sawdust, they would probably describe themselves more as storytellers. Instead of normal 2X4’s and power tools, Matt and Ben’s shop is filled with piles and piles of old, weather-worn, misshapen planks of wood. The Hobbs brothers fashion handcrafted tables out of these dusty old boards because they believe each piece of wood they find has a special story to tell.
The story of Sons of Sawdust starts from a state of desperation. Ben, who worked for a construction company, had injured his leg and was unable to work, but he had bills to pay and was quickly falling into debt. Meanwhile, Matt, who at the time was working as web designer, had just built a handcrafted farm table for his wife. One day Ben got a call from a guy who was tearing down an old house and wanted to get rid of the wood, so the brothers jumped on what looked like a good opportunity.
“We just put two and two together and got the load of wood, built a table or two, put them on Craigslist and orders just started flying in. It didn’t really start slowing down, so we figured we were on to something,” Ben says. And thus, Sons of Sawdust was born.
The business may have originated from a stroke of luck in a desperate situation, but the Hobbs brothers’ story as woodworkers has been much longer in the making. Sons of Sawdust has existed for less than a year, but Matt and Ben started working with wood as children with their grandfather, who they credit as their primary influence when it comes to craftsmanship as well as character.
“Our grandfather taught us at a very young age how to work with our hands, and how to be men of integrity. I don’t remember him specifically telling me ‘yes, do this’ or ‘no, don’t do this,’ but he would instinctively coach us so well that we thought we were doing it on our own. It’s interesting how intuitively it comes to us years down the road now. When we’re building something, and we come up to a problem, we just solve it, and I know it was our grandfather’s coaching that gave us that ability. We’re carrying on his legacy through the woodworking we’re doing, and I think that’s a powerful story,” says Matt.
Matt and Ben’s grandfather passed away six years ago, but they are sure that if he was still alive, he would be in the shop with them every day, having the time of his life. To honor his legacy, the brothers make the first cut of each table they build with one of their grandfather’s hand saws that he left to them. It’s their way of continuing to tell his story while bringing him into what they are doing.
In addition to telling their own story, Matt and Ben also want to tell a story with each table they make. According to them, the best stories are waiting in their own city, in the bones of buildings built generations ago.
“Most of our wood comes from houses or barns that were built in the 1800s. We always try to aim for stuff that’s at least older than 100 years. We also try to keep it local. Keeping it right here in town makes it even more special. It’s like, this wood was from a tree that was probably 100 years old when it was cut down right here in Oconee or Clarke County, and it was part of a house where a family lived for 70 years and then it got torn down, and then we went and got it and turned it into something that’s going to go into another house for maybe another 70 years and just kind of keep it alive,” says Matt.
“Our wood comes from the woods here. It’s not reclaimed from England or something that sounds fancy. It’s from right next door,” adds Ben.
Each piece of wood Matt and Ben use has a unique history of its own, as do the people they get it from. In their hunt for old houses and barns they often get to experience the rich family histories of their community. They encountered one man who sold them the wood from an old, rundown chicken shack on his property. After getting to know him, Matt and Ben learned that the chicken shack had been built with the wood from a schoolhouse built in the 1890s, of which the property owner’s grandfather was the founder. In their hunt for good wood, the Hobbs brothers have found many great family stories like this, and by recrafting the wood they find into tables, they are able to connect with those families and continue to tell their story for several more years.
Building tables with local, reclaimed wood obviously carries more significance than working with boards from Home Depot, so it’s no surprise that the process is also much more difficult and painstaking than normal woodworking.
First, the brothers have to treasure-hunt around Athens for old houses and barns with wood that fits the criteria for their tables. Once they’ve found a winner, they demolish the building, load up the wood and bring it to the shop. Next, they have to de-nail it, treat it for mold and mildew and sand it down.
“Sanding is really where you get a lot of the character,” says Matt. “When the wood comes in, it’s filthy and has dirt all over it. Sanding it down is such a beautiful process because you start seeing the texture in the wood from the saw marks and the different colors and hues.”
After sanding, Matt and Ben cut the wood to length and put it together to construct a table. This is where things get particularly tricky. Wooden boards cut in the 1800s with circular saw blades are very inconsistent in size and shape. Because of this, the brothers will often go through the entire process of sanding, measuring and cutting a board only to realize that it won’t fit on their table and that they have to start the whole process over with a new piece of wood. “It’s very tedious, and there’s a lot of rework to everything we do just because these old boards are tough to work with,” says Matt.
However, it’s all worth it because the rough textures and age-worn shapes of the old boards are what Matt and Ben value most about their tables, and they’re what best tell the story of the wood it came from. “Part of our vision and our aesthetic is the character and imperfections of the wood, and letting it speak for itself as opposed to just completely wiping it clean,” says Ben.
It’s this raw quality of their tables that draws new customers to Sons of Sawdust each month. In the short time they’ve been in business, Matt and Ben have expanded their clientele from a small group of friends and family to customers from all around the state who share the Hobbs’ affinity for well-crafted furniture that has significance beyond its functionality. “The customers that we’re looking for and that are looking for us are the ones who just love and appreciate old wood. Those are the people that are always going to be happy because they love the story, and they love where the wood came from,” says Matt.
Matt and Ben’s own story is as good as the ones they tell through each table they make: two brothers treasure-hunting for old wood to make tables with their grandfather’s tools. It’s a simple story, and they intend to keep it that way. Because, like the wood they use, good stories just get better with age.