How two brothers craft farm tables in honor of their grandfather
“You know how they always say ‘Never trust a skinny chef’? Well, I say, ‘Never trust a woodworker who has a clean shop.’”
Matt Hobbs smiles through a massive beard and looks around the warehouse where he and his brother Ben build farm tables and custom wood furniture from old barnwood. Stacks of tobacco colored siding and warped beams lie in a seemingly haphazard manner, splinters sticking out like a bad hair day, and Matt leans back in a chair with his long arms resting behind his head as he spouts myriad witticisms with a south Georgia twang.
Matt and Ben Hobbs began making farm tables about a year ago under the moniker Sons of Sawdust and quickly became home-décor-social-media-sensations throughout the southeast due to the I-want-that-now photos of their craftsmanship. More than just home furnishers, these guys outfit professionals, retailers, and restaurants across the region that are looking to gain an aesthetic edge over competition.
They build furniture with reclaimed heart pine: a particularly large version of old growth longleafs that once decorated the American south. These trees–unlike the success of Sons of Sawdust–took a long time to develop, often not reaching maturity for 500 years. The resultant wood was highly prized for its hardness and beauty, and, due to untamed logging practices in the 19th century, nearly became extinct.
Matt and Ben revive the once fallen giants of the south by tearing apart old barns and houses and hauling off the heartwood to their shop–where the magic happens. Because of their commitment to repurpose old timber, and the remarkable artfulness with which they craft each piece of furniture, they have earned a cameo on Timber Update’s 2015 Craftsmen Series.
The brothers’ most treasured success, however, is the opportunity to work in honor of their grandfather, Cecil Hall, who passed away eight years ago and taught them how to build stuff, work hard, and take care of family.
In true old-timer fashion, these young guys love telling stories. And if you spend more than a minute with them, you’ll learn that behind their rapid fame as table-makers is a feel-good anecdote.
Early in 2014, Ben injured his knee and suddenly couldn’t work his construction job. He had bills to pay and had no way of making money. He went to his brother, Matt–a graphic designer at the time–and was desperate for suggestions.
“I was probably in tears,” admits Ben with an honest smile while leaning back against a farm table and spinning a carpentry hammer between his forefingers. The younger and shorter of the two, his eyes are light blue and intelligent, hair cropped, and beard just as Duck Dynasty as his brother’s. “The doctor said, ‘You can’t work for two months if you want to get better without surgery.’”
Matt remembers the moment clearly. “I was like s—, is there anything we could do? Then the idea just popped into my head when I looked over and saw a farm table I had just built for Shayna.”
Weeks earlier, Matt had lovingly constructed a new piece of furniture for his wife, Shayna, “because she had been beggin’ [him].” At that critical moment in his brother’s life, the sight of his conjugal handiwork triggered an idea that could make Ben a little bit of cash: sell the table.
“There’s a movement going on where our generation is going back to the maker thing.” – Ben Hobbs
After putting Shayna’s table on Craigslist, however, it turned out to be more than a one time thing. They had several requests for similar tables within a day. So Ben built a few more. And a few more. And then a few more. Word spread. Orders came flying in. Until finally, months later, Matt got tired of running out to the shop to help Ben flip heavy table tops; he quit his day job on the computer to start a family business.
“I was getting fat. Wasn’t I?” Matt looks at Ben with a wry grin.
“Yeah!” Ben agrees enthusiastically.
“I was like 205 pounds when we started this, and it was all right here,” he says, cupping his hands around an imaginary belly. “Of course, I’ve been known to drink a cold beer in my time. Or two (winks at Ben). But man, I’m down to 170 now. That’s like thirty-five pounds. I should start an infomercial telling people how to lose weight.”
“Yeah–work your ass off!” Ben tags on with a hearty laugh.
Work indeed. After some serious help with public relations and marketing from Shayna–who just so happens to be a professional photographer–Matt and Ben turned their little Craigslist project into a full fledged operation. Nowadays, they spend long days in the shop chiselling custom ordered furniture for clients willing to wait several months for a coveted piece of wall art or a chevron-designed farm table with chamfered-hewn legs.
“Me and Ben have always been scallywags,” Matt continues along the same vein of subtle levity. “We were always trying to stay afloat. So, it’s nice; [this business] is something I think our family is pretty proud of us for.”
As serendipitous as their beginning may seem, the Sons of Sawdust were beneficiaries of an extraordinary family ethic that served as the foundation of their success.
“Our grandfather was a woodworking hobbyist,” says Ben. “He–”
“–He was a master craftsman,” Matt interrupts to add.
Ben smiles. “Yeah. He was. He could do every kind of project you would normally hire out. He had a huge shop, and we’d always be out there with him. He’d be teaching us this or that. He basically gave us the passion for working with our hands.”
“Yeah,” Matt sits up excitedly. “This has gone full circle. When we were children, we were doing this with our grandfather, not knowing that one day down the road we’d be doing the same thing.”
In addition to practical training with tools, old Mr. Hall seems to have provided his progeny with gifts of inestimable value: a high moral standard and an unbending dedication to family.
“Our grandfather was such an amazing man,” Matt explains. “He was a man of integrity and honor, and if he said he was going to do something, he was going to do it–he didn’t budge. If he said he was going to be there at two o’clock, he’d be there at 1:55. He was also a loving husband to my grandmother, who hasn’t had to work a day in her life since he past away eight years ago; he took care of her, and made sure that she was going to be taken care of when he wasn’t here. He thought ahead and planned ahead; he had no debt when he died–he payed for everything in cash. If he didn’t have enough cash to get it, then he didn’t need it. Just an amazing man. They don’t come like that very often anymore.”
Soon after they began selling tables, the Hobbs brothers realized their indebtedness to their grandfather for their skills and training.
“I don’t ever remember hearing our grandpa saying, ‘I don’t have time right now; I have to go to work,’” Matt recalls. “He was available. He poured into us so much when we were kids. If it was work, it was a fun project building something out of wood and he would get us involved.”
The sense of enjoyment and camaraderie have carried through into Matt and Ben’s furniture. Having never been formally trained as carpenters, the Hobbs brothers are free from a sense of obligation to build things according to norms, but rather, they collaborate on the design of each piece in order to produce unique styles that have never been seen in industrial vintage furniture.
“This is not a traditional way that you would build a barn door,” Matt says while pointing to a project Ben was finishing up for woman who wanted a sliding partition between her kitchen and living area. By “traditional,” Matt is referring to the way in which the “X “ spanning across the middle of the door usually fits neatly within a frame. Ben, however, extended the “X” all the way to the edge, producing a sharp angled joint with the frame that gives the entire door an inarticulable flare. The idea for the design occurred to Ben while consulting with Matt.
“I’ve never seen one with that detail,” Ben admits. “Most people frame the outside first and then come back in and put the X.”
“Yeah,” Matt concurs. “It looks really cool. And he accidentally discovered it because we were collaborating together.”
More than merely producing beautiful furniture, the Hobbs brothers’ easy going attitudes and woodworking skills have attracted the attention of young people who want to work with their hands but perhaps never received such training.
“Two or three people a week contact us and just want to come out here and work for free,” says Matt. “They sweep the shop, clean up, whatever. They just want to be around.”
In trying to explain this phenomenon, Ben says, “There’s a movement going on where our generation is going back to the maker thing. People are shifting from buying big box store stuff to handmade things. The fact that we can tell our story with pictures–thanks to Shayna on Instagram–that’s what people are so interested in.”
“Hopefully we inspire people who aren’t masters at anything,” adds Matt. “We’re far from being masters at what we do. But our goal is to learn something in the process of building. We want to inspire people who want to do something but think they can’t because they didn’t study it in school. Or they don’t have the money–we didn’t have the money! People make all these excuses for why they can’t do something instead of just diving in and giving it all they got to see what happens. Worst case scenario? It doesn’t work out and you can move on to something else. You don’t have to take out a hundred thousand loan to start a business. Start where you are.”
And for Matt and Ben, where they are is dictated by whom they’re working with. Possessing strong familial commitments in the midst of a culture where family connections are more at odds than ever before, it’s no wonder that so many people want to be around them. It’s a perfect coincidence, then, that they made it big by reviving old barnwood into the most iconic symbol of family relationships: a kitchen table.
“Hopefully we inspire people who aren’t masters at anything.” – Matt Hobbs
“A big part of what we want to do with our business is carry on the legacy of our grandfather,” says Matt. “We’re not the caliber of man that he was, but we strive to one day be to that level.”
If working with skilled hands, a light heart, and an eye toward passing along a skillset were characteristics of grandpa Hall, Matt and Ben are well on their way to becoming legends in their own right.
Editor, Timber Update
For more information about Matt & Ben, visit SonsOfSawdust.com. Also, to read other articles in Timber Update’s Craftsmen Series, visit TimberUpdate.com/blog.
Photos provided by Shayna Hobbs.