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Reclaimed
lives

Troubled siblings find
success in lessons rooted
in grandfather’s teachings.

In a nondescript, tin-clad barn outside Athens, the Sons of Sawdust sat in their office, mulling the possibility of “terminal length” — the point at which a beard ceases to grow longer. Matt Hobbs’ and Ben Hobbs’ facial hair is an integral part of their brand, and their beards have stunted somewhere between Kenny Rogers and ZZ Top.

“We’re trying to out-beard each other,” joked younger brother Ben, 30. He wore khakis and a dirty shirt, slurped Jittery Joe’s coffee and bore the telltale residue of a long day in the wood shop: grimy fingernails. In this equation, he’s the obsessive craftsman, the workhorse, the artist.

“I wonder if I trim it,” said Matt, 34, stroking his blonder facial mane, “maybe it’ll grow again.” With his trucker’s cap tilted atop long hair, Matt will occasionally build a table, but he’s more the entrepreneurial engine, the broker who keeps emails answered, phone calls returned and clients happy. These days, the clients are many.

Ben stops clowning around, momentarily, and gets serious about beard regeneration: “We really need to look into this.”

This get-it-done determination is one trait the Hobbs brothers share, but that wasn’t always the case. Both are also slender and tall — Matt stands 6-foot-4, and Ben a tad shorter — with tattooed forearms. Both are relaxed, articulate and proudly salt-of-the-earth Southern hipsters.
And not too long ago, both were so down on their luck, suicide seemed like a viable option.

But today, through a confluence of skill, luck and good branding, these two restless creatives have built a reclaimed-wood craft business with backlogged orders and clients from Los Angeles to New York. “American Pickers” creator Mike Wolfe is pitching a reality TV show about them to major networks. Should Wolfe fail, four other production companies are waiting in line to pitch their own shows based on the brothers.

The irony is that Sons of Sawdust has relied on old-fashioned mediums — woodworking and storytelling — to become social media stars, which is the root of their popularity (and how Wolfe initially found them). Their relationship to reclaimed wood traces back to a garage workshop three hours south of Atlanta, where two boys once were awed by their grandfather’s craftsmanship. They called him “Pa.”

Pa had no way of knowing that breathing life into forgotten lumber would become a metaphor for his grandsons’ lives and their ticket to success.

Matt Hobbs (center) and his brother Ben Hobbs (background) unpack new tools with David Specht (left) and Matt Wright (right) at their the Sons of Sawdust studio.

2

Reclaimed roots
Under blue skies one October day last year, the Hobbs brothers and a small crew arrived at their most prized find so far: a decrepit 1870 train depot in Acworth they had bought for $15,000. Their plan for disassembling the 30-foot-tall building was simple: “Don’t die.”

Matt and Ben are constantly scouting for timeworn homes, barns and other structures from the 1800s and early 1900s, which are abundant in rural Georgia. They approach each woebegone relic with the snout-to-tail reverence of charcuterie chefs, intent on using everything down to the sawdust, which a beekeeper employs to insulate his hives. In exchange, he gives them honey.

Most teardowns are a favor to the property owner, and thus are free, but with an investment like the depot, the brothers knew each broken board would be like a $100 bill ripped in half.

With an arsenal of crowbars, hammers and Sawzalls, they started picking apart the hulking structure, uncovering filthy secrets — ancient bird nests, rat droppings, possum skulls — behind interior wallboards. As usual, Matt talked to the building: Come on, buddy, I’ll give you new life.

The depot’s skeleton of studs, plank flooring and ceiling joists yielded the lifeblood of their business: wood from the centuries-old, virgin longleaf pines that once blanketed the South. Undisturbed, these great trees grew thick and dense. Once hand-hewed with axes or milled by circle saws, the lumber had (and still has) durability and character that can’t be faked. Every piece of pine, to the Hobbs brothers, tells a unique story. And if it’s not at least 100 years old, they won’t use it.

The deconstructed depot filled three large U-Haul trucks and a 40-foot flatbed trailer. It would supply months of furniture orders and return a tidy profit, if Matt’s calculations were right.

The brothers grew up in Tifton (population 15,000), where their preacher father, Mike Hobbs, had founded New Covenant Church with his wife, Gina. On Sundays, the interdenominational, interracial congregation’s band would break into long free-spirited jam sessions. Ben was usually on drums, with Matt beside him on guitar.

As young boys, they were obedient and loved the church like a second home. But in a small town, being the preacher’s kids came with pressures to behave and a sort of visibility neither boy asked for. While walking down the street or dining out, the knowing nods of strangers felt like a spotlight.

Hey, people would say, out of nowhere, you’re pastor Mike’s son.

Their father — himself the son of a Baptist preacher who’d had a wild streak before he “ran straight into God” — believes the pressures his sons faced may have triggered later rebellions.

As a youngster, Matt designated an old barn his “Craft Shack,” where he dissected radios and televisions and nailed together random scraps of wood he considered art. He’d give them to his mother for her birthday, which left her mystified.

Meanwhile, Ben was earning good grades and honing his drum skills, eschewing church hymns in favor of hard rock.
The credit for turning the Hobbs brothers’ innate creativity into practical skills belongs to Pa — Cecil T. Hall, a retired Georgia Department of Transportation concrete engineer and talented woodworker. With a gentle demeanor and high-pitched laugh, Pa was known around Tift County for his benevolence. He hosted a Bible study in his home for men from a homeless shelter and repaired the houses of elderly and disabled folks. He visited hospital patients and “slip(ped) money in the pockets of the needy,” reported the Tifton Gazette when he was bestowed with the Golden Deeds Award.

Pa was just as giving toward his grandsons. One time they ventured together to an old tobacco barn, and the boys watched as Pa demonstrated techniques for gently “cranking” off boards and ridding them of nails. They lugged their haul straight back to Pa’s garage, and he handed over hammers and nails and all the guidance they could absorb. Together they constructed simple birdhouses, while Pa stressed the importance of a well-crafted box and its key to larger projects. With scraps and sticks used for hanging tobacco to dry, they also built a little city of what Pa called “gnat houses” — roofed structures the size of a plum — just for kicks.

“He taught (the boys) by doing, by example,” said their grandmother, Patty Hall. “It was very important. They loved him, and he loved them.”

Beyond woodworking, Pa instilled in his grandsons the importance of integrity, moral character and the value of helping people in need. If you say you’re going to do something, do it, Pa would instruct. If you can’t, explain why, and make it right.

As adolescents, the Hobbs brothers took Pa’s wisdom to heart. Through their church, Matt and Ben went on mission trips to Ireland, Mexican jungles and impoverished Appalachian coal-mining communities where they employed their skills repairing houses.

Early adulthood would prove to be rocky at times for the brothers, the result of questionable decisions and crippling setbacks. But they would never lose touch with Pa’s teachings and joy of altruism.

Photos of the brothers dismantling the old train depot in Acworth (including one of Matt with and his son, Linden, upper left) by Shayna Hobbs. Center photo by Hyosub Shin.

3

Fast times, dark days
As teens, Matt and Ben grew disenchanted with organized religion. They began to view the church as something tantamount to a family restaurant — one that always served the same meal and insisted they eat, no matter how full their bellies.

After high school, while Matt was flunking out of agricultural college, DJ-ing at a roller rink and quitting one low-paying job after another, Ben moved to Nashville where he played drums first for a ministry and then for hard-partying rock ’n’ roll bands in bars. He succeeded in “just making money and not dying for a few years.”

Eventually Ben got married, had a daughter, moved to Chattanooga and found steady work as a barista. But like his brother, he could never excel working for other people, abiding by their ideas.

Their father began to worry they’d never find their calling. Matt, in particular, lost touch with his family. He drank too much, took drugs and stopped caring if he lived or died.

“There was a time,” said Mike Hobbs, “when I knew that they were kind of running away from the environment they’d grown up in.”

After a stint in Hawaii, Matt moved to Nashville, too, where he met Shayna Miller, a Music City native and daughter of Grammy-winning musician Bill Miller. Engaged four months later, the couple sought a simpler, small-town life and returned to Tifton, where Pa showed the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease in 2006.

To help his grandmother, Ben would take care of Pa during frequent visits to Tifton. No longer trusted to handle power tools, Pa would spend his days making gnat houses with Ben in the garage. The deeper Pa fell into his disease, the more psychedelic his work became — pink and purple gnat houses with orange roofs, flourishes of glitter and glued-on plastic jewels. Still, he remained meticulous, carefully weighing the effect of each brushstroke and hunching over his creations for hours.

Man, what is going on in his brain? Ben wondered.

The disease moved tragically fast, and Pa died in 2008, just before Matt’s son was born.

With limited job prospects but a pro-grade camera, Matt and Shayna decided to start a photography business and scored clients by distributing fliers door-to-door. They moved back to Nashville and were soon shooting weddings and family portraits for NFL players. Matt was thrilled by the self-expression of photography — and the opportunity to be his own boss.

Then the Great Recession hit and their phone stopped ringing. Unable to pay rent, Matt and Shayna uprooted once again for small-town life — but this time to the Athens area, where the whole family had moved to follow the eldest Hobbs brother, Jeremy, now a successful financial adviser and family man.

For Matt, finding work in a sour economy seemed impossible. He applied to 30 jobs without a callback and was too proud to accept handouts from family besides diapers and the occasional bag of groceries. Mike Hobbs urged Matt and his family to stay with him for a while; Matt swallowed his pride and accepted, until they found a modest rental.

Turning on the gas in their new digs was too expensive, so Matt and Shayna bathed their two kids in water boiled on an electric stovetop. They stood in food lines and supplied a respectable Christmas with $2 thrift-store toys bought with change.

In desperation, Matt would walk railroad tracks and county roads, scavenging for scrap metal he could sell to feed his family. Some days he would watch the oncoming cars and think, I could just step out in the road, and this all would be over.

Ben was brought back to his family base by a devastating divorce, and he too felt a loss of purpose. Separated from his daughter and with few career prospects, he worked in cafes and felt, he said, “like a dead man walking.”

Hope for Matt came with a job at Staples, and a manager who had faith in him. Working again made him feel revitalized and valuable. In his brother, however, Matt saw the opposite — a broken man who often cried. I don’t know what I’m going to do, he’d say over and over again.

Ben eventually found work with a boutique construction company, remodeling houses and using his hands. It reminded him of the mission trips of his youth, and he loved it. But one day after work, his knee suddenly gave out. The next morning, he couldn’t stand on it. There was no specific injury; years of being on his feet had culminated into some bizarre, crippling ailment. A doctor handed him a cane and prescribed rest, but rest doesn’t pay bills. That washed-up feeling was encroaching again.

A couple of days later, Matt got an idea.

Ben (left), his brother Matt and Matt's wife Shayna Hobbs (center) smile during a photo shoot to update their Instagram feed.

Photo: Shayna takes photos for the brothers' Instagram account as Ben and adjust the position of a table.

4

Brothers reborn
Shayna had me build this farm table, Matt told his hobbled brother in May 2014, pointing to a recent creation. Let’s take a picture of it, and put it on Craigslist. If somebody wants it, you keep the money, and we’ll build another. This could help pay your bills, until you can work again.

A day after the table — built from new lumber from Lowe’s — popped on the Internet, two people inquired about buying it.

Dude, people want it. What do we do? asked Matt.

Ben’s mind went to quality over quantity and to his contacts in construction. If we’re going to do this, Ben said, we should use reclaimed wood. I know this guy who takes down houses.

Matt and Ben recruited their brother Jeremy, set off for a 1905 farmhouse near Elberton and picked it clean. Jeremy took the beams for a barn he was building, and he lent his brothers $900 for the remaining haul.

I trust you guys, said Jeremy. I know you’re going to do everything you can to get this back.

In Jeremy’s barn, their first workshop, Matt and Ben set to building a table that quickly sold on Craigslist for $300. They reneged on the deal involving Shayna’s table and told that buyer they’d build anything she wanted; thus, their customized work was born. They used Pa’s old saws and tools and dedicated the first cut of each piece to him.

Having done no market research, the Hobbs brothers soon realized they’d stumbled into a craze for handcrafted things, be it liquor, beer, T-shirts or furniture. Their offerings were perfect for a generation tired of mass consumerism but with an appetite for unique wares that echoed simpler times.

Their timing was accidentally fortuitous in another way, too. Jeremy had bought an office building in Athens and needed to furnish it, which Matt and Ben readily did, selling each desk, bench, end table, sofa table and coffee table for less than $500. Doing so exposed their work to a constant stream of people in various industries — mortgage brokers, financial whizzes, home flippers — who went nuts over the timeworn look and craftsmanship.

Soon Matt and Ben had a month’s worth of work, and they started to view their hobby as a viable career. To keep up with orders — and quality in check — they hiked prices, reserving 10 percent of each sale for Jeremy. They were debt-free in no time, living a Pa-inspired mantra they still adhere to: Pay in cash, because it hurts more.

Some nights, Jeremy would watch his brothers building tables, and as they meticulously applied spar urethane and ensured that each joint was right, he saw in them a true passion for their work — finally.

“It was like they had been born again,” said Mike Hobbs. “Like their whole lives started over.”

The brothers at work in the Sons of Sawdust studio.

Photo: Ben eyes a piece of reclaimed wood that the brothers are usuing to build furniture.

5

Virtual celebrities
One sunny day in January, around the corner from downtown Watkinsville, the Sons of Sawdust workshop screamed with table saws, band saws, chop saws, jointers, planers and sanders. Two flags — UGA and the State of Georgia — hung from rafters. In the back room sat a vast stockpile of boards and pillars from every structure they’ve disassembled, some pieces dating back nearly two centuries.

As usual, Ben was hunched over a project — a concrete-topped desk for State Farm offices in South Carolina. The desk’s aprons came from the Acworth train depot’s flooring, salvaged just a few months earlier. By the time a piece is finished, the brothers have expended so much effort with the wood, from nail-removal to urethane application, that letting go can be difficult. Matt’s been known to choke back tears while waving goodbye to tables. Have a nice life, he’ll say.

Elsewhere in the shop were two workers the Hobbs brothers have hired (both bearded, tall and lean, coincidentally or not), and Shayna, who circled the periphery, photographing the action. Her photography skills and savvy branding ideas have been as integral to business growth as the brothers’ knack for clean cuts. If Matt’s the salesman and Ben’s the artisan, she’s the visionary.

Six months after the first table had sold, it was time to legitimize the company and create an LLC. But first they needed a name. The brothers were leaning toward The Bearded Woodsmen, but Shayna had a better idea: Sons of Sawdust. The S.O.S acronym was metaphorical for the wood the brothers were rescuing, which was, in turn, rescuing them.

It’s perfect, said Ben.

Another turning point came when Shayna took over the Sons of Sawdust social media accounts, particularly Instagram. She started with 300 Instagram followers and began weaving in brief stories about the wood and the brothers’ own travails.

Within two days, she’d netted $6,000 in orders via social media. Soon, the jobs got bigger: a restaurant ordered dining tables; a salon wanted a reception desk, coffee table, side tables and a wall constructed of reclaimed wood.

When they reached 5,000 Instagram followers, the trio posted a video of them dancing to DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What,” and subsequent celebratory videos have featured their family, including Grandma. They haven’t spent a dime on traditional marketing, but as of January their engaged Instagram community had ballooned to nearly 50,000.

As in their youth, when they were identified around town for being the preacher’s sons, they are recognized at bars, car dealerships and even ice-skating rinks from Athens to Asheville. Only this time it’s for their own achievements.

Hey, admirers will shout, I love you on Instagram!

But more than being recognized, it’s their ability to inspire others that gives the brothers the greatest sense of satisfaction.

In their office a few days before Christmas, Matt read aloud an email he’d just received from a man named Jacque in South Africa:

“I tried doing woodwork and gave up, because there’s too many woodworkers in our little town. I was browsing through your pictures on Instagram this morning. That motivated me to pick up my trusted old tools and start all over again.”

“That,” Ben said, “is what it’s all about.”

Exterior shot of the Sons of Sawdust studio in Watkinsville.

Photo: Matt works on a piece of reclaimed wood at the Sons of Sawdust studio in Watkinsville

6

Relative success
You half expect a hobbit to walk out of the home Ben rents on a former plantation in Athens. Dubbed “The Rock House,” it’s a 1920s cottage built from native fieldstones by the grandson of a liberated slave. In his cozy living room, beside a burly stone mantel that smelled of campfire, Ben and Matt toasted their recent successes with tallboy cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Despite the backlog of orders and prospects of a reality TV show, the Hobbs brothers aren’t exactly swimming in disposable income yet. Their prices range from $1,000 for small tables to about $3,000 for large pieces with fancy trestle bases. They aim to produce two large pieces and several small ones per week — a workload that easily pays the rent — and they hope to boost their profile with a brick-and-mortar store scheduled to open near downtown Athens this year.

“I mean, we are successful,” Matt said, “but it’s still tight — real tight.”

But, said Ben, “Knowing you’re where you’re supposed to be, and that you’re impacting others in a positive way, that’s more important to me than driving a Tesla.”

They laughed for a moment, imagining the odd juxtaposition of beards and flannel and high-performance automobiles.

The laughter continued each time the topic turned to Pa. They are confident that if Pa were alive he’d be beside them in the shop every day, having a blast.

Something else that would please Pa: There’s evidence the Hobbs woodworking acumen is extending to Sons of Sawdust offspring.

Matt’s 7-year-old son Linden has built and sold two benches with his father’s help.

And these days, the Hobbs brothers have grown closer to their father.

He lives near the shop and often pops in to marvel at their creations and tell them how proud he is.

Neither Matt nor Ben consider themselves religious, but they appreciate certain church lessons they learned, which were reinforced by Pa.

At silent auctions for charities around Athens, you might find a $2,500 table donated by the Sons of Sawdust. Other free pieces have gone to the local historical society.
And the brothers are partnering with a group to begin restoring homes for underprivileged Athens residents this spring.

For the first house, they plan to redo the siding with durable reclaimed pine to stop persistent leaks. Ben calls projects like that the missing piece to their success.

“All that stuff when I was young planted these seeds in me,” said Matt. “I still want to help change somebody’s life.”

Added Ben: “When you start giving back, start reaching out, just to help people, I feel like that connects the whole circle.”

Behind
the story


ABOUT THE STORY
This story came to me via a printout from the Sons of Sawdust website an anonymous colleague dropped on my desk. A quick note was penned in the margins: “Possible Personal Journeys?” I was intrigued enough to log on to the website and read up on the brothers. I thought it was a fascinating story about siblings who struggled mightily to find their way, but when they did, they struck gold.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


About the reporter
Josh Green is a freelance journalist and fiction author who lives in Atlanta with his wife and daughters. An Indiana native, Green’s newspaper journalism has won top awards in the Hoosier state and in Georgia, where he relocated to work for the Gwinnett Daily Post in 2007. Green is a contributing writer at Atlanta magazine and editor of Curbed Atlanta, and by night he’s shopping a novel.

About the photographer
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.