The scent of Sassafras
Robin Wade is an artist whose talent lies in capturing Mother Nature’s singular beauty. With his slow studio, he crafts tables, benches, and other furniture from trees that are downed in a natural or sustainable way. Whether his specimens—walnut, maple, oak—come to him as victims of violent storms or as old growth taken down by humans for safety reasons, Wade sees each tree’s unique properties and what, in his hands, it might become. “It seems like I’m more of a gatekeeper than I am an artist,” he says. “Generally, I’m just trying to protect the beauty that is in so many of these trees.”
The love of nature’s hardwoods began for Wade as a child. The Florence, Alabama, native grew up in an A-frame timber home built by his father on the bank of Cypress Creek and at the edge of a forested plot of untouched earth. “As a kid, Dad would take us into the woods, dig a piece of sassafras root and boil it, add a little honey for sassafras tea,” Wade says. As an adult, Wade renovated his father’s A-frame.
Although Sassafras tea may have been a part of relieving some of the stresses inherent with construction, Wade also used the rare wood in many applications on his home’s exterior—for deck railings, outdoor paneling, timber posts, and the screened porch. “Sassafras is a really a good outdoor wood,” Wade says. “What makes it special is the rarity of it. You never find it as lumber because there just aren’t enough trees (that grow large enough).”
Inspired by his own home’s use of this scarce local wood, Wade dreamed of crafting outdoor benches and tables when some locally sourced Sassafras came his way several years ago. In his slow studio the trees were sawn into lumber and set to naturally air dry for two years before the true design process could begin.
When the Sassafras was ready, Wade created one-of-a-kind furnishings for outdoor living spaces. For some pieces, he teamed the uncommon variety with a fellow rarity—Tishomingo, Mississippi, sandstone harvested from a one-man quarry. Wade’s union of the wood and stone slabs maintain the signature look of a Robin Wade Furniture piece—a modern design with straight, crisp lines created from rustic, natural, elements.
Wade says that finishing the sassafras pieces to protect them from the elements is taking his art too far. “Sassafras is naturally relatively weather resistant,” he says. “It will age well, but it won’t last forever.” And that’s where the beauty lies, Wade says. “Seems like when it works the way its supposed to—naturally—things just work out so much better.”