New Life for Old Wood

Wood salvager and craftsman Adam Scardamalia reclaims the natural beauty of trees.

Adam . Scardamalia with Grassroots Wood Company at his Daphne sawmill, Friday, July 23, 2022
Photos by Meggan Haller

The term “old-school joinery” is not often spoken these days, nor is it practiced. It is defined as physically joining pieces of wood together with precise notches rather than screws and bolts. The practice is best reserved for master woodworkers such as Adam Scardamalia.

Actually, “woodworker” is just the beginning when describing Scardamalia, a resident of Spanish Fort. He is a sculptor of wood. His work is hewed from trees. Each piece has a story. Each piece has a history. Each piece has roots, or at least used to. His supply derives from many sources, including fallen trees, storms, construction crews, builders and referrals. Finished products are functional legacies. His mill yields tables, mantels, bar tops, doors and more. Fortunately, southern Alabama has an abundance of raw material. “I’m friends with all of the local tree service companies, linemen and road crews,” says Scardamalia. “They all know me and know what I like. When a big tree comes down, the crews give me a ring.”

The Baldwin County craftsman notes that people have a natural affinity for — and, quite often, a history with — sentimental trees. Perhaps as a child, you climbed and played on what is now a towering oak. Maybe you and a backyard pine grew up together. Or maybe you just love trees. “And then a storm takes it down and breaks your heart,” Scardamalia interjects. That’s why people call him. “We can do something to make that tree live on.” And he does, transforming trunks into art, memories preserved and nostalgia blended with functionality. “When I get the tree, the hard part is over,” Scardamalia notes. “The beauty of the wood is already there. I just find it, respect it, polish it up and tweak it a little bit.”

SawMill in spanish fort al
Scardamalia’s workshop, down a gravel road in Montrose, has been his creative home for the last nine years. He is moving his operations to Spanish Fort early next year.

Starting out with a slab of white oak, Scardamalia crafted a white oak kitchen counter/bar with matching shelves, multi-wooded butcher’s block, and fireplace mantel for Fairhope resident, Sarah Olsen. “You can tell he loves his work,” she admires. 

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Many do not realize how beautiful almost any tree can be even in its afterlife. “I had no idea of the incredible depth found in magnolia wood,” notes Fairhope’s Jeffrey Zimmer. Scardamalia saw the artistic protentional in a slab of magnolia that would have otherwise been discarded. The wood, 9 feet by 5 feet hewed from a single tree, has found a second life, suspended from Zimmer’s home entryway. “Walk in and look up,” Zimmer says. “The piece is over your head.” It is striking.

 “Actually, magnolia is one of my favorites,” says Scardamalia, as he thumbs through cellphone photos of recent woodland acquisitions. He pauses on a pictured magnolia chunk, a wooden wonder, about 400 pounds, with tones of grays and whites in intricate patterns, painted by nature and 100-plus years in the making. He smiles. “That’s a big ole piece of magnolia.”

Piles of boards and tree trunks await Scardamalia’s creative eye.

Scardamalia’s history is reflected in his creations. His father, Richard, was a renowned photographer and environmental activist. His mom, Cynthia Scardamalia-Nelson, strongly supports local artisans. Brother Ely is an artist/craftsman, and stepfather David Nelson, Ph.D., is a herpetologist and retired professor of the University of South Alabama. 

The young Scardamalia’s first experience with wood was in his early years, assisting a neighbor’s contracting/constructing business. In 2004, he graduated from the University of South Alabama with degrees in Biology and Chemistry. “But I did not have a clear vision of what I wanted to do,” he says. He got into homebuilding, honed carpentry and woodworking skills and enjoyed working with customers. His interest grew in working with wood, especially creatively. “I don’t think I fell into this,” he says about his career. “I think it found me. Working with wood and turning customers’ ideas into reality just felt right. I was finding my way.”

A few years after college, he started Scardamalia Builders, LLC. “It was a labor of love,” he remembers the early days. He and his wife Haley married in 2010. In 2012, with their newborn first son, the couple drove to Missouri and purchased a hydraulic bandsaw mill. “We didn’t have a place to put it,” he recalls. “For the first few weeks, we parked it in my grandfather’s driveway.” Word spread through Baldwin County; a new sawmill is in town. “Potential clients asked, ‘could I make this, could I make that.’ My answer was then, and is now, ‘yes, I can.’”

Scardamalia’s work is mostly produced from stock he has on hand. About 20 percent is from people with their own fallen trees. “If necessary, I will mill it on site and take it to the shop,” he says. Returned to the workplace, the piece is dried — for at least a year — before work continues. Customers also request pieces already in stock that are already dried. It saves a lot of time in the process. His stock or home stock, the methods are the same. “With every customer, we look at photos, examine wood samples together, and I ask what they want, what they like, what is their style and how can this former tree live up to it?” Scardamalia says. “I tell the customer, ‘this is what I can offer from my skill set. Hopefully, we will meet in the middle.’”

But it is more than work. For Scardamalia, his vocation is his mission. “Though wood is plentiful down here, trees are being taken down faster than they can grow,” he says. “It hurts to see these large trees that have stood here 300 years being cut and tossed out.” His goal is to transform fallen giants of wood into legacies. “I love to see one milled and turned into heirloom pieces. A three century-year-old tree turned into a fine table or mantel can be saved, and handed down for future generations.” Every piece is different. Wood has personality, grain structures and rings. No two pieces are alike. “I especially like working with live edges,” he explains. “Live edges define wood that has the curvature of the tree in the finished product.” If the wood slab has curves, so does the finished product. He has done many trunk transformations and learned from each, starting on day one. “My first big live edge table was quite a task,” Scardamalia recalls. “It was 12 feet long, and 55 inches wide. We had to build a custom table to sit that piece on just to work on it. The reward of my work is making something beautiful from something that would have been tossed out, burned, or left to decay,” he continues. The craftsman notes the joy he experiences seeing someone’s face when their idea becomes a wooded reality. 

Scardamalia summarizes his work with a smile. “I speak for the trees, man.” His projects exemplify good stewardship of natural resources. The message is projected through live edge slabs, old-school joinery and heirloom keepsakes. Each piece may be handed down from family to family, parents to children, generations to descendants, in the family tree.

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