Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones
Did you know that some of the best woodworkers in the South are right here in Athens? Oneta Woodworks’ clients include well-known Atlanta restaurants Farm Burger and Empire State South, as well as Terrapin, Creature Comforts, Jittery Joe’s, Condor Chocolates and Trappeze in Athens. They were even selected as the woodworkers for a top-secret project to salvage the poisoned trees from the Auburn, AL landmark Toomer's Corner. Owner Zack Brendel recently agreed to an interview in the non-air-conditioned workshop Oneta shares with the metalworking business St. Udio.
The Broad Collective: You have one of the longest running woodworker businesses in town. How did you get started?
Zack Brendel: Even though we are an eight-year-old company, I always think of us as a new-ish startup. There are guys who have been running successful woodworking companies in town for over 30 years. I started this company out of frustration. I was working for a traditional homebuilder after I graduated from UGA, and did not like inefficient design and perfectly good material being tossed into dumpsters because it was cheaper than saving. I wanted to figure out a way to reduce the cost of saving extra material. This naturally lead to hoarding both new and reclaimed materials. Anyone who has been to our wood yard knows we like to save wood. The financial challenge is to design a project—from a table to entire restaurant—that efficiently uses what we have on hand and keeps everyone involved happy.
BC: You’ve come a long way since your first job at Farm Burger down in Atlanta. What’s changed?
ZB: The biggest change is that I kind of know what I'm doing now. Now I know my limits—when to sub out certain work and how to focus on what we are good at and enjoy. I am more involved in a community of craftsmen who make every job possible, whether it is a designer, metal worker, plumber, electrician, architect or other carpenters. The talent in this town is exceptionally high for a town of this size in Georgia. Another thing that has changed is that there are other companies that fabricate with reclaimed wood. It is great to see the demand rising, and to see that people are valuing the practice of salvaging materials.
BC: You’re running a pretty big team at this point, and have grown a ton over the last few years. How do you manage it all?
ZB: The last nine years have been an evolution in trial and error of estimating, management, fabrication and growth. I now have a badass crew of highly talented woodworkers who make it all happen. We finally have the right space and the right tools. Also, at the end of last year, a very talented craftsman who has run his own business for 35 years mentioned to me he was going to retire, and I somehow convinced him to come work with my crew in semi-retirement. His role is to teach our crew as much as he can. He is enjoying seeing a new generation excited to further our skills, and it is great to have an authority [on] woodworking in the shop. He has made our shop more efficient and faster, so that frees up some time.
JB: Tell us a little bit about the mill that you own and how that plays into what you’re doing.
ZB: The mill is a separate business that was created out of a need to have some serious space to store all the wood we have and will have. When we deconstruct a building, like we did recently with the former Jittery Joe’s Roaster, we need a place to stage the process of de-nailing, milling into usable material and storing the wood. Our mill is nearly 15 acres up on North Avenue, and having the space allows us to save all wood, doors, windows, posts, tin, brick and just about anything that might have a potential reuse. In addition to our bandsaw, we recently added an Alaskan chainsaw mill, which allows us to cut trees up to 6 feet wide, which has added a really exciting new direction to our furniture. We are not a traditional mill that processes new lumber. We only mill reclaimed wood or trees that were taken down in a client’s yard or somewhere special. In fact, we recently had a really cool project where we went down to Auburn University and salvaged the Toomer’s Corner oak trees that were poisoned by an Alabama fan. We have been turning that wood into furniture for Auburn, which has been awesome.
BC: Why Athens? Why live here? Why build and grow your business here instead of someone else?
ZB: When I moved to Athens in 1999 for school, I immediately knew this was the town for me. It never occurred to me to leave or start a business anywhere else. The quality of life, the people, the food, the music and the town’s collective attitude make it the perfect place for my wife and I to raise our family and grow a business.
A longer version of this interview originally appeared at thebroadcollective.com, an Athens-based website that publishes stories about local food, culture, arts and crafts.