When siblings Laura and Joe Sissoko decided to start milling wood in 2012, it wasn’t for furniture, but rather for fine guitars and other musical instruments.
After famed guitar maker Gibson was raided in 2012 and charged with illegally sourcing ebony from Madagascar for its fret boards, the pair became inspired to import the wood themselves. Self-described “Peace Corps babies” born in the Central African Republic, the Sissokos had connections to sustainable loggers in strictly managed forests in the country, where such rare woods—Gabon ebony, Sapele mahogany, Bubinga—are often unlawfully harvested. The only way to control the chain of custody is to import whole logs. But they couldn’t find anyone to mill the logs: Ebony, a much denser species than the hardest American woods, is notoriously difficult to cut. “So, I bought a sawmill and figured it out,” says Joe, who previously had various jobs working with his hands, including in agriculture, before moving into wood. His sister, Laura, is a multimedia artist who studied architecture at Georgia Tech and worked at a furniture company in New York City before taking over operations at the sawmill, which they opened on a stretch of highway in Decatur.
At first, the pair called the company African Figurative Woods and supplied exotic woods primarily to the niche world of fine guitars and other instruments. But in 2014, political strife and sectarian violence in the Central African Republic prevented exports from the country. That’s when the Sissokos turned to domestic woods—specifically local domestic wood. Aside from the exotic species, all of the wood they mill comes from downed trees in the metro Atlanta area, which they dub “urban wood.” Partnering with tree services, the pair purchases downed trees, typically cut from yards and development sites—wood that would otherwise be mulched or sent to the landfill. They look for pieces with character, with forks, burls, knobs, and knots, which create beautiful aberrations in the finished product. Logs from maple, pecan, walnut, and hackberry are milled, then air-dried in stacks and cured in a large-scale kiln until fine boards with unique details emerge, perfect for statement furniture. They’ve since changed their company name to Atlantic Fine Woods.
“Now, our clientele is primarily woodworkers,” says Laura. “Some customers and designers come in with their carpenters to pick slabs, and we’ll show them around our warehouse and find a piece of wood that will work for their project. But as our profile is rising, we’ve been doing more ourselves.” That includes crafting a signature table, countertops, and shelving. A slab for a coffee table can range from $250 to $5,000, with ebony on the high end. Laura also maintains a studio at the woodshop where she creates functional decor from the waste pieces (small planters, candle holders).
Atlantic Fine Woods still maintains a stock of exotic woods, but the Sissokos have a new plan for importing products from the Central African Republic: “We want to start doing the milling and processing there,” says Joe. “That way we’d leave more work and more jobs in that country.”
This article appears in our Spring 2020 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.