Where one man sees a pile of downed trees destined for the dump, Ivan Benavides sees a work of art waiting to be unveiled. “It could have been just thrown away, burned and forgotten,” says Benavides. “But when I cut into it, it exposes this beautiful grain and it’s like something that could have possibly never been seen before.”

Benavides is the owner of Seaside Wood Co., the moniker under which he makes wood sculptures and one-of-a-kind home goods—think bowls, candle holders, and incense burners—in his hometown of Los Fresnos. When he first got into woodworking, he experimented with driftwood, found at the beach near his house, but the material proved difficult thanks to extended exposure to the salt and sun. Now, he scavenges the roadside for remnants of the Rio Grande Valley’s varietals, including honey mesquite, Mexican ash, and rare Texas ebony trees, prized for their black core. It’s a smart business model to pay next to nothing for raw materials, and Benavides says it allows him to make the art he wants to make, with a message behind it. He’s on a mission to highlight one of South Texas’s most beautiful natural resources.

With techniques customized to the varietal, Benavides accentuates the wood’s innate patterns. He uses white vinegar and steel wool to oxidize mesquite, turning it from red to black. “It’s not a stain per se, so you still get to see all that grain and definition,” Benavides says. He reserves a charring effect for Mexican ash, which involves rotating the wood on the lathe while burning the exterior layer. And he’s been trying his hand at “power carving,” using a combination of electric- and hand-powered tools to create sculptures inspired by other natural wonders such as sand and coral

The sculptures go for thousands of dollars and are showcased at galleries on South Padre Island, but Benavides also sells smaller, more affordable items through Etsy and the Harlingen-based store, Procured Life + Home. Most are finished with beeswax and mineral oil, rather than a chemical or epoxy, because Benavides wants the wood’s natural smell and texture to shine through.

He isn’t the only one who sees the potential in one of Texas’s most abundant resources. Below, check out five more woodworkers from across the Lone Star State that are prioritizing sustainability. 

7 Ply Revival (Spring)

Shawn Sink is both an avid skateboarder and a self-described “skatehoarder.” In the two-plus decades he’s been practicing the sport, he’s amassed quite the collection of skate decks (the wood platform that’s affixed to four wheels).

“I know what it’s like to have certain memories attached to certain decks,” says Sink, who also works full-time as an automotive technician.

In 2018, his mom was diagnosed with cancer and, looking for a distraction, Sink decided to upcycle the beat-up, broken boards. Friends and local skate shops around Houston now send him their discarded decks, so he has more than 300 to choose from when crafting a variety of items from flower pots to beard combs. Sink can produce a multi-colored effect with layered wood or opt to retain some of the board’s original graphics, like with his popular knife series

Art by Brian Phillips (Austin)

Brian Phillips has been painting on wood since the early 2000s, yet he’s only ever purchased the materials for his makeshift canvas once—a too-good-to-pass-up haul from cabins in an old mining community. “The rest has been found, traded for, or given to me,” he says.

Phillips sources from all over Austin—dumpsters, trash piles, friends’ remodels. His large-scale paintings and wood collages are just as ubiquitous, found in CommerceGallery in Lockhart and AustinArtGarage on South Lamar, outside the original Salt Lick BBQ, at The Moody Center, as well as in hotels around the capital city. Whimsical portraits of cowboys, roadrunners, and other Western motifs are packed with color and pattern and made all the more interesting by the exposed wood that Phillips purposefully leaves in its original state. 

Ryan Renner of Birch + Bloom.
Ryan Renner of Birch + Bloom. Courtesy of Birch + Bloom
Wood mosaics from Birch + Bloom.
Wood mosaics from Birch + Bloom. Courtesy of Birch + Bloom

Birch + Bloom (Argyle)

Growing up, Ryan Renner’s grandfathers constructed furniture and cutting boards, but it wasn’t until later in life that she realized she might have the woodworking gene, too. What started as a hobby with a circular saw, some finishing nails, and a few planks of barn wood from a neighbor has turned into incredibly intricate wood mosaics

She sources the majority of her barn wood locally, but it’s become more scarce with time (there just aren’t as many old barns around anymore) and demand. Thus, Renner has branched out, using other types—including white oak, ambrosia maple, spalted sycamore and walnut—and partnered with a local carpenter who shares his hardwood scraps. She reserves her cherished stash of barn wood for the accent details.

“This wood is something that can’t be faked or replicated,” Renner says. “It’s been out in the elements for decades, getting aged by the wind and sun. The paint has been chipped to perfection. It tells a story.”

Dunnswood (San Antonio)

For Daryll Dunn, there’s freedom in the constraints of working with dirty, unwanted wood pallets. “I still see the beauty,” he says. “It allows me to be as creative, as experimental and as free as I like.”

Dunn got hooked on woodworking in 2013 after helping a friend build a bed frame out of old pallets. Today, he stays so busy with commissions that he rarely has time to drop new collections (follow him on social to find out when he does), but all of the Alamo City got to enjoy his work earlier this year when he collaborated with Maria Williams, the owner of a local art gallery and studio, to create “The Unseen Artists Bench Project.” They asked 10 Black artists to leave their mark on 10 pallet benches, built by Dunn, for a temporary installation in the baggage claim area of the San Antonio International Airport. They’ll be up through the end of the year, and Dunn is already pining for the chance to make more.

Neighbor’s Table (Dallas)

In 2012, when Sarah Harmeyer asked her dad, Lee, to build a farmhouse-style table for her backyard so she could host neighbors, friends and strangers for meals, she never imagined it would become a blueprint for a larger movement. Inspired by her “passion for people gathering,” folks from 36 states have since purchased a Neighbor’s Table and bought into her ethos. Sarah has personally delivered all 500 tables (and counting). 

“I will rent a box truck and we’ll load up a bunch of tables going in the same direction,” says Harmeyer, adding that it’s an inefficient, but fulfilling business model. “Oftentimes I’ll get to have that first meal with people.”

Sarah’s dad recently retired and Will’s Point-based builder Steve Dusek took over. Tables are made to order, but the standard size (nine feet long, fit for 10 to 12 people) is the most popular. They use Western red cedar as a nod to the Texas landscape and because it’s particularly well-suited for the outdoors.