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Artist’s love for driftwood anchors Gneiss Wood in Oakland

on March 14, 2016

Adam Hubenig grew up in Quebec and Ontario, Canada, surrounded by lush forest, hidden brooks and rivers, with access to a secluded cabin where he could completely escape into nature. He moved to Oakland in 2001 for a technology job, but, more importantly, he wanted to be just a few hours a way from Yosemite National Park to rock climb, his favorite past-time.

“Being three hours away from Yosemite allowed me to go rock climbing in the world’s best rock climbing gym on a whim,” said Hubenig. “It was actually my love of rocks that enamored me to move to California. But it was the wood that kept me here.”

Hubenig has turned his love for the trees and woods of the Bay Area into his own small business, Gneiss Wood, a line of driftwood art. Having never lived by the coast before, Hubenig fell in love with beaches after moving to Oakland. While walking his dog, he started to collect driftwood that had washed ashore. About 10 years ago, he experimented with turning the wood into a small gift for Valentine’s Day—two sticks tied together. One had the words “Stick by Me” etched into it and the other said “I’ll Stick by You.”

Hubenig’s first art pieces were so well received by his friends and local sellers that he decided to continue making art from the driftwood as a side job. Into each piece of driftwood, he etches quotes and sayings related to nature and literature, such as “It’s better to travel well then to have arrived” or “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”

Hubenig combined his love for rocks and driftwood when picking the name “Gneiss Wood”— “The word ‘gneiss’ is a kind of sparkly rock that is found at high elevation” said Hubenig. “It was also typically thrown away when miners were digging because it was considered to be worthless. So ‘Gneiss Wood’ actually means tossed-away wood.”

But he made driftwood his full-time job about four years ago when his mother passed away. “After my mother’s death, I went back to my high-tech job and I did not really have the heart in it anymore. It was a too high-pressure scenario, and I did not feel like I needed that kind of pressure in my life,” said Hubenig. “So I just turned to the driftwood, and I poured everything into that to make that my lifestyle.”

Hubenig spends about 20 minutes to an hour every day or two on the beaches and marinas in the Bay Area or the surrounding Northern California area seeking the most appealing driftwood. “The things I look for are the lighter-toned pieces of wood, because part of my process involves burning and it comes out typically dark and black. So I am looking for a canvas that can complement that,” said Hubenig. “I am also looking for pieces that are of adequate size—a lot of the popular pieces tend to be small or medium-sized, essentially gift-able.”

He brings bags with him to haul it back in his truck to his workshop in Berkeley, where he lets the wood dry in the sun. Then he cleans and brushes the wood. Next, he sands or cuts the wood so the edges are smooth and the piece does not roll when placed on a hard surface.

He then determines what side of the wood is best to etch with the saying or quote. The etching is done using a digital laser, the same kind that many architects use to make models of buildings. It’s a medium-sized tool that has a clear top that opens; the wood is placed inside, and then the laser runs over the wood etching in the design.

The messages Hubenig picks are typically based on nature and philosophy books he has read and enjoyed. He uses a lot of quotes from Buddha and John Muir, hoping to provide upbeat inspiring messages.

Hubenig’s workshop is extremely neat and organized to keep his stress level low when producing orders and shipping them out to vendors. A distinct smell of dry wood wafts through his workspace and complements the earthy-toned colors of Hubenig’s wool sweater.

His pieces are sold online through a web store as well as Etsy. In addition, “Gneiss Wood” can be found at a handful of boutiques in San Francisco including Local Take, Gather and Urban Bazaar. Shops in Colorado, New England and Texas also sell Hubenig’s art. Hubenig spends a lot of time attending local art events each year, spreading the word about his business; he is a frequent attendee of the Treasure Island Flea Market, the Alameda Antique Fair and Oakland’s Jack of All Trades monthly events.

Hubenig used to have a brick and mortar store in the North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco, but he closed it two years ago due to a rent increase. He re-opened a store in the Mission district, but discovered he preferred the flexibility of working local events rather than running a physical business, so he decided to close that, too.

“Gneiss Wood” has been a growing business since it launched full-time four years ago, and Hubenig is now able to support his wife and two kids by selling his driftwood art. Hubenig is also currently working to getting his arborist’s license to learn more about caring for trees.

“Driftwood is a way to get me to the beach for work, and to be surrounded by nature and positive messages,” said Hubenig. “I get to pick from the cherry tree of awesomeness and spread that out to people via this medium of driftwood that is so tactile. And folks just love to bring home.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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