An interview with Mile Whiteside of Black Dog Architectural Salvage
If one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, than Robert Kulp and Mike Whiteside, co-founders of Black Dog Architectural Salvage in Roanoke, Virginia, are rich men, indeed. Since the two teamed up in 1999 and opened their salvage business, they have seen their business evolve from a down and dirty salvage warehouse to an interior design showroom featuring architectural elements of all sizes and shapes, and one of a kind custom and upcycled pieces. Along with their popular TV show Salvage Dawgs on the DIY Network (Season Nine will air this spring), and fueled by an emerging makers movement of next-generation artists, craftsman, and antique lovers throughout the country, Mike and Robert are on a mission to “reclaim, reuse and repurpose architectural salvage for a sustainable future.”
MW: I think you’re born with it. You either love it or you hate it – I don’t think there’s anything in between. Robert is a local contractor with a degree in Building Construction from Virginia Tech, so he got to study architecture there. I’ve always had an appreciation for the antiquities of architecture and the workmanship. Without that passion more of our architectural history would be lost.
JoAC: How have you seen the salvage market evolve over time?
MW: We’ve been in business 18 years and in that time [the salvage business] has become more mainstream. Instead of being just a second-hand shop it’s become a more accepted business. People are putting more value on the history of things, saving our past, and re-use. People want to know that what they are buying, where items are from, and their history and story. We’ve seen [our business] go from, ‘hey, there’s a bunch of stuff piled up over here to there’s still a bunch of stuff piled up but it’s more organized and you can find what you need a lot faster.’ Of course when we started our business the Internet was just percolating, and we used eBay as our database on our first job to research what we had salvaged. So it’s come around. Saying its mainstream is really an understatement – it’s acceptable now. It’s not just cast-offs that you pulled out of the dumpster. Don’t get me wrong – dumpster-diving is still fun but it’s getting a lot harder to get out as I get older. We work very hard. There’s nothing easy about it. That’s something the show has done for us. It has shown people that this stuff doesn’t just fall into our truck, clean itself up, and get on the shelf; it’s hard-earned. But I’m a side-of-the-roader, too.
JoAC: What kinds of salvage projects appeal to you?
MW: Robert would say the ones that make money. We are, as Robert calls us, ‘environmental capitalists;’ we like to think we are participating in the effort to save history but we have to make a profit to pay our staff and keep the lights on. We need to do both. Personally, I look for the things that we’ve never done before. And of course I like the jobs that have a challenge to it and have an interesting history. That’s what gets me revved up.
JoAC: Who are your customers and what are they looking for?
MW: We’ve grown and evolved quite a bit as a business over the years, and with that so have our customers. They tend to be more local than not, mostly because this stuff is hard and expensive to ship but we do ship large items all over the country. That’s the value of having something that nobody else has when you’re the only place they can get what they’re looking for. Our show, however, is also a big draw. The reality show touring genre is huge and like the guys from American Pickers and Barnwood Builders … people are traveling to see what it’s all about. To see if it’s real. We’ve become a destination. We’ve become an economic engine for this region – people coming here [because of the show] that might not have normally, and then enjoying everything that Roanoke has to offer. Between the show, and salvage, and the other products we are offering including a new line of furniture we introduced last year and our line of furniture paint, our business has diversified considerably.
MW: Shows like ours and Barnwood Builders and others have been instrumental in getting the word out. There’s a bit of nostalgia going on out there. Young people in particular are attracted to antique salvage and antiques in general because I think they see that they’re not making it like that anymore. They’re appreciating the craftsmanship, architecture, and antique value of it. But it’s hard to sell antiques and brown furniture today. There is so much of it out there with our aging population that we could bury ourselves in it, so the economics are a part of this, too. If you want this thing to live on then you need to let people do what it takes for the piece to live on. The process, history, and upcycling on our show I think inspires people to look at antique parts differently and think ‘I could do that too.’ There are a lot of DIY’ers out there. But here’s the funny thing. We created a line of furniture paint because that’s what the craze is now. Ten years from now we’ll create a stripper to take it off because it will probably come full circle.
JoAC: What is it about businesses such as yours that are inspiring the DIY-crowd?
MW: What we do is tell the story of pieces we use, whether it is a piece of wood, or iron, or whatever. We’ll build a piece of furniture and sometimes it will have three different stories associated with it that will meld into the new story of it. Everybody’s a designer, they just don’t know it. We prove that all the time on our show and in our shop. We ask our customers to walk around and find something they like and we’ll start there then work our way into a finished product. Now they’re engaged. They have a whole story – how we built this thing. And then they’ll tell their friends. And then it’s word of mouth. It’s about giving people an experience. You can’t get that online or in a big box store.
JoAC: Where do you see this trend taking us?
MW: We’re seeing a Makers Movement among younger folks-craftsman, artists, tradesmen-who are reclassifying themselves as makers and getting behind this movement to repurpose old stuff. We have a thing we are doing on our website right now called ‘Maker of the Month’ which profiles the work of different artists. It’s going after the next generations – Millennials, Gen-Xers, whatever’s coming behind them. My 24-year old son Tay, who works with us, is spearheading our Makers Movement project and awareness because he’s a maker and identifies as a maker.
JoAC: What are the most popular items you sell or get requests for?
MW: We always say doors are our bread and butter. We sold over 800 doors last year. It’s always something people need. We have trimmed our salvage over the years based on what people want and what sells but doors are a constant. We bought 200 tons of Egyptian iron about 13 years ago and we’ve been selling and using that for upcycled products since then. That’s in our creative pile. Antique wood is a big seller, too. Barn wood is huge, something people are putting a lot of value on today. They love the look and what they’re doing with it. And we look for multiples of what people want. Unique items that we can upcycle – that’s our forte.
MW: Five years ago we removed a 45′ replica of the Eiffel Tower from a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. That was an interesting find. We did a house in Pennsylvania that had brass doors. Those were interesting. This was obviously a house where money was not an issue. I love finding parts of houses that have – as Robert calls it – the ‘mark of man.’ There’s a carving on it or a name that really dates it and attaches a human story to it. Those are always interesting pieces.
JoAC: What do you do when you are on a job and find something of historical significance?
MW: We want to honor it first off – that’s why we do what we do. We were invited to get doors in the basement of house in Portsmouth, Virginia that came from the original Virginia Military Institute (VMI) barracks in Lexington, Virginia. One of the doors was marked as the barracks door for George C. Marshall (Room 202) – an instrumental figure in history (The Marshall Plan). We returned the door to VMI where it belongs as a preserved piece of history in their museum. We try to return things to where their story can be honored and told again. We’ll find the home for it that it deserves. That puts a smile on our faces which is why we do what we do.
About Salvage Dawgs
Since 2012 the incredible adventures of the Black Dog Salvage team have been aired on HGTV, DIY, and most recently Great American Country as the TV series Salvage Dawgs. From carefully extracting architectural elements from private homes and classic historical properties to disassembling old hospitals and crumbling mills, every show is a fast-paced and fun treasure hunt. Episodes are available on the DIY Network, Amazon, and iTunes.
About Black Dog Salvage
Black Dog Salvage is located at 902 13th Street SW, Roanoke, VA. The main retail showroom is open 7 days a week, or Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Black Dog Salvage recently opened its 20,000 square foot receiving warehouse to the public. “BDS2” is located less than a mile from the main retail showroom and is open Thursday through Saturday. For more information, visit blackdogsalvage.com.