Once a month, we feature local small business owners and artists who are using their creativity to make the homes and businesses of Roanoke beautiful.
This month, our spotlight is on Mike Whiteside, co-owner and craftsman at Black Dog Salvage. Through fabrication, Mike transforms architectural salvage into one-of-a-kind furniture.
Telling a Story Through Creativity & Craftsmanship
In 1999, Mike Whiteside and his friend, Robert Kulp, decided to salvage pieces from a historical Roanoke building that was set to be demolished. At the time, they had no intention of starting a business, much less one that would gain international recognition.
The story that unfolded from that point was beyond what either of them could have ever imagined. Now almost 20 years later, and this business that was never meant to be has seen three locations, four iconic black dogs, one furniture line, and an exclusive TV series that is 9 seasons in.
“This was not a planned thing. It was never going to be a business, so we had no business plan and we still don’t. I guess it’s a little late for that,” Mike said with a laugh. “Robert and I are kind of like cowboys; we ride shotgun over things. But we’ve created a brand that has legs, and the show has put it on a platform that it could never have had otherwise.”
Mike has a background as a Navy parachute rigger. After his time in the service, he spent 15 years as a yacht captain before moving away from the water to the mountains of Roanoke in 1996. Mike’s wife, Susie, is a Roanoke native, and they thought Roanoke would be a good place to raise their kids.
Mike says he has always had an “artful flair,” and that his creativity is a big part of who he is. “I love design and shapes,” he said. “I’m not a purist, but I appreciate the art of architecture.”
This creativity and eye for design has certainly become a crucial part of the Black Dog story. For years after they started the business, Mike was the sole craftsman, in charge of the upcycling of the pieces from their salvages.
“I like fabricating in all its forms,” he said. “Wood and metal is what we do, but glass or stone can be incorporated in as the bling so to speak.”
A photo from Mike’s Navy days. Photo courtesy of Black Dog Salvage.
Using these natural materials aligns perfectly with Mike’s style. “I love the organic, natural part of it, and I thrive in the curves and the not normal,” he said. “I’m not a straight line guy. I can build that, but I prefer not to. I’m more of an organic designer.”
Now the Black Dog Salvage team travels the country, seeking to preserve as much as they can of historical sites prior to demolition or major renovation. They particularly seek out architectural details in old house parts, vintage plumbing, and other unique and unusual pieces from the past. The team typically brings most of their finds back to the Roanoke warehouse. From there, the items are processed and sold as is online or in their store, or they are repurposed into something brand new.
“Getting salvages is the core of this business; it’s what you do with it after that is the added value,” Mike said. “A door can be a door, but it can also be a table, or a lot of different things. You have to look at the value in a piece beyond what it is, taking stuff and seeing an application.”
Mike’s eye for envisioning pieces as they could be is crucial for their work on each salvage site. “It’s a crazy place in my head,” he said. “I see something, and it will reveal itself to me. Something can jump out at me, and I know we have to incorporate it into a design. It just comes to me.”
Mike has always loved being in the workshop, using his creativity in these transformations. As the business has grown, he is not in the workshop as often as he used to be. But it’s still in the art of creating where he thrives.
“Being in the workshop is my zen,” Mike said. “When you’re in a place you feel creative and you have the tools around you to create, you can let yourself go and have fun with it. That kind of creating and building is my happy place.”
The “Caroline Bed,” which Mike designed for Robert’s daughter (Mike’s goddaughter), Caroline. Also pictured are the next generation of “Black Dogs,” Molly May and Stella, on the Caroline Bed. Photos courtesy of Black Dog Salvage.
Preserving the Story
Furniture factory carts from a salvage site. Photo courtesy of Black Dog Salvage.
The mission behind what Black Dog does is to preserve the valuable architectural details of historical buildings from the landfill. In doing so, they are preserving the story behind these buildings for generations to come.
“Each piece has a design value and a history, but we parlay it into something that’s new, and the story that goes with it brings even more value to it,” Mike said. “We’re building functional furniture, but we’re also giving you a story to go with it.”
Much of the repurposing that Mike and the rest of the Black Dog team do is on a commission basis; customers request a custom piece. It’s in the custom design process that the story of the original piece can blend with that of its new owner.
Mike and the design team at Black Dog seek to pull their custom design customers into the design process. This ensures that the new piece reflects their vision and the space in which it will be used, while still conveying the history of the original.
“Everyone is a designer; they just don’t know it,” Mike said. “They give requests and we work with them to manifest it into a piece with our craftsmen. We take one base piece and build from there, and we use different elements to build into their idea.”
He gave the example of a piece they are currently working on that will end up at Smith Mountain Lake—a large table with six chairs and two benches. These are being crafted using canning baskets from Luck’s Bean Company in Sea Grove, NC. “Everything has its origins and destination, and we are the portal,” Mike said.
The result is a one-of-a-kind piece of furniture with a truly unforgettable story behind it.
Other Pieces of the Black Dog Story
The business has grown through the years, changing locations, growing in fame through the TV show, and adding its own line of furniture and furniture paint. Black Dog now has 30 employees, including a crew of craftsmen that stays busy full-time in the workshop on custom designs. As co-owner, Mike wears many hats, including managing this crew and assisting when they have questions or problems with a design or aspects of a design.
He acknowledges the role that their staff plays in continuing the vision. “We have a lot of good people working for us,” he said. “You count on them to follow your lead and to expand on it and use their creativity. We let our guys and gals create. Everyone is an artist here.”
And of course, the Black Dog Salvage story is not complete without their namesake—the black dogs. It was Mike’s wife who first suggested the name because Molly, Mike’s first black dog, was always with him. They had Molly for 14 years and then Sally for 14 years. They now have Molly May and Stella.
Mike with his son, Tay, in the workshop. Photo courtesy of Black Dog Salvage.
“They’re not just part of the brand, they are the brand,” Mike said. “They’re disarming, and they lend an authenticity to this whole thing. People sometimes walk into the store and see them and say, ‘Oh, you actually do have black dogs.’ It’s like truth in advertising. It’s been a blessing to have those dogs around us every day; it truly has made the brand.”
Roanoke is another part of the Black Dog story, as the place where the business got its start and has continued to be based. It’s also the hometown of co-owner, Robert Kulp.
“The small town feel lends itself to us, but really we’re an anomaly here,” Mike said. “In our present form, you wouldn’t expect a place like Roanoke to have a business like us. You see this in places like Atlanta or Charlotte, but here, it’s a freestanding, one-of-a-kind treasure.”
Black Dog is certainly a staple in this community that has helped the area evolve into what it is today.
The Legacy of the Story
Mike hopes that the stories that Black Dog tells through its craftsmanship, preservation of history, one-of-a-kind furniture, people, dogs, and laughter will leave a legacy.
“We hope we’ve created something with staying power, that will live on even after us,” he said. “We want to create something other people can add to, leaving a legacy of ethics and that’s known as a fun place. I think it’s a lot more rewarding to get laughs out of people than anything else. That’s part of who I am and what I want.”
On a rare day when he is not working, you can find Mike near the water. He enjoys the occasional opportunity to sail on the ocean, and more locally, he loves trout fishing with his buddies and driving around his vintage boat, “Damn Skippy,” at Smith Mountain Lake.
“I love getting out in this area and enjoying the environment,” he said. “There’s not much out there that compares to this. I really like where we live.”