Finding a new (re)purpose

Steven Masami Ropp (L) repurposes scraps of wood and metal, giving decades-old seasoned wood a new legacy. photo by Kenji G. Taguma

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Although he is now in his “fourth or fifth career,” Steven Masami Ropp seems to have been motivated throughout by a sense of creativity, legacy and building.

A former graphic designer, Ropp was one of three individuals who established Hapa Issues Forum while a student at University of California, Berkeley in the 1990s, creating a new and meaningful space for multiracial Asian Americans. That movement spawned more than a half-dozen college chapters throughout the county, it’s own 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization — which has since closed — and advocacy for the first multiracial census in 2000.

Ropp, a 48-year-old native of Sacramento, then moved on to the academia, using his Ph.D. in cultural anthropology to teach Asian American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles and California State University, Northridge for a total of 10 years.

But then he left academia for the hills, literally, relocating his family to Huancayo in the Peruvian Andes, becoming a baker and owning his own bakery 10,000 feet above sea level for six years.

Reinventing himself yet again, the single father of two teenagers returned to his native Sacramento in 2013, taking on a woodworking profession that was once practiced by his maternal grandfather, Toraji Suwa, who learned woodworking in the Tule Lake Segregation Center during World War II.

Ropp, who takes another person’s trash and turns them into treasures, reflected upon his new business venture, RePurpose Salvage & Furniture. Through this endeavor, Ropp carefully dismantles barns and other buildings, pieces out the wood and metal, and either flips them — selling them quickly — or creating custom-made furniture. He builds about 30 percent of his products to sell, selling 70 percent of the salvaged material outright.

One such handmade product is a wine rack created from black walnut from the Sacramento Delta town of Clarksburg. The wood block had some worm holes, but Ropp filled them in with epoxy resin while working the wood. He found a metal frame provided to him from a Blue Diamond Almonds dumpster. It took a couple of days to make; he sanded the wood, and put three coats of Danish oil on it.

Another product on hand is a chair lounge built with Douglas fir, using old hardware and handsomely stained with Australian tree oil. The wood was found from a barn in nearby Elk Grove, Calif.

Elevated planter. photo courtesy of Steven Masami Ropp

He also found some wood in someone’s backyard to make an elevated planter, which he said took a couple of hours to build, and is selling for $60.

Ropp’s home in Sacramento’s Hollywood Park neighborhood is neatly lined with all types of salvaged material, including galvanized tin from barn roofs — used to decorate bars with a rustic look — and especially wood organized by type of wood and dimension.

Barrels are used to make barbecues, chairs, benches and outdoor furniture, while rustic wood with nail holes provide some “character” to projects.

Galvanized tins and large wooden beams provide the most income for salvaged material, Ropp said.

The entrepreneur recently spent a toasty Central Valley afternoon discussing his venture with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Nichi Bei Weekly: You’ve been doing this full-time for about three years now. How did you get started?
Steven Masami Ropp: About 10 years ago, I decided I wanted to start building more furniture, so I bought tools, I put together my workshop, and I just started making furniture.

NBW: Are there a lot of businesses like this?:
SMR: Here in the Central Valley, no. I’ve been working around old houses for a long time. I’ve worked on everything from the 1890s up to modern houses. (Houses in the 1890s are) almost all redwood. Clear, old growth redwood is the best quality wood that you can get. Redwood is naturally resistant to insects.

NBW: What type of preventative measures do you need to take for wood:
SMR: On any wooden structure, you have to take preventative measures, if you get termites — it doesn’t matter how old or how young it is.

When I do a demo on a building, I inspect it very carefully. If I see any termites, or if I see any issues then I might quarantine the wood. You can also tint it, you can actually wrap it in plastic and leave it out in the sun — that’s a natural way to get rid of the ants and the termites. … I’ll wrap it in plastic, and on a hot summer day in Sacramento, I mean it’s going to kill anything that’s in there. … About twice a year I spray for termites.

NBW: Can you tell us a bit about the reuse of wood? (Making sliding barn doors from pallet wood):
SMR: This is trash, essentially, but if you break these down, you’ve got pine or fir, and also you have oak, walnut, you have hardwood, too. So if you mix it up, it looks really good. This is kind of a popular thing in terms of recycling, (to) make furniture out of pallet wood.

Lounge chair. photo by Kenji G. Taguma

The main thing for me is just that there’s so much good wood and good resources that just ends up being thrown out, which is dumb, in a way, and it’s a waste. I just want to find a way to reuse it. Redwood is expensive.

I can build anything, literally, that people want. But they just have to bring either the measurements, a picture or an idea, and I’ll build it. I do all different kinds of styles, but my personal style that I like is sort of like simple, rustic, reclaimed. Some woods, some metals, basically repurposing.

NBW: How much is it your idea vs. the client idea?:
SMR: Probably about 90 percent of it is the client’s idea, just because with the type of operation I have here, I don’t have retail space, so if I do a project it just sits until I sell it. For the most part, I want to build exactly what the customer wants. It’s made to order.Tell me what you need, and I’ll do it exactly how you want it.

NBW: You said that your maternal grandfather, former Sacramento area general contractor Toraji Suwa who was a “no-no” at Tule Lake, has been an influence. How so?
SMR: A lot of the tools I use, I inherited stuff from my grandpa. I think he started doing woodworking actually in camp. They would build stuff from like crates. I have a piece here that he built from crates in the 1950s, it’s a dresser.

He was a pretty well-known contractor here in Sacramento, and I used to help him out in the summers (during high school). That’s how I was able to learn basic woodworking, tile work and windows, and that kind of stuff. That’s kind of how I got started.

NBW: What type of lasting impact has he had on you and your decision to follow your current path?
SMR: After he retired I tried to always pick his brain about building stuff and fixing things.

His style was very practical and straightforward. He wasn’t into fancy expansive fixes. He definitely saved and reused everything! He also wasn’t particularly tied to old-fashioned ways. He wasn’t afraid to try out the latest tools and techniques.

NBW: What are the advantages of using reclaimed wood?
SMR: For me, using reclaimed wood was just cheaper. I mean, good wood is expensive, whereas if you had a decent pallet, you break it down, and you can make amazing things from it. So that’s how I got started.

NBW: What about the durability of the old wood?:
SMR: Durability would be the same. It just depends upon what type of wood it is, hardwood vs. softwood. Douglas fir is a little bit of a contradiction. It’s technically a soft wood, but it’s actually very hard. So douglas fir is good for furniture building.

NBW: Is a Douglas fir from the 1920s just as good as a Douglas fir from Lowe’s?
SMR: (Pointing to old wood, with tighter grain): This kind of quality wood is hard to find nowadays, because most of what is harvested now is very young, and it’s watered a lot, it grows really fast, so the growth rings will be big. It tends to have more knots, more defects.

Wine rack made from wood from the Delta town of Clarksburg, Calif. photo by Kenji G. Taguma

If you go down to Home Depot and buy some wood … it’s not dry yet. As it dries out it’s going to twist … turn. You want to at least want it to acclimate three to six months. A lot of that wood is fresh.

If you build with that, what’s going to happen is, when it dries, it’s going to shift — the wood’s going to move. So you’re going to get … cracks, splits. You gotta let it acclimate. You gotta let it dry.

NBW: How much of the repurposing / salvaging come from eco-friendliness?:
SMR: Part of it is me being cheap, and then part of it is it’s better quality wood. If I can get the wood for free, and I’m saving it from going to the landfill, and I don’t have to spend the money on the wood, and I can build something amazing for a client, then everybody wins, everybody’s happy. And I make more money. It’s a better quality product.

NBW: Otherwise what happens to the wood?:
SMR: It just goes to the landfill and gets buried, or it gets chipped. I hate to see that, because to me it’s a waste. My grandparents are from that generation that you don’t throw anything away, so you reuse it, you save it.

NBW: How do you find barns to demolish?
SMR: Craigslist, Facebook and word of mouth. I also stop and talk to people, when I’m out driving back roads, if I see something interesting.

NBW: How long does it take to take a building apart?
SMR: Board by board, nail by nail, takes at least three or four days, but it’s usually like a two-week process.

NBW: How many buildings have you taken down?
SMR: Probably around 20. The biggest I’ve done is about 30 by 60 (feet). Sometimes I have a hard time throwing away even the small pieces, if it’s a good piece of wood. Sometimes even the little scraps, I’m like, ‘what can I do with that?’

NBW: What is the price range, low to high, of the built products that you build and sell?
SMR: $6-$2,500

NBW: What about the process of “flipping” items?
SMR: There’s easy money, and then there’s money that you have to earn. I do a lot of buying and selling, a lot of flipping, but that enables me to do the things that I love. If I build something, I might spend two to three weeks on it, but I also need to find cool things that I can flip, and that helps to give me the time to build cool projects. You can save pretty much anything, it just has to be cool enough and worthwhile.

NBW: What causes your waning interests? Are you up for new challenges, or do you get bored easily?
SMR: I liked teaching, but I didn’t like academia. I didn’t like bureaucracy, and I didn’t like the politics. There’s a lot of infighting in ethnic studies. There’s a lot of unhappiness…. It wasn’t always a pleasant environment. … I’ve always enjoyed doing my own business, small business stuff. Honestly, as a small business person, as an entrepreneur, you just have to keep trying different things. This barnwood stuff, it’s not going to last forever. It’s going to get to a certain point where there’s a different trend or different style coming along. So I’ll end up doing something else. As a business person, you’re either making money or you’re not.

NBW: As of now it’s sustainable?
SMR: Yeah, it’s good business. I have way more work than I can handle. I’m looking for commercial yard space, because I have more demos coming up. … there’s more to do, I’m just building it little by little.

NBW: How much is reusing an homage to earlier generations?
SMR: (Paying homage) to that generation that kept everything, but I’m also really trying to reuse it and put it back into use, maybe in a different way. I don’t want to just have like 100 plastic containers, but I want to use the material that we’re saving to make something else cool.

NBW: So the legacy lives on, in a sense?
SMR: Exactly. It’s the story (of the wood) that people love … It’s more the story that’s important. That’s where the anthropology and archeology comes into play. I can tell them that history (of the wood), and we maintain that history here in California.

NBW: What can you tell me about how anthropology — your Ph.D. field — is intertwined into your work? You mentioned the legacy of each piece.
SMR: Archaeology is the study of human material remains, including houses and furniture. As a woodworker, I love being able to actually recreate, preserve and pass on traditional building techniques. I think that so much of why we save and preserve anything is out of nostalgia for things we experienced as a child. So many of us grew up with a certain kind of rural California experience that is in many ways disappearing. I love being able to connect people to pieces of their childhood and life here in the Central Valley. That’s what those barns mean to me.

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