Matt Stepp is a bargain hunter. There’s nothing he enjoys more than finding old, outdated and dilapidated pieces of furniture from salvage shops, second hand stores and other unusual places. With a background in art, he’s often able to envision and recreate a new purpose for his rusty treasures.
Two years ago, he decided to post some of his upcycled pieces online. One day, Stepp received a rather blunt message.
“I told him that his pieces would look better if he did this and that,” said Mike Weston.
Stepp hadn’t heard from Weston in 15 years, when the two waited tables together at a T.G.I. Friday’s in South Portland. Taken aback by Weston’s brusque tone, Stepp messaged him back, asking what his former co-worker even knew about refurbishing furniture.
“Everything,” replied Weston with a smirk. He then invited Stepp to come check out the Penobscot Theater workshop where Weston worked.
“He did, and that was pretty much it,” Weston said.
Today, the two men (along with Weston’s wife, Jennifer) own Rusted Raven Furniture. They specialize in deconstructing older pieces of furniture, then reconstructing them, using the original elements along with their own style of funk. The results are functional works of art.
“There are a lot of people who come to us with furniture that their grandmother gave them. Like, a table that their mom ate off of when she was a little girl,” said Weston. “And they want to do something with it, but the piece is just hideous.”
Weston and Stepp take those time-honored but horrendous-to-look-at heirlooms, and transform them into statement pieces that combine the past, present and future. “You can go out and spend so much money for new furniture, and it’s not even made of real wood,” Weston said. “We can take what you have already, make it look completely different and beautiful. And it will last for the rest of your life.”
The men find many of their diamonds in the rough at salvage places. “Online, in stores, along the side of the road, wherever it may be,” said Stepp. “We’ll bring it back to the shop and figure out how to bring it back to life.”
When asked where the inspiration comes from, Weston readily admits he has no idea. “Sandpaper and luck,” he said with a humble shrug.
Their shop is located in the basement of Weston’s home on Old Schoolhouse Lane in Hampden. “I mainly bought this home because of the all the space down here,” Weston said, gesturing around as the sounds of Phish and an electric saw compete with each other for background noise.
They rely solely on social media and word of mouth for advertising. “We have quite a few repeat customers,” said Weston. Already, their clientele reaches as far down as Boston.
One of their first jobs was refurbishing one of Bangor’s first public pianos, part of an effort by The Kindness Project. That led to a call from the owner of Blaze restaurants, who asked the men to redo his apartment in Bar Harbor as well as some tables for his businesses. That in turn led to more work in Bar Harbor, a job for The Jackson Lab on MDI, and work for Ipanema Bar and Grill in Bangor.
They’re also venturing into custom mudrooms after work posted on Facebook garnered more than 3,000 views. “Since then we’ve been getting a lot of clients that want rooms with built-in benches and shelves,” said Stepp. “We can either make it look brand new, or make it look like it’s been there since the house was built.”
Today, Rusted Raven is a full-time job for Weston. His former boss at the Penobscot Theater now works for him. “Will Newman was the master carpenter at the theater for 10 years,” said Weston. “He’s amazing. He can build anything to within one-sixteenth of an inch to spec.”
Stepp juggles his time between Rusted Raven Furniture and his other job as the University of Maine dining services manager.
“It’s therapeutic for me to come here,” said Stepp. “I have a busy life. I have a nine-year-old son, Harper, who is top priority. When I come here, I’m able to unwind and paint out my artistic vibe.”
Stepp credits Weston for giving him that outlet.
“When I first started, something was really lacking in my life,” Stepp said, looking over at his business partner. “I love Mike; I love Jenn and the support system they give me. Mike is like a father figure to me.”
“Uh, I’m not that much older than you,” Weston said, breaking up the serious moment. “Five years, that’s it.”
Stepp breaks into laughter. “OK,” he said, “How about a mentor then?”
“Not even five years,” Weston replies, not ready yet to let his friend off the hook.
Building a friendship along with a business can cause friction among even the best of buds, but not for Weston and Stepp. “They say the first ship to sink is a partnership,” Weston said, “but everything really has been going great for us.”
The men do admit there’s one thing they completely and utterly disagree on:
“Ipswich,” said Stepp.
“He likes Ipswich pine stain, I hate it,” adds Weston.
“Ipswich,” said Stepp, grinning over at Weston. “That’s pretty much all that we fight about.”
Grateful for the opportunities they’ve been given, Stepp and Weston are taking steps to pay it forward. They work with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Bangor’s ReStore. “We take the worst piece of furniture that they have monthly and we give it a free spa treatment,” said Stepp. “The store then uses the pieces for fundraisers or a raffle.”
The two friends have grand plans for their business, including a large warehouse shop that includes a DIY carpentry section for others to use. “Almost like an artist guild,” Weston explains. “There’s really no place like that right now.”
Stepp hopes that as Rusted Raven Furniture grows, “I can further grow my artistic connection to the local business landscape.”
As for Weston, he’s hoping that in 10 or 15 years, he’s doing the exact same thing. “In this lifetime, I choose happy,” he said. “I was working horrible jobs and I was miserable. Now, I get to listen to Phish, dance, laugh and create art all day. I can’t stop smiling, it’s so great.”