Custom furniture, urban wood slabs, and lumber
The sound of a nearby chainsaw may not induce feelings of excitement or elation for most people, but Ryan Dirksen is not most people; to him, this very sound suggests that perhaps just around the corner, his next great piece of furniture awaits.
After falling in love with the process of revitalizing and repurposing wood that was destined for the chippers, Dirksen and his wife, Marina Chotzinoff, have incrementally built Where Wood Meets Steel: a custom furniture business that not only breathes new life into fallen trees and recycled steel but gifts clients with one-of-a-kind pieces engineered to last a lifetime.
In 2007, Dirksen began turning salvaged wood and steel into finely crafted custom furniture in the Denver area. Within five years, he and Chotzinoff had a burgeoning business and warehouse near the heart of the city.
"When we started, the business was in our garage, basically," says Chotzinoff. "Ryan would hear a chainsaw in the distance and hop on his bike or walk over and then figure out where to get a trailer and eventually where to get a mill."
As Dirksen and Chotzinoff have finely tuned their business, they've improved upon their process for finding materials, too. "We do have some relationships with local tree companies who regularly tell us about trees that are coming down," says Chotzinoff. "Sometimes it's homeowners or business owners that are wanting to offset the cost of taking a tree down as well as not wanting to see it go to a chipper.
Their work remains mostly made of local finds, though they have ventured out on occasion for specific woods when necessary. "Ryan grew up in Illinois, so there's a sawmill out there near where his family lives that we've purchased from," says Chotzinoff. "Primarily, we've purchased walnut, which we don't have a lot of here, but it is in high demand. We definitely get most of our wood locally, but we've also purchased here and there from places like Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, too."
For as often as someone comes to Dirksen with a particular request, it's just as common for someone to peruse Dirksen's online inventory until something -- a slab, a type of wood, a piece of steel -- catches their eye. Though no one piece or process is exactly the same as another, typically, from there, the clients express their wants and needs with Dirksen, who begins sketching out potential pieces.
As of early 2023, the breakdown of the current business is something like an even split between commercial and residential, partially a result of the pandemic. "Typically, it's been a 50/50," says Chotzinoff. "We tend to have one or two larger retail or commercial projects each year that make up about 50 percent of our revenue. That has definitely shifted over the last couple years, where we had a slowdown in the commercial while residential increased a bit."
The process has remained relatively simple since the launch of the business: Clients typically have something in mind -- a type of wood, dimensions, a type or style of piece -- and the ball gets rolling from there. But the biggest evolution for Where Wood Meets Steel has been its development into a wood supplier: Local businesses and individuals regularly turn to Dirksen and Chotzinoff for slabs -- either to use for themselves, or for their projects for other clientele.
"Instead of keeping all these bits of slabs for ourselves, we're actively growing our wood sales to other craftsmen, home builders, designers, and hobbyists," says Chotzinoff. "That's been the biggest evolution in the business by far. I'd say roughly 25 to 30 percent of our sales is just wood slabs.
"Whether that's folks purchasing a slab that we're finishing and installing or just other woodworkers purchasing the slabs to use for themselves or their own projects, that type of business has definitely been increasing."
Inside the company's warehouse sit three mills, sanders, a planer, and a surfacer. Across the street is a space solely dedicated to inventory and the kiln. Totaling 3,500 square feet, the facility is broken down into thirds: one for metal fabrication, one for woodworking, and one for assembly.
Challenges: Since moving into their current space in 2011, Dirksen and Chotzinoff have come close to maxing out the potential of their space. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be a clean and readily available solution beyond continued creativity in regard to storage and operations space.
"Space is always a challenge," says Chotzinoff. "No matter how much more we get, we kind of need more. We're right near downtown, so it's pretty convenient. We'd have to go pretty far out to get more space that's affordable. We're always doing a ballet dance trying to get everything to fit where we need it to."
Opportunities: Between raising a family and running a business, Dirksen and Chotzinoff wear more than enough hats on a regular basis. To help alleviate some of the pressure that sits on each of their respective shoulders, the couple has decided to bring in some outside help to take a crack at updating their marketing efforts.
"I have a design and computer programming background, so I've always taken the marketing and website design on," says Chotzinoff. "We haven't needed much advertising in the past -- it's always taken care of itself by way of word of mouth and the function of the website. But recently, we've hired a marketing firm, as I'm no longer the expert on all of that, nor do I have the energy to do it. I'm excited for them to get started and for us to see what they produce as a result."
Needs: The continued use, upkeep, and development of the materials inventory remains the biggest need for Dirksen and Chotzinoff. Luckily, the pandemic afforded them some time to get more organized than ever in regard to their offerings.
"Our inventory is one of the more recent things we've dabbled in a bit here and there but hadn't put all our energy into because of the number of active projects. But, thankfully, we've really been chipping away and fine-tuning it to actually make it a usable tool for us and potential clients."