Born in Maungatautari, Waikato, on 8 June 1905, Wiremu Te Ranga Poutapu, known as Piri (Bill), was of the Tainui people Ngati Koroki. His father was Pouaka Winikerei, a carpenter, and his mother Rangitaau Paraki. The family moved to Raungawari, near Pukekawa, in 1910. There, as a young child, Piri Poutapu came into contact with Te Puea Herangi, then the young leader of the people of Mangatawhiri, near Mercer. He became as one of her adopted children, taking part with her in the revived Pai Marire religion, and accompanying her when she moved to Ngaruawahia in 1921 to create a centre for the King movement. He helped clear the gorse and blackberry from the site and to build the first houses, and he took an active part in establishing Turangawaewae marae.
Te Puea pushed all her ‘children’ and followers in the direction of their natural talents. Although as a young man he did some farm work and other tasks, Piri Poutapu worked mainly as a carpenter, training on the job. His first carving project seems to have been on the house Pare Waikato, opened in March 1927. In 1928–29 he worked on carvings for the hostel at Tuakau and on the meeting house, Mahinarangi, at Turangawaewae.
In 1929, at Ngaruawahia, Piri Poutapu married Ngamako Taupiri. Three weeks later Te Puea sent him to study carving at the School of Maori Arts, Ohinemutu. During a three-year period of training there, he learnt from Eramiha Kapua adzeing, carving, and karakia and rules of tapu proper to the art. Unlike other contemporary carvers who abandoned these rules, Piri Poutapu observed them strictly, and later taught them to his own pupils. While at the Ohinemutu school, Poutapu and another Waikato carver, Waka Kereama, assisted Kapua and the brothers Pine and John Taiapa to carve the house Te Hono ki Rarotonga at Tokomaru Bay. John Taiapa regarded Poutapu as one of the most talented modern carvers.
By 1932 Piri Poutapu had returned to Ngaruawahia, where he was to become one of Te Puea’s few fully trusted assistants. He established a carving school similar to that at Ohinemutu. One of its first projects was the carving for the Methodist church in Kawhia. He trained many carvers; his most famous pupil was Inia Te Iwiata, who became world famous as a bass singer under the name Inia Te Wiata. From 1934 Poutapu, with Rawiri Tumokai Katipa (Te Puea’s husband), led a team in the building of King Koroki’s house, Turongo, and he and Te Wiata were among the team of carvers who decorated its front with carvings. The house was opened in 1938. Poutapu also undertook small carving tasks, such as carved picture frames and bowls.
By 1936 Te Puea had become interested in having seven war canoes carved, each more than 90 feet long. She had the hull of an old canoe, Te Winika, brought from Tuakau to Turangawaewae, and under the direction of an elderly man from Kawhia, Ranui Maupakanga, new totara were felled for the bow and stern sections and the canoe was rebuilt. Ranui supervised Piri Poutapu as he led a team of adze carvers preparing the new sections and fitting them to the old hull. Poutapu, with Kereama Waka and Inia Te Wiata, researched Waikato carving styles and carved Te Winika's bow-piece and figurehead, stern-post and sides. The canoe was completed by 1938 but, due to lack of funding, only three of the projected seven canoes were completed. The two other canoes were Aotea and Takitimu. By this time, Poutapu was sufficiently trained to pass on canoe-building skills to a new generation of carvers.
In 1939 Poutapu travelled north to help supervise the carving of the Nga Puhi canoe Nga-toki-mata-whao-rua, in preparation for the nation’s centennial celebrations at Waitangi in 1940. Te Winika, Aotea and Takitimu were also taken north to play a part. On his way home from the celebrations Poutapu stayed in the house rented by R. G. H. Manley in Auckland; the landlady subsequently evicted her tenant as she did not permit Maori on her property.
In 1942, during the Second World War, Poutapu conducted American army officers on tours of Turangawaewae, and each was presented with a carved swagger-stick from the Turangawaewae carving school. But in 1943 he quarrelled with Te Puea over a matter of principle. He left Turangawaewae in 1944, and did not return until after her death in 1952. Without his expertise the canoes could not be kept in good repair nor used for great occasions, such as Te Puea’s tangihanga. Poutapu moved to Waahi, where he became a confidant of Koroki and acted as his secretary.
Piri Poutapu continued to take a leading role at Ngaruawahia during the reign of the Maori Queen, Te Atairangikaahu. He was a member of her Tekau-ma-rua (council of twelve). In 1971, for the Auckland Anniversary Regatta, he repaired and prepared the canoe Te Winika, and trained the crew and took them to Auckland. The following year, the building of Taheretikitiki II began at Ngaruawahia. Piri Poutapu led the team renovating the old central hull section and performed the necessary rituals. Too elderly by now to go into the forest himself, he delegated the task of selecting the new logs to his best carvers. Although he observed tradition in banning food and women at the site, Poutapu made use of modern technology: his designs for carving the canoe sides were photographed and projected on to the planks. The whole process was filmed by the New Zealand National Film Unit; Piri Poutapu was a humble man and it was said to be typical of him that he did not feature at all. Taheretikitiki II was launched in 1973, and at that time Te Atairangikaahu announced that Te Winika was to be given to the Waikato Museum. Poutapu led the team which renovated the canoe in preparation for this gift.
Other projects directed by Poutapu were the completion of the huge carved post destined for New Zealand House, London, after the death of Inia Te Wiata; and the carving of the house, Tuwaerea, on Hui Te Rangiora marae, Hamilton. Some of Poutapu’s carvings were placed in the Polynesian Cultural Centre at Laie, Hawaii. In 1974 he was made an MBE. He worked on carvings for the Kimiora cultural centre at Turangawaewae, and was planning the final designs of several more canoes when he died at Turangawaewae marae on 20 August 1975. His wife, Ngamako, had died in 1969 and he was survived by three sons and a daughter. His body lay in Pare Waikato, the meeting house at Turangawaewae, and he was buried on Taupiri Mountain four days later.