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Crafted by Fate

Rob Chamberlin at work on a lathe in his Water Street studio.
Woodworker sees serendipity’s hand in his success

Kalamazoo woodworker Rob Chamberlin believes strongly in serendipity.

His entire shop, located in the basement of a warehouse at 309 Water St., is equipped with tools and benches collected piece by piece over 20 years. There’s a story to every piece and to the space itself, and each story is an affirmation for Chamberlin that he is where he should be.

“This space used to be a furniture storage company, and I’ve been told that this actual space, where my studio is, is where they would do their furniture repairs,” he says. “That’s interesting to me, that I’m back in the same space working with furniture 100 years later, doing something very similar.”

There’s also a wood bench in his shop that originated from an old carriage maker’s shop on East Main Street. The bench ended up at the Heritage Co., back on the same city block from which it originated, after decades of being passed around Kalamazoo from basement to basement, with no permanent home. Chamberlin’s friend Jeff Weisman called him to tell him about it.

“He kept harassing me about it, actually,” Chamberlin says. “I wasn’t sure I wanted it originally — it was in pretty bad shape.”

But eventually he felt called to restore it and put it back into use doing what it was always meant to do.

Chamberlin has countless stories like that one: A friend told him him someone ought to write a story about him, and he was contacted the next day by a local magazine. In his 20s, Chamberlin picked up a coffee table book on the work of nationally renowned woodworker Sam Maloof, and he was forever influenced by it. The day before his wedding in California, Chamberlin was able to meet and thank Maloof; Maloof died four months later.

Even when Chamberlin went back to thank Mark Bond, his wood shop teacher at Paw Paw High School, for his inspiration, Chamberlin walked into yet another moment of serendipitous affirmation.

“I came to the school with a portfolio of my work to show him, just to say ‘hi and thank you,’ and it turned out it was his very last day of teaching. He told me he had always wondered two things in life: if Lee Harvey Oswald really shot Kennedy and what happened to the thousands of kids who came through the doors of his shop. I guess I helped with one of those mysteries.”

What was in the portfolio Chamberlin showed his shop teacher? An image of the 30-foot carved bar top at Bell’s Brewery, to start with, as well as images of the bar top on the second floor of Martini’s restaurant, the custom salon interior at Suzanne’s Organics Salon, custom replication and rebuilding work for local historic homes, a hand-built coffin made from scrap wood collected by the person it was built for, and some custom kitchen and home work.

Despite this variety of what he can create, Chamberlin likes to focus on building custom handcrafted furniture such as tables, chairs, drawer stands and coffee tables made from cherry, poplar, walnut and ash. Some of his recent creations — custom-made three-legged tables — are in use at Water Street Coffee Joint’s new location, at 245 W. Centre Ave. in Portage.

Chamberlin says he started his woodworking career by fixing older furniture and replicating antiques, but wanted to bring his own perspective into his craft and create objects with his own signature. That drive brought him into the world of custom commission work. And while he has created several pieces for commercial clients, much of his commission work is for private residential use.

“It gives me a pleasant feeling to know that there’s a little object sitting in someone’s house and sometimes they look at it and think of me,” Chamberlin says. “It’s a beautiful thing. There’s a story for the piece too — they didn’t drive to Chicago and sit in traffic on the way to buy it; they went to lunch with a guy, got to know him, and he built them a table.”

But despite two decades of honing his craft, Chamberlin says he’s still learning.

“I’ll be learning the rest of my life, and not just technique. I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to do what I do and why, and now I’m focused on continuing to develop. I’ve been self-employed for 20 years, but I think there’s still a lot to learn about the business end.”

One thing he has learned is that while he’s not sure where the next project will come from or what he’ll be working on next, he doesn’t have to worry. “Whatever comes my way will come my way. That’s what I’ve experienced throughout my life — in times of doubt and question, I get a little morsel or crumb here and there, and they tell me I’m on the right track.”

Tiffany Fitzgerald

As Encore’s staff writer, Tiffany writes — a lot. She is responsible for our Upfront, Savor, Enterprise and Good Works features every month, as well as other stories in the arts. If that wasn’t enough, she is also the editor of FYI, our new family magazine that debuted last month. When we aren’t working her to death, she hangs out with her husband and two sons and dreams of having the time to complete Pinterest-worthy projects.

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