When Tim Liby’s church, The River, decided to expand its facilities two years ago, he saw the opening he’d been dreaming of for years.
An auto mechanic who works full time for Maple Hill Auto Group, Liby had always wanted to be a woodworker. Knowing the church wanted to renovate an industrial space at 517 Walbridge St. that was the former home of I.H.S. Distributing, Liby spoke to the church’s worship and administrative pastor, Brian Fraaza, about his idea of fitting the space with custom desks and tables. “We had a couple conversations, and I put a bid in,” he says. “I was given the chance to build the furniture.”
That was the official start of RSL Custom Furnishings, Liby’s part-time business that he runs out of his home garage in Kalamazoo. Liby makes items such as tables, lamps, desks, nightstands and beds out of maple, cherry and other woods. With an emphasis on creative pieces that serve in practical ways, Liby often pairs live-edge slabs — large planes of wood with sanded but uncut edges — with black metal pipes or other unusual fittings. His works range in price from $250 to $3,000, and crafting a piece can take him anywhere from four to 40 hours.
RSL is named for Liby’s father, Robert Steven Liby, who died when Liby was a teenager. Liby says his dad was a custom woodworker until he had a work accident and later developed multiple sclerosis. When his father became confined to a wheelchair, the family poured a runner of cement between their house in rural Indiana and their dad’s nearby workshop and made the workshop wheelchair-friendly. It was there that Liby’s dad tutored him and his brother on the craft.
“I’ve always had this desire to do woodworking stuff, because that’s all he did,” Liby says. “He made really incredible things, and a lot of my skills come from when I was out there with my brother making things.”
The crowning glory of Liby’s work inside The River is a 10-foot conference table made from a “book match,” a pair of wood slabs that mirror one another and that come from two pieces of wood that originally pressed against one another inside a very large tree.
Liby created the table — which was 600 pounds before it was sanded and finished — around his full-time job and his roles as a husband and father of two.
In a time-lapse video on YouTube of Liby making a farm table from start to finish, you get a feel for the atmosphere in his garage. His kids, ages 7 and 2, flash in and out of the frame, romping hilariously in the background, and his wife, Katie, makes cameo appearances in the video, too. Liby says she helps when he needs an extra hand. Her background in English literature proves useful when he’s crafting social-media posts, and she has also been known to text his friends when Liby needs to lift something big and is dragging his feet about asking for help.
Liby, a soft-spoken man in his early 30s with a deliberate nature, explains technical information about trees and woods and source materials in a calm, uncomplicated manner. As he talks about wooden slabs and lacquers and pipes and kilns that dry wood, his love for those materials is apparent, as is his joy at putting together disparate objects.
“It’s a lot of trial and error,” he says. “I draw things out by hand and calculate measurements that way. Then I wait to order the final piece until everything else is put together.”
Liby studied automotive engineering technology at Western Michigan University but left school after WMU dropped that program. When it comes to designing, he likes to figure things out by hand. His favorite projects start with requests that begin “Make me a table that’s this size” and take off from there.
In a common area of The River, staff desks are fitted with cherry slabs and clean, modern details contrast with the lush beauty of Liby’s live-edge furniture. An island of file cabinets is topped with a shiny slab of wood that shimmers and, when you look closely at the grain, even ripples.
“When a tree grows, imagine there’s a little bit of wave on the outside of it,” Liby says, explaining how those ripples originated. “When you cut the wood lengthwise and lay it flat, it continues to do that wave inside. It gives you that really cool effect.”
Currently a lot of Liby’s business comes from referrals. And while he hopes woodworking will be a full-time job someday, for now he takes orders for whatever furniture he and his clients dream up, like the lamp he just made for a Detroit couple based on an old pulley from their family farm.
“I do a lot of live-edge slabs because I get orders for them, but they aren’t all I want to do,” Liby says. “I really love throwing my own spin on a piece.”