A few years ago, Jim Torrey started reaching out to new breweries in Grand Rapids offering his woodworking services. “I started cold-calling them on Facebook and asking to make their cheeseboards and beer flights,” he said.
Clients began sharing his name and one day he received a call from the owner of Søvengård, which was just being built at the time.
Torrey explained, “He said, ‘I need the whole place.’ He let me pick and choose key parts that I could make. I wanted to do the bar, and I did the cubby walls behind the host station and between the kitchen and dining area.”
As Søvengård embarked on its expansion at the end of last year (set to be completed this summer), its owner once again reached out to Torrey for the project.
“He said, ‘hey, we are expanding and we need everything again.’”
Torrey had been working full time in product development at Meijer for five years at that point, designing things like beach towels and shower curtains and doing trend research, while doing custom woodworking projects for clients on the side. He said the Søvengård project combined with the consistent custom furniture orders he was getting from residential clients led to his decision to leave his job and pursue his side gig full time.
“I was like if there was a time to do this full time this is it. So I took that leap,” he said.
Torrey opened Rivertown Woodcraft, at 2456 Plainfield Ave NE, on Friday, June 22. He plans to offer retail products including custom furniture, cheeseboards, “take & make” items, woodworking plans, and more from the shop’s storefront, which takes up the front 25 percent of the space. He will also offer woodworking workshops for small groups each week.
The back of the store serves as his workshop, where he’ll continue to create custom products for residential and commercial clients.
Torrey’s first woodworking workshop is scheduled for July 9 and participants will make their own beer flight boards. “They choose their detail on the end, drill the holes for the cups, and sand and apply a finish,” he said, noting that the wood will be prepared ahead.
The workshops are a unique feature of Rivertown Woodcraft and a way for Torrey to introduce people to woodworking. He said while participants won’t be able to use some of the bigger machinery, they will get hands-on experience with smaller hand tools and possibly even the drill press and band saw.
Hands-on workshops will happen every Monday night and Torrey hopes to add weekend options as well. He said other projects might include a tea light holder and six-inch plant stands. The cost will range from $50 – $100 per workshop.
For individuals looking to tackle slightly bigger projects, Torrey said he is hoping to add one-on-one workshops, where he’ll work with someone individually on a custom project, such as helping a new mom or dad make a rocking horse.
The well-lit storefront and shop sits next door to neighborhood eatery Fat Boy. Something Torrey said was important to him when he set out looking for a space.
“I wanted it to be in a walkable neighborhood,” he said, noting he also lives nearby.
Right now the shop is open Mondays and Tuesdays from 3 p.m. – 6 p.m. and by appointment, but Torrey said if someone is passing by and sees him working through the window they are welcome to knock and stop in.
He’s already seeing visitors from the neighborhood who have stopped in with small projects – fixing a chair leg or looking for a part for their own project.
He sells “take and makes,” items like hairpin legs for projects or round wood cookies, which are a slice of a tree trunk that can be used for a small end table. He encourages people to tackle their own woodworking projects.
While he expects half of his business to be retail and education-based, he also hopes to work with clients on custom furniture. Popular products Torrey makes include headboards, end tables and fault-line tables, which are made with living edge wood.
He also does larger custom projects. When GR|MAG visited Torrey’s shop he was finishing up a walnut staircase that will be installed in a house in the area and lead to the home’s wine cellar.
Torrey said his goal for year one is to focus on the workshops, increase the shop’s retail offerings and grow his custom orders. Down the road, he hopes to grow the shop’s retail footprint to 50 percent of the store and expand with an offsite workshop that will be used specifically for custom furniture projects.
Torrey got his start in woodworking while attending college at Western Michigan University, where he studied industrial design. The major required classes in furniture design and construction and Torrey said he “fell in love” with being in the woodshop.
“I’m very hands-on, I like making things,” he said.
His parents got him a table saw as a graduation gift, and Torrey said he immediately started making things for friends. He invested all of the money he made on those projects into more tools. He noted the initial Søvengård project allowed him to “create his dream shop” – by investing in more machinery.
With Grand Rapids’ furniture design history and the millennial generation’s desire for custom products and DIY experiences, Torrey thinks Rivertown Woodcraft is a perfect fit.
“That generation is part of the reason the DIY thing is more common. They are less keen on buying an off the shelf product. I saw that working at Meijer, I was on the product development team . . . I do think the millennials are a driving force behind DIY – Chip and Joanna Gaine’s [of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper”] don’t hurt either. I have had a lot of people interested in furniture for that reason.”
He added, “To get something unique and handmade, people are willing to spend a little more.”
He encourages people to stop in the shop or to sign up for one of the workshops.