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Young woodcrafters are keeping the tradition of handmade furniture alive

In an age where everything is mass produced, a group of local woodcrafters are out to bring back the appeal of handmade furniture.

Need a new sofa, dining table or shelving for books and other knick knacks? Your first instinct might be to head down to the furniture stores or even shop online for a fuss-free purchase that will arrive at your home within weeks. In an age where everything is mass produced, a group of local woodcrafters are out to bring back the appeal of handmade furniture.For them, it’s a labour of love, as they pour their time, heart and soul into creating pieces that can last for decades.

Initially with no real experience with woodworking, they turned to YouTube videos to pick up the skills, or found craftsmen to learn from.

With a growing number of consumers appreciating artisanal craft, these woodmakers are encouraged by the response they get. “There is a craft resurgence in Singapore, where people pay more attention to acquire skills. This would certainly mean more appreciation to the consumption and process behind the product,” says Alvan Koh, founder of Mokko Wood Studio.

  • Woodcrafters

    Ahmad Habshee, founder of Urban Salvation: “The best part is a sense of pride, to be able to craft something raw into a work of art, a timeless piece that is functional, sustainable and beautiful. It is a humble profession.”

Alvan Koh
Founder, Mokko Wood Studio

Like most people, Alvan Koh turned to YouTube videos when he was picking up a new skill.

He watched woodworking videos because he wanted to make a triangular jewellery box for his wife. He enjoyed it so much that he began watching more YouTube videos, sometimes the same one thrice. “Whatever I watched the night before, I would practise the next day,” he says.

He gained a lot of knowledge in his first two years of self-teaching. “But after that, the learning plateaued,” he recalls. He began searching for a master who could teach him, particularly in the skill of Japanese woodcrafting.

Mr Koh could not find anyone in Singapore, and finally found an opening at Suikoushya International Craft School in Kyoto, where he spent a month learning from a Japanese carpenter.

Upon his return, he started Mokko Wood Studio in 2018. “It was a hobby gone mad,” says Mr Koh, 41, who previously worked in a bank and later as a teacher.

He now produces tables, chairs, cabinets and shelves, using locally sourced wood from fallen trees and also quality imported hardwoods such as walnut and cherry from local timber yards.

“As I work mostly through commissions, no product is ever reproduced. The design process takes up the bulk of time in producing a piece. Each piece is also crafted by hand and that means that it cannot be rushed,” says Mr Koh. A typical waiting period is about two to three months.

Besides bespoke pieces, Mr Koh also offers art panels done in Kumiko style, a delicate woodwork technique where small pieces of wood are intricately assembled together in repeating patterns. These retail for S$249.

Mr Koh doesn’t shy away from declaring his love for wood. “Living in a city, I think wood presents us with the best feeling of being close to nature.” It has its challenges too. “When we work with wood, we must first acknowledge that wood is a living material. Wood breathes and both absorbs and dissipates moisture, even long after it has been made into furniture. The moisture in wood will always head towards an equilibrium with the moisture content in the surrounding air,” says Mr Koh.

“This constant dance between wood and air causes wood to expand and contract. This poses a challenge to the craftsman. He has to design the piece such that it is able to accommodate this constant change in dimensions. To not acknowledge and not design with this knowledge would be a fatal mistake.”

But for his clients who “have a more refined taste which comes from life experience”, getting a Mokko piece means they are getting an individually handcrafted piece of furniture that lasts a long time, with designs that are timeless. “Nails and screws are hardly used and furniture is made with traditional wood joints.”

Plus, there is also the close attention to detail, which cannot be found in mass produced pieces. “This is what fine furniture is about, attention to the grain of the wood to accentuate the furniture,” says Mr Koh.

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Ahmad Habshee
Founder, Urban Salvation

Ahmad Habshee had a good run working in the entertainment industry as a technical staging crew and also as a front-of-house supervisor at Marina Bay Sands Theatre and at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. But he felt there was something missing in his life.

“I wanted to make a change, I wanted to make an impact,” says Mr Habshee, 32. He says he found “salvation” in sustainable woodworking, hence the name of his business, Urban Salvation.

“With woodworking, there is the freedom to create as there are no right or wrong answers. You have to constantly be agile with every piece of wood,” says Mr Habshee, who works out of a factory in Tampines. “The best part is a sense of pride, to be able to craft something raw into a work of art, a timeless piece that is functional, sustainable and beautiful for those who believe in me. It is a humble profession.”

Besides picking up some woodworking skills from school and while working at the Esplanade, Mr Habshee also learnt from master craftsmen in Singapore, Malacca, Bangkok and central Java.

When he started Urban Salvation in 2015, he worked with salvaged pine wood from cargo pallets and excess Burmese teak wood from renovation projects. As the business grew, he saw the need to find better quality materials without compromising on his sustainability angle.

He now uses wood salvaged from local trees which have been felled, as well as reclaimed teak wood from old kampong houses and furniture from Indonesia. Urban Salvation also partners with suppliers that plant new trees for every tree that is felled.

Urban Salvation is known for its vinyl record cabinets, TV consoles and sideboards, which cost from S$1,500. Depending on the complexity, Mr Habshee can take from four to 12 weeks to make a piece of furniture.

He says that handcrafted furniture, when built right, can last a very long time. “Think about the furniture our grandparents had from back in the day. Many have stood the test of time and are still around,” he says.

Another plus of having handcrafted furniture is “the ability to add a bit of your personality into your furniture and your space. So the premium you pay goes into setting your living apart from the many others who fill their space with mass-produced furniture,” says Mr Habshee.

Mr Habshee says that when he started, it used to be a lonely path. But over time, many have approached him to ask if they can learn woodworking from him. He trained them for free. “They are now part of my team – strong passionate people with the same ambition to do great work from Singapore all the way to Indonesia,” he says.

He is too aware that woodworking or furniture making is a dying trade. “Our skilled labour workforce is small and our future generations prefer and aspire to make digital careers, such as being YouTubers, social media influencers and content creators.” He recalls how a young graduate once sought advice from him to make woodworking as a career. “She cried after hearing me share all my struggles to reach my third year,” says Mr Habshee.

He has met local veteran craftsmen who have retired, without a younger generation keen to learn the skills from them. He finds it a shame that such skills are becoming rare.

But he hopes to change that, by showcasing his works on social media platforms, where he can get more Singaporeans interested in locally made handcrafted furniture.

Darryl Loh
Founder, The Table Guy

A few years ago, while furnishing his new home, Darryl Loh thought it would be a great opportunity to learn a new skill and get some insight into the work of furniture creation. He was in the real estate industry then, purchasing old apartments and renovating them for new tenants.

“During my time in real-estate I became really interested in interior spaces, and how we furnish them is a huge part of that – not just aesthetics but the functionality of daily life,” says Mr Loh, 40.

He attended a chair-making course to pick up some rudimentary skills and then continued to develop his knowledge on the job through trial and error working on various pieces, and even blended his own finishing wax.

“A big part of my training comes from the generous advice and guidance I received from seniors in the industry,” says Mr Loh, who started his own furniture store, The Table Guy. He says that in Singapore it can be difficult to find mentors and teachers in carpentry, so he considers himself fortunate to have crossed paths with many veteran carpenters.

When The Table Guy started in 2017, it was a one-man show, and Mr Loh focused on simple slab tables, finished to the finest degree. Over time, his clients, mostly couples in their mid to late 20s furnishing their first home, requested more complex types of furniture. So he put together a team of specialists that would allow them to deliver a design-and-build service.

“To date, the bulk of our work is commission-based. Clients come in with ideas of what they want, and after discussing their use and lifestyle requirements as well as aesthetic preferences, we conceptualise and build these custom pieces,” says Mr Loh. The range includes tables of all sizes and heights, bed frames, shelving units and cabinets.

The Table Guy uses mainly solid hardwood, such as suar, walnut, oak and ash. Sometimes, there are special woods such as lychee and mango that are available. The timber comes from Indonesia, North America and Singapore, but are processed in green-certified mills in China and Vietnam.

Mr Loh says that besides the ability to customise a handcrafted piece to precise requirements compared to mass produced products, the true value of a hand crafted object is its story. “Every hand-built piece is a work of art from the craftsman, a personal investment of time and energy,” he says.

“No two craftsmen are the same – each has different experiences with different materials – and the same bed frame built by two different craftsmen is going to be executed differently. It’s like buying art from an artist compared to buying a print from IKEA.”

A coffee table costs from S$600 and a bed frame costs from S$1,500 to S$6,000.

With more players joining the furniture making industry, Mr Loh says “this isn’t a dying trade but it is increasingly competitive.”

He adds that the barrier to entry has become lower in the recent years because anyone can pick up a tool and start working with wood, and access to materials and technology is also easier with the advancements in international supply chain systems.

“Yet the ability to thrive and grow the business into the long term relies greatly on the brand’s reputation and skill of execution, which in turn depends on years of experience and practice which is difficult to acquire,” he says.

Competition is heating up but Mr Loh is encouraged to see a growth in discernment and interest in the craft of furniture-making among the new generation of homeowners.

“I see a genuine curiosity and joy in our clients in learning about the craft and the work that goes into creating their pieces. In the past, carpentry was an opaque sort of industry where only people directly in it got to understand the work that goes into it. But recently there’s been a growth in accessible education where the layman can learn more about carpentry and experience it directly, which in turn has made it more interesting and engaging for consumers,” he says.

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Chun Kai Feng
Co-founder, Zhen Feng Object Workshop

Just like how the red plastic stackable stool can be found at most coffeshops, Chun Kai Feng hopes that one day, his stackable low stool can be just as ubiquitous, but in homes.

Mr Chun, 38, is the co-founder of Zhen Feng Object Workshop (ZFOW), which he started with his wife Gan Zhenyi. ZFOW makes furniture as well as handcrafted signboards.

Everybody’s Favourite Stackable Low Stool, which retails for S$148, is one of ZFOW’s best-sellers. It can function as a seat, a makeshift table for snacks or as a worktable for a laptop.

The stool, like all of ZFOW’s other products, is made from bamboo.

Mr Chun works primarily with bamboo composite panels, unlike other furniture manufacturers in Singapore, who tend to use solid wood like teak or suar. “We use bamboo because it is sustainable. Bamboo grows fast, is abundant and can be harvested between four to seven years,” he says. ZFOW imports its bamboo from Anji, a county in China which champions eco-friendly industries.

Before he turned to woodworking, Mr Chun was an artist for almost a decade,creating object-based artworks. As a side gig, he fabricated items for his contemporaries to supplement his income. “Fate happens, things fall into place, and the side gig eventually developed into a main gig,” he says.

He gravitated toward woodworking because “cutting materials accurately and getting them squared is an extremely satisfying feeling that is never dull,” he says.

When the couple started ZFOW in 2016, they took on all sorts of carpentry projects to make ends meet. They honed their skills through trial and error and also by watching other craftsmen on YouTube.

“Two years later, we knew crafting our own designer furniture is what we really want to do. This is probably due to our arts education, and we have the desire to express thoughts and ideas into a furniture piece,” says Mr Chun.

The couple invested in a CNC machine to help them cut the bamboo pieces, and began designing and crafting the furniture themselves.

“We only design and produce what we would personally use in our homes,” says Mr Chun. Their range includes stools, armchairs, benches, clocks, accent tables and display shelves. Simpler objects such as clocks and stools take about two weeks to make, while more complicated pieces such as tables and armchairs can take two months.

Even though bamboo furniture is still a new concept in Singapore, Mr Chun assures that “while bamboo is a grass, it has qualities that are similar to solid wood. It is strong, dense, flexible, and cuts extremely clean. These are material features well suited for furniture making.”

Mr Chun says that local furniture makers like himself face competition from cheap imports manufactured in regional factories and also from shopping sites such as Taobao.

The use of CNC technology means that “we can produce rather efficiently and keep prices at the higher end of the affordable range.”

He adds that the human hand and machine can both create good quality objects. “The crux is not so much handmade or machine made, but rather the driving principles behind the creation of an object, as well as the way consumers choose to participate,” he says.

“At ZFOW, we want to encourage a lifestyle of ‘fewer, better things’. We are Singapore flat dwellers too, we use our local sensibilities to design and craft essential home goods that are suited for our living spaces. With proper care, our furniture is lasting and can accompany you in achieving fundamental contentment.”

Andrew Lim
Founder, 4Plus8 and Furnic

Former mobile phone salesman Andrew Lim knew nothing about the carpentry industry when he started 4Plus8, an interior fit-out company for residential projects about 12 years ago. All he knew was that he was interested in hardware, learning how to fabricate cabinets and how hinges worked.

4Plus8 works directly with architects, focusing on handcrafting woodwork, such as fitting out the kitchens and wardrobes of many good class bungalows in Singapore.

Mr Lim, 39, doesn’t personally do the woodwork himself, but he has a team of experienced carpenters who fit out each project by hand.

He knows that when his team of carpenters retire, the oldest of whom is 59 years old, it will be hard for him to find new blood. The youngest carpenter in the team is now 23 years old, “but it takes decades to build up experience,” he says.

As a way of future proofing his business, he started Furnic, which also provides carpentry services such as building kitchens and wardrobes. But the difference between Furnic and 4Plus8 lies in the type of materials used, the method of production and its price.

While 4Plus8 uses solid wood, Furnic uses MFC Eurodekor raw boards for its ultra-low formaldehyde emissions. Mr Lim says such raw boards are easier to maintain than other materials such as vinyl, which may attract water stains especially when used for kitchen countertops.

Furnic also uses a modular system when fitting out the spaces, so there is more customisation allowed such as for wardrobes. “You get a wardrobe that fits your space perfectly, rather than one off the furniture showroom floor, which may leave awkward spaces at the end,” says Mr Lim.

In addition, there is less manpower required for Furnic’s installation, and so owners can expect to save about 30 to 40 per cent as compared to using 4Plus8’s services. Fitouts during Furnic are also shorter, at 21 days, compared to using carpenters from 4Plus8 which can take six weeks.

Mr Lim says that Furnic allows him to reach a wider audience. Instead of targeting the top four per cent in Singapore, he is able to reach the majority of homeowners.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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