Working with wood

7 Feb 2019

By Joel Chan

First-year ADM student Yee Chien Ping, who does carpentry on the side, spends anywhere between two to 21 days working on a commissioned project. Apart from the labour-intensive nature of the job, the 22-year-old also works in hot and humid conditions, which he believes are reasons why many young people do not take up carpentry. “They think it’s too tedious and the money made is not worth the effort and time,” he said. PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

A cloud of saw-dust looms over Yee Chien Ping as he toils in his workshop. Carrying three blocks of pinewood in his hand, the 22-year-old walks towards a machine with a giant, circular saw protruding from the middle. With a push of a button, the once-sleepy equipment jolted into life.

“This is a table saw and we use it to cut thicker and wider blocks of wood,” Yee explained. “I am cutting these blocks of pinewood to make the legs of a coffee table.”

Ever since he picked up wood crafting in 2016, Yee typically spends his weekends making commissioned wood products for his customers, many of whom were referred to him by friends and relatives. The coffee table is Yee’s 10th commissioned project to date.

He was first exposed to designing in 2014 after taking a module in Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Known as Idea Blueprint and Launchpad, the course required him to identify an existing issue in Singapore and design a product to solve the problem.

Said Yee: “I realised how I much I enjoyed the entire process due to the endless possibilities, unlike accounting which is so black and white.

“From then on, I wanted to pursue and explore design thinking to solve everyday problems.”

After graduating from polytechnic in 2016, Yee interned at a local design firm for three months where he learnt metalworking. In late July, he was tasked to cut some wood for a carpenter who was collaborating with his boss back then. He began to dabble more into wood crafting and fell in love with the process.

“I enjoyed the challenge of creating complex projects that I see from woodworking videos on YouTube,” said Yee. “I decided that I wanted to use wood crafting as my medium to express myself.”

After some research, Yee realised that most wood products are mass-produced and lack variety. He wanted to inject more value in wood products by making customised pieces, and believes that this will help his customers develop a better appreciation and understanding of his craftsmanship.

Yee's decision to pursue product design in ADM had raised many eyebrows, including that of his own parents, who felt that wood crafting was neither a stable nor lucrative job. But instead of letting them deter him, he uses their disapproval as a source of motivation.

“People tell me it is dumb to leave the stability of the business world and it might be difficult to support your family.

“I want to prove to them that no matter how difficult it is, anything is possible as long as you love what you do.”

Yee uses a table saw to cut up blocks of thick wood to make the legs of a coffee table — his most recent work for a relative’s friend. PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

Yee is the youngest carpenter at XPC, a public workspace in Tai Seng for crafters to build their products. “Carpentry is a dying trade in Singapore, many of the carpenters I know are old enough to be my father,” he said. “This is my way of trying to preserve this trade for the next generation.” Despite his young age, Yee is unfazed by the competition. He makes up for his lack of experience by being more flexible in dealing with unique requests from clients. PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

Doing up rough sketches for each project helps his clients to envision the end product and better communicate their customisation requests, said Yee. “You will never be able to find what I make on the market. By making products that clients actually like, they can get a better understanding of the product and have a deeper appreciation of the craft.” PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

Carpenters often work in dusty environments. Yee, who is asthmatic, is at risk of respiratory complications when he is cutting up blocks of wood or sanding them. Although he wears a face mask to reduce contact with the dust, his mother is still worried about his health. PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

For wood with larger surface areas, Yee would use an orbital sander machine to sand the wood, which helps to even out bumps to create a smooth surface. PHOTO: JOEL CHAN