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Out of the woods
In for the long haul
ROGER&SONS sounds like a British menswear label but it is really a local woodworking company based in Woodlands.
It was started in 2014 by Morgan Yeo, now 28. He is joined by his younger brothers, Lincoln, 25, and Ryan, 21. They make up the &Sons part of the company name.
Roger refers to their late father, who passed away in 2014. The senior Mr Yeo was a carpenter who ran JR&P Industries, which made system office furniture by hand.
Morgan, a business graduate, had to take over the reins of the company earlier than expected when his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But he says it was always natural for him to want to take over the family business.
"My dad started the business 28 years ago and had been working really hard to put food on the table," says Morgan. "The business was his heart and soul." When his father was diagnosed with cancer, he wanted to take over the business so that his father could focus on fighting the disease.
"I promised my dad that no matter what happened, I would take care of the business and the family," he says. "The team supporting my dad were a bunch of loyal and great men and I really wanted to be able to take care of them the way my dad took care of me."
Morgan, however, realised that producing mass market office furniture did not allow the company to maximise its potential to include design elements and elevate the artistry of the trade. So together with his brothers and mother, who also works with them, they decided to rebrand the company to Roger&Sons, paying homage to their dad and offering bespoke carpentry work.
Today, Morgan handles business development and sales; Lincoln handles product development and marketing, while Ryan helps with production and operations.
"My brothers were not expected to join but they chose to," says Morgan. "All three of us really enjoy working and supporting each other."
Ever since they were young, the brothers were exposed to woodworking and helped their father in a few odd jobs.
"My brothers and I always enjoyed using our hands, tinkering with and making things," says Morgan. "I think it also has to do with how we were always breaking and destroying things in the house and we needed to fix them up before we got caught."
He adds that since they entered the woodworking industry, "we met a lot of uncles who were highly skilled with their hands. But it was a pity that they are viewed lowly in society. We wanted to be able to change this perception as well".
While woodworking is not foreign to the brothers, Morgan says he found the going tough when he took over the company. "The learning curve was very steep. I was struggling with running the company as well as learning how carpentry works," he explains. For example, he had to learn the limitations and strengths of materials, how to use the machinery, and how things are done by the different makers.
"I had to quickly grasp and be involved in production, operations, doing sales, delivery-all at once," he recalls. He counts himself lucky, that he could learn from the older colleagues. "They have been in the company for over 20 years supporting my dad and now they are supporting me. They have been very generous with their knowledge and skills," he says.
Roger&Sons produces only bespoke pieces, which includes dining tables, study desks, TV consoles, and even ladders. Production of the pieces usually take about a month, depending on the complexity. Prices vary according to the project and how it is designed and constructed. The types of wood used include solid wood and plywood, and finishes vary from laminates, to veneers and spray paint.
While the company has a team of carpenters working for them, the brothers are involved in the production as well. "Whenever we spend too much time in the office, my brothers or myself would head out to the workshop and help with production. We do everything - such as cutting the wood, sanding it down and lamination. It is what we're passionate about," says Morgan.
He plans to collaborate with local designers to release bespoke furniture in limited quantities, and also hopes to work together with overseas carpenters. "We want to be able to invite these carpenters over and work with them on furniture and learn from them," he says.
He admits that carpentry is a dying trade in Singapore. One reason is most local carpenters are getting on in age, and not many youth are stepping up.
"It also doesn't help that carpentry does not get the recognition it deserves," says Morgan. "Not many parents, or Singaporeans for that matter, think that carpentry is a prestigious or glamourous job, simply because it involves using your hands."
But he is soldering on, because he sees carpentry as a craft. "Everyone thinks carpentry is just cutting a piece of wood and joining it together. But it is not," he says. It takes many years of training to have a certain level of skill. "It is a very long process and a lot of people these days do not have the patience to wait so long to hone their skills."
But there could be hope. He recently hired four Singaporeans, aged 24 to 30, who are training under Roger&Son's head carpenter. "These youths found us, and aspire to be carpenters," says Morgan.
He is encouraged by this. "Hopefully, we can inspire more youths to join this industry."
Ultimately, Morgan and his brothers plan to be in the woodworking trade for the long haul. "The business will always be part of the family and the family will always be part of this business," he says.
Live edge tables
IT used to be that if you wanted to learn a skill, you would complete an apprenticeship under a master. But the founders of Herman Furniture didn't take this route. "It was difficult to find anyone who wanted to teach us woodworking," says Brandon Heng, 28.
Together with three other friends - Gay Zheng Cai, 28, Douglas Choo, 27 and Jeremy Tan, 28 - the four started Herman Furniture, which retails solid wood furniture products.
They currently have four carpenters, from China and Myanmar, working for them, but during their early days, they took it upon themselves to do all the carpentry and woodworking. So how did they pick up their skill?
"By learning from YouTube videos and researching on Google," quips Mr Heng. If necessary, all four get involved in the production process. None had previous experience in woodworking.
The four friends got together after graduation, when they decided they didn't want to embark on the typical corporate path. "We wanted to do something that would bring technology together with woodworking," says Mr Gay.
Their initial plan was to develop a platform, where clients could design their own furniture, and Herman Furniture would produce it. "But we realised that we didn't have the technology to develop the necessary software, and most people wouldn't know how to design a piece of furniture," says Mr Gay. "We had to put this idea on hold, and seek out other ways to make money in the meantime."
Over the last three years, they have since branched out to create two other companies. Besides Herman Furniture, they also run Robin Wood, which specialises in home and office interiors; and Merry Men Works, which does carpentry work for exhibitions venues and events.
Mr Gay says that all three companies "are making money".
Herman Furniture specialises in "live edge tables", a style of furniture where the natural edge of the wood is incorporated into the design of the piece. Customers can choose their desired piece of timber, as the shapes, grains and colour vary. They can also customise the length and height of the table.
Besides dining table tops, the solid suar wood timber pieces can be used for counter tops and benches. The wood is imported from Indonesia, but finished at the Herman Furniture workshop in Pioneer Road.
The first table that the four men built was a desk for their office. They then started selling pieces to friends, and today, their clientele is a good mix of locals and expatriates. Some of their pieces can also be found in offices, cafes and restaurants.
Mr Heng says their parents have been supportive of their choice of career. The older carpenters that they have crossed paths with, however, have been less supportive. "Many of them told us to give up," he says. "They tell us that it is a difficult industry to be in, as the price of wood is rising, also you can't price your products too high either."
Mr Gay adds: "I think they are concerned for us." The men, however, are not giving up so easily. "Carpentry is a dying trade, but with young people like us joining the industry, it can be revived," says a confident Mr Gay.
They have plans to open a showroom in a more accessible location, and hopefully to also expand to the European and American markets.
"It is very satisfying seeing clients come in to pick up a piece of timber, and then seeing it transformed into a piece of furniture, and their delighted faces when we deliver it to them," says Mr Heng.
WHEN Jackie Tan was working as an interior designer in the commercial and hospitality industry, he was used to seeing lots of waste material being thrown out during renovation works. There would be cement, copper pipes, leftover metal bits, wood pallets and plywood, which would all be tossed out.
"For almost all interior design jobs, there would always be leftover raw materials and industrial waste," says Mr Tan, 28. "I wanted to experiment with the materials to see what products I could produce, given my creative background."
Mr Tan has a degree in environmental design, and now runs Triple Eyelid full-time.
"When Triple Eyelid first started, there was no client so I had to identify what products I could make to improve our daily lives," says Mr Tan. He started by making a daybed constructed from wood pallets, concrete chairs and shelves for the studio.
That was two years ago, and now the studio produces pieces such as laptop stands made from plywood offcuts, timber amplifiers, and reclaimed pallet wood nightstands, which are available for sale through the website.
Mr Tan is no stranger to woodworking. When he was studying for his degree in Tasmania, he had to design and make furniture from scratch. Later on, he also had the opportunity to design and build stage props for the university's plays.
"I find wood a great construction material due to its versatility. It can be perfectly modular yet uniquely organic at the same time," he says. He particularly loves working with reclaimed pallet wood. "There is always an element of surprise because you never really know how the wood looks until they have been properly processed."
He usually works with plywood, pallet pine wood and pallet solid hard wood. The pieces are all handcrafted in a workshop in Joo Koon.
Mr Tan works with Xcel Industrial Supplies, a company that supplies solder and packaging products, and repurposing old pallet wood, for his raw materials.
"Our collaboration allows us to produce quality sustainable furniture and do our part for the environment in our small little way," says Mr Tan. Xcel supplies Mr Tan with quality pallet wood that has been heat treated so that he can experiment with creative upcycle products and furniture. The company also provides him with a workshop space and other resources such as logistics and transportation. In return, Mr Tan shares part of his profit with Xcel.
Building furniture is more than just cutting and joining pieces of wood. Mr Tan says that most of the wooden planks that he gets are not perfectly flat so he has to ensure they are perfectly flat with a jointer. The jointer is a woodworking machine used to produce a flat surface along a board's length
Next, a thickness planer machine is used to ensure that all the wooded planks have the exact same thickness to join up into a bigger board.
Depending on the project design, a combination of tools such as the drill press machine, panel saw, router, mitre saw, and bandsaw are used to create the different pieces.
To finish the furniture, Mr Tan uses a machine to sand down rough edges before sealing the wood with varnish.
Apart from a regular range of products, Mr Tan can also do bespoke pieces such as a beer crate stool with storage options, and a copper timber display rack.
Clients usually come with reference images, and which Mr Tan develops into sketches or renderings, before proceeding to build a prototype.
"Clients will be invited to try out the furniture and give us comments on the prototype which we will improve upon to create a tailored-made furniture especially for them," he says.
He says that being able to design and make his own furniture gives him a sense of accomplishment. "With every project, I learn new wood working techniques that allow me to tackle more tricky designs in the future."
Working with wood can be a health hazard. Ear, eye and respiratory personal safety equipment are mandatory in his workshop.
Then there are the splinter wounds to deal with, which is why Mr Tan makes it a point to wear gloves when handling raw and unprocessed pallet wood. "Splinter wounds are very common but at some point they no longer bother a woodmaker," he says.
BY day, Ng Xin Nie gets creative on her laptop as an illustrator and visual communications designer. By night, the 28-year-old gets creative with her hands, when she picks up a carving knife and whittles a spoon out of wood.
"It is nice to switch off the laptop in the evening and work in an analog way with woodcarving," says Ms Ng, who has been on her passion project Everyday Canoe for over two years.
Everyday Canoe is where Ms Ng retails her wooden wares, such as spoons, butter knives, brooches and wallflower houses, which are tiny wooden houses that can hold a single flower. On her cute company name, Ms Ng says that the logo has a spoon on it that looks like an oar, hence the link to "canoe".
A few years ago, while she was in between jobs, Ms Ng had the time and space to think about what she would enjoy doing for the rest of her life. "For me, it was carving wood, a process that required me to slow down, be patient and it would be a lifetime of learning," she says.
She had previously dabbled in some wood carving during her university days as an industrial design student. In the foundation years, design students had to grasp certain hands-on skills in bringing designs to life, and one of them was wood carving.
For one of the modules, Ms Ng had to re-design household objects, and she chose to reinterpret the design of a rice paddle in wood. That was the first time she worked with wood and found herself enjoying it.
After she graduated, her interest in wood was revived and that lead her to researching online, digging through different tutorials and woodworking forums to find out what were the best tools and processes to carve wood. "I bought the tools online, got some wood, made mistakes but also realised what techniques worked for me," she says.
For the uninitiated, Ms Ng says woodcarving may seem daunting and challenging at first but "it just takes patience and a lot of time to get into your own rhythm of carving".
"The process itself requires you to slow down, to observe what you are carving and where, to coax the wood into the form that you want," she says. "I find that the most difficult step is probably knowing when to stop carving and sanding it to a smooth finish, because sometimes it can go on for as long as you want."
She also conducts wood carving workshops.
She uses a variety of hardwood offcuts such as teak, oak and walnut. She first draws out the general shape of the tableware and cuts it with a bandsaw. She next uses a carving knife to remove the excess wood, shaping it down until it fits nicely in her hand. Once the form is close to finished, she sands it smooth and protects it with a foodsafe oil and beeswax that makes it water and oil resistant.
The selection of wooden wares that she retails are a mix of function and form. She started with butter knives and spoons, but wanted something people could bring out of the home as well, and so she has been carving brooches as a form of wooden "wearable art".
Making the items in small batches gives her the flexibility to change things up and try new designs. For example, for Christmas, she did a series of star-shaped and snowman-shaped wooden teaspoons and scoops. Earlier this year, she made a collection of woodland creature brooches. "The wood is literally a canvas for me to sketch out an idea and form in three dimension," she says.
Ms Ng also accepts customised orders for her brooches, and also for those who want their names engraved on the spoons. Orders depend on the complexity but usually take about two weeks to complete.
She plans to do more raw and sculptural pieces, possibly with a mixture of other materials to complement the wood.
Ms Ng works out of her home, and also at a friend's studio. "Wood is a really beautiful and warm material that always surprises me. There are so many possibilities of what it can become," she says.
The Woodwork Initiative
YOU could say it was a toy toolkit set that Gregory Swyny received for his fourth birthday that set him on his career path. The toolkit consisted of a few plastic tools such as a saw, a hammer, and a screwdriver. "The saw was my favourite, as I discovered that although it was made of plastic, it could actually cut wood, but very slowly," Mr Swyny recalls.
It was with this saw that over a period of two weeks, he cut through and eventually felled his grandfather's wooden gate. "It really appealed to my sense of creative mischief, and I supposed that day, the seeds were sown," says Mr Swyny, 35.
For the past 18 years, he has been working with wood, as an apprentice, a hobbyist fixing and making things for friends and family, building sets for theatre productions, and then as a craftsman in his own right. In 2015, he set up his own firm, The Woodwork Initiative, creating bespoke furniture and lifestyle products made with quality wood.
He often found that off-the-shelf options are limited, both in design and dimension, and often don't fit the user's life. "The Woodwork Initiative aims to provide solutions for like-minded people, who want well-made wooden products that suit their specific needs," he says.
He picked up his skills from his father, who is a carpenter and contractor. During his teenage years, Mr Swyny would often follow his father to work. "I didn't enjoy the work at first," he recalls. He hated the noise, the dust and the heat, and "it was really hard work".
"My father was patient with me, and along the way I picked up skills that I never thought I would, and it piqued an interest I never thought I had," he says. "It was only later, in my mid-twenties, that I discovered that I was actually pretty good at making things with wood, and it was something I'd wanted to try doing as a profession."
Mr Swyny specialises in customised woodwork, and some of the pieces that he has done include dining tables, coffee tables, cabinetry, and lifestyle products such as cheese boards.
The Singaporean Eurasian is also one of six craftsmen in The Balvenie Connoisseurs of Craft programme, which aims to promote craftsmanship in South-east Asia through the establishment of a conducive ecosystem for creation, apprenticeship and the advocacy of timeless crafts. Together with industrial designer Melvin Ong, the two recently built a mobile bar for whisky label The Balvenie.
Mr Swyny typically handcrafts the pieces himself, especially the detailing so that he has complete control over the quality of the finished piece.
"I'm happiest when I'm in my workshop, making something new, and the satisfaction of completing a piece that I'm proud of, and seeing my clients' happy faces when they see their finished piece is an amazing feeling," he says.
He loves the organic nature of wood, from the warm tones, the colours and grain, and even the smell. "I love working with any kind of solid wood, and love that no two pieces are the same, so every piece is personal," he says.
Apart from creating bespoke pieces, Mr Swyny also conducts regular workshops. He has noticed that there has been a growing interest in woodwork in Singapore, but people have very few avenues here to experience making something with their own hands.
"I was lucky to be exposed to it at a young age, and I really enjoy sharing my craft with like-minded people, so I decided to start conducting workshops to teach basic carpentry to anyone who has an interest," he says. Responses have been very encouraging, and he has taught students, housewives, lawyers and engineers. "Anyone who's had an interest in woodworking, but never knew where to start can come. They learn how to make a particular item out of wood in a few hours, and get to take their completed piece home," he says.
And what does his father think about Mr Swyny following in his footsteps? "He doesn't say very much about it to be honest, but I think it's a mixture of pride that I share a similar passion with him, and concern that I'm taking up a dying trade," quips Mr Swyny.