Carpentry beyond its working space: Interview with three local carpentry groups

When one ponders about a woodworking space, it is natural to visualise a working table scattered with various hardware tools, steel measuring tapes and power saws, standing in a sea of wood chips, surrounded by machinery and piles of wood planks. But if woodworking is all about craftsmanship, then as long as there is a willing heart, with relevant tools and materials, any kind of woodware can be crafted regardless of location.

Stepping into factory buildings situated in rural areas, one will discover secluded in one of the rooms, is the carpenter, who likes to bury themselves among wood chips and their lovely scent. Every dedicated crafter has their own battle with reality and ideal, but such contradictions do not deter them from following their passion and achieving their dreams.

Carpenter Man: My small woodworking studio at home

To visit C.G.Chow, one has to travel all the way to the rural areas of Yuen Long, passing the village office and up the stairs of a village house before arriving at the door of the carpenter’s working space. Welcoming us at the door was C.G.Chow in his casual wear, who is in charge of Carpenter Man. His woodworking studio is in one of the rooms of his home.

“The name ‘Carpenter Man’ in Chinese means a man who works alone with wood at home.” C.G.Chow joked.

C.G.Chow is a freelancer who mainly engages in behind-the-scenes work related to performance. In his earlier days, he wanted to try different things and went to study carpentry in Taiwan. After returning to Hong Kong, he began studying woodcraft in his small space at home. “Working in a restricted space at home means you can’t be too noisy. You need to be mindful of the noises produced by the tools. Storage space at home is limited too. You need to think about every step. For example, after finishing a step, I need to push the machine that was in use just now to the side, to make room for the next step. I have to keep repeating this trivial procedure for each step.”

His wood pieces are mainly delicate items that at the same time provide a function in daily living. When he needs something for his household, if he can fathom it with the materials by his side, he will design it by himself. “For example, I love coffee but my coffee pot was broken. I needed something to hold the filter, so I made a wood stand myself.” The dining table, TV cabinet and bookshelves at home were also designed and assembled by him.

He started to share his creations on social media platforms, which attracted a number of inquiries. “That’s when I decided to make some small scale production. Producing a stack in one go reduces cost and time. That’s how I began to sell my work online.” Gradually he was no longer only doing woodwork for himself, but also for different people who favour woodwork. He has been receiving bespoke orders from Hong Kong, Taiwan and more.

“Because of limited space, I can only work on small wares, which is difficult to be replaced by machinery. I decided to work on kumiko.” It is a type of traditional woodcraft from Japan, that involves assembling different thin wood pieces through mortise joints to form various and ever-changing patterns. It is mostly used for door and window decoration; or can be treated as an independent installation art.

“Kumiko can’t be accomplished with machinery. It must be assembled by hand as it involves a lot of intricacies and structural details. It’s meticulous craftsmanship. In the future, I am up for the challenge of using kumiko to assemble the flower of life. It seems that no one has ever done anything like this before. Also, I want to make something more three dimensional, such as a spherical kumiko item; or something that looks like cable knitting, that demands meticulous craft and structure.”

Be special: Wood carving and education

Situated in a corner of the industrial area in Kwun Tong is the wood carving studio of Be special. It was founded by two wood carving artists Vivian Law and Justin Chan in 2013. Stepping into the studio, one is immediately welcomed by the lovely scent of wood and subsequently, the sight of different sizes of wood carved animals dispersing and gathering in different areas of the room. At first glance, the working studio does look like an exhibition hall.

Vivian Law and Justin Chan studied carpentry in Taiwan and Dong Yang in Zhe Jiang respectively. Equipped with modern and traditional wood carving skills learned from school, they founded their studio back home. Apart from engaging in personal artistic creations, they also split their time between outreach programmes in school, community workshops and product design, with the hope of integrating wood carving into urban life.

“In the field of carpentry, wood carving is considered to be a kind of decorative art. It can be integrated into furniture production, become a decorative element on door or window frames; or it can be something more dimensional, such as daily necessities like wood carved culinary utensils. We mainly focus on wood carving education and creation, which includes bespoke animal sculpture and signage design for clients.” said Vivian.

Wood carving takes a subtraction approach to its creative process. The excess parts are removed with a carving knife, which slowly remoulds the square-edged wood block into wooden sculptures of various forms. Justin added, “If we have to create something at a bigger scale, we need to first work on different perspective drawings of the design and place them on the wood block. Then it’s the saw-cutting stage. Once the block is cut into appropriate size, we will start carving.” For this part, there is no universal standard of completion. During the process of carving, it is necessary to make real-time adjustments in order to balance different positions. Finally, for the colouring stage, wax oil or protective coating will be applied to enhance the natural colours of the wood.

In Hong Kong, wood carving is a rare discipline. Be special aspires to promote wood carving to a wider audience through education. “Craftsmanship has made a comeback in the last decade, and carpentry is one of the expertise. Among carpentry, wood carving only claims a small part. We hope more people will learn to appreciate wood carving through education and sharing, though this will take up our time for creative work.” said Vivian.

Hong Kong Bros: Envisioning the foundation of local woodworking factory

Located in a high-rise industrial building, is the woodworking studio of Hong Kong Bros. The panoramic view of Victoria Harbour leaps to the eye upon arrival at the entrance. Before jumping into carpentry, one should find the time to appreciate the scenery that Hong Kong has always been proud of. The harbour has contributed to the early industrial development of the city, such as its shipping and shipbuilding related business.

“I worked as an interior designer after graduation and there weren’t many hands-on experiences with wood. It was mainly about learning how to design a piece of furniture. Many times my drawings were rejected by the manufacturers, saying that my designs were not feasible. But I firmly believe that my creations are workable.
That’s how I began making my ideas come to life.” said the founder of Hong Kong Bros.

He gradually realised taking up the design and production process requires a lot of dedication. It was simply impossible to do it on a part-time basis and thus he made up his mind to become a full-time carpenter, taking charge of the operation of his studio. “People always want to produce the most at maximum speed. Currently I am working on solid wood decor projects. Many clients expect me to achieve the productivity akin to that of China’s factories, which is quite exhausting. Thus sometimes I have to double the quantity in one day in order to catch up with the schedule. But you can’t always demand full efficiency when working with solid wood. When the solid wood arrives, you need to let it sit idly for a while, to let its moisture content fall to a level suitable for storage. This way the extracted wood can maintain its form. The slower the processing stage, the more likely it can retain its form.”

Kept in the studio are different woodworking machinery and types of wood. If one looks up to the ceiling, they will also find a range of locally made old-style furniture, many of which were commonly found in schools and local cafés. “I have accumulated a collection of Hong Kong’s old furniture and machinery. I hope they can be redeveloped into new products.” The carpenter believes that keeping these material goods circulated is a way to preserve our local culture. “When one publishes a book or online article, it’s quite likely they will fall into oblivion soon. But if you make a piece of durable furniture that can be placed at home, people can own it and there will be memories. There will be a story, and stories tend to stay in our minds longer than that of a random online article or book.”

Apart from making Hong Kong special furniture, in light of the lack of international recognition of our woodworking expertise, Ka Nuo hopes that a carpentry school and licencing system will be established in Hong Kong in the future. “It can produce large scale work while also being a place for teaching woodcraft. One can take a look at some of Taiwan’s community-owned carpentry schools, whose programmes are sufficiently all-rounded. Their government adopts their work and the programmes can be sold to China. It proves that design programmes are practical and recognised. Many of their programmes are fairly up-to-date, taking only 1 to 2 years to complete and obtain a licence. This is very much in line with the current climate of the industry. I hope one day Hong Kong will be able to achieve a similar position.”