Kerwin Chong is a rubbish picker and he isn’t ashamed to admit it.
“People discard old furniture and unwanted pieces of wood without realising its beauty. There’s a sense of satisfaction to giving a new lease of life to old treasures,” says Chong, beckoning at discarded items collected from neighbourhoods around Petaling Jaya. It includes rattan chairs, window frames and old pieces of timber, neatly displayed at his porch in Kelana Jaya.
Some of these items are still in good condition, only needing either a paint job or a touch of TLC (tender loving care).
Chong spends his weekends driving around suburban areas in his housing area to source these unwanted gems. Sometimes, the journey takes him as far as Seremban and Kuala Selangor to hunt down old pieces of hardwood like mahogany, chengal and merbau. Items – purchased from second hand wood dealers – are brought home, cleaned, prepared and then fashioned into decorative household items.
Chong has been a carpentry enthusiast for over a decade. He started off with small projects, and moved onto bigger projects when he renovated his home in 2014. Along the way, he developed a knack for transforming old things into works of art.
“Instead of buying new items or furniture, think of creative ways to refurbish old items and give it a new life. Plus, it’s more affordable to upcycle something old than having to fork out big bucks on a new purchase,” says the 46-year-old carpenter who learnt his craft from the Internet and books. To fine-tune his skills, he joined several online carpentry clubs where he trades notes with other enthusiasts.
The fix-it man
Chong’s porch-cum-workstation has wood pieces like mahogany, chengal, pine and tree bark neatly stacked up according to size and colour. In the centre of his workstation is a carpentry work bench, built using recycled pine wood pallets. Tools like measuring tape, screwdriver, saw and hammer are an arm’s length away from his chair.
At a far corner, there are some old wooden blocks, some still with paint and moss. While it may look like scrap to most, Chong explains they are actually chengal, known as one of the most durable, sturdy and hardiest woods.
One of his most prized projects is his front door, made from pieces of chengal planks, which once served as supporting beams at a KTM railway station. Chong took more than four months to construct his masterpiece. It included plaining, sanding down and assembling the planks to form a door.
The door, weighing over 600kg, is eye-catching, with its coarse-textured wood, metal fittings and dark brown coat. It is undoubtedly Chong’s pride.
“Who would ever imagine that these discarded pieces could be transformed into a door? All that is needed is a bit of creativity, enthusiasm and dedication to turn remnant scraps into unique pieces of art,” he says, adding other room doors in his home are made from recycled chengal wood, too.
His wife, Corinne Jansz, 45, was, at first, doubtful of his carpentry skills when Chong started the main door project. But she fell in love with the completed project.
“When Kerwin told me that he wanted to make our main door, my response was ‘Can you make a door and can it last?’ I was sceptical as I didn’t think he was capable of handling such a project. But the end product was unbelievable. It’s his original idea and unique. Now, I let him work on other projects around the house.”
Chong’s three children’s study tables are also made using chengal and recycled balau. The countertop of his kitchen island was – yup you guessed it – assembled from recycled chengal.
Not one to discard precious old wood, Chong goes the extra mile to make furniture with mismatched items.
There’s a coffee table in his living room, constructed using a metal table base and a mahogany slab. To complete the set, mahogany tree stumps have been made into stools. Another highlight is a pair of long benches for the dining table. In between the legs are tiny louvers, once part of 19th century toilet windows.
“My wife wanted benches for our new dining table and I sourced these colonial louvers from Kuala Selangor. I incorporated them into our dining benches. For a more rustic look, I scraped off the paint to reveal these century-old star finds’ original form,” he explains.
Chong also made his king-sized bed using chengal beams salvaged from a playground and balau window frames that were thrown out at a renovation site. The bed is assembled using mortise and tenon joinery to produce strong and neat bonds.
“I love old items and wood because they have history and character. For me, they tell the story of how these items came to be. Plus, it makes a great topic of conversation among friends.”
Turning trash into cash
In June last year, Chong was retrenched from his job as an information technology manager. So, he decided to turn his carpentry hobby into a business. The best bit is he operates his business – UrbanWoods – from his front porch.
Business is through word-of-mouth, or recommendations from clients and friends.
He receives all types of orders; from candle holders to cabinets to display racks. He also sells his woodcraft items at bazaars. They are priced between RM50 and a few thousand ringgit, depending on the type of wood used and the work involved.
Chong says focusing fully on carpentry has been the right move. He enjoys working on different projects and being able to fulfill his customers’ requests.
The artistic man also adds that restoring things is environmentally friendly. Old wooden pieces are more sturdy and durable if treated well to prevent wood rot.
“Not only does carpentry give me the satisfaction and achievement of restoring old furniture or making items out of reclaimed wood, it also saves the environment. If more people do this, we can cut down fewer trees.”
To Chong, old and rustic furniture creates a homey and warm ambience.
“I gain satisfaction from turning a simple piece of wood into something unique and practical.
“Carpentry is a dying trade and it can be difficult to find someone skilled in woodworking. DIY-ers can just pick up simple tools like hand saws, ruler, hammer and nails to create simple projects for themselves.”
Instead of discarding that old wonky wooden chair, perhaps it’s time to put your carpentry skills to the test. It’ll lessen the environmental impact and help you stretch your ringgit further.
For more details, go to Urbanwood17 on Instagram or http://ourrenovationadventures.blogspot.my/