Winnie Thye’s 12-year-old kitchen had started to come apart. The counter was worn, the cupboards were coming off their hinges. She badly needed a remodel, and she had an idea of how she wanted her new kitchen to look.
She envisioned concrete countertops, black metal shelves, and cupboard frames with wooden crate-inspired drawers. She asked a contractor for a quotation, but the RM5,000 price tag for the concrete countertop alone exceeded her budget.
Determined to have her “dream kitchen” without spending a fortune, the bold mother of two decided she’d build her own countertop and find cheaper solutions for her shelves and cupboards.
“How difficult could it possibly be to make a concrete countertop?” says Thye. “I went online to look for instructional videos on YouTube. I must have looked at a hundred videos before starting on the job. Why not, right? If I failed, I could always just go to Ikea and get one of their countertops.”
And so began Thye’s dabbling with DIY.
Even though she’d never used a drill, she was on a mission. She researched what she needed to know about building concrete countertops: tools she’d need, how to build wooden moulds, what material to procure.
In the process, she found a supplier on social media “of everything any DIY-er needs”. “We’ve become friends now. I go to them for everything” she says. “Though they are based in Banting, they deliver right to the doorstep. And they were really helpful too when I was just starting out,
Thye insists that building the countertop wasn’t too difficult or daunting as it sounds. “The hardest part was finding the right mixture for the concrete,” she shares.
“Getting the ratio of cement, sand and stone right wasn’t easy. All the YouTube videos I watched were based in the United States where pre-mixes are readily available. With a premix, you just add water and you have your concrete all ready to use. But I couldn’t find a premix here which meant I had no choice but to mix the concrete the way contractors do.”
Thye spoke to contractors but found that each had a different solution or mixture – apparently, like chefs, contractors guarded their “recipes” close to their hearts. “It was trial and error but after a few tries, I got it right,” shares Thye, a dancer/choreographer-turned-stay at home mum.
It took a month to complete her kitchen makeover, but Thye was thrilled the day she could finally fit her countertop.
“I had to enlist the help of my husband and two friends to carry it and place it in the kitchen because it was really heavy,” says Thye. “But once it was in, I was just so happy. It turned out really well and it was pretty cool that I’d built it myself. The night we installed it, I couldn’t stop looking at it and touching the smooth surface.”
Materials for her countertop came up to just RM700, and she found a contractor to do her metal shelves and cupboards for RM2,300.
Since her kitchen, the 47-year-old has completed several other DIY projects in her home. From having just a basic drill and a manual saw, she now has a jig saw and a sander, too. “I told myself that I would allow myself one new tool after every successful project,” she says, grinning.
Thye has also remodelled her guest bathroom, transforming a small, dark space “with the ugliest blue tiles you’d find in a hospital” to a modern, bright space in white and black with modern, industrial fittings.
She even did the plumbing for the kitchen and bathroom. So far – and it’s been several months – everything is working as it should. “I put a salad bowl under the kitchen sink for the first few nights and woke up every morning expecting to see the kitchen flooded, but it was fine,” she says with a grin.
“I guess I’ve always enjoyed doing small home-improvement projects,” she adds. “When I was a student in Manchester my student accommodation was very bare and basic and I decorated it by adding things here and there. But this kitchen was my first big project.”
Thye graduated with a degree in accounting but she never worked as an accountant. “When I came back, I went in to work at my dad’s office but I hated it. After the first day, I didn’t go back,” she says with a laugh.
Instead, Thye and her friends started a dance troupe called Class Act in which she performed, choreographed, designed and sewed their costumes. She also ran an event management company and acted on TV where she met her husband, Jason Chong, a screenwriter and director.
“I stopped working when I had my second child; that was seven years ago,” she says. “I felt really caged being at home, so I started looking at all kinds of blogs and discovered mixed media art.
“I found it really fascinating how people would use old things to create new art pieces and give these things new life. An old paint brush, for example, can be turned into something quirky and beautiful. I started researching and experimenting on my own and now, that’s what I do.”
Thye also makes mixed media jewellery, art and books that she sells through her online shop, Altered Alchemy. She has several other projects in mind for her home. In the meantime, she’s discovered a passion for gardening.
“I have developed a crazy plant obsession,” says Thye, with a laugh. “And I’m running out of space in my place for more plants!”