Australia-born carpenter turns hobby into vocation

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Lawrence with a coffee table that he just made.

THE strong perception about handcrafted wooden furniture lasting longer than those mass-produced from medium density fibreboard (MDF) had led Andrew Lawrence to try his hands at making custom pieces.

It began as a hobby, though, he told thesundaypost in Kuching.

“It started when I made a bench for my father-in-law to sit and put shoes on in 2018, and back then, all I had was a jigsaw and a drill,” said the woodworking enthusiast.

He later made a few more benches, with storage, for his father-in-law who, in turn, sold them to those who saw them at his home and were interested in them.

His father-in-law also told the buyers about him – the word of mouth later helped make woodworking a source of income for Lawrence.

“Some of my customers started off as calls – random people who got my number from somewhere. I did not advertise my services anywhere,” recalled the 40-year-old.

Photo shows Lawrence’s first work – a bench for his father-in-law.

‘Getting better with time’

Hailing from Adelaide, Australia, Lawrence has made Kuching his home after marrying his Bidayuh wife over a decade ago. The couple is blessed with two boys.

Starting with making simple shelves in a storeroom after having moved into his house in Samarahan, he later expanded his projects to chairs, console tables, pestles and mortars, children’s swings and small wooden bowls.

A wooden pestle-mortar set made by the Australia-born woodworker.

His work then improved further after having bought a second-hand American-made lathe.

Lawrence makes these small wood projects in his spare time, which also helps him to destress.

He is also into woodturning, the craft of using a lathe with hand-held tools to fashion out a shape that is symmetrical around the axis of rotation.

Like the potter’s wheel, this is a mechanism that can generate a variety of forms.

According to him, woodturning is rare in Kuching. Among the things he has made are custom-designed finials. He once produced 30 of them in a single order, to be used for a ‘minbar’ (pulpit in mosques).

These finials are custom-ordered for a ‘minbar’.

He also made a sidebar table for the famous Rock Road Seafood Restaurant in Kuching, as well as the planters in front of it.

His current project is his own workbench with built-in drawers and cupboard, the works of which have been on-going for the past three years.

As a stay-at-home dad, Lawrence could only spare around three hours a day to work on this project. Throughout this school holiday, though, he could only spend an hour a day.

When asked about where this love for ‘Do-It-Yourself’ (DIY) comes from, he said it was from his father.

He said his family home had a really big garage, and his father had the tools needed to make things.

This interest was further nurtured when he entered second year of high school.

“The schools in Australia train students with numerous skills. We’re taught woodworks, crafts and carpentry. At one time, I even learned how to make printed circuit boards,” he recalled.

Regarding materials for his projects, Andrew said he sourced them from sawmills where he could get them planed and ready to use.

“This saves time,” he added.

Lawrence’s handmade side bar table on display at Rock Road Seafood Restaurant in Kuching.

In acquiring plywood, he said they could be found at any hardware store, but he advised anyone wanting to buy them to look around first, as there had been a few place selling low quality pieces.

‘From scraps to sought-after pieces’

Lawrence is comfortable working on whole chunks of wood, but he can also repurpose wood scraps.

He would glue the pieces together, turning it into a big log that would be the base to make items like bowls.

In this aspect, he observed that the usage of wood glue was not very prevalent in local carpentry, which seemed to mostly rely on nails, screws and fasteners.

He said there was this discarded electric pole, made from ‘belian’ (ironwood) that he picked up, which had a piece of nail in it.

As the nail had been long exposed to rain and the other elements, rust had set in and this caused the nail to move in the wood, affecting the joints.

“Wood glue, if used properly, could create a bond stronger than the wood itself. Natural wood has fibres and thus, the glue would seep into them and bonds everything together, making it stronger.

“Nails and screws are temporary joining methods and they would loosen as the wood ‘moves’ and eventually, they would come out, potentially breaking your project in the process.

One of Lawrence’s masterpieces – a bowl fashioned out from glued pieces of wood scraps.

Nails and screws should only be used to fasten hinges and other fixtures, or to hold wood pieces in place while the glue dries up.”

According to Lawrence, most DIY furniture sets use screws in view of the pieces being meant for temporary use.

“The buyers could be students wanting to rent a place, so they would go for these DIY sets as they can easily assemble them upon moving in, and unscrew the pieces when they move out.

“The DIY furniture sets are not very sturdy as they are not meant to be long-lasting,” he said.

Lawrence said with many DIY sets being made from manufactured wood like MDF, they would not last long.

“It is a waste of money in the long run. Thus, I recommend buying quality furniture pieces that would last a lifetime, instead of getting cheaper trendy pieces that could go out of style very fast.

“They (DIY sets) also damage easily and cannot support too much weight.

“Aside from that, discarded MDF furniture pieces are known to leach out toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, soil and eventually the waterways.”

Community workshop proposal

In this respect, Lawrence expressed hope that in the future, Sarawak would look into setting up a workshop in the community where artisans or experts could share their skills and knowledge with the younger generation, as well as help out those wanting to learn not only woodworking, but also other areas like wiring and plumbing.

“Back home, we have a programmed called ‘Red Shed’ where you can work on your own project, have a go at repairing your broken items, or just join a community project – no special skills required.

“You just learn new skills and meet new people through participation in activities, workshops and programmes run by the Red Shed volunteers.

“It is sponsored by the local council, in terms of land and it not having to pay council rates, with the community supplying the manpower. The tools are generally donated.”

Lawrence regarded Red Shed as ‘a good way for the retired skilled people like boiler makers and carpenters to gather’, where they could guide adults and school-students in their projects.

He also viewed it as a good way to network and meet up with more people.

He added: “Tools are expensive, and not everyone has space in the garage to work on projects.

“That’s why a community-shared workshop is a good idea. It is not just a good community service, but we can also encourage young entrepreneurs to learn and upskill themselves.”

Lawrence said under the guidance of the highly experienced folks, the amateurs would know what tools and things needed before starting any project to prevent mishaps – making it safe for them to take on any work.

“Say changing a power socket – an experienced wireman would tell those they’re guiding to turn off the power supply first; or the skilled plumber would tell his charges to close the water supply first before undertaking any plumbing work, so that they would not flood the house.

“All these hands-on experience and skills are valuable to the learners and, in turn, they would value what they make with their own hands more,” he said.