Modernising Traditional Craft
Wood carvings have traditionally been the expertise of artisanal wood carvers who skillfully etch lines into blocks of wood to make beautiful objects.
But today, it is very much possible to use a machine to do the carving for you.
And Lam Chee Hong of Moon CNC Carving Sdn Bhd, has come to depend on the computer numerical control system, or better known as CNC, to do the intricate work for him.
The company currently produces carved wood panels and also offers woodturning (a form of woodworking that is used to create wooden objects on a lathe) services.
The company started out as a furniture producer. At its peak, the company employed a team of 12 skilled workers to craft ornate wooden furniture for customers.
But skilled craftsmen and workers became harder and harder to come by over the years. Wood carving, like many other artisanal skills, became a dying art.
“It was a new technology that was available in the market then and we decided to invest in it. The machine works faster and it can do all the wood cutting and carving work so we did not have to rely on skilled workers,” Lam said.
Lam currently employs a small team of four for its wood cutting department as he does not require any more skilled workers.
These days, all the wood carving work is done by the trusty machine.
With the arrival of the new machine, the company decided to switch its focus from making furniture to producing machine-crafted wood panels and changed its name to Moon CNC Carving to reflect the new direction.
“I don’t know how to do carpentry, only design work. And it is a lot easier to operate a machine. I don’t have the talent for carpentry,” he admits sheepishly.
Lam, a graduate in interior design, was working in interior design firms and only came back to help his father with the business in 2000, when they brought in the new machine.
While the CNC machine solved the company’s labour issues, Lam said convincing the market about the new products was a whole new challenge.
“People always think that wood carving is a traditional skill for traditional wood designs. So people find it difficult to understand when you tell them that there is a machine that can do it now and you have to convince designers to come up with a more modern designs for wood panels,” he said.
Lam explains that machine-aided wood carving was already being used in developed countries and he brought in more designs from overseas to inspire local interior designers and architects to explore different ideas.
End users, likewise, needed to be convinced that wood carvings can be given a modern touch as Lam notes that not everyone likes traditional wood carving designs.
Educating the market about the new technique was a long and arduous task for a few years.
“Now it is easier for people to accept the concept of automated carving. People have better access to new trends thanks to the Internet and local consumers and designers are able to latch on to modern designs quicker,” he said.
And the local market is indeed catching on. Lam said there is growing demand for wood panelling as they lend an artistic yet modern touch to residential as well as commercial properties.
Moon CNC Carving mainly customises designs for architects and interior designers, which Lam notes positions the company differently from other wood carvers.
“I think there are a number of other companies that use CNC technology to carve wood as well, but we all serve slightly different markets. So in terms of competition, there is no direct competitor within our area,” he said.
Notably, the company’s growth is very much dependent on the growth of the economy as Lam puts it, “not everyone will spend extra on things like wood panels.”
Moon CNC Carving generates annual revenue of RM1mil to RM2mil, most of it derived from projects. Among the projects that the company has worked on include Sunway Pyramid, the Parliament Building and the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai. Lam hopes to do work on more projects, but notes that the availability of such contracts depends on the market.
Next year, Moon CNC Carving is looking at expanding to the Middle East.
“They like wood carvings as well and they are still a growing market. And they don’t have manufacturing facilities there so there is an opportunity for us there,” Lam said.
Lam enjoys seeing his designs on display and says that the company gets all sorts of orders from a surprising range of clients.
His project he is most proud of to-date, is producing panels for the Hollywood production Cyber, which was filmed in Malaysia last year.
“What I made for the set was very small, but I was quite proud to be able to be part of something so big. I was quite surprised when we got the enquiry. It was exciting and interesting. Things like that makes the job fun,” he said.