The Woodwork Initiative
Mr Swyny (above) specialises in customised woodwork, and some of the pieces that he has done include tables, cabinetry, and lifestyle products; and mobile bar. Photo: The Woodwork Initiative

You could say it was a toy toolkit set that Gregory Swyny received for his fourth birthday that set him on his career path. The toolkit consisted of a few plastic tools such as a saw, a hammer, and a screwdriver. "The saw was my favourite, as I discovered that although it was made of plastic, it could actually cut wood, but very slowly," Mr Swyny recalls.

It was with this saw that over a period of two weeks, he cut through and eventually felled his grandfather's wooden gate. "It really appealed to my sense of creative mischief, and I supposed that day, the seeds were sown," says Mr Swyny, 35.

For the past 18 years, he has been working with wood, as an apprentice, a hobbyist fixing and making things for friends and family, building sets for theatre productions, and then as a craftsman in his own right. In 2015, he set up his own firm, The Woodwork Initiative, creating bespoke furniture and lifestyle products made with quality wood.

He often found that off-the-shelf options are limited, both in design and dimension, and often don't fit the user's life. "The Woodwork Initiative aims to provide solutions for like-minded people, who want well-made wooden products that suit their specific needs," he says.

A table that Mr Swyny created (above). Photo: The Woodwork Initiative

He picked up his skills from his father, who is a carpenter and contractor. During his teenage years, Mr Swyny would often follow his father to work. "I didn't enjoy the work at first," he recalls. He hated the noise, the dust and the heat, and "it was really hard work".

"My father was patient with me, and along the way I picked up skills that I never thought I would, and it piqued an interest I never thought I had," he says. "It was only later, in my mid-twenties, that I discovered that I was actually pretty good at making things with wood, and it was something I'd wanted to try doing as a profession."

Mr Swyny specialises in customised woodwork, and some of the pieces that he has done include dining tables, coffee tables, cabinetry, and lifestyle products such as cheese boards.

The Singaporean Eurasian is also one of six craftsmen in The Balvenie Connoisseurs of Craft programme, which aims to promote craftsmanship in South-east Asia through the establishment of a conducive ecosystem for creation, apprenticeship and the advocacy of timeless crafts. Together with industrial designer Melvin Ong, the two recently built a mobile bar for whisky label The Balvenie (pictured below).

The Woodwork Initiative

Mr Swyny typically handcrafts the pieces himself, especially the detailing so that he has complete control over the quality of the finished piece. Photo: Balvenie

"I'm happiest when I'm in my workshop, making something new, and the satisfaction of completing a piece that I'm proud of, and seeing my clients' happy faces when they see their finished piece is an amazing feeling," he says.

He loves the organic nature of wood, from the warm tones, the colours and grain, and even the smell. "I love working with any kind of solid wood, and love that no two pieces are the same, so every piece is personal," he says.

Apart from creating bespoke pieces, Mr Swyny also conducts regular workshops. He has noticed that there has been a growing interest in woodwork in Singapore, but people have very few avenues here to experience making something with their own hands.

"I was lucky to be exposed to it at a young age, and I really enjoy sharing my craft with like-minded people, so I decided to start conducting workshops to teach basic carpentry to anyone who has an interest," he says. Responses have been very encouraging, and he has taught students, housewives, lawyers and engineers. "Anyone who's had an interest in woodworking, but never knew where to start can come. They learn how to make a particular item out of wood in a few hours, and get to take their completed piece home," he says.

And what does his father think about Mr Swyny following in his footsteps? "He doesn't say very much about it to be honest, but I think it's a mixture of pride that I share a similar passion with him, and concern that I'm taking up a dying trade," quips Mr Swyny.

Written by Tay Suan Chiang for The Business Times