Wed, Aug 27, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Profile: The woodturner

Yeh Yan-chin, a third-generation woodworker, is trying to lead his century-old family business through tough times

By Ho Yi  /  Staff reporter

Sanyeh Company Limited supplies the domestic market with high-quality wood furniture.

Photo courtesy of Sanyeh Company Limited

All his life, Yeh Yan-chin (葉煙欽) has carried on a family business founded by his grandfather during the Japanese colonial era.

Back in 1911, the craft of wood turning was an attractive novelty. Wood turning is using hand-held chisels and a lathe to shape a block of raw wood into exquisite items such as bowls, table legs and spindles as well as highly ornamental objects. It is a handicraft technique that Yeh managed to become proficient at by age 10.

“When I was in the first, second grade, my uncle used to put me on a stool to play with [the lathe] ... Back then, we were making and selling spinning tops. Lots of kids came to buy it. When the grown-ups couldn’t meet the demand, I jumped in, turned on the machine and started making the toys,” 60-year-old Yeh recalls.

A CENTURY OF WOOD

The story of the Yeh family as woodturners began when two Chinese artisans crossed the Taiwan Strait together to make railings for Taipei Bridge (台北橋) at the end of the Qing Dynasty.

One of them taught the handicraft to the Yehs. Before long, Yeh’s grandfather had set up a shop making wooden items and parts with a lathe powered by hand. It wasn’t until Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) army arrived on the island that the motor came along, significantly shortening the production process.

Decades later, Yeh, then a 16-year-old teenager, was entrusted with the responsibility of running the family business: Sanyeh Company Limited (三葉車木社), located in New Taipei City’s Banciao District (板橋).

“Back then, there were several wood turning stores on the same street because it didn’t require much capital to run a shop. Over time, it got so that you barely earned enough to pay the rent,” he says.

“Now most young people don’t want to learn it.”

STILL A FAMILY BUSINESS

Over the years, Sanyeh has grown to become specialized in high-level techniques and professional service, producing wood products and furniture of quality craftsmanship and unique designs.

Though his woodworking business has been computerized for over 20 years now, Yeh keeps an old motor-powered wood turning lathe in his factory. When customers want to look at samples, he doesn’t have to rely on 3D computer graphics but needs only “three minutes and a pair of skilled hands.”

Sanyeh’s reputation for sound workmanship has attracted clients with intricate bespoke project proposals. Yeh says that almost every week, there are people knocking on his door with challenging projects turned down by others. He also works with designers, academics and industrial design students to produce modern wood furniture designs, one of which garnered top honors at the Golden Pin Design Award (金點設計獎) last year. Under the auspices of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the annual award has recognized excellent product design in Chinese-speaking regions for 33 years.

Through years of hard work, Sanyeh has expanded from 20 ping (approximately 66 square meters) to its current 200 ping. And like a traditional family business owner in Taiwan, Yeh makes the well-being of his family a priority.

“Together, we build our business and assets one small step at a time,” he says.

“As long as they are willing to learn, I will pass on everything I know to them.”

Yeh has eight siblings. Their mother passed away when the youngest brother, whom he helped to raise, was a year old.

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