Melissa Sebastian is wearing her heart on her ears. That is to say, the earrings she has on appear to be a hammer and screw set, entirely befitting her environment. The founder of Jigs & Saws Woodworks heads a newly minted team at her Setia Alam, Selangor, workshop, a sunlit space lined with tools, worktables and all manner of materials. This is where commissioned and built-in furniture for residential and commercial orders are conceptualised, assembled and finished before being delivered to or fitted in for customers.
Jigs & Saws is cleverly named after the tools neatly tucked away here. A jig, to the uninitiated, is a customised template that controls the guiding and cutting of wood for pieces of identical size or shape.
As a child, Melissa followed her father around the house to work on repairs, begging to be allowed to swing a hammer or drill a hole. At 14, she built her first computer. She majored in finance and economics at the behest of her mother and never regretted it, applying this knowledge at her former corporate role and current day job at a non-profit organisation, but the itch to work with her hands did not go away. A 2015 volunteer stint with Epic Homes, building houses for the underprivileged in Kelantan, cemented that aspiration. She took a sabbatical to intern at a friend’s woodworking store and experimented with her own projects at home.
“I was still living with my parents in Petaling Jaya at the time, so I took over the garden to build my first piece, a console table,” she says. “A friend then mentioned an acquaintance was looking for a custom-made, rustic dining table set and asked if I would do it. It just took off from there.”
By the time she moved into her marital home in Setia Alam, Jigs & Saws had been a steady part-time enterprise for a couple of years. Woodworking occupied her evenings and weekends, but the guilt over creating a racket with the sawing and grinding after hours gnawed at her. She found an affordable workshop to rent and the brand acquired its official headquarters. Projects increased in frequency and complexity, and running the business as a one-woman show became unfeasible.
“I would only take on non-urgent work that I could take my time to complete,” says the 34-year-old. “I charged enough to cover the cost of materials and a small amount for labour, but after four years, I had to figure out a game plan. Larger build projects were coming in. If I had to build a whole kitchen island, for instance, I had to wait until the weekend for my husband to come over and help me turn it around. He was also my delivery guy since he had a truck.”
Veteran carpenters Fauzi Abdul Rahman and Mohd Sayuti Che joined her early this year and expanded Jigs & Saws’ repertoire considerably. In addition to customised furniture — everything from a 10ft dining table with a hole in the middle for a large plant, to a dog house with cement-board roofing — they now also do built-in cabinetry as well as furniture repair and restoration.
“We mostly use solid pine and rubber wood as they are affordable and easy to work with, but we also have suppliers for Western hardwoods like oak and ash,” says Melissa. “We champion solid wood because of its durability and beauty if treated well. Prices vary according to the materials, project size and complexity, and the labour involved. A 6ft-long pine table would cost upwards of RM1,000 while the same in oak starts at RM3,000. Finishings range from clear lacquer for those who want to celebrate the natural colour and grain of the wood, to stains and oil paints.”
Commissions are a steady business. Customers seek tailored solutions for spaces that are too small or, on the other extreme, too large for conventional furniture found in stores. “We don’t turn down a request unless we know we can’t deliver,” she says. “However unusual the order, we are generally able to figure it out along the way, creating a prototype before doing the actual build if necessary. People bring in Pinterest photos or salvaged pieces of high-quality wood they would like turned into furniture. Our restoration and repair business is also picking up: Someone recently brought in a walnut table top that had split in the middle, which we refashioned and added legs to, and we also had a request to redo the patio floorboards of a customer’s house.”
Five years after picking up the tools to rebuild the homes of flood victims in rural Kelantan, Melissa still finds purpose and fulfilment in woodworking. “I enjoy the entire process, from planning to delivering the finished piece,” she says. “But the best part is undoubtedly working with my hands.”
This article first appeared on Mar 9, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.