In My Studio: Wood-turning Master Sam Choi Carves Treasures from Wood

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At Walk in the Park in Sandringham, Sam Choi takes inspiration from the unique woods he works with to create beautiful and functional wooden objects.

Artist and craftsman Sam Choi creates timeless pieces of natural wood with an elegant and simple beauty that will last.

Sam’s success has taken grit, determination and perseverance, with hours spent in his studio honing his skills to produce beautiful, functional pieces. The quiet beauty of his work is captured by his wife, Jiho Yoon, whose photographs evoke the atmosphere of the still lifes of modern Dutch Masters.

Born and raised in South Korea, Sam studied Design at Hongik University in Seoul. In 2016 he began learning wood turning and has continued to explore the art of creating functional and sculptural objects. He creates all of his pieces by hand in his studio in Sandringham, Auckland.

Sam's studio in the garage of his home in Sandringham (family and conversation always nearby). Photo / Bavish Martens
Sam’s studio in the garage of his home in Sandringham (family and conversation always nearby). Photo / Bavish Martens

What excites you about your job?

I feel like my work is always evolving based on my life circumstances and current interests – everything is always changing and developing in conjunction with my personal life.

In the past, I’ve worked in many different positions – as a chef, barista, technician, teacher, etc. But I’ve finally found a job that doesn’t make me yearn for my next dream job. This may not seem like a special reason, but I’m really grateful and feel very lucky.

Plus, the most fun part is being able to create objects that feel natural to you, which brings great satisfaction in terms of self-expression.

Sam applies oil to his handmade creations. Photo / Babish Martens
Sam applies oil to his handmade creations. Photo / Babish Martens

Describe your studio and how it inspires you.

We moved from Titirangi to Sandringham three years ago, around the time our daughter Eden was born. Sandringham is an older, smaller family house with a good garden at the back and front. I work out of the garage at the front of the house.

To be honest, it’s less interesting than my previous studio in Titirangi, designed by Auckland architect Tibor Donner. But I enjoy this place more because there are more people around me while I work, compared to my studio in Titirangi, which was hidden in the bush and isolated from my house. Jiho and Eden often come to my new studio, and I’ve noticed that through their interactions, softer, more organic shapes are emerging in my work.

Sam studied design at Hongik University in Seoul before moving to New Zealand. Photo / Babish Martens
Sam studied design at Hongik University in Seoul before moving to New Zealand. Photo / Babish Martens

Please explain the production process.

Woodturning gives you immediate feedback compared to other woodworking processes. Unlike furniture making, it doesn’t require detailed and precise sketches, which I’m not very good at. Most of the time I have a clear image in my head beforehand. There are exceptions. Sometimes I like to approach a project without much planning and discover unexpected shapes and configurations. I like to see what I can make with the material and be surprised by the results. This kind of process can never be planned in advance, because the object dictates it.

What kind of wood do you use?

Almost 99% of my wood is New Zealand-sourced, ranging from native and exotic species. 95% comes from one supplier in Matamata, and 5% from Trade Me and friends. There’s a wide variety of tree species in my work.

All the wood I work with is air-dried (not kiln-dried) and I often use wood that would be considered second-rate or unacceptable because it has imperfections, knots or cracks. These imperfections create a unique character. My favourite native wood is kauri, particularly swamp kauri. It features a wide variety of colours and patterns depending on the environment and period it was stored in. When oiled, the rich colours magically emerge. Some are so shiny they almost look like jewels.

Before taking up wood turning, Sam worked as a chef, barista, technician and teacher. Photo / Babish Martens
Before taking up wood turning, Sam worked as a chef, barista, technician and teacher. Photo / Babish Martens

What was the biggest hurdle you overcame early on?

Understanding and appreciating the different non-commercially dried timber conditions in New Zealand was the most challenging part for me.

During my time at university I had mostly worked with kiln dried and well prepared woods so had no experience working with greener (higher moisture content) woods. When I began my woodturning career in New Zealand, without knowing the details of how the wood was dried, I was keen to try different woods I had never come across before.

Fortunately, most of the pieces I made using these unknown woods survived, although occasionally I encountered unfortunate results such as cracks and warping. It took me a while to understand the characteristics of each individual wood species and how to use and care for this type of wood.

Finding the right finishing oil for different objects and woods is a lot more complicated than I learned in school – there is no one-size-fits-all oil and no way to find the right oil other than trial and error.

Experimenting with finishing oils was a complex learning process for Sam. Photo / Babish Martens
Experimenting with finishing oils was a complex learning process for Sam. Photo / Babish Martens

Did you seriously consider giving up?

Although there is no guarantee of a steady income, I am fortunate that my work is steadily growing and in demand. I am happy to earn a living from it, and I would not give it up as long as my family is happy.

Korean-born Sam Choi has a design expertise creating unique wooden objects (all from raw wood) in Auckland. Photo / Babiche Martens
Korean-born Sam Choi has a design expertise in creating unique wooden objects (all made from raw wood) in Auckland. Photo / Babiche Martens

Have you ever had a business mentor?

No, I don’t ask for feedback as I feel my business is not yet at the stage to be professionally reviewed, plus in New Zealand the work is still seen primarily as service woodworking, rather than art or design or a form of creative self-expression.

I would only look for a mentor as a last resort, because if someone just showed up to give me advice, it would go off the rails, but it would be great to have someone with a similar creative background as me give me concrete advice. I hope that one day that will happen.

Sam began learning to turn wood in 2016 and continues to hone his skills. Photo / Babish Martens
Sam began learning to turn wood in 2016 and continues to hone his skills. Photo / Babish Martens

What advice do you have for other creatives wanting to start their own businesses?

Here’s what I suggest: Focus on developing your own story and aesthetic instead of being swayed by trends. Every day, a lot of new work is introduced on social media. There are certainly a lot of talented people emerging and I’m inspired by them. However, I also notice that there are a lot of people who copy the work of trendy or established manufacturers.

It is important to do regular self-assessments to understand your weaknesses and invest in learning new things.

Sam's wood lathe toolbox. Photo by Babish Martens
Sam’s lathe toolbox. Photo by Babish Martens

What self-care strategies do you have in your life?

Taking the time to organize and upgrade your space can help you feel relaxed. Cleaning and organizing your space gives you a sense of control over your environment and your life, especially when times are busy or overwhelming. This can be very rewarding and can lead to a sense of well-being. Rearranging your furniture and clearing clutter can also spark creativity.

What advice would you give to your 15-year-old self?

Love yourself. Have good role models who inspire you to be better. Your future depends on you and what you do to shape it. It can’t be ruined by luck or fate.

For the woodturner, inspiration comes from vintage markets and old books. Photo / Babish Martens
For the woodturner, inspiration comes from vintage markets and old books. Photo / Babish Martens

I see my work as an expression of my interests rather than simply serving others. I’m not necessarily focused on following the latest trends, but rather find inspiration in old books and the vintage market.

It is important to me to create work that reflects my own ideas and stories, rather than relying on the ideas of others, so I strive to incorporate diverse perspectives and approaches into my work, so that it can broaden its appeal and be enjoyed in a variety of homes.

Wood turning allowed Sam to express his authentic self. Photo / Babish Martens
Wood turning allowed Sam to express his authentic self. Photo / Babish Martens

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