Friday 26 November 2010

Cracking serious wood ...

If you've ever lusted after a huge piece of wooden Thai furniture, or gushed over an ornate wooden carving, chances are it came from the Hang Dong or Ban Tawai area of Chiang Mai province. The region is rich in traditional artisans, helping Thailand to its position as the 17th largest exporter of creative products in the world.

And few have been as influential as Khun Areesak (Pop's) business ...

On the main road from Chiang Mai to Hang Dong, you can't miss the Thai Plit Pan Carving Factory, with its massively wide wooden frontage with artifacts spilling out all over the place. This was started by Pop's father, Khun Somrot, 45 years ago.

'When he started, everyone was just carving animals,' says the congenial slender all-in-Johnny-Cash-black Pop, who happily shows me around the several floors of the main shop, and then takes me out the back, up the garden path to a series of old out-buildings and warehouses full of rotting wood, artifacts-to-be, and nearly finished products. It's a timber version of Steptoe and Son.

The rotting wood, as it turns out, is like gold dust. 'Old teak trees, about 400 years old,' says the gracefully middle-aged Pop, tapping a pile of old lumber. 'Old wood is better because it doesn't crack.'

Sculptures, statutes, folding panels, and furniture all magically take form under the chisels, saws and planes of his craftsmen. The intricacy is bewildering -- some details in a wooden mural no bigger than toothpicks -- in tableaux that take literally years to create. A team of around 50 craftsmen and women turn teak into treasures, some of them specialising solely in village dioramas, others mythical naga serpent figures.

But his pieces-de-resistance are tables. Imagine BHP Billiton or some other large conglomeration that has need for a boardroom table to fit hundreds of directors around. Pop makes them BIG. Half a forest goes into some of these. One is on display for 800,000 baht; that's about 25,000 bucks, jing jing

'We have sold many pieces for over 1 million baht,' declares Pop proudly. 'And we once shipped an 11-metre table to Norway.' They've clearly come a long way since his dad decided there was more to Thai craftsmanship than chipping away at little sculptures of elephants.

One of the tables on display is a hollowed out teak trunk, full of fantasmagorical fish and mermaids and crabs and all things maritime carved into its interior. The top is glass. The idea is that the table will be filled with water and become a giant fish tank-cum-conference table. Talk about a present for someone who has everything!

Upstairs, as I try out a really comfy chair, I spy Pop's mum doing the ironing in a back room. And his father, who still despite his advanced years, works the shop floor keeping an eye on Pop. Then he introduces me to his daughter, a student at Chiang Mai university, who also puts in time at the family business.

But the problem I have is that as much as I like these tables, I don't think my landlord would take kindly to me bashing out one of the walls in order to make it fit the lounge room. There again I could always put the table out in the garden. After all, this wood's been sitting around in the sun and rain for 400 years already ...

1 comment:

  1. Much as I admire the craftsmanship, it can hardly be counted as sustainable. "Half a forest" of 400 year old trees is a big price to pay for a table.

    If the raw materials take longer to grow than the lifetime of the craftsman then this cannot be sustainable - there will be less mature trees when he has finished than when he started. And as these are using whole trunks there will be a lot of wastage, and he will need to use very big mature trees.


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