Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Village Furniture Maker

Furniture Maker Surfacing Recycled Wood
We got a call from the family on Saturday informing us of some big doings going on Sunday out at Duang's sister's farm outside of Thasang Village.  Duang's mother and some of the women from the village were going to commence harvesting the rice crop and her sister's brother-in-law was going to be making furniture.  They had called to let us know so that I could go out and photograph the activities.

Unfortunately Duang was occupied making pahn sii khwan centerpieces for a Monk that we know.  Since she was getting paid to make it for delivery on Monday, she could not go out to the village.  However that would not stop me ...

I arrived out at the farm around 8:45AM.  The four elderly women were already out in the paddy stooped over with sickles in had cutting the rice.  Although there was still a heavy dew upon the thick vegetation on top of the berms that serve the dual purpose of dividing the land up into paddies and function as walkways to access the paddies, the harvesting was underway.  The bright sun and 31C (91F) temperature would quickly and soon dry out the crop.

As is typical of all rice harvesters here in Isaan, the women were covered up from head to toe.  Large straw hats protected their head and face from the strong Sun.  Either a strip of homespun cotton cloth, called a "pakama" or a cotton tee shirt worn as a pseudo balaclava shielded their face and offered some filtering from dust and detritus from the harvesting.
After an hour, the women were still going strong cutting and laying the rice in neat flat rows to dry but the heat had gotten to me.  I carefully made my way back to the house along the tops of the berms covered with long vegetation - straining my eyes to stay on top of the berm and to avoid breaking an ankle or leg in the periodic drainage slits cut into the berms hidden by the vegetation.

Once at the house, I sat at an outside picnic bench on a covered porch to cool off and to set up my camera gear to photograph the furniture maker.

The Furniture Shop

Across from the house was a rough structure - part carport, part elevated rice storage shed and a lean to work space used for making furniture.

The furniture shop was open sided with a corrugated metal roof.  Beneath mounds of sawdust was a compacted earth floor.  Electrical power for the wood working equipment was supplied by two long extension cords connected to a box mounted on a nearby column.  Fortunately I was using battery powered speedlights so I was not going to add to the electrical load and tangle of wires  about the work space.

I was struck by several things not to mention almost tripping over many things.  I was first struck by the lack of "professional" equipment. I have been in woodworking shops and I am familiar with the various specialized pieces of  equipment associated, if not "required" for making furniture.  There were no pieces of heavy shinny pieces of equipment.  The work benches were heavy but they were made from wood - recycled wood at that.  There was a table saw but it was not a heavy metal table with metal guides and rails.  The table saw at this woodworking shop was another heavy rustic wood table that had a large hand electric saw mounted underneath it with strips of lumber along with industrial grade C-clamps used as guides for cutting.

The furniture maker was busy planing a large and thick slab of recycled teak. To smooth and flatten the surface of the slab, he used an electric hand planer rather than a separate table planer that I had seen in other woodworking shops.  Although he had draped the electric power cord over his shoulder to keep it from interfering with the motion of the device, it was apparent that there had been some previous mishaps.  There were several locations along the length of the cord that were covered with wrappings of electrical tape, frayed electrical tape in many of the locations.

The woodworker worked barefooted and wore shorts.  He did wear glasses but they were more to see his work than to protect his eyes from the sawdust and wood shavings that shot out from the hand planer.  The non-grounded, non weatherproof, non GFI protected interior rated extension cord electrical box lay on the ground.

The woodworker was not completely oblivious to safety concerns.  There came a time when he had to re-position the heavy slab on his work bench in order to better access some portions of it. I saw that he was struggling with it, so I put down my camera and started to grab an end of the slab to help move it.  He motioned to me that it was OK and that he did not need or want me to help.  He then continued and completed moving the slab by himself.  I believe that he did this out concern for safety but I don't honestly know if it was concern for my safety or his safety!

Another thing that struck me was the use of recycled wood to make furniture.  I have seen this practice before in Southeast Asia.  In Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos), I have seen several houses that had been dismantled and reassembled at a different location.  On a trip here in Isaan earlier this year along the Mekong River, I had seen several companies, sawmills, where old timbers from houses were recycled and converted into doors, windows, and milled wood.

The use of recycled wood is dictated by several factors.  The first obvious factor is economics - recycled wood is cheaper.  Another factor is supply.  Most of the recycled wood is Teak.  Teak harvesting and timber production is greatly restricted now in Southeast Asia.  The last factor is quality.  Recycled wood is dry wood and aged.  I have yet to see a kiln for drying new wood or new timber being aged.  I have seen plenty of cracked wood due to improper drying and aging.

These were the things that struck me visiting the woodworker.  As for the many things that I almost tripped over - the work place was definitely cluttered and disorganized.  Several times I stumbled and almost tripped on mounds of sawdust, scrap pieces of wood, semi-finished pieces of wood, electrical cords strewn about the ground, or bumped my head on low beams, and all types of things hanging down from the roof - a great experience that I survived unharmed.

After a short time, the furniture maker was interrupted by an elderly man.  The elderly man had come up to the house to get a drink of water and get the furniture maker to go with him down towards the water bordering the farm where a small structure was being built.  The elderly man needed help to commence attaching the recycled wood beams to the concrete piles driven into the ground.

That was the end, the end of that day. for photographing the village woodworker.  However I did get to photograph some of his finished work inside of the house.  My photography for the day was also not completed for the day - a truckload of men drove across the property towards the water and stopped a very short distance away.  It was very apparent that they were going fishing.  I followed them to the old fishing hole, actually "fishing ditch" and took several photos- but that is for a blog another day.

Home  made table and chairs

Inside of my sister-in-law's house, I photographed a table and chair set that the wood worker had made.  Like furniture in Vietnam, the furniture was heavy, very heavy.  There is no need to worry about some drunk getting angry and throwing the furniture around!  The furniture was well made and reminded me of the "craftsman" style of the 1930's in America.

In an adjoining room, I photographed a chair that reflected an even greater level of skill.

I am definitely motivated to witness and document more of the village woodworker's work.  Sunday's experience was just an appetizer to whet my appetite to experience and share unique aspects of Allen's World.

Many times here in Isaan I have marveled at the self-reliance and adaptability of the people.  Watching the village woodworker was another one of those opportunities for me to appreciate that there are more than one way to live or to get things done.

Duang often reminds me "Thailand not like Amireeka".  I have also learned that "Lao is not like America" and "Cambodia is not like America"  These are not judgemental statements or evaluative comparisons.  They are observations of the fact - the fact that people do not live alike or do things all the same way.

I admire the resourcefulness of the people.  Observing and experiencing their lives has reinforced for me the need and value of "fit for purpose" as well as "making do with what is available"

There are many ways to live, just like making furniture, and not all the ways are the same or one is not necessarily superior to another.  The key is that one's needs are met by using what is available.

Just as I have learned that the most modern and opulent facilities are not necessary to receive adequate health care, I now realize that excellent functional furniture can be created without expensive modern equipment.

I hae asked Duang to let me know when the village furniture maker will be working 1/2 or one full day at his craft - my camera is always packed and ready with my batteries charged.

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