Learning to Make in Thailand

DATE:  February 9, 2017     CATEGORIES:  Artisan Grants, Blog, Woodworking

Thai Chisels

Just a handful of wood carving tools that the author is learning to use.

By Drew Hatzung

Last month Drew Hatzung left for Chang Mai, Thailand as part of Artisan’s Asylum first Maker Cultural Exchange Residency program. He is currently teaching classes in jewelry and woodworking, and in exchange, he is learning traditional Thai wood carving. In this post, originally published on his blog, Drew discusses what it is like to learn another culture’s crafts from a master artisan and with a language barrier. Reprinted with permission.

My education began in earnest today. Four hours of carving in the morning then lunch then four more hours in the evening. Learning these tools is like learning a new language. There are 25+ individual steel chisels, each with a specific purpose. We’ve gotten into a system where Baa Bua shows me how to do something, I attempt to do the same thing, and I get either an “okay” or a “no!’, at which point she’ll hand me the correct tool that I am not currently using or she’ll correct the chisel angle, mallet striking force, or angle of strike compared to grain direction. There is an almost complete oral-language barrier but absolutely no work-language barrier. She is so consistent and exacting in what she expects me to do that there is no room for miss interpretation of her “no!”s and no time to develop any bad habits. It’s surprising and beautiful.

It is very difficult working within this very specific, very old aesthetic. This morning Baa Bua may have been getting a little tired of my lack of knowledge of what the design is supposed to look like when properly carved. It’s hard when I’m not Buddhist, not Thai, and have had only a week of exposure to this aesthetic passively from visiting temples around the city.

Somewhere along the way today though, something eventually clicked and I got a total mind frame shift. Somewhere in the depths of learning in my brain on a not-quite-conscious level, I began to understand the relationship between the curves the levels of relief, and each tool’s personality and I started to get it. It was wild! The coolest part was that Baa Bua could see it first, and she started treating me differently. In her genius I think she could see that the mistakes that I was still inevitably making were at least the “right” kind of mistakes. She became more engaged again and I started moving through the piece on my own. She is having fun adding new elements to complicate the piece and to push my skills forward as fast as I can go, and inducing playful agony as I understand how much more time the carving will take to finish as each new element is added. I am now drawn to certain tools for specific tasks, not because I consciously know those are the correct tools to use, but because they seem connected to the previous tool used or step completed, or because it just feels right. I have not had a similar experience before and I am SO thankful for this opportunity.

You can read about more of Drew’s adventures on his website and blog, Wandering Workshop.