If woodcarving brings to mind cumbersome furniture and kitchen utensils, you haven’t been paying attention to its endless possibilities. On the other side of the globe, there is a village on the outskirts of Hanoi, Vietnam, that has been carrying on a 1000-year-old tradition of carving Buddha statues and religious ornaments.
Son Dong has everything it ever needs to nurture its woodcarving tradition. The blossom of religion in Vietnam creates an ever-growing market for worshiping items, while the massive tropical forests provide tons of wood ideal for carving. For many villages, their long-cherished family techniques are the springboard into the craft industry. They are passed on from father to sons, who are expected to inherit them and carry on the family’s woodcarving tradition, However, in Son Dong, the skills of carving Buddha statues are open to anyone who wants to learn this ancient tradition, which has helped increase the number of Son Dong’s artisans to more than 4000.
Son Dong artisans retain a reverence for the hand-worked wood at the core of their products. The basic process is nothing new, and requires choosing the right wood, roughing it out, followed by detailed carving. But what truly sets Son Dong’s technique apart is the way they treat and decorate the finished items. Son Dong’s products are well known across Vietnam as they are highly durable and can even last for centuries. It all comes down to their use of several layers of varnishes that take months to apply.
The Rhus trees that are widely available in North Vietnam are the source material for a special substance called son that is used as the varnish in their woodcarving. Artisans rub the statue’s surface with pebble and water after applying each layer of son. The more precious the item, the more coats of varnish. This process is carried on until the item’s surface is fully smoothed out. Then some items are gold plated. Only the high level items such as Buddha, gods, and some certain ornaments are entirely covered in gold. This step isn’t only for used showing status but also as an ornate decoration. Vietnam’s pagodas and temples are usually dimly lit so the gold layer also has light-reflecting function, making the statues stand out. North Vietnam’s weather does not favor applying varnish as the high humidity prevents the son from drying, so the coating takes at least 3 to 5 months. All of this hard work though is paid off as the varnish keeps Son Dong’s statues in good shape for up to a century.
Since they engage in making worshiping items, Son Dong’s artisans are deeply religious. They strictly uphold rituals and treat their products with the highest respect. Every finished statue is covered in a scarlet cloth and arranged in order. The village’s pagoda also receives more attention than those of other villages. Son Dong’s Ky Da pagoda has recently been rebuilt and all the statues and ornaments are donated by the village’s woodworkers.