Visiting a wood workshop

Some roro mango wood trays on display

How some of roro’s products are made

Tucked away in the outskirts of Chiang Mai and nestled between rice paddies that formed the name of the old Lanna kingdom (Lan-na meaning “Million [rice] fields”), lies the village of Boh Sang.  Every day, tourist vans swing by the main plaza, part strip-mall, part-market, where workshops display their wares:  wood carvings, umbrellas (this part of Thailand is particularly renown for them), paintings, and bags.  I befriended a Burmese man here some time ago, who’s story is as colorful as his work.  After escaping the military crackdown in Burma (now Myanmar), he went from refugee to boat smugger in the Java Sea, before winding up in Northern Thailand.  He met a wonderful Thai lady, married, and found a niche woodworking.  His workshop is now located further up the road, far out in the rice fields of San Kampaeng.

The first visit to the workshop was an eye-opener.  There were perhaps 20 people at most working here, and the workshop was divided into areas.  First, there was a covered area where wood was brought in.

I was pleased to learn that the wood was sustainable and retrieved from nearby orchards.

In another part, you could see two team members cutting the wood into major pieces.  Another person fashioned the wood into what it would eventually be –bowl, vase, or cutting board.

roro wood trays are individually hand-crafted
roro bowls are individually hand-crafted

The next step involved kiln-baking the wood.  The wood chips at the bottom you see are shoveled into a room where the wood is very lightly baked.  This dries out the wood smoothly and slowly, so it doesn’t crack.  The wood, it was explained to me, needs to be dried so that fungus and bacteria don’t grow on them.  Also, depending on how much smoke you let in the chamber, you can determine the color of the final product.  The most natural color is the light, almost khaki colored wood.  However, with enough smoke, the wood turns into a rich chocolate cover.

Finally, in another small covered section, the wood is sanded, painted if necessary, then painted with a food-safe finish, before going through a final inspection and boxing.  As a final safeguard, all items are put through a food-safe fumigation process which destroys any remaining harmful microbes.

The entire workshop was small, as in, I counted less than 12 people here, and perhaps there were only 20 employees, at most.  It’s the very definition of a small business, and one that incredibly sustainable, in almost every sense of the word.  The wood used is mango wood, taken from orchards after the trees no longer bear fruit.  The wood scraps and chips are simply used as fuel to smoke the wood products, leaving virtually no wasted product.  It’s a business we can certainly feel good about.  Finally, and perhaps my favorite part, I noticed that everyone was working.  Even the boss was out there sanding and lacquering and designing items.  There wasn’t a big, fancy staff, or rows of salespeople in an office somewhere.  This was simply a group of artisans led by another.

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