Northern Thai Lacquerware
Chiangmai and the surrounding area is well known for its long tradition of artistic handicrafts, and Thai Lacquerware is one of the leading crafts in the area. A visit to Sankhampaeng, or to Harng Dong just south of Chiangmai on Highway 108, shows how extensivethis special northern Thai cottage industry really is in both of these handicraft areas you'll find lacquerware factories up and down on both sides of the road, but this is not all. A visit to Chiangmai's Night Bazaar or to the many shops on Tapae Road just around the corner shows all the venous designs and quality levels of lacquerware.
Northern Thai Lacquerware includes such a broad range of handmade items in so many different sizes, designs and quality that it's worth taking a good look at the industry, how it evolved, why it is so predominant in Chiangmai, and what is available at both the high and low ends of the quality scale It is also worth noting that in the antique lacquerware range nearly all pieces are Burmese, a very close relative of the Thai wares but most often in the warm colors of browns, muted orange, and yellow.
Before the days of high level lacquerware output for the millions of tourists visiting Thailand each year, northern Thai lacquerware artisans commonly used bamboo or teak as the wood base and the black resin of the 'Lak' -tree as coating material. Traditional lacquerware making also involved the use of natural pigments in the hand-painted designs and a slow, steady lacquer coating and drying process that usually involved weeks or months for the finish of each piece. Makers of the highest quality lacquerware today continue to use these materials and processes, but most houses in this cottage industry give preference to meeting high local and export demand and can use anything from paper to clay or metal as the material base.
In the more commercial lines, materials and processes have generally given way to the use wood other than teak, alternative lacquer resins, and synthetic paints as well as a reduction in the number of lacquer coatings and the time intervals between dryings and coatings. Now the quality range of Thai lacquerware is varied, sometimes large quantities of low-end items being produced within two or three days. One who has the time and knowledge of to determine true quality of lacquered pieces can certainly do so, but in terms of visual appeal the changes in production have not altered the attractiveness of the line even in the low end.
The high quality lacquerware houses of Chiangmai today still apply at least seven coats of lacquer to each piece and allow approximately one week between coatings for drying. Some factories produce varying grades of lacquerwares, including those with seven or more lacquer coats and those with only two or three. Bamboo is still the base wood for many of the high quality lacquerwares, while various other hard and softwoods are used for those at the lower end. Teak is barely used at all, and in some cases the strong, fibrous wood of the Mango tree, grown in volume throughout Thailand, is used in its place.
Chiangmai is probably best known for its long tradition of color fill engraved lacquer pieces with a black background and the gold-on-black form, otherwise known as Gold-Leaf lacquerware. These. are the traditional northern Thai art forms and they are still made with pains taking care at some of Chiangmai's oldest lacquerware centers. This is the authentic and original Thai lacquerware that Chiangmai has produced since the beginning of the industry here and it was brought to northern Thailand by the Tai Khern people of Chiang Toong, Burma, a few hundred years ago.
Chiang Toong, although in Burma, was founded in the early 13th century by Lanna's King Mengrai. It was the original Tai settlement in this part of Southeast Asia even before Mengrai founded Chiangrai and Chiangmai. The frequent observation that Thai lacquerware is strikingly similar to the Burmese variety is due to the Thai version having its origins in northern Burma . The Tai Khern lacquerware artisans migrated from Chiang Toong to Chiangmai in the 1 8th and 1 9th centuries, either by choice or by force, and set up their craft just beyond Chiangmai's old silver-producing area of Wualai on the road to Chom Thong. Over the centuries the producers gravitated to the Sankhampaeng and Harng Dong factory areas . Throughout this time, artisans have maintained their traditionalmethods and more have picked them up.
The Tai Khern art makes use of engraving on a lacquered surface with a fine-pointed tool. It is then submerged in a color solution for approximately three days. When it's withdrawn, a beautiful color-filled engraved design appears against a black lacquered background. Because the Tai Khern method also involves the finest of lacquer matenals and a slow, artistic process of lacquering, drying and polishing, Tai Khern pieces have a satiny smooth finish at the end of production.
The Tai Khern Gold Leaf lacquerware requires much more sophisticated workmanship. Once the engraving is carefully applied to the surface, the black background is covered with a yellow gummy paint. A coat of lacquer is then applied to the entire surface and when semi-dry gold leaf is placed over this. The piece is then left to dry for approximately 20 hours. In the final step, the whole lacquer piece is washed with water. Thus the gold leaf falls off, and it leaves a shimmering gold engraved design against a black background.
In the past the Tai Khern colored engraved and Gold Leaf lacquer processes were used for elaborate palace and temple designs in Thailand. The 'Gold Leaf' concept itself comes from the process used in applying gold leaf to the old Buddhist manuscripts. Today, gold-on-black trays, plates and containers are available in Chiangmai, and while these are usually not the true gold-leaf pieces described they are close to the real thing and are usually painted in dragon, garuda and naga designs as well as such fundamental Buddhist symbols as the Wheel-of-Law.
Chiangmai with its long history of lacquerware and its close access to the raw materials of the lacquer process, thrives on as one of the world's largest manufacturers of this handicraft in its many forms and designs. Chiangmai lacquerware artisans maintain a respect for the traditions of their craft and continue to school new apprentices in these traditions. When you visit Chiangmai and begin to take a look at the areas wealth of lacquerware, visit one of the many cottage industry lacquerware houses and let them show you how this handicraft art is maintained and enhanced. chiang mai,chiangmai,chiang rai,chiangrai,thailand, asia,southeast asia,Thai handicrafts,lacquerware lacquer ware
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