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Crafting models from old bits of wood

Update: February, 06/2012 - 19:25


Ahoy there!: Nguyen Thanh Nhan hopes to preserve the tradiitonal craft of making wooden models. — File Photos
by Huynh Nga- Bach Lien

In his noisy workshop, Nguyen Thanh Nhan continuously feeds small and crushed wood pieces into his cutter. His shirt is sweaty and his hair is full of sawdust, but he doesn't mind. The fragmented wood pieces quickly become clean, regular squares. They are now ready to be assembled into sophisticated wooden miniatures of tanks, aeroplanes, cars, motorbikes, boats and musical instruments. Nhan's skilful hands transform waste into art.

"This job is very hard. If we are not careful and meticulous, we cannot produce sophisticated objects to satisfy the needs of domestic and foreign clients," says Nhan.

Hard fought success

Nhan was attracted to carpentry at a young age, like many others from his hometown of Tan Bac village in southern Dong Nai province. Carpentry was brought to the area more than 30 years ago by immigrants from famous craft villages in the north such as Dong Ky (Bac Ninh) and La Xuyen (Nam Dinh). Nhan decided to learn the trade after a visit to Tra Coà carpentry village in Quang Ninh province, where he watched skilful artisans carve beautiful wooden miniatures.

"I was not born into a carpentry family, and so I thought I might be too weak for such a hard job. My family opposed my decision to learn the trade but I insisted," recalls Nhan.

Nhan spent five years as a wood-working apprentice at different enterprises. In 1994, he decided to set up his own business, the Thanh Nhan Wood of Art Private Enterprise. He borrowed VND2 million (US$95) to buy a saw and a drill. But success did not smile on him immediately. After only two months in operation, his company had to close because his funds were appropriated by other traders. To regain financial stability, he had to continue to work for other enterprises.

Three years later the ambitious man tried his luck again. He borrowed funds to buy a milling machine and opened his shop once more. Instead of buying intact wood pieces like he did before, he went to several local wood processing enterprises to buy the leftover fragments of wood.

Normally, those scrap pieces are only fit to be used as firewood.

But with his skilful hands, Nhan could create hundreds of sophisticated wooden miniatures from the waste, including cars, motorbikes, aeroplanes, boats, and other decorative products.

"Wood producing enterprises have developed very well in Dong Nai province. This has created favourable conditions for the fine art wood market to grow quickly. I am lucky that I can buy such cheap materials. They reduce the cost of my process by up to 20 times", Nhan adds.

The average price of a final product is VND200,000 (US$8). A more sophisticated product can cost up to several million VND.

"Each day we can produce five or six pieces on average," says Nhan.


Wooden wonders: Nhan's sophisticated wooden models are exhibited around the world.
Nhan looks for clients by taking part in exhibition fairs organised each year by the Dong Nai Commerce and Industry Department.

"I've learned a lot from my previous failures: businessmen should have direct relations with clients instead of selling products through intermediary people," Nhan confides.

His products have gradually gained a reputation for high quality, and have been exported not only throughout Asia but also to the US, Europe and Australia.

Only five years after the opening of his enterprise, it has become the biggest fine art wood workshop in Binh Minh commune.

"People love buying our products to decorate their house. Many of our clients are people who want to collect different models of vehicles and keep them as souvenirs," Nhan says.

The Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Luong Le Phuong has noted Nhan's talent.

"Nhan's crafts have attracted the attention of America's leading toy retail corporation Walmart, which occupies 45 per cent of the US market. His working methods should be encouraged and be used as a model for other enterprises developing in rural areas,"says Phuong.

Nhan recalls with emotion how he formed a working relationship with Walmart.

"Last year, an enterprise from Bien Hoa ordered two containers of products from me to be sold to Walmart. Nearly 30 workers in my enterprise had to work very hard to be able to deliver the products in time. Every day, we had to work from 8am until three or four the next morning. As soon as the products were packed, we would run to our beds and sleep," recalls Nhan with a smile.

"Soon after the products were sent to Walmart, a representative of the corporation contacted me directly to order 5,000 more products. It was a big success."

Losing its appeal

Nhan's enterprise consistently employs 30 workers, but that number can grow to about 100 during busy periods. They have meals together with Nhan like a family.

"Here, Nhan teaches us and also creates jobs, helping us to build stable lives," says Nguyen Van To, who has worked at the enterprise for 10 years.

"Nhan cooks for all the workers and pays our rent each month. He even helps those who have worked with him for a long time to buy televisions, refrigerators and other things".

"I myself experienced many hardships so I want to help my workers to overcome difficulties. I hope to keep them working with me for a long time," says Nhan.

However, carpentry has gradually lost its importance in the commune. People have started to leave this form of manual labour for other jobs that earn more money more easily.

"Twenty years ago, there were 500 carpentry households in Hoa Binh commune. Now there are only 100," Nhan says.

Nhan is sad to see many of his workers leave the job after several years working with him.

The 41-year-old man tries to find a solution to preserve the craft.

"To preserve and develop this traditional job, I will make this commune into a centre of craft villages. Besides opening a products exhibition room, I will bring tourists to visit the enterprises. They can make the products themselves, and then they can bring them home," Nhan says.

Many difficulties are ahead but "where there is a will, there is a a way," Nhan believes. — VNS

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