The art of making lacquer originally came to Thailand from China, probably by way of Burma-now Myanmar, but over the centuries distinctively Thai designs and techniques were evolved. It became a notable handicraft in the northern province of Chiang Mai and is still made there in a number of households.

Lacquer ware begins with finely-woven bamboo basketry or well-seasoned wood which has been carved or shaped on a lathe into the desired shape. 

To this is first applied a basic coating material called samuk, consisting of the ashes of burnt rice-paddy husks or ground clay mixed with rak, or black lacquer, obtained from a tree which grows in the northern hills. When dry, this is polished with soap-stone and then another coating is applied. This process is repeated again and again for up to fifteen times, building up a rigid base of durable lacquer.

At the end, a final polishing is given with a sandpaper-like leaf called bai-nod. The object is then ready for several coats of pure black lacquer, from three to six coatings. The final layer is polished with water and powdered fired clay, giving it a glistening shine.

A design is then applied by either the method called lai kud or the one called lai rot nam. If the object is to be in colour, lai kud is used, while lai rot nam is for objects with gold designs. At the end of the process the colour or gold stands out against a background of glossy black.

The use of mother of pearl to adorn objects has a long history in Thailand. Stucco pieces embedded with bits of shell have been found at monuments dating back to Dvaravati period (6th to 11th centuries A.D.), and same form of the art may have existed even before along the coastal region. But these early efforts were crude compared with the magnificent works achieved by techniques perfected in the late Ayutthaya and early Bangkok periods, when temple doors and windows, manuscript boxes, alms bowls, and numerous other items were splendidly decorated by the painstaking process the Thais call khruang muk.

The craft continues to thrive today in the production of exquisitely detailed furniture, mirror frames, boxes, and trays that are the pride of many owners both in Thailand and abroad. The Thai mother-of-pearl inlay technique involves the patient cutting of the luminescent muk fai, or flame snail, indigenous to the Gulf of Thailand. The outer surface of this shell is removed with a special knife and the pearly inner shell is cut into fairly flat pieces, each about two and a half centimetres long. Sanded flat, they are glued to wooden surfaces to form patterns or scenes and the area in between filled with lacquer.

Source: Assumption University
Photo: Thanaphat