Woodturning is an art that was responsible for all the beautiful round wooden objects in our lives for centuries. Chances are, any piece of wood you’ve ever seen with a smooth round surface has been turned in a lathe. While recently our consumerism has raised the demand for repeatable, cheap, machine-made products, this process was all done by hand in the past. Now, there is very little demand for one-off woodturning outside of themed tourist towns. Slowly, this art is disappearing in many parts of the world, but a few dedicated turners still work hard to create what machines cannot.
The Old Quarter Woodturner
Le Dinh Thang inherited his business from his father in 1990 after he finished his term in the army. Since then, he has been turning wood in Hanoi’s Old Quarter as his life’s profession and has no intention of giving it up any time soon. His workshop is scattered with offcuts and half-finished pieces of work. As you look higher, there are current orders and plenty of random creations lining the shelves. As I look up at them, he lets me know that he often gets offcuts of precious woods from larger projects. Rather that let them go to waste, he has created small objects that no industrial-scale workshop would ever do. A rare smile crosses his face as he lists all the rare and beautiful woods he has had the opportunity to work with.
Through this business, he supports his wife and two daughters, one in university and one in grade 8. While times have changed and people no longer need him like they once did, he continues serving his clients in the best way he knows how. Mr. Le is proud of what he does and is a firm believer that there are things humans can do that machines cannot. He is passionate and loves what he does. That is what sets him apart from the masses of cheaper disposable products that flood the shelves in the modern Hanoi. His products can still be seen all over Hanoi, even though you may not know it.
When Mr. Le first took over the business, it was a profitable and busy time. He reminds us that everything in our houses used to be round. The legs of our tables, the posts of our beds, curtain rods, the handles on every drawer. Those were all round, he says. That was his business. These products have mostly been replaced now with cheaper, factory-made items. For the most part, these are no longer made by him. He does, however, still get orders for replacement parts for those who have kept their old furniture and household items. However, the majority of his business is focused on other pieces now.
The many temples of Hanoi still keep Mr. Le quite busy with orders coming in for everything from prayer sticks to incense burners. The incense burners are extremely difficult to make, Mr. Le tells me. Each pagoda has specific requests for size and design. Since each one has to be custom, there is no way for a modern business to surplant him for these orders. Mr. Le enjoys the challenge of creating pieces like this. They are made of several different parts that all have to fit together while remaining aesthetically pleasing. His face lights up as he explains the process of getting each of the pieces to fit together into a whole and then decorating the finished article. It can take him multiple days to produce a single piece, but he enjoys every moment.
The End of an Era?
With requests for his level of expertise and craftsmanship dwindling and the commodification of everything we consume, is Mr. Le’s business coming to an end? As we mentioned above, he has no intention of letting that happen. The biggest threat to his position is actually his own family. Since the passing of his parents, Mr. Le has had constant requests from his siblings to rid himself of the property and divide the proceeds from its sale. While it’s true that Old Quarter Hanoi’s prices have risen significantly and he could certainly fetch a handsome amount for his home and business, Le Dinh Thang tells me that he has no intention of doing that. “I know this business and this place,” he says. “I don’t strive for wealth. I just want to do a job that I know and do it as well as I can. Even if I got all that money, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”