Woodworking in Vietnam

The Village of Don Ky

The village of Don Ky is located about an hour's drive northeast of Hanoi. The village was once known as a center of fire cracker manufacture, but switched to making furniture when firecrackers were banned. The main street of the city (where most of the workshops are located) is only about three or four blocks long. However, both sides of the street are crammed with busy workshops. In Vietnam it is common for people to work outdoors or in workrooms with wide windows exposed to the street.

In typical Vietnamese fashion, there are no workbenches. Most people work on the floor sitting on their haunches in fashion that is very common in Asia but just about impossible for a Westerner (I have been told it has to do with hamstrings). As in an American shop, there are low tables for assembly. The furniture I saw being made was universally of a Chinese design - heavy rosewood material that was carved, sometimes inlaid, sanded, and stained to a uniform dark finish. I assume that the furniture was mostly destined for export, although I had lunch in a hotel in Hue that was similarly furnished.

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The main street of Don Ky is continually alive with traffic.
A large lumber mill. This mill saws logs into rough timber. From here it is sorted for appropriate use and then cut into blanks for the different furniture parts. The most amazing thing about Don Ky, aside from the concentration all of the woodworking shops, is the amount of rosewood that is around the town.Vietnam has one of the largest concentrations of rosewood left in the world. Most of it is not of the quality one associates with Brazilian rosewood, but it is still nice stuff. All around the village were piles of wood. Rough logs, planks, and wood that had been resawn into parts of furniture.
A group of people discussing the merits of the pile of lumber that is behind them.
This is a factory system. I did not see, for example, individuals making entire pieces of furniture. What I saw was piles of furniture legs, or rails, or raw lumber, or turnings, all waiting to be used in the next step of production. The larger shops had groups of young men carving away on Rosewood furniture parts, while in another corner women would be inlaying mother of pearl. Other groups would be sanding, or staining and finishing.
The only place I saw a wood lathe was in the village Don Ky. A master turner with two electric lathes set up in the shade in front of the house. These were production lathes and are identical to any lathe anywhere, except that they are supposed to be used sitting down. The work produced is mostly larger turned pieces to feed the furniture industry in the area. While the work is highly repetitive, it requires a skill at turning and an economy of effort in order to produce work efficiently. The master invited me into his house for a cup of tea and I felt immediately at home.
Finishing up a piece before final assembly. The final steps of sanding, staining and finishing the work are carried out mostly by teams of mostly young women.
Sanding and staining funrinture in one of the larger shops in town.

The system of manufacture is exactly the sort of system that existed in Europe and United States before the Industrial Revolution. Or to be more exact, before the factory system of the 20th-century made it possible to have streamlined production and conveyor belts. The workers are paid piecework; the more you produce the more you get paid. I very mixed feelings about the system. On one hand, it's still a factory with a moderately skilled workforce doing repetitive operations and being paid for piecework. Quality suffers, and even the official English-language paper noted that the quality of many Vietnamese goods is not world class. On the other hand, the overwhelming use of hand tools means that the workplace is quiet, and that people, rather than a conveyor belt, pace the work.. These small shops seem a more human place to work than the massive factories of the West. One also should consider that the widespread use of hand labor throughout Vietnam means lots of employment, and consequently Vietnam has far fewer beggars around than most major cities in South Asia.

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