Making wooden bells, a unique craft in Hue

In spite of the noise made by a heavy rain falling on iron roofs one can hear the pounding of chisels in a deserted village in Thuy Xuan ward, Hue, where wooden bells are made. Making wooden bells in this village in Than Kinh, which is another name of the former imperial city of Hue, is a unique craft.

Hue in the rainy season is very dreary. The sky, earth, roads and trees were all wet. I put on a rain coat and rode my motorbike over Truong Tien bridge and headed for Tu Duc royal tomb. Passing over some slopes and isolated large gardens, I finally reached the craft village which makes wooden bells in Thuy Xuan ward.

The deserted village on a rainy day was quiet without anyone in sight. Hearing the chisel sounds, I looked around and saw a small workshop in a green garden. Approaching it, I saw four or five people who were working hard. I learned from them that the workshop was owned by Pham Ngoc Du, an old man whose family, for three generations, has been making wooden bells in Hue.

Jackfruit wood, particularly from jackfruit trees grown in Hue, is ideal for making wooden bells. 

To roughly shape a bell with a diameter of more than one metre, Pham Ngoc Duc has to use a saw
used by woodsmen to fell trees. 

A chisel, a simple but indispensable tool for a bell maker. 

A set of tools as sharp as a razor. 

This chisel is the tool to create the miraculous sounds of a bell. 

30-year-old Pham Ngoc Phuc, a grandchild of Pham Ngoc Du, said making wooden bells was an old-time craft in Thuy Xuan. For his family, this craft was passed from his grandfather to his father, and now to him and his two brothers. This craft was not easy so only his brothers and some relatives in their family learned it, Phuc said, adding that even if this craft was passed to people outside their family, they would have trouble learning it.

Although one can hardly get rich by making wooden bells, this craft can support a family, given that Hue is regarded is a land of Buddhism home to numerous pagodas. In Hue, every family has a Buddhist altar at home.

Thuy Xuan is known nationwide for its wooden bells which are ordered from all parts of the country, and also exported to Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Japan, South Korea, and even some European countries.

Making wooden bells is not easy as it requires certain secrets. First is choosing the right wood. Jackfruit wood is the only choice to make superior bells. Jackfruit wood is yellow, which is the colour of Buddhism, and perfect for wooden bells in pagodas.

To make a beautiful bell with ideal sounds, an artisan must go through various stages, from selecting the wood, roughly shaping the bell, carving and painting, to the most important one of hollowing the sound box, which is considered the secret of every artisan and family to make a perfect bell.

Pham Ngoc Phuc told me there are no books on how to hollow a bell, so this wholly depends on the skills and experience of the artisan. To make the sound box, an artisan uses a long gutter-shaped chisel to hollow the wood block. It’s up to the artisan’s skills and experience to feel the thickness and hardness of the wood and even the sounds of his chisel to hollow the wood precisely. A bell with a thin sound box won’t sound good while with a thick sound box, it won’t make a sound.

Given this complex job, the number of artisans who can hollow sound boxes is limited. Many workshops manufacturing wood bells with wood cutters which can shape beautiful bells still have to hire artisans from Pham Ngoc Du’s family to hollow out the sound boxes.

The roughly shaped bells are even and round… 

…and are made from first-class yellow and reddish brown jackfruit wood. 

Due to their different sizes, the patterns on each bell are drawn and carved manually without following any certain form. 

Artisans often sit with their legs holding the bells while carving them. 

Young Pham Ngoc Ro is a skilled carver of decorative patterns. 

The beauty of every bell largely depends on the hands of its carver. 

Pham Ngoc Phuc, a grandchild of Pham Ngoc Du, calculates carefully the position for hollowing
the sound box of every bell. 

The techniques for splitting a bell to make its sound box are decisive in creating the bell’s sound. 

A small flashlight is the only source of light for Pham Ngoc Thanh Hai, another grandchild of Pham Ngoc Du,
to see the inside of the wood block while chiseling. 

In Buddhist culture, a wooden bell is the main instrument to keep rhythm for sutra reciters. 

To show the sophistication of wooden bells, Phuc led me to the Buddhist altar set up in the middle of his home, from which he took a newly made bell and beat it. The strange bass sounds of the bell mixed with the sounds of falling rain drops gave me a sad but peaceful feeling. These extraordinary sounds reminded me of an old craft village which shows love for the ancient city of Hue. 
By Thanh Hoa

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