The tradition of shagzo (ཤགས་བཟོ་) or wood turning is a well known sector of folk crafts in Bhutan. Although it is a common field of arts and crafts, it is normally included within wood carving when the thirteen traditional arts and crafts are listed in Bhutan. The thirteen arts and crafts, which were promoted by the state since the 17th century include (1) calligraphy or yigzo (ཡིག་བཟོ་), (2) painting or lhazo (ལྷ་བཟོ་), (3) carving or parzo (སྤར་བཟོ་), (4) clay sculpture or jinzo (འཇིམ་བཟོ་), (5) metal casting or lugzo (བླུག་བཟོ་), (6) silver and gold smithery or troezo (སྤྲོས་བཟོ་), (7) needle work or tshemzo (ཚེམ་བཟོ་), (8) carpentry or shingzo (ཤིང་བཟོ་), (9) textile production or thagzo (ཐགས་བཟོ་), (10) paper making or delzo (འདལ་བཟོ་), (11) bamboo craft or tsharzo (ཚར་བཟོ་), (12) black smithery or garzo (མགར་བཟོ་), and (13) masonry or dozo (རྡོ་བཟོ་).
The practice of wood turning is most commonly found in the upper parts of the district of Tashi Yangtse today although it was also practiced in other parts of Bhutan. Wood turning is mainly practiced to produce cups, plates and other wooden utensils from the special zachye (རྫ་ཕྱེ་) burl and other forms of burrs found in trees such as maple, rhododendrons, alder, oak, eaglewood and avocado. The tree burrs are collected and cut into shapes of bowls, cups and plates using the wood turning lathe. The lathe composed of foot pedals and a leather belt was used in the past to turn the wood by an apprentice while the carver managed the carving tools to cut the right shape. The wood is first cut to the rough size and the initial carving done using the kobtsa broad carving tool. It is then put on the lathe to be given a fine shape. Holes or defects are filled with saw dust mixed with glue before the final turning is done for refined look. The wood is then put in the water for months for treatment.
The finished wooden products are lacquered using the substance tapped from a lacquer plant locally known as seyshing. The seeds of the lac plant are pressed in a bamboo container to extract the lac. The liquid is stored in an airtight container and then applied to the wooden products. Lacquering of the burrs is a delicate process as the refined lac has a short life and its application should take place in the right conditions of humidity. Lac is applied manually on the utensil many times to get the desirable coating and sheen.
The craftsmen who undertake wood turning employs a wide range of tools, most of which are chisels of different sizes. The products made from wood turning include thokey plate for fruits and biscuits, dapa plates, dhem serving bowls, many types of cups and bowls, tea kettles, mortar for grinding spices, flour containers and alcohol jugs. Some artefacts for religious offerings are also made through wood turning. With a new market for Bhutanese cultural artefacts and souvenirs, wood turning is flourishing today. There are also new items such as wine glasses and mugs made from burr through wood turning.
Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.