Wooden charms BY ES TUNG - NST 26 NOVEMBER 2016 @ 5:10 PM
Abandoned tree stumps and parts are given a new lease of life, writes ES Tung
When “tuina” (Chinese therapeutic massage) practitioner
Lee Lip Seng is not administering treatment to ease his clients’ aches and pains,
he and his elder brother Lip Pang are scouring forests or land cleared for development projects in search of abandoned tree stumps, trunks and roots.Armed with chainsaws, handsaws and hoes,
they salvage the tree parts of hardwood species like merbau, cengal, gemunggal and keranji.
These would literally be given a new lease of life as majestic tea tables and trays that will take their rightful places in the tea rooms of connoisseurs.
Met at his home in Kuantan recently, the soft-spoken 52-year-old ranks among a handful of skilled tea table craftsmen in the country. You could say that his passion is deeply rooted in his other interest of over 30 years — the art of Chinese tea drinking. “I started learning about Chinese tea drinking in the early 1990s,” says Lee, adding that he was attracted by fine tea tables that were produced by Chinese craftsmen back then, so much so that he decided to learn how to make one.
He continues: “At the time, I was working with an event consultancy. At the places where our outdoor functions were held, I came across a lot of abandoned tree stumps, roots and trunks that had been left to rot. Most of these were local hardwood species and I thought what a waste it would be to leave them to be destroyed.”
Rather than see them go to waste, Lee started collecting the abandoned tree parts for his new found passion. Bits of rotting trunks, stumps and roots were brought back to his makeshift workshop at home and slowly turned into exquisite tea tables and trays.
“I created my first tea table in 1999,” he shares. The piece, which measures more than 1.5m long, 50cm wide and about 10cm thick, now sits in a quiet corner in Lee’s house, surrounded by his vast collection of teas and tea drinking implements.
The fine-grained top, greyish brown in colour and well-aged, came from an abandoned moringa tree. It sits firmly on wooden legs that were once roots of another tree. It is on this table that Lee serves his guests fine Chinese tea and regales them with stories of teas and tea table making.
Having made over 20 pieces of tea tables and tea trays for friends and acquaintances, Lee confides that he only worked on his pieces during his past time. The biggest he has made so far is a stunning table, carved out of merbau wood, measuring almost two metres long, which took him six months to complete and cost nearly RM8,000.
Although his tea tables have gained a following, Lee insists that he doesn’t want to make a living from his passion. “Making a tea table is not simply cutting up a piece of hardwood to the desired length, gouging out the sections and polishing the entire piece to a shine,” he explains. “A lot of thought has to go into the crafting because not all salvaged woods are of the same size and shape. It takes up to a month or more to sculpt an average sized table."
He adds: “A well-made wooden Chinese tea table is also a specialised implement in tea drinking ceremonies. Why tea connoisseurs prefer to use a wooden tea table is because it is free of chemicals. When a cup of hot tea is placed on natural wood, the taste of the tea will not be tainted by the scent of chemicals, like those from a plastic table for instance, when exposed to heat.
His face earnest, Lee continues: “If you look closely at the surface of a tea table, you can see that it is made up of several levels, very much like terraces cut into the hillside. The outer-most level, which is also the highest level, is reserved for placing the tea-filled teacups for serving to the guests. Along each level lower than this one are where the tea pitcher, tea pot, and even tools like tea caddies and tongs, should be placed. Each level has a purpose and is not designed out of whim or fancy."
He goes on to explain: “Tea cups are washed on the lowest level which has a sloping bottom that converges into a drainage hole where the waste water is channelled into container for elimination. This level is constantly wet and the wood used must be resistant to moisture.
Not all hardwood, says Lee, can be used for making a tea table. Some hardwood do not react kindly to being wet. Their surface becomes stained by moisture and leftover tea drips, leaving unsightly marks when the table is dried. Others, like bakau (mangrove) wood, may be very hard but they are also not favoured because once dried, they may crack open. Bakau wood is only strong when they are in the ground or are wet, which is why they are used for coastal piling work.
A piece of hardwood collected will be left to dry for months in the compound of his house and later, treated to remove insects like borers. Once cured sufficiently, Lee would study the shapes before sculpting to bring out the best designs for each piece.
The various levels on the table top would be painstakingly cut out by hand, using a carving chisel and a mallet, and then planed down. Once satisfied with the shape, Lee would prepare the surface for polishing. This is the final stage and polishing has to be done entirely by hand, slowly.
“This takes the longest time and has to be carried out slowly so that the heat from polishing would bring out the wood’s natural oils,” says Lee. “Once the oil rises to the surface, the wood’s shine would appear and last for a very long time. All it takes is to lightly clean it with a moist cloth and the shine would return.”
Meanwhile, tea trays, he explains, are made for people with space-challenged homes or those who already have a main table in the home. “Tea trays are smaller, highly portable and can be placed on an existing table. When they’re not in use, they can be stored away without taking up too much space.”