Wood carving in Cambodia has a long tradition going back to its animist roots. The best known, called neak ta, a belief in ancestor spirits, is older than Hinduism and Buddhism and coexisted with these religions. Wooden shrines and pillars were dedicated to spirits and wood carving was also used for everyday life as ornaments or kitchen utensils for instance.
The rise of wood carving in Cambodia occurred after the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), the most famous Khmer King of Angkor credited for temples and hospitals built in his time. Stone art production decreased and all but disappeared. Around the XVth century, with conversion to Theravada Buddhism, the wood carving era started. Wood sculptures were covered by layers of lacquer and encrusted ornaments. The technique is very different from stone carving.
The first step is the general shaping of the wood which is done thanks to different tools such as gouges or curved blades, and mallet. The wood that craftsmen and women may select can be of any type but the most used type of material is farmed rubber trees.
Once the blocks of wood have been rough-hewed, the next step is ornamentation to finish the statue in details, thanks to a special carving knife and other tools. It is a laborious process and attention to details is key. The artisan needs to have firm, gentle and always precise movements to reproduce all the features of the statue. For wooden bas-relief, paper is used as a template which is applied onto the bas–relief to guide the artisan in his or her carving job.
For the final stage, abrasive materials, sandpaper and water are used to remove tool marks so that the sculpture is polished and the craftsman or woman may then apply varnish, patina and natural oils to make the wood more resistant and give it a nicer color.
Each artisan has his own way of working and each piece is therefore unique, bearing the mark of the craftsman who produced it. Producing wooden statues by hand can take between 2 weeks and 4 months depending on their size.