Siem Reap statue company turns sawdust into traditional art

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After seeing the amount of sawdust thrown away as waste at his brother’s manufacturing facility, Kuoch Seng Thai decided there must be a use for the neglected material.

With the idea of ​​encouraging the use of recycled products – not cutting down more trees – the 37-year-old has found a way to turn worthless rubbish into valuable statues. The pieces are in the same style as traditional Khmer works which are made of copper, sandstone or hardwood.

Seng Thai, owner of Reakossa Arts in Siem Reap, told The Post: “From start to finish, our statues are created in-house. This includes the molds we use to shape them. We have carved over 100 different moulds.

He used his work experience in a souvenir company and his education in the tourist and cultural hub of Siem Reap to realize his vision.

The sawdust statues are produced in large quantities over a short period of time, from scraps from his brother’s furniture workshop. Sawdust is mixed with three types of glue to create the pieces. The material has the advantage of being cheaper than copper or wood, and more environmentally friendly, as it is largely recycled.

He was the sales and production manager of a foreign company in Siem Reap that produced soaps and lip balms packaged in woven palm leaf boxes from 2004 to 2016, when he joined the association. of craftsmanship. This set him on the path to finding a product he could make himself.

“I always wondered what I could do with the beautiful sawdust that my brother’s factory produced. It is available in many rich and natural shades. I used to use the darker wood by-products, but the demand is now so high that I use all kinds of shades,” he said.

From 2016 to 2018, he experimented with ways to recycle sawdust. His early attempts were not always successful, with early formulas either not binding at all or taking up to three months to cure.

Revolutionary Blend

At the end of 2017, he found the perfect mix. By mixing three types of glue in the right proportion, he produces a paste that can be unmolded in three to eight hours. This allows his team to ensure that the final finish is done and that the part is of a high enough standard to be sold.

“Once I knew I could successfully produce the statues, I had to find a way to make them look more appealing. I started adding additional colors to the mix so the finished statues would look like copper or aged wood,” added Seng Thai.

Eventually, he arrived at a formula that he says means only experts can visually tell them apart from the more expensive alternatives.

When a customer holds a sawdust statue, they will notice that it is very light. Compared to copper, they are “five to six times” lighter and “three times” lighter than wooden ones. Naturally, they are much lighter than stone ones.

Best of all, production is 10 times faster than traditional methods of manufacturing comparable products.

“Carving one of them out of wood can take a craftsman seven days, while we can produce seven in a single day,” he said.

He added that their light weight is a huge plus for international tourists, as they can easily be added to a suitcase and taken home without risking huge overweight baggage fees.

Sawdust dancing Apsara statue. PROVIDED

He said they will last almost as long as traditional carvings. They are slightly more fragile, but only break under extreme impacts. Another advantage is that the glue mixture means they can’t rot or become infested with insects, both problems for wooden sculptures.

He said a similar technique could be used with rice husks or dried leaves, but they would need to be ground into a fine powder before they could be used.

The sawdust mixture is prepared and then poured into a mold, resulting in a hollow product. This technique meant that the parts were lighter and significantly less brittle.

Reakossa Arts produces different sizes of statues, ranging from a few centimeters tall to the size of an adult man.

The company was commissioned to produce large statues for the international airports of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

He said the costs—both in raw materials and time—were much better than copper or wood, and he was able to offer small keepsakes for as little as $5. A half-yard piece can cost up to $99, with larger ones often being special commissions.

“At the start of our first year, the business was very successful, and even in 2019 our sales looked promising. Of course, as we are focused on tourism, we almost closed during the Covid-19 pandemic and border closures – which protected us all,” he added.

Airports, souvenir shops, hotels and resorts were Seng Thai’s main markets, and he never considered using social media to sell his products.

However, the situation was suddenly turned almost 180 degrees by the pandemic.

He said when tourists stopped traveling many local businesses were badly affected, although by the end of 2020 tourists had started to return.

Low cost digital Covid offers

“During the shutdowns, I had to think about how I could now sell our existing products to generate income. I started learning digital marketing skills to attract local customers and lowered my prices” , did he declare.

He often receives orders for small dolls and keychains to use as wedding keepsakes. These small items cost 2,000 riels [$0.50] each and are beautifully packaged with stickers with the names of the bride and groom.

Seng Thai pointed out that the business has yet to return to profitability, with the coins it sells for 2,000 riels once priced at $5.

He suggested that the tourism sector in Siem Reap had returned to just 10 or 20 percent of pre-pandemic levels, which meant Reakossa had fewer business partners.

“I don’t have many local customers yet. When the Prime Minister announced the reopening of the country, we saw a boost, but it seems to have slowed down since the Khmer New Year. Either way, I’m not ready to give up – we just have to hang on,” he said.

Reakossa Arts has been registered with the Ministry of Commerce, Siem Reap Provincial Directorate of Taxes and Siem Reap Provincial Handicrafts Department, and pays its taxes regularly.

Thanks to its registration, the company had the opportunity to exhibit its products, especially during the recent meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Phnom Penh.

“The ministry gave my company the chance to participate, and I was grateful. They also shared my products through electronic channels,” he said.

Reakossa Arts products are available in major souvenir shops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Kim Yi Joo, 37, owner of a souvenir shop called Made in Cambodia Market, said sawdust products were popular with foreign tourists.

“They seem to be particularly popular with international travelers due to the fact that they are made from recycled materials and their lightness. Their classic Khmer beauty probably helps too!” he added.

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