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Beyond the Beaches: Uncovering the Traditional Wood Carving Arts of Bali

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

When researching Bali, I was very excited to learn that the Ubud area is renowned for its vibrant arts and crafts scene. My biggest pleasure from travel is when I can explore different cultures and learn about the traditions of the local people. Bali is a perfect place to explore and learn more about the amazing craft of Balinese wood carving. There are plentiful opportunities to watch master carvers at work throughout the area, ensuring that every visitor has the opportunity to purchase fabulous pieces whether your budget is large or small. You can also easily arrange a wood carving class to get an even greater appreciation.

The hands of a wood carver working on a round piece of wood with tools scattered around

I believe that art and culture should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their financial situation. It's also important to recognize that we budget travellers are also limited by the size of our bags. Let's be honest, buying a large piece will require shipping or schlepping. No matter which choice we make, there will be challenging and expensive arrangements to make, unless we find something compact enough to fit in our bags. That's why I'll be highlighting some of the best places to find affordable, authentic, and small carved art in Bali, as well as providing tips on how to haggle and negotiate with local vendors.

Bali Wood Carving in Ubud: Mas Village

Wood-carving workshops and galleries can be found everywhere in Ubud and the rest of Bali but for a truly immersive experience, I recommend spending time in Mas village, which is about 20 minutes by cab/scooter or about an hour's walk from Ubud center. For those who know my meandering ways, it won't be a surprise that I chose to walk from my homestay which took me about an hour. I later returned to visit a family workshop at the end of a day tour.

Mas is the place for wood carving in Ubud. The term village is a bit confusing for Westerners as it doesn't mean a separate town but rather the area of the city where similar artisans are located. There are other traditional artisan villages known for traditional batik, silver/gold, painting, and dance performances (which I'll talk about in future posts) so you might want to consider hiring a driver and planning a full day to truly immerse yourself in an artisan experience.

display oof large woodcarvings outside a workshop. A horned bull, a traditional character are in the forefront.

The village is believed to have been founded during the Majapahit Empire in the 14th century when Hinduism arrived in Bali. At that time, many skilled artisans and craftspeople settled in the area, bringing with them their knowledge of woodcarving and other traditional arts.

Fun Fact: The master sculptor of the village was Ida Putu Taman who popularized the craft amongst the villagers during the 1920s. The popularity of the classic Balinese style outside of Bali was at its peak during the late 1900s. 

Everywhere you look in the village there is an abundance of woodcarvings on display in workshops, galleries, and showrooms. Intricate carvings of animals, deities, and scenes from Balinese life are a stunning testament to the skill and artistry of the village's carvers. Most of the workshops are found in traditional Balinese buildings with open-air spaces that allow for lots of natural light and ventilation. Moving closer, I watched the carvers hunched over their work, carefully chiselling away to create the designs. The range of styles and subjects was impressive, with everything from small figurines to large-scale statues on offer.

The Bali Woodcarving Traditions

The art of woodcarving is a centuries-old tradition in Bali and is one of the island's most important art forms. Not only is wood-carving an art but it is also a way for artists to show their faith and gratitude to God.

The carvers use chisels, knives, and gouges of various sizes and shapes often hand-made by the carvers themselves and are sharpened and honed to perfection over years of use.

an arrray of files spread across a wooden plank with a pice of carving in-progress behind.

The carvers learn the craft from their parents or other family members, who pass down traditional techniques and styles. Apprenticeship is also a common method of learning, with young artists working alongside experienced masters to develop their skills. Children often start learning as soon as they can hold the tools.

As I watched the Balinese wood carvers at work, I was in awe of their incredible talent and skill. Each carver welcomed me to watch with a smile and encouraged me to come closer. The way they wielded their sharp tools with precision and ease was mesmerizing, and I became completely engrossed in the process.

2 young carvers sitting on the ground, barefoot and without gloves.

However, as I continued to watch, I was also surprised by the lack of safety precautions being used. The carvers were working with sharp knives and chisels, yet few were wearing shoes, gloves, or using eye protection. Most artists work seated on the ground leaving themselves vulnerable to accidental cuts and scrapes. I admit to checking their toes and fingers but all were accounted for! To be honest, I didn't see anyone using any sort of protection but I'm going to assume there are a few who do.

Despite my worries, the carvers are completely focused on their craft, lost in the rhythm of their work. The sound of the tools scraping against the wood fills the air, and the sweet aroma of the various woods mingled with incense burning from the many offerings surrounding each workshop creates an intense sensory experience.

As I watched, I developed a deep respect for these artisans and their dedication to their craft. Their work was not just their job, but their way of life, and they approached it with a passion and commitment that was truly inspiring.

Types of Wood Used in Balinese Carving

Balinese woodcarvings are made from a variety of local woods, including teak, hibiscus, and "crocodile" wood. The wood used depends on the type of carving, its intended use, and the desired finish. The cost of a piece of Balinese wood carving is not solely determined by the type of wood used, but also the intricacy of the design, the skill of the carver, and the rarity of the piece will determine the value of a piece.

close-up of the crocodile bark with bumps similar to the skin of a crocodile

Crocodile wood, a softwood, is a popular choice for Balinese carvers due to its lightweight and easy-to-carve nature. Crocodile wood has nothing to do with real crocodiles but from the texture of the bark which resembles crocodile skin. It is considered ideal for intricate and delicate carvings, as it can hold fine details well. However, due to its softness, it may not be as durable as other woods and may be prone to cracking over time.

Hibiscus wood is a hardwood that is often used for more substantial carvings. This wood is dense and durable, making it ideal for outdoor sculptures that need to withstand the elements. The core of the tree trunk is a darker colour than the growth around it which results in beautiful two-tone pieces. Skilled carvers know how much to remove the layers to highlight the colour just where it's needed in their design. Hibiscus wood has a natural resistance to insects and decay, making it a long-lasting material. However, it may be more difficult to carve than softer woods like crocodile wood.

an intricately carved mask of a Balinese diety with big teeth, carved from 2-toned wood.

Teak wood is another popular material used by Balinese carvers, known for its durability, resistance to water and insects, and beautiful golden-brown colour. Teak is a hardwood, prized for the natural oils that give it a glossy finish and protect it from damage. Teak wood is rare and has limited availability, as it only grows in certain regions and requires specific conditions to thrive, adding to its value and exclusivity.

a carver working on a life-sized statue of a female diety. He is crouched on the ground and the statue is lying prone.

Wood Carving Subject Themes

Balinese wood carvings are a reflection of the island's rich culture and natural environment. These carvings traditionally depict a diverse range of subjects, including religious and mythological figures, animals, nature, and scenes of daily life.

close-up of the face of a female figure wearing an elaborate headpiece,  carved in dark wood

Due to Bali's deep connection with Hinduism and Buddhism, it is not surprising that wood carvings often portray gods, goddesses, and other spiritual figures from these religions. The Balinese beliefs are based upon a connection to people, nature and God so the artisans are also highly skilled at depicting animals, both real and imaginary, such as birds, fish, snakes, and dragons. These carvings can be found in temples, shrines, or other religious settings. Most homes have many pieces found throughout the garden, family temple, and inside their homes.

Workshop store display of multiple wooden wall plaques square and rectangular in shape. Each is intricately carved with nature scenes, most including elephants.

The carvings focussed on nature often depict natural settings, such as forests, mountains, rivers, and the sea. These carvings include flora and fauna found in Bali, such as coconut palms, frangipani flowers, and rice paddies. Other carvings portray scenes from daily life, such as rice harvesting, fishing, or traditional ceremonies. Since my experience in Bali has included so many splendid views of the rice fields and terraces, I am particularly drawn to these.

Carved statues in front of a Balinese daybed. One statue is of a fisherman and the other is a female figure praying

Purchasing Balinese Woodcarvings

The best shops for woodcarvings in Bali can be found in Mas but even if you don't visit Mas, Ubud has many galleries and market stalls where visitors can find a wide range of woodcarvings, from small decorative pieces to large sculptures and furniture.

A market stall display of small Ghanesh (elephant god) statues

For buying a piece to take home, consider the quality of the carving, the type of wood used, and the complexity of the design. Balinese woodcarvings that are highly detailed and feature intricate designs are worth more than simpler pieces.

For tourists looking for a special keepsake to bring home, I recommend that you visit several shops and galleries to compare prices and quality. It is also important to ask the artist or shop owner about the significance of the carving and to ensure that it is made by a skilled and reputable carver. Every private driver and tour operator will have their favourites to recommend. Be aware, however, that some of these favourites are not necessarily chosen for quality reasons -- some are directing tourists to shops where the drivers/guides receive a commission based upon sales.

close up of a carved piece featuring trees and a herd of elephants.

After checking out many market stalls, shops and galleries, my favourite was Ketut Sedana, a family workshop located in Mas (phone (0361) 970230). I was proudly informed by the owner that this shop was visited by US Vice-President Kamala Harris. (I wasn't told if she bought anything)

Determining the Price

Once you've found the piece(s) that you want, it's time to negotiate. Few workshops offer fixed prices so haggling will be necessary. Since I have little experience knowing a fair price point for these works of art, I will ask for their starting price. The price quoted will be way more than they expect to be paid. The general rule is to counter with a price of at least half of their number in a reputable shop (or even 75% less in market stalls) to find a price acceptable to both. Keep in mind that negotiations are a part of daily life for the Balinese and they are masters. You will not get a price less than it is worth. A comparatively small difference in price for travellers can make a huge difference to the people and their community. If we can afford to travel, surely we can afford to pay a fair price? Decide what you are willing to pay and be careful not to get so involved in bargaining that you lose sight of that price. When it seems appropriate, offer your final price and be prepared to walk away. Often showing that you are willing to walk away will result in your offer being accepted. However, if you do agree on the price, please be respectful and follow through on the purchase. If you aren't sure that you are going to make a purchase let them know so they can direct their attention to buyers who will make their time worthwhile. My technique has been to visit the workshop and view the various carvings to see which appeal to me and which ones seem practical to bring home. I have gained much respect from the artists by telling them I need time to dream to see what remains in my heart. I am given details about the artist, materials, and significance so that my dreams will be blessed. Upon my return, I am remembered and asked about my dreams before negotiations begin. I always let them know that my dreams remind me that my budget and space are limited so that no time is wasted in trying to upsell me.

A small mask carving of a mythical Balinese king, with a black beard

I am going home with two small pieces which will have a place on the wall of my den: a mask of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of education, creativity and music and another of Hestia, goddess of home, hearth, and hospitality. I can't show those since I forgot to take a photo before they were wrapped for travel -- oops! These two speak to my heart and dreams. I'm sure that you can find something that speaks to yours as well. Even if you choose not to purchase, you won't regret your time visiting the workshops and learning about the fascinating process and traditions.


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