“Wood carving is such an amazing skill and very underrated; once you cut it, it’s hard to go back,” goes a quote by Irish fashion designer Jonathan Anderson. Closer to home, the carefully designed and painstakingly carved handicrafts of Darrel Khar Lai Ho tell the story of a meticulous spirit and passion.
“I’ve been carving spoons since 2015,” says Khar, 29. “It’s more of a hobby, since I grew up camping and bushcrafting. Learning to carve, weave, build and make fire are bushcraft skills or self-sustaining survival skills.
“I’ve always had the heart to help younger generations to continue developing their traditional ancestral skills, and reminding them to not forget the skills that make us who we are today. My Sabahan wife Syeronella (her full name is Syeronella Poksiu), my friend and adik angkat Reafky (Saidin), and I just want to inspire younger local artisans, especially native tribes, to continue doing natural crafts,” says Khar, a former automotive engineer from Kuala Lumpur. He and his wife currently live in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
Just this year, the three toyed with the idea of selling their crafts to people, possibly making it a full-time endeavour.
Although they have been crafting for the past two years, Khar, Poksiu and Reafky only set up their company in January, naming it Butodart.
According to Khar, the name Butodart is a combination of two words – “butod” (sago worm in Kadazandusun) and “art”.
“Syeronella is from Kuala Penyu in Sabah, and one of the delicacies they have there are these butod worms. My wife says the butod digs into wood, which relates to us carving and dealing with wood; that’s how we got the name. We also wanted a name that represents Sabah,” says Khar.
Butodart creates and sells a variety of hand-crafted items specially made by the members. Some of these crafts include hand-carved wooden spoons and wood-slice cake stands, tikis, kimono cardigans, water-resistant canvas pouches and ferrocerium rods, which are firestarters that spark when scraped by the back of any survival knife. They also collaborate with other local artisans like Bethany Baker, who makes glow-in-the-dark earrings shaped like butod.
“We try to make things differently from anyone else. Thinking out of the box, that’s what’s unique about our crafts. We sit and plan the products together so we can ascertain which ones are different. That way, we won’t be accused of stealing someone else’s ideas,” says Khar.
Khar says the group’s current prized creations are the kimono cardigans, tikis and wooden spoons as they have been “uniquely designed by us”.
Khar usually makes the spoons from a log of wood that is roughed out and shaped with a parang then slowly smoothened with a sloyd knife. Some items are treated using natural beeswax to bring out a beautiful shine and give the wood a nice colour. The hand-carved wooden spoons, made mostly from fruit tree wood, are treated with beeswax, coconut oil and mineral oil.
At the moment, Khar, who moved to Sabah in 2012, creates his crafts with his wife at home as they have a big compound to be messy and try out new experiments.
“My team will gather together to talk about ideas and make things together like a family,” he says with pride, adding they are sometimes commissioned to make special items. One such item was a custom-made boat paddle.
“Selling our hand-crafted items and seeing them being appreciated has been a joy for us. We are continuing to inspire more local Sabahans to appreciate traditional crafts, which also motivates us to do more with our work.”
Khar adds that the biggest challenge for them is not having enough “hands” to produce the orders they receive from customers.
“Everything takes time. It takes at least two days to complete a single spoon. It takes about the same amount of time for the rest of our handicrafts, too.”
Butodart products are mostly sold online (via their official pages on Facebook and Instagram) but since Kota Kinabalu has a thriving artisan scene, the company takes every opportunity it can to sell its wares at specially-organised artisan markets held within the city.
“We get a lot of tourists buying our crafts. They are usually attracted by our ferrocerium rods because of the high quality and low price. We get customers from the United States, Britain and Brunei buying from us, so it is nice that they bring our hand-carved crafts back with them to their countries,” shares Khar.
And what does the future hold for Khar and Butodart?
“Well, one thing’s for sure: We’ve never thought of stopping! We have a list of new projects that we are planning to do one day, such as bowl turning, wooden stools, canvas bags and bigger tikis.”