Materials & Techniques
The making of Buddha sculptures in Thailand
Nearly all Buddha images made in Thailand are hollow. It is believed Buddha figures predating the twentieth-century were produced using the direct lost-wax method, which creates a single unique image as opposed to one that is cast from a mold of an existing image.
The core for the sculpture is created from a mixture of clay, sand, and rice husks. It takes on the rough shape of the intended final image; however, the thinner the final sculpture, the more exact the core must be. Following its formation, the core is allowed to dry for several days. Once the core is completely dry, thin sheets of wax, composed of a mixture of beeswax and tree resin, are placed over it. The wax is warmed, making it malleable and sticky, and shaped over the core. It is sculpted to precise detail because every mark will register on the finished metal cast sculpture.
The wax image is then covered with an outer mold made of fine clay, cow dung, and water that is applied in increasingly thick layers. The wax is then melted from the outer mold. The heat used to melt the wax fires the outer mold and core, which become strong enough to receive the molten metal poured into it. Sometimes during the making of these images, patrons and community members are allowed to place additional metal items, such as pieces of gold or silver jewelry, coins, etc., into the molten metal. This taints the bronze, an alloy made of copper and tin, creating a complex mixture.
Since Buddhists consider gold the supreme color, it is customary to gild images. Bronzes are sometimes coated with another metal before gilding. Then the sculpture is treated with acid and a mixture of gold and mercury applied in a thin coat. The sculpture is heated and as the mercury evaporates, the gold adheres to the bronze. Finally, the sculpture is polished with a smooth stone. However, because gilding is such an expensive process, many artists simply “gold-coat” figures or only use gold on the faces. “Gold-coating” is simpler than gilding, requiring only a mixture of gold powder and gelatin applied with a fine brush.