In certain Malay communities, particularly along the east coast of the Malay peninsula, wood carving has been developed into an art form. High quality Malay wood carvings can be seen in traditional houses and palaces. Generally the wood used is cengal or jati, and both of which are durable hard woods.
Extremely well‑executed works in the form of pulpits (mimbar) furniture, decorative window frames and door panels are the marks of this traditional craft. The art of wood carving is also expressed in Muslim calligraphy (khat. It is customary to classify wood carving techniques into ukiran tebuk and ukiran timbul. In the first, the process involves punching patterns into the wood, while in the latter the carving usually creates designs, floral and geometric, which stand out above the surrounding wood. A basic pattern or motif is repeated and adjusted according to the position in which the carving is done. Types of carving are usually classified.
It is possible to trace the basic qualities of these motifs in terms of Malay history. It appears that traditionally the preference was for geometric designs. With the arrival of Hinduism, there were figures and images of deities as well as animals were introduced into the designs. Islam has from its very beginnings discouraged the carving of living beings, with the result that geometric motifs and those derived from nature, principally from the plant world, were used. Also popular were designs incorporating calligraphy. Overall, motifs seen in contemporary Malay wood carving reflect the influences of both Hinduism and Islam.
Flowers and leaves are considered eminently suitable as motifs in various sorts of carving because they represent the beauty of the natural world and do not offend the sensibilities of pious Muslims. Also seen in Malay wood carving are Quranic verses and heads of animals, depending upon where the carving is done. The use of calligraphic designs derived from the Arabic script or from the Holy Quran is fairly widespread. These may be featured upon walls window panes , the central post of a house (tiang seri) and elsewhere.
Decorations are also common in house interiors. These are found in items of furniture, invariably done using the timbul method. Objects such as lamp‑stands and door or window frames (bingkai‑bingkai kayu) are generally decorated with carvings in relief while kitchen items usually have decorative carvings on their handles or elsewhere. The traditional coconut scraper (kukur kelapa) are designed with carvings and made to resemble an animal, usually a horse. This particular object had a central place in traditional Malay kitchens. In the more artistically inclined urban families it has become a work of art to be collected for display rather than utilised in the erstwhile manner. Laurel (medang) wood is the preferred material for the manufacture of kukur kelapa as it is soft and easily shaped.
The carvings on the door panels differ considerably from the type of carving featured on the threshold (ambang pintu). The face panels are generally done in the timbul style, while at the ambang the type of style is the tebuk timbul. This is because the wood at the ambang pintu is thinner and more difficult to work.
Carvings on the ambang pintu include calligraphy utilising verses of the Quran framed by floral or leaf motifs. The carving on the door is usually done in relief which is refined in workmanship. Motifs representing flowers such as the frangipanni (cempaka), lotus (teratai) and jasmine (bunga melur) are used. Often even the door post (tiang pintu) gets carved, and for this position the betel leaf (daun sirih) motif is popular. The centre post (tiang rumah) is usually decorated with floral patterns. Trellice work (jejala) plays an important part in a house or palace for ventilation as well as a means of providing variety in the decorations. At the verandah (serambi) side the jejala are usually shaped in diamond (empat segi bujur) design. Carved furniture items (perabot‑perabot rumah) include beds stands, tables and cupboards, with carved panels and legs.
Weapons like the keris are embellished with ukiran on their wooden or ivory handles (hulu). Similarly ukiran may also be found on the sarong or case of the keris. Walking sticks (tongkat) are often embellished with carvings on their tops (hulu). These may be in the form of parrots (kakak tua), dragons (naga), snakes (ular), or eagles (burung rajawali or helang).