WOODWORKING IN ECUADOR
BY: Jay Drew
These are photos from my recent trip to Equador for my brother's wedding. While "touristing" I stumbled across a number of local woodworkers/carpenters (carpenteria) plying their trades in the most interesting environments. Our time was spent in the cities of Guyaquil, Otavalo, Quito, and Salinas, so we were able to see the sierra, mountains and coast. I was disappointed that we weren't able to get into Amazonia, but maybe next trip...
The country of Equador is currently going through a severe recession so everywhere we went was plagued with severe poverty and there was very little building taking place.
We spent five days in the mountain town of Otovalo, a region made famous by a number of local weavers and the presence of the Otovalo Indians. We happened to arrive during the four day "Festival de San Juan", the largest annual festival in the area which drew indians and other locals from miles around for drinking, dancing and eating. It was facinating to watch, but I was wary of drinking whatever they were dipping out of those green plastic buckets...
Our host in Otavalo was "Frank", the owner of the Hotel Ali Shungu, an American Expatriate and ex-hippie who met his wife and business partner during visits to the area for their import/export businesses. The hotel is a relatively new, cement building with great examples of local carpentery and cabinetmaker's work. All 78 doors in the hotel were hand made of a local laurel with pinned mortise construction . The front desk and all furniture were also made of laurel. The windows were all topped with five-panel arches with hand-cut frames of "olivo" assembled with pinned, open splines. All of the woodwork in the hotel was extremely well done and very sturdy. Frank was in the process of contracting two truckloads of fresh-cut mahogany from the Amazon region with plans of stacking it for air-drying for five years and then commissioning a complete re-furnishing of the hotel.
On an early morning walk to the market, my father, brother and I heard the unmistakable whine of a tablesaw down a side street and decided to investigate. We looked through the door to see four men working under a tin roof shop extended by a clear sheed of plastic. Working amidst stacks of rough-sawn lumber, these "carpenteria" were making a series of bedroom sets out of a local wood, "olivo".
There was one man that appeared to be the shop foreman who very efficiently managed the four apprentices manning planes, sanders, and mallets.
Their tools were very modern, but the two tablesaws definitely drew attention! They appeared to be homemade with a wedge mechanism to raise and lower the table over the ten inch blade. They used the little, 16" fence very effectively in slicing up sheet goods for the cabinets they were building. The other stationary tools included and older industrial 10" jointer and an old Rockwell bandsaw.
The furniture they produced out of this small shop was stacked in one corner awaiting "finishing day". They appeared to have at least four bedroom sets nearly completed and were assembling the final two armoires when we arrived. The final finish was generally a dark mahogany stain followed by a few coats of varnish and buffed to a gloss finish. These were definitely professionals as their final product attested! (That's my father checking the fit of the drawers.)
Our trip was spent West of the continental divide and it was amazing to notice that there were few large trees anywhere in the regions we visited or traveled through. Talking with Frank, our host in Otovalo, the native peoples use the wood for heat, building, and the development of products for sale. With little to no conservation or replanting, it's easy to see how the mountains and plains quickly became stripped.
We did visit one "national park" that was protected from logging, but there were no trees over 20 inches in diameter there, either. A young local boy, probably from the nearby orphanage, took us on a tour through the park pointing out areas of new plantings and planned growth areas. The dominant tree was a eucalypt of some sort, with long, narrow leaves. This was also the wood of choice for firewood in our hotel and the smell was very pleasant every morning when we came down for breakfast.
In a nearby village, I found a pair of woodcarvers chipping away at a number of projects in "cedra", a local cedar. There was definitely some talent here as well. The frame they had just put the finishing touches on was nearly five feet to the crest and had some amazing detail!
The men were working in a dark, two-room 12' x 20' shop with two workbenches with simple screw vises and one toolbench between the two of them. Their only light came from a cluster of 60- watt bulbs and a small window on the north side of the shop!
They had a number of partially completed projects hanging on the shop walls, many of which seemed to be studies for future projects including massive table legs, cornices, pediments, and shelves. There were more projects in the "waiting room," but a table cluttered with drawings and sketches was the first to catch my eye.
Although the trip was intended as a family vacation centering around my brother's wedding to a woman from Equador, we definitely saw some excellent examples of local crafsmanship. If I ever get a chance to go there again, I would love to have a translator with me to help get more details on the woods, methods and reasoning of the local woodworking craftsmen! And believe me, I'll never feel like my shop is too small or under-equipped again!...Jay Drew
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