Earlier this month on the same day, two very interesting packages arrived at our shop.
One item didn’t quite fill the small USPS flat rate box from my friend Scott Landis in Maine. The wooden mallet inside represented my history, how I got to this place in my life and career.
The other package, a 30’ long 26,000 pound CNC (standing for Computer Numerical Control, for those who want to know) machine represented where I (and our company of 10) are going.
A beautiful little Rosita carver’s mallet made in Honduras by a group of artisans led by Madera Verde fell out of that small box. Madera Verde began its existence as an effort to use appropriate technology to help folks in remote forested areas of Honduras make a living while caring for the forests around them sustainably.
Hand Tool Techniques with Madera Verde
The idea behind Madera Verde and its parent American organization, Greenwood, came initially from Curtis Buchannan, a Windsor chairmaking friend from Jonesboro, Tennessee. Curtis, Scott Landis, and I were all members of Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection, the non-profit environmental group from which Forest Stewardship Council emerged. Curtis’ idea was basically that we might be able to teach our hand tool woodworking methods to folks in these remote areas so they could make a living from the trees around them without having to slash and burn the forest to raise cattle or grow crops to sell.
The idea found roots, boots and financial support and sent Curtis, me, and Scott (as well as many other American Craftsmen) to Central and South America. 28 years later, the project still rolls along. Madera Verde not only represents a rare success story in third world development projects, it helped solidify my own understanding of hand tool woodworking in its potential role in economic development both here and abroad.
I may never fully know the degree to which those times introducing our hand tool techniques to the Peche in Honduras or the Yanesha in the Peruvian Amazon influence how I think about what I do. I do know that our indigenous students taught us as much as we taught them and added great depth to our understanding what we do and why we do it. Something cracked open for me in those trips that will always impact how I look at the world and my work.
The Arrival of CNC at our North Carolina Workshop
The truck in front of the shop still grumbled away keeping the driver warm while we waited for another crane. The 50-ton crane that had arrived earlier was too small to lift the new CNC machine off the truck. When the 65-tonner arrived, the engineers spent over an hour strategizing exactly how to get the 26,000lb ultra-precise equipment safely into our shop from the steep road in front.
The solution came as three separate lifts. Wrapped in white plastic, the machine sailed slowly through the air, giving our cameras ample opportunity to capture what we could have pitched as a UFO sighting.
In fact, the thing reminded me so much of some sort of space craft while airborne that I christened it Apollo. By the end of a long stressful day, the equipment movers and Sten Gundersen, Apollo’s owner, had successfully coerced the spaceship to its new position in our shop.
There are several reasons that CNC has been attractive to me personally and professionally. I got into this work in 1982 as an artist. As much as the act of making things attracted me to becoming a furniture maker, it was more the art of design that lured me in. It may be because I am in my 60’s now or that I have made enough furniture to satisfy that part of why I got into this. Seeing my designs come to life through the hands of our employees brings me joy. I love watching their skills develop and to see them enjoying making beautiful things. I don’t yearn for bench time all that often.
As I visualize new designs, I see an increasing number of challenges ahead as our portfolio expands. CNC technology promises to ease many of the production challenges while expanding my design palette. As an artist who enjoys having things made as much as making them with his own hands, this technology seems a dream come true.
With stars in my eyes as I look ahead at what we can do, I hold my experience and mastery of hand tool work closely as I evolve. I still have enough mud on my feet to keep me real while I dream with an imagination in turbo.