One of the first things the Conquistadors shed when they reached the shores of tropical America was their armor. As effective as a tailored suit of Toledo steel may have been against the spears and arrows of the native Aztec and Maya populations, armor was unbearably hot, heavy and hard to maintain in the steamy forests of the New World.
Modern woodworking machinery suits the tropics just about as well. In an environment that receives a foot or more of rainfall during each month of the rainy season, rust blooms on steel almost before your eyes. Saw blades are quickly dulled by dense, resinous hardwoods, and power supplies in many developing countries are erratic, at best. Kiln-dried wood is, in much of Latin America, a lot harder to find than bottled water. And wood’s hygroscopic nature causes even dried lumber to reabsorb moisture as it seeks equilibrium with its surroundings.
GreenWood is an innovative training program launched in Honduras in 1993 that applies Old World technology in the developing world, teaching artisans to build furniture with split and shaved green (wet) wood, worked mainly with hand tools or foot-powered pole lathes. The green-wood revival that has taken place over the last quarter century in North America and Europe may be helping post-industrial enthusiasts reap the intangible rewards of hand craftsmanship, but there is nothing romantic or nostalgic about the introduction of low-tech woodworking in the developing world.
GreenWood’s goals are straightforward and practical, to:
The approach GreenWood employs to achieve these goals is “appropriate technology,” that matches the tools and methods employed in transforming wood products from the full spectrum of available resources in a host community – natural, material and human. These resources include: trees and plants and related forest resources (natural resources); access to tools and machinery, hardware and glues, electricity, investment capital, and markets (material resources); and the training, experience and craft heritage to be found among local artisans (human resources).
Over the last 25 years there has been a significant shift in forest ownership around the world. Indigenous and community land claims have gained recognition at the same time that economic development and environmental interests have begun to converge, causing the ownership and control of global forest lands to be devolved from the state to local communities and indigenous people. In the major forested countries of Latin America, community-owned forests now represent a substantial portion of the total forest area: 13% in Brazil; 36.6% in Bolivia; 34.2% in Peru; and 80% in Mexico. A recent study of forest ownership calculates that the aggregate forest land now subject to community or indigenous control exceeds 168 million hectares in these four countries alone. The study also estimates that “some 60 million highly forest-dependent indigenous people live in the rain forests of Latin America, West Africa and Southeast Asia. An additional 400 million to 500 million people are estimated to be directly dependent on forest resources for their livelihoods.” (White and Martin 2002)
This global rise in community forest ownership marks a historic opportunity for the future of the tropical forest estate and alleviating endemic poverty in the developing world. The people who live closest to the forest have the greatest stake in its preservation. But forest policies and the marketplace for forest products have traditionally favored large producers over small, a tendency exacerbated by the assistance provided by many donors. These political and financial hurdles are compounded for community forest producers by a host of obstacles that inhibit or preclude their successful entry into the marketplace. These include:
GreenWood aims to address all of these fundamental barriers, but this paper focuses primarily on the last factor – appropriate technology – as a keystone of development. In the process it also challenges one of the most widely held misconceptions underlying conventional economic development: (i.e. that access to the latest technology is the fast track to progress). A separate case study of export guitar-part production, explains how GreenWood’s role as an honest broker helps to mitigate some of the other business and organizational weaknesses that plague forest communities. (see Box 1 below)
Box 1: Transparency fosters community investment
GreenWood is commonly referred to in Honduras as the “chair project,” but over the years we have trained artisans and sawyers in the manufacture of many other niche forest products. These include ship’s knees, lapstrake river boats, wooden pens, bowls, rustic fencing and guitar parts. By just about every quantifiable measure – volume of timber harvested, forest area under management, and 4”X4” income to local residents – GreenWood’s most successful export venture is the ongoing production of 4”x4” mahogany guitar parts for the Taylor Guitar Company of California. Collaborating on the manufacture of more than 21,000 board feet of export-quality, kiln-dried mahogany, GreenWood has worked closely with the community of Copén on pre-harvest planning, tree felling and log conversion, transportation by mule and river, sawmilling, kiln drying and shipping.
Underpinning this functional support are GreenWood’s transparent business practices and the unprecedented community investment it has engendered. Following the successful export in 2005 of our first container of guitar parts, GreenWood met with members of the Copén sawyer’s collective – a community group of 25 timber producers who hold harvest rights to more than 4,000 hectares of primary forest adjacent to the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve.
At that meeting, two fundamental terms for the ongoing relationship were agreed: First, GreenWood would undertake an active role in helping the group’s treasurer and president to manage their accounts, keeping track of all income and expenses. (This was a direct response to the sawyers’ consternation when we demonstrated how much money they had earned from the previous year’s harvest and sale of guitar parts; members of the group were uniformly convinced that they had lost money the year before!) Secondly, having negotiated the highest price ever paid for this product in the local marketplace, GreenWood offered to share all of the production costs and divide the proceeds from the sale equally with the community producers. This gave the Copeños a stake in the success of the venture, and revealed the complex steps of export production, including the full costs involved. Looking ahead, Greenwood also hoped to motivate the Copeños to assume greater management responsibility for components of the venture.
To ensure the orderly disbursal of funds to the collective, GreenWood’s bookkeeper verified the group’s previous expenditures before authorizing each advance. Following the collective’s delivery of the first load of sawn lumber, GreenWood’s bookkeeper and field forester analyzed the costs and benefits of every step of the community’s involvement. Initial results indicate a net income of approximately US$ 1,250 per person for each of the 25 members of the sawyer’s group. This income, earned during roughly two months of active timber harvest, production and transport, represents about 95% of the average per capita annual cash wage in the community.
Most rewarding, the Copén sawyers committed themselves to investing US$105 per member, or more than US$ 2,600 for the entire group – plus an equal amount from the collective’s coffers – in another production of guitar wood. In other words, they're investing roughly US$5,500 without any further advance from GreenWood or the client. This investment confirms that: a) the group has earned enough money to invest in future activities; b) they see real promise in the venture; and c) they are prepared to assume greater responsibility and risk in return for greater potential profits and control. All this adds up to a major milestone on the road to financial stability and sustainable development.
Source: Scott Landis
GreenWood was inspired by an attempt to jumpstart a stalled furniture industry in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico during the early 1990s. Canadian designer Michael Fortune encountered a craftsman’s nightmare of decrepit sawmills, workshop machinery in disrepair and a litany of problems common to working wet wood and irregular, small-diameter logs. “Inaccurate joinery accounts for a high failure rate,” Fortune wrote, “and glue is not effective when wood exceeds 11 % moisture content.” The disparity in moisture content between the tropics (16 % in southern Mexico) and North America (7 % in most of the U.S.) presented a further obstacle to a prospective export trade in furniture. (Fortune 1990)
Pondering this lament, Tennessee chair maker Curtis Buchanan thought Fortune might be barking up the wrong tree. “Why not try green woodworking?” Buchanan wondered. The oak spindles and bent bow of his Windsor chair backs and the turned maple undercarriage are made entirely of wet wood. The parts are split directly from the log with an ax and froe, shaved with a drawknife and selectively dried in his shop using a small, homemade kiln. The technology is ancient, but at prices now approaching $1,000, Buchanan’s bottom-of-the-line, bow-back Windsors are hardly rustic. Green-wood technology, he reasoned, might be ideally suited to the tropics, and it doesn’t require a shop full of expensive machinery to get started.
Buchanan joined Kentucky chair maker Brian Boggs in 1993 on GreenWood’s first expedition to Honduras, where traditional hand-tool technology appeared well suited to the full range of local resources. Specifically, the pair encountered a large variety of lesser-known tree species that might be incorporated in green-wood furniture production. Few of these species were being harvested or processed, and little was known about their working properties. There were no developed forest management plans for these woods and few established markets. They also noted a lack of local capacity for secondary processing (sawmills) and drying (kilns), which are essential to the production of quality woodworking by conventional, machine-tool methods. Many forest communities in tropical America have no access to electricity and minimal experience in the use of machinery. There is little or no money available to invest in costly generators, fuel or other conventional woodworking equipment.
Buchanan and Boggs hoped to uncover local chair-making designs that they might improve upon or adapt with green-wood technology. But the furniture they found on the North Coast of Honduras was uniformly crude and uncomfortable, or imported from neighboring countries; in isolated forest communities, it was virtually nonexistent. In any event, they judged that regional furniture styles held little promise for local tourist or international markets.
The chair makers decided to import a traditional North American design, incorporating a woven vine or bark seat for local character and to utilize available non-timber forest products. Thus GreenWood’s initial training and marketing initiatives were based on ancient hand-tool technologies exemplified in the Appalachian-style seating furniture of Kentucky and Tennessee (post-and-rung ladderback and Windsor chairs are, in turn, derived from earlier European traditions). Although green-wood furniture is highly functional and visually straightforward, successful joinery actually relies on a highly sophisticated understanding of wood properties – specifically, the swelling and shrinking of adjacent parts to create strong interlocking joints. The integrity of green-wood chair construction depends on the traditional mortise-and-tenon joint, in which a super-dry rung (the tenon) is installed in a bored hole (the mortise) in a relatively wet leg. The leg shrinks and the rung swells in cross section as the parts reach equilibrium, creating a strong interlocking joint without the use of glue or mechanical fasteners. Furniture thus constructed can last indefinitely if well maintained.
In terms of efficiency and economy, green woodworking is hard to beat. It is much easier to split and shave green wood than it is to saw and plane dry lumber, and the means of transforming the raw material can be easily and cheaply introduced in forest-based communities. For less than US$100, an individual artisan can purchase a complete kit of hand tools, with which he or she can produce salable furniture. Whereas conventional machine-tool technology tends to encourage debt and the centralization of manufacturing, what might be called the “maquiladora” model,1 simple hand-tool technology encourages independence and flexibility. No electricity is required and minimal additional investment is needed for the establishment of productive workshops.
There are several other assets of this style of furniture making. Its portability enables artisans to conduct at least some of their primary processing in the forest, thus reducing the need to transport heavy logs and returning an abundance of decomposing, wood-residue nutrients to the forest. The relative safety of hand-tool technology reduces the likelihood of serious accidents and debilitating injuries in societies that provide little or no safety net for injured workers; the safer technology also encourages active participation by women, girls and boys of all ages and technical ability. This flexibility is further enhanced by the ease with which green woodworking is adapted to small-scale or cottage-industry production units. Simply put, this craft method suits home workshops and a broad range of family participation.
Whereas conventional machinery typically leads to a reliance on a few heavily exploited commercial species – i.e. bigleaf mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) are the timbers of choice on the North Coast of Honduras – green-wood technology lends itself to experimentation with smaller trees and lesser-known species. Moreover, the unique nature of green-wood design and production distinguishes GreenWood products from those of other conventional woodworking manufacturers, and helps to establish an identity for our products in the marketplace. The quality, cost and marketability of the finished product reflect an artisan’s design and construction skills (labor) more strongly than his or her investment in materials or expensive tooling (infrastructure). In combination, these factors result in potentially greater profit margins for rural artisans and a more sustainable long-term relationship with their source of materials.
Invited to Honduras by the Broadleaf Forest Development Project (PDBL), a joint forestry initiative between the government of Canada (CIDA) and the Honduran forestry agency (AFE-COHDEFOR), GreenWood chose to begin work in an indigenous Pech community not far from the North Coast. Resisting the temptation to launch a portfolio of ready-made designs, Buchanan and Boggs concentrated on the most basic of all seating furniture: the homely stool. Stools involve the essential technology that artisans eventually employ to build chairs, but their compact form ensures speedy gratification and fosters experimentation with a wide range of materials. This measured approach also encourages students to participate in the design process and take ownership of the project.
1 maquiladora: cross-border assembly plants, originally based in Mexico.
Once the location for the first training session and a basic curriculum were established, Mr. Buchanan arrived to teach his first class. Assuming that his students were out gathering wood when the first session was scheduled to begin, he set up a shaving horse in a school workshop and began splitting wood to make a few rungs. Surrounded by a scrum of curious youngsters, Mr. Buchanan sat down at the horse (called a burro in Spanish), picked up a drawknife and demonstrated the process of shaving rough stock to round – the foundation skill upon which all green-wood chair making is built. With swift, rhythmic strokes of the knife, he deftly transformed the stock, first to a square, then an octagon, and ultimately a round, softly faceted and gently tapered rung. After a few minutes, the travel, the heat and the diet began to take their toll, and Mr. Buchanan retired to a second floor dormitory. Throughout that first afternoon, sounds of the boys chirping in barely comprehensible Spanish and slicing away with the drawknife filtered upstairs from the shop.
Like many professional North American craftsmen, Mr. Buchanan teaches adult workshops, so he was initially shocked and crestfallen to discover that the seven 14-year-old boys he had met downstairs were his students. However, it wasn’t long before they proved their mettle. In rural forest communities throughout Latin America, there is a brief window of opportunity during which adolescent boys begin to acquire the muscle and dexterity of an adult, but before they are encumbered with the full responsibilities of a family. They typically live with their parents and are obliged to tend crops. Until they marry, these youngsters enjoy a relative respite from the full rigors of subsistence living.
At GreenWood’s first training site – Santa María del Carbón, Olancho – workshop participants included all the male students and teachers of the local training school, where GreenWood technology and elements of design were rapidly incorporated into the curriculum. In other communities, eligibility is typically voluntary and open to all interested community members, regardless of age, gender and experience. However, in practice, the majority of participants are usually drawn from the membership of the most active collaborating organizations in the community. Increasingly, new participants gain experience through an informal apprenticeship with more experienced GreenWood artisans.
Brian Boggs traveled to Honduras a few months later to find four burros in action and a newly finished barstool awaiting his review. He spent much of the second training session working on tool sharpening, an ongoing challenge, and trying to convey the “concept of square.” Noting the local emphasis on functional utility and the scarcity of embellishment among the thatched-roof mud huts and other handmade articles in the village, it occurred to Boggs that his obsession with quality might be out of step with a culture still preoccupied with its own precarious survival. However, it was gratifying to observe the native facility for tool use among our Honduran students, whose early introduction to the machete fosters a familiarity with the use of sharp edge tools that has, by and large, been lost on North American youngsters.
Mr. Boggs employed a method favored by the local schoolteacher to teach sharpening. First, he explained and demonstrated the process. Then, one student copied Mr. Boggs’s example while explaining the techniques to the class. Finally, he sharpened the tool again with the same student providing instruction. It was slow and repetitive, but effective. In no time the whole class was sharpening drawknives to a respectable working edge. During another workshop, Mr. Buchanan noted that at least one of his students was sharpening his spokeshave blade to a razor’s edge, “better than 99% of the woodworkers I know back home.” Students began signing their furniture almost immediately, taking personal responsibility and a maker’s pride in their work.
Mr. Boggs used the rest of his trip to investigate new tree species and fine-tune production. He and the students felled a 12-inch-diameter (30 cm) cola de pava (Cespedezia macrophylla) tree that was straight and clear for about 50 feet (15 m) and found that the wood split beautifully. Cola de pava is a lesser-known hardwood species, with roughly the same, moderate density as American cherry. It regenerates easily from cut stumps, but until our arrival the wood had no local or commercial applications. Boggs also harvested bark from a slim log of capulin negro (Trema nithranta), a very common but similarly underutilized tree species throughout the North Coast. GreenWood has since tested and used numerous other woods and barks, but cola de pava and capulin remain at the top of the list of preferred materials for structural members and woven seats in our furniture.
It wasn’t long before GreenWood realized that the forestry project that had drawn us to Honduras was providing virtually no assurance that the woods used by our artisans were actually derived from well-managed forests. Among other things, the management focus was limited to primary forests, and there were no plans developed for noncommercial tree species. In fact, the management of secondary forests attracts little interest among the forestry establishment of Honduras (or in many other developing countries). This is largely a result of the common perception that secondary forests represent underutilized agricultural lands, which ought instead to be intensively cultivated for their short-term return on investment.
To address this deficiency, GreenWood launched its secondary-forest management program in 1999. The initiative was the first organized attempt in Honduras to provide a sustainable, quantifiable supply of pioneer timber species (and non-timber products) from secondary forests – known locally as guamiles – which provide the primary source of materials used in the construction of furniture made by GreenWood artisans.
Under the supervision of GreenWood foresters, guamil owners met with artisans, the tribal council and other local stakeholders to design and implement management plans for their guamiles. Two objectives emerged in the process of elaborating an agreement governing their use and harvest. The first goal was to achieve a sustainable supply for artisan production through the implementation of a management plan for lesser-known species and non-timber forest products. The second was to establish reliable mechanisms for ensuring that a meaningful share of the benefits generated by the harvest and sale of these resources would accrue to the community as a whole, and not merely to isolated groups or individuals.
In order to realize the second objective, GreenWood developed a multi-stakeholder agreement that established the following roles and responsibilities:
From a silvicultural perspective, GreenWood’s guamil management approach is considered a mono-cyclical system with a 25-year rotation, after which a parcel could be cleared and another lengthy fallow period would ensue. This system is attractive to guamileros because their income from agricultural production can be augmented by the sale of wood products. For GreenWood and its artisans, the guamil system represents a means of establishing practical links between sustainable forest management, the production of high-quality furniture using simple technology and the sale of innovative products for niche markets. For the forestry authority of Honduras, GreenWood’s guamil management plan constitutes the country’s first systematic organization of a timber harvest in secondary forests, in a manner that will facilitate its replication in other communities.
Ironically, the connection between furniture and well-managed forests relies on a transaction that is foreign to many NGOs, ecologists and donor organizations: sales. No amount of appropriate technology or responsible forestry can be maintained for long without the sales and marketing that comprise the third, indispensable leg of the GreenWood program. As one of GreenWood’s clients likes to say, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.”
In a country like Honduras, where village carpenters grind the carbon rods from spent D-cell batteries and mix them with kerosene to ink their chalk lines, everything has a value. Even as GreenWood instructors began to think about how to break into the marketplace, our artisans were selling chairs. Artisans typically begin by making furniture for their own homes and quickly move on to serve the needs of their extended family, friends and neighbors. With little or no coaching, local sales continued to grow. The more serious and aggressive artisans cultivate their own clients, and GreenWood helps develop broader market opportunities through sales to restaurants, bars and hotels in the developing tourist sector.
The international market is usually the first, and too often, the only outlet contemplated when consultants from the North design marketing programs for the South. The underlying assumption is that only the higher dollars and volumes generated by export sales are worth the investment of time and money. If anything, this perception has only been reinforced by the introduction of certified wood products, which have begun to attract interest in North America and Europe but have generated no discernable market in Latin America. It’s hard to ignore the allure of the U.S. dollar and the vast retail market in the developed world, but successful, long-term relationships between community forest producers and export clients are rare.
The reasons for this fact are not hard to find. In the first place, the full cost of export is rarely factored into the business model and is often difficult for community producers to grasp. Few communities are equipped to identify, much less perform, the brokerage functions required to complete a successful export transaction. These include complex documentation, shipping protocols and extensive client communications, usually conducted in English. So the communities remain at the mercy of costly and sometimes dishonest brokers or inexperienced NGOs, who are forced to reinvent the wheel. Community producers rarely sell direct to end-users, and wholesale products may have to support a seven-fold price increase, or more. Container-load volumes, accompanied by hefty discounts, are the norm. It can be difficult, if not impossible, for community producers to meet the most basic requirements of export clients in terms of volume, deadlines, consistency and quality control. One serious misstep on the part of the producer is likely to terminate this fragile and unbalanced relationship.
Local markets, by contrast, represent a far more accessible and manageable outlet for community forest producers. Volumes are typically much smaller and clients more willing to tolerate idiosyncrasies in quality and consistency. If problems do occur, they can usually be resolved speedily and directly with local clients in a manner that is more likely to result in improved production in the future. Local transactions require little paperwork and shipping logistics are simple, making them much easier for local middlemen or artisans to maintain.
Many of these advantages are predictable, but there are two other crucial and often overlooked factors that weigh heavily in favor of local markets for artisan furniture. The first is purely functional: Tropical woodwork that remains in the tropics is far less likely to suffer the splitting, warping and other structural defects that often result from the drastic dimensional changes that take place when tropical wood products arrive in a temperate climate (where most homes have central heating and/or air conditioning). The second is less tangible: local clients tend to validate the newfound social status achieved by recently trained GreenWood artisans, some of whom have been appointed to positions of responsibility in their local community. It’s hard to measure pride, but a trained artisan is no longer a peasant or a subsistence farmer. The fact that he is respected in his own community and pursued by local clients makes him upwardly mobile in a way that may even exceed the boost he receives from sales and income.
Market access is crucial to the support of any forest product enterprise. GreenWood manages this complex environment by seeking a flexible balance between local, regional and export opportunities. Although community producers can almost always access and service local markets more successfully than international or even regional markets, they will likewise benefit by having multiple market opportunities and an adaptable marketing strategy.
The introduction of GreenWood technology in Honduras has been far from smooth. Over the years we have encountered just about every obstacle imaginable, many that we never saw coming! These range from inflexible and corrupt institutions to competition from illegal loggers and the potent lure of “el Norte,” which continues to drain Central American communities of some of their most talented sons and daughters. We’ve struggled, too, with our share of technical and logistical hurdles, including the limited financial resources of our own small non-profit organization. Only last year, as we were celebrating the culmination of more than two years of guitar-part production, a rogue hurricane descended on Honduras just after our sealed container left the kiln yard. We were lucky, and the container was merely waylaid for two weeks, but the unscheduled detour was not for the faint-of-heart. Some hurdles, like this one, we have been able to overcome by dint of good fortune or careful planning. Others we have come to accept as a cost of doing business in a challenging environment.
We also discovered that most obstacles present a corresponding opportunity. For example, GreenWood’s decentralized, cottage-industry production system is inherently difficult to coordinate and manage. But it is also highly flexible, fosters broad participation in terms of age and gender, and adjusts to the competing demands of household obligations. Our own limited financial resources often result in lengthy gaps between workshops. But this encourages greater self-reliance and initiative among our artisans, and promotes cooperation with other local institutions. An example is our fortuitous alliance with a local trade school, whose instructors embraced GreenWood technology with enthusiasm and incorporated it in their regular woodworking curriculum, providing continuity between workshops and greater opportunities for students to practice their skills.
There is no recipe for sustainable development, but there remain several core principles that have guided the GreenWood program from the outset. The first is reflected by our focus on self-sufficiency and value. Handouts perpetuate a culture of dependency, so we give nothing away except information and technical assistance. Students buy their own tools; usually with the money they earn selling furniture.
The second core principle has to do with rigorous planning and follow-through. One-time training workshops are like seeds cast in the wind: they will not take root without the careful husbandry that follows.
Our third core principle is embedded in our commitment to “train the trainers” and to promote transparent business practices. When artisans and forest owners understand the real costs of management and production, and are capable of teaching themselves, they are well on their way to independence, and we are on our way to leaving.
As with sustainable development itself, there is no recipe or timetable for GreenWood’s departure from a client community. The needs and capacity of our participants are highly variable, and the resources that GreenWood can bring to bear in support of any particular client often depend on temporary grant funding or the participation of other collaborating organizations. Even within a single community group, one or two participants may begin selling products on their own after the first or second training session, whereas other students require much greater support. It is not uncommon for GreenWood-trained artisans to earn a significant portion of their production income (30 % or more) through direct sales that are solicited and managed entirely by the artisans, thus placing them firmly on the path to independence. In the community of Copén, Colón (see box above), two months of GreenWood enterprise generates income for the 25 members of the participating sawyer’s collective that is roughly equivalent to 95 % of the average annual per capita cash income from all other sources.
From time to time questions are raised about GreenWood’s objectives and about our principles of appropriate technology. Skeptics ask whether in our adherence to traditional (some might say “old-fashioned”) practices, we are holding our artisans back, preventing them from pursuing their own interests or realizing their natural growth and potential. Some observers suggest that access to more sophisticated technology (the “march of progress”) is inevitable and that it offers an incentive for struggling artisans, who will otherwise lose interest, drift away or resume less productive activities.
In response, we are obliged to note that GreenWood does not (and could not) restrain artisans from moving on to other methods of production. Indeed, we assume that only a portion of the people we train will continue as professional furniture makers and that many of these artisans might eventually find work in other shops or related trades. GreenWood principles can be effectively applied to the manufacture of many different wood products and can be readily adapted to different kinds of technology. To that end, our instructors have taught bowl turning on bicycle-driven and electric lathes and have worked on the chainsaw milling of ship’s knees and the installation of a portable sawmill to be used in boat manufacture and the production of guitar parts. These activities are not only consistent with our original principles, but also excellent examples of how appropriate technology might be applied to a wide range of materials and products.
Technology does not follow a linear progression – from primitive hand tools to sophisticated machinery. In fact, much handwork is exceedingly sophisticated, whereas machine production can be quite crude. We need only consider Curtis Buchanan’s Windsor chairs, which are produced essentially by hand, using no mechanical fastenings. The demand for his furniture reflects the excellence of his design and construction, not the fact that he happens to use an electric lathe to turn legs or a light bulb to heat his kiln. The source of power is, in both cases, incidental. So much of modern woodworking consists of employing bigger, more powerful and more expensive machinery in an attempt – frequently unsuccessful – to force the material to perform an unnatural act. By comparison, the understanding, or “deep knowledge,” of wood properties that an artisan acquires by working green wood with hand tools will inform and enhance whatever method of woodworking design or production he or she eventually pursues.
GreenWood cannot prevent artisans it has trained from joining the culture of mediocrity that commonly pervades the manufacture of wood products, but it is not our role – or in anybody’s interest – to perpetuate this culture. If GreenWood artisans abandon hand-tool technology for machinery without having first mastered basic skills and an appreciation for good workmanship, they are likely to succumb to the widespread delusion that the quality of production (and the size of their income) hinges on the acquisition of newer and more expensive equipment.
An evolutionary approach to the introduction of new tools is more consistent with an understanding of appropriate technology. One might begin, for example, by modifying the motive force for a traditional piece of equipment such as the lathe with the addition of a small motor. Such an incremental measure would enable a skilled artisan to accomplish the same work more quickly and more effectively. But it would not fundamentally change the nature of an artisan’s working method or the outcome, as would the introduction of a table saw, power planer and other conventional machinery.
These distinctions between craft process and manufacturing were succinctly characterized by British master craftsman David Pye as the “workmanship of risk” versus the “workmanship of certainty.” The latter describes the predictability of automated production, whereas the former reflects the variability inherent in any manufacturing method that relies on the judgment and dexterity of the tool operator. As Pye pithily observes, “People are beginning to believe you cannot make even toothpicks without ten thousand pounds of capital. We forget the prodigies one man and a kit of tools can do if he likes the work enough.” (Pye 1968)
If the irregular development of technology is, in part, responsible for the cultural inequities we have inherited, appropriate technology may play an important role in helping to address them. Sustainable economic development is, after all, about providing access to the tools that control human lives. But it will only succeed where those tools are well matched to the people who will use them and the resources that will be consumed in their application. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” – so goes the ancient Chinese proverb. If we are serious about teaching artisans in the developing world to fish, we ought to begin with a hook and a line.
Fortune, M, 1992. “Plan Piloto Diary” and “Plan Piloto Revisited.” Understory, Volume 2 (Numbers 2 & 4), published by Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection, Coos Bay, Oregon.
Pye, D., 1968. The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
White, A. and Martin, A., 2002. Who Owns the World’s Forests?, Forest Trends and the Center for International Environmental Law, Washington, DC.