School of Carpentry and Construction Public Demonstration

On Saturday, the HIC’s School of Carpentry and Construction opened its doors to local crafstmen, apprentices, and high school students for a free public workshop entitled Advanced Wood Finishing Techniques. Professional woodworker Marten Nyar headlined the event.

 Marten invites the audience to feel a wide variety of possible wood finishes on eucalyptus. He encourages everyone to have their customers do the same.

Marten invites the audience to feel a wide variety of possible wood finishes on eucalyptus. He encourages everyone to have their customers do the same.

For his first demonstration, Marten piles finished eucalyptus boards onto the table. Each has been divided into six surfaces representing six different types of finish. Every board section looks or feels slightly different than the others, because different combinations of sanding sealer, varnish, stain, and oil applied in different orders and at different thicknesses allow for an almost infinite variety among final surfaces. His point is clear: A skilled craftsman can cater a finish to the exact needs of his clients. But only if the client knows what to ask for.

“Never forget that it is your job to educate your customers,” Marten says. “You need to let them know that you can make products that look beautiful and feel great to the touch, even if they end up choosing the cheapest possible option. Right now, the people who are in the best position to pay for higher quality furniture aren’t demanding it because they aren’t aware that it exists. Being the first to create a new type of product, even one that is expensive, is a guaranteed way to capture that market and build up your reputation.”

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Throughout the morning, Marten covers proper finish application technique and discusses the challenge of finding seasoned lumber in Kumbo. Furniture made from wet, unseasoned wood will warp and crack as it lets out its moisture, regardless of the finish applied to it. When constructing furniture from expensive seasoned boards, it’s especially crucial to avoid mistakes.

The workshop was conducted both in English and in Cameroonian Pidgin, courtesy of HIC mason and carpentry student Nfor Divine, a necessary measure as most of the craftsmen in Kumbo dropped out of formal education early to pursue apprenticeships.

What it often comes down to is planning. In Kumbo, its common to see newly finished furniture drying outside of roadside workshops, where the heavy dust of dry season motor traffic can ruin hours of careful labor. Most shops don’t have the option of storing wet products inside; they need the space for other work. But, as Marten explains, with enough advance planning, it’s possible to schedule the finishing for all of your products at once, allowing you to stay inside your workspace and increase the final value of your furniture without increasing its cost.

It’s the kind of insight that local craftsmen see an immediate value in, and many of them take notes.

Marten wipes the excess stain from his board immediately after application.

Marten wipes the excess stain from his board immediately after application.

The successful craftsmen of Northwest Cameroon have founded their businesses on pure ingenuity – one has only to walk down adjacent Sakah street, where carpentry apprentices fashion clamps out of inner tube rubber and eucalyptus scrap and where mechanics have converted an old air compressor into a wood-finish sprayer, to see that – but their mindset and shop practices can be counterproductive. In carpentry, as in other fields, all emphasis is on reaching the immediate goal as quickly as possible. Attention is seldom paid to details or to the final outcome.

After the School of Carpentry and Construction receives a shipment of state-of-the-art power tools in March, it will begin hosting a ten-week vocational training course for craftsmen like the attendants of today’s workshop. Then, as now, the focus won’t be on any particular technology or technique as much as on creating the same awareness and precision found in the world’s finest workshops within the villages of rural Africa, where creativity and the desire to escape poverty have already demonstrated enormous potentials.

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