Hobby Woodworking in Colombia – Only for Gringos?

Hobby Woodworking ColombiaMichael: He looked at me a little perplexed. Colombians are polite people when it comes to one on one interactions. They often consider our American frankness as impolite. Yet at the same time they believe that playing their music loud enough to have it reverberate throughout the entire neighborhood is a benefit to all. Finally it was like he made up his mind that I would take his disagreement in the correct manner. “We don’t really have that in Colombia,” he said.

Graciela: My fellow countryman is correct. Colombians do not do woodworking as a hobby. There are a number of reasons. Most of us live in cities and in apartments made of concrete and block. There is no room for a workshop. Not to mention that most citizens do not have enough time for hobbies. The average work week is over 40 hours. In cities there are small woodworking shops that make things for a very reasonable price if you need something. In the smaller towns there is usually one carpenter. Not to mention that tools are very expensive in Colombia.

Michael: The only people I know who have woodworking as a hobby in Colombia are gringos. My interest of doing it here began for a few reasons. I like wood furniture. Working with wood is relaxing. And it is difficult to find good wood products in Colombia.

Metal and glass makes up the majority of furniture sold at reasonable prices in the country. The stuff that looks like wood is often fabric covered fiberboard. Real wood furniture is not only expensive, but the finish they use covers up the grain. And quality is sometimes questionable. The first house we purchased was in a small town and the local carpenter made the doors. He used green wood and one door actually warped over one inch.

Being able to set yourself up for woodworking is not easy. There are problems with both tools and wood. Many quality tools are expensive or difficult to find. There are stores called Home Center that handle some tools for the do-it-yourselfer. Even then they seem to be the places that you can find expats. But these stores are far from having the selection available in the USA. For instance in the States I can easily find a table saw blade in a large variety of teeth sizes. At my local Home Center here in Colombia they have only one choice. Plus I have discovered that some companies make a quality product for sale in first world countries and a much lower quality piece for the South American market.

Bogotá is a city of over eight million people. Yet there is only one store where I can find descent tools. Ferricentro caters  to contractors. Located on Avenida Caracas #74-25 it has three stories. Most of the woodworking stuff is on the first floor. American style friendly service is pretty much non-existent there. Guards check you in at the door and check your packages and receipt when you leave. Plus prices often exceed by two and three times those for the same item in the USA.

An English expat decided it was both less expensive and easier to get quality by purchasing tools in England and having them shipped. He outfitted a shop with everything from a table saw to drill press, planner, bench and hand tools. Shipping was in the thousands of dollars, but he still thought it worth it for what he received.

My talent is far from being that of a master carpenter. Add to it a limited budget. Consequently, before moving to Colombia I made the decision to use only hand tools. Taking note of what was available in the country at what prices, a few tools filled my suitcases on initial trips. I began with a Japanese Ryobi saw, six chisels, wooden plane, bit brace and a few small clamps. In Colombia I purchased a metal plane, a couple larger clamps and small accessories like screws and glue. With those I managed to make nightstands, frames for pictures, light fixtures and a clothes closet for the first house.

Our next place did not have even a place for me to do anything with wood. My few tools went unused for several years. Then a little over a year ago we moved to a house that not only needed furniture items made, but it has a carport to use as a workshop. However to get things done in a time frame that kept my wife happy power tools became necessary. I purchased a table saw, sander and cordless drill at the aforementioned Ferricentro. At other places I found a good crosscut saw, backsaw and mitre saw.

Those new toys allowed me more flexibility but still there were tools I needed (my wife likes to use the word “wanted”). Budget is still limited. Fortunately back in 2014 I wrote a blog with the title, A man, his tools and a happy marriage.

The problem was many of the tools I needed are not available in Colombia. It was not for a lack of looking for them. I drove my wife crazy stopping in almost every large and small hardware store. And in one I found a really nice set of auger bits in a box. Since we were planning a trip to the USA I just ordered what I needed on-line and had it shipped to my sister’s house. Of course with airline weight limits my purchases still needed scrutiny. I chose only what seemed impossible to find in Colombia and needed.

3/8 inch chisel – many pieces of wood in Colombia still are 3/4 inches in thickness. But neither large nor small hardware stores carried the size. Though it is easy to find 1/4″, 1/2″, 3/4″ 1″ and 1 1/2″ sizes. Then to find any chisels with a through shank for hitting to make mortises; good luck with that one.

Pinch dogs– heck even trying to describe these to Colombians met with a look of what is this crazy gringo talking about. But they sure beat having to purchase many clamps.

Woodthreading kit – again something that gets you looks of disbelief that such a thing even exists.

Marking gauge – ok I probably could have made one of these, but for the price and weight it was just easier to purchase.

Strap clamp – I just do not understand why they don’t carry this in Colombia. Along with pinch dogs it is an all-around versatile clamp to have.

Shaker pegs – Colombians just use straight pegs. But this time-tested design works much better for hanging everything from frames on ribbons to furniture pieces.

Waterstone – you can find oilstones and diamond whetstones for sharpening in Colombia but not in the grits I wanted that a waterstone provided.

Paste wax with Carnauba – never found any kind of furniture paste wax in Colombia.

Wood came as another adventure for me. I needed to learn the names in Spanish of similar woods in North America. Then there are different woods with different properties in Colombia.

My first experience came when wanting to make a workbench when I first arrived. Do believe the sawmill people had a good time with fool the gringo. They had nothing of what I was use to for making the top. So I asked for their recommendation of a hard wood. Eucalyptus the man told me emphatically. He touted how strong it is and how people use it when needing strength in the beams of homes. What the man did not tell me is that eucalyptus twists and is not recommended for making any kind of furniture. I actually cut one piece and watched as it twisted almost 90 degrees in less than a day.

I have limited experience since then. Because of cost and availability pine is my wood of choice. Even then, on my last trip to Michigan I noted that they sell a better quality pine there for about a third to half the cost in Colombia.

One of the other Colombian woods that I have experience with is Granadillo. It is dark in color and very hard. To cut a mortise you need a sharp chisel. The wood delivers a beautiful finish though. They use it mainly for floors. I use it for accent on pine.

Here are a few of the names in Spanish of woods that North Americans may use.

Birch – Abedul
Poplar – Alamo
Maple – Arce
Cherry – Cerezo
Elm – Olmo
Beech – Haya
Walnut – Nogal
Pine – Pino
Oak – Roble

According to the Forestry Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, since the 1970’s there are seven Colombian woods imported to the USA. For readers who are technical gurus about wood, here is a link to a report with all the information of their properties

Hobby woodworking in Colombia can be fun. But it can also be more expensive than in other countries. My recommendation is to make a list of what you want in the way of tools. Then check out the prices and availability in both countries.