Last May I took a deep dive into a tropical ecosystem and an exciting Caribbean culture when I helped to launch GreenWood’s Artisan EcoTour program in Puerto Rico. For years I’ve been leading woodworking workshops across North America and around the world, including forested countries like New Zealand, Guyana and Brazil. But the chance to combine a creative woodworking experience with a guided immersion in these island forests presented a unique opportunity. It nourished my own woodworking design roots, as I know it did for the participants who joined me and my dynamic co-instructor, René Delgado.
Our kick-off of the Artisan EcoTour in Puerto Rico turned out to be more fun and inspiring than any of us imagined. Outside of the shop, the insights our guides provided into the rich, historic landscape were fascinating. It didn’t hurt that the local food was superb and an exquisite Caribbean beach was only a block from our hotel!
We conducted this woodworking adventure in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María, the category 5 storms that deposited millions of fallen trees across the island—most of which were ultimately chipped or relegated to compost. Catastrophes create opportunities. In the case of Puerto Rico, as René explained, “María offered the opportunity to work with woods I would not normally have—acetillo, blue mahoe, mango—woods we gathered from the streets. When we started teaching classes again, people seeing the trees and these woods opened the desire to have a relationship, real contact with the wood.”
Puerto Rico is home to more than 750 tree species and being able to use these exciting, unfamiliar woods presents an incredible opportunity. In last year’s workshop, we experimented with steam bending a half-dozen dense tropical woods, not generally known or sought for their bending properties. In the process, we discovered a couple of great prospects, which we used to make footrest rings incorporated in the stools that were the focus of our workshop.
From a design perspective, I often look to the environment as a reservoir of ideas for my own furniture. Whether that’s tracks in the snow at home in Canada, or the dramatic plumage of a bird in New Zealand, I delight in finding natural sources of inspiration, which I found in abundance in Puerto Rico as well.
As René put it, “Trees are an organic form, but we cut them into boards that are straight. Taking a straight form and returning it to an organic form—that’s cool for me.”
René and I will be leading another “Forests to Furniture” Artisan EcoTour adventure this May in Puerto Rico. We’re working on new project designs, influenced by last year’s incredible experience and seeking opportunities for more steam bending, laminating and innovative craftsmanship.
At the same time, I’m looking forward to getting my boots on the ground again, planting some trees and helping all of our participants connect with these woods and the amazing forests that produce them. As artisan woodworkers, we play a small role in global forest consumption. But, on a personal level, we can always use those resources more efficiently. And we have an opportunity to communicate the crucial relationships on which our craft—and our planet—depend.
I hope to see you on round two!
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