One of my primary activities here besides the garden is making furniture, or I should say “working with wood.” Sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch to call what I make “furniture”. I try hard, but a mitred corner doesn’t quite work, or a length of wood I’ve “ripped” isn’t straight. A tiny bit of my mistakes I blame on bad quality tools. A much bigger part I blame on my poor craftsmanship. And an even bigger part I blame on working with unbelievably beautiful wood, wood that I’ve never remotely had the experience of working with.
Daeng, pradoo, yang, ma muang: all tropical woods that I’ve never even heard of, let alone used. All the woods are so hard that in five months I am already on my third drill. I’ve gone through so many drill bits that I now buy three at a time, not one. I bend one out of three nails, and break the head off one in ten screws. There’s no way of “moving” the wood (as in working with pine); the wood moves me!
But sanding the wood is like polishing a gem stone, each variety of wood so different, each board so different one from another. A few long boards I’ve purchased in town (an adventure in itself), but ninety percent of what I’ve worked with comes from Pa, boards that are laying around the farm, laying idle or caked with mud from rainy season.
The first thing I built was a desk to write at. I bought a belt sander and a skill saw, then I looked around for scrap wood. A few months ago I took down an old pig sty and chicken coup, just helping to clean around the farm. I knew from then, from hoisting the old weathered boards, that all of it was “hardwood”, heavy dense wood, even deeply grooved from twenty years in the rain and sun. I sanded a few boards from the burn pile just to get started, and instantly I was hooked. The smells were all totally new to me, and the surface of the wood barely “moving” under the power of the belt sander.
Pa saw me sanding and smiled. The next day he told a daughter and the daughter told me where to find “good” boards. I found them, sanded a couple, and wow! But I felt bad, like using the manure. These were not just good boards, they were precious boards: rosewoods, ironwoods, woods heavier and denser than teak! I used several long rosewoods as table legs for the desk, but found and bought the wood for the desk top in town.
Pa again told a daughter and the daughter told me. “Use the wood around the farm. Father has many trees,” she said, pointing to the forest.
Now I am many months in, sanding, cutting, and drilling. I haven’t even begun to use up the scrap around the farm, and like with everything, now I see with very different eyes. In town I’ve spent days on the internet trying to learn about the wood. One man in Laos is building very high-end guitars from the same kinds of wood, and another man here in Thailand is building canoes. The website is thaivisa.com/forum/local-wood-varieties-t201757.html. It’s been immensely helpful, but still I feel like I’m in kindergarten and wondering if I will ever get to high school. There’s very little written in English about the wood that I’ve been able to find.
I’ve learned a few things. One is that there are almost no soft woods, nothing like pine or spruce. There’s coconut wood and jackfruit, and even wood from mango, and when they are freshly milled they’re soft, but as they dry they harden quickly, and harden hard. Also, most all the boards have very little noticeable grain, unlike oak, maple or pine. They grow quickly and because there’s no winter, no dormant season, there are very few tree rings, and thus very little grain. Wood here is also relatively expensive compared to cement, brick, and plastic, so there’s less and less construction using wood.
Today I finished a small table that I’ve been working on the last few days. I broke another drill bit, and at least half the nails are bent or crooked. Still everyone is nice to me: “soowai, soowai.” Beautiful.
Thais have very few words borrowed from English, and so it’s always interesting when one pops up. The Thai word for furniture is “furniture.” The word for sofa is “sofa”. Why am I building furniture you might ask? For fun! And to learn.