This post might bore all of you save Don Alviti and the Maine Pilot, it’s all about woodworking machines…
While we wait for the land issue to be settled once and for all, the restaurant build can’t really advance much further than it already has. I am all for folding like a limp willie and ceding the disputed area (my access to the river) to the venal local coordinators working on the premise that while we rail against injustice and have right on our side, we cannot open and are not, therefore, getting a return on my investment. Marcia, in the intractable way of most conflicts in Africa, sees it differently and is willing to fight to a bitter end which to me, not by nature a pessimist, looms large.
I need to do something useful with myself in the meantime. Salaried employment is always made tolerable by the beer tokens one collects in return, but that would mean being away from home for possibly months at a time. Contract work and then a divorce meant that I never got to see Dominic grow up so I am making up for it with Alex. I don’t really want to go away to work if I can help it.
My knowledge of carpentry and joinery was negligible when I first started this build but now I at least know there is a difference between the two. Before, anyone who hacked about at wood was a chippie to me. Although I employed local carpenters, managing the task was very hands on. You do not have to be an expert in a particular skill to recognize if someone is making a good job of it or not. We all know what a decent door looks like and can distinguish a nicely finished cottage from a garden shed. I quickly realized I had no choice but to show them the standard to which I wanted them to work, or sack them and find someone who would.
In spite of an alarming tendency to cut corners wherever they could, I did feel sorry for the chippies, working all day under a blazing sun using only hand implements and lightweight power tools. Timber is one of Angola’s great natural resources. Along with the native tropical hardwoods, there are also varieties imported with a sustainable timber industry in mind. The government recognizes the need to develop their natural resources but, like all development projects devised by spotty intellectuals; the initiatives that have been funded have so far proved wholly ineffective; you cannot buy well-seasoned, accurately cut and dimensioned timber anywhere.
I used local timber to build my cottages. My neighbor imported his cottages from South Africa. Mine are hewn from hardwood, his stroked from soft pine. Further on down the coast is another very nice lodge, exactly the same sort of thing I am building. Its owner also imported his cottages, made of pine, and is dismayed at how delicious the local termites find them. An imported cottage costs about $1,000 per square metre.
So why, if the country is creaking under the weight of wood, do people go to all the trouble and expense of importing an inferior product?
For the same reason, basically, I am asking Marcia to give it up and put in our boundary fence where the coordinators say we can: return on investment.
A container full of pre-fabricated cottages can be imported in as little as six weeks, time during which the ground can be prepared and foundations laid. Such a cottage can be erected using unskilled labour in only a few days. Yes, the cottage may have cost twice as much and be inferior in quality to a well-built local example, but it will start earning several months ahead of its local competition. $400 per night soon absorbs the higher initial investment.
It is the very lack of well-seasoned, accurately sized and dimensioned local timber that persuades developers to import rather than face the, comparatively, interminable on site effort of working crudely cut local timber to anything close to a building material. The timber we buy here is unseasoned and sawn to board using chainsaws. Smooth and even it isn’t. If you want laps, or tongues and grooves, you get to work with hand planers, circular saws, routers and chisels with all the resultant variability. Mortices and tenons, quite useful for structural rigidity, have all to be cut laboriously by hand; it takes ages to produce a door or window. And then, after all that effort, despite my often draconian quality control, the result still looks, well, artisan.
Back to my neighbor. He decided he needed another cottage for his personal use. Marcia and I had some timber spare which we were happy to sell him at cost rather than watch it warp under the sun. He was impressed with the price and the quality. He wasn’t impressed with the effort required to make it usable. He is accustomed to a cottage rising from the sand in days not months. So far his men have burnt out two decent circular saws and a router (about $800 each here) trying to turn 400ish mm wide, 30ish mm thick hard wood board into decking. I really do not want to think of all the kit we burnt out on our site but it includes saws, routers, planers and a DeWalt planer-thicknesser.
What this place needs, I decided, is a decent joinery shop kitted out with industrial standard machines. I would get the product I and a lot of other people need, and I would provide a bit of much needed local employment. Don’t snigger, I’d be doing my bit to reduce the country’s dependence on imports…
I told my mate Klein about this, not least because he has about 2,000 hectares of Silky Oak begging to be felled, and together we went on a road trip. Alex went along as well. Marcia wasn’t at all happy at the thought of Alex maybe sleeping in the bush but she quickly realized that when it came to Daddy’s and Alex’s Grand Adventure, her opinion didn’t count. We went and looked at trees, we saw how they were felled and hauled and sawn. We visited a joinery workshop and saw the ancient kit they were using, we slept on the floor, we visited another, larger and more modern workshop and were stunned by the prices they charged for really quite ordinary but better finished products ($800 for a plain panel door containing about $40 worth of wood). There was nowhere we could find that stocked the machines I wanted except for a couple of Portuguese who had a shed full of ancient, well knackered machines imported, as scrap presumably, from Portugal.
The trip, however, was very useful. It assured me of my raw material. I was convinced, if I needed convincing, of the demand for the product and reassured by the value of the finished product. All I needed to do now was decide which machines I needed and where to get them. I asked Don Alviti for advice and he put me on to UKWorkshop, a site, in the words of their community, built to help people of any age learn the basics of woodworking. This wasn’t his subtle vote of confidence in me or, understandably, the lack of it, the site has an outstanding forum which put me in touch with real experts in the field.
Their advice could be distilled to just two recommendations which hold true for most things; seriously consider buying good used and buy quality rather than quantity. One forum member, who now runs a very smart bespoke cabinet making service, listed the few machines he bought second hand with which to start his business.
Based on everyone’s advice I drew up a short list of essentials and saws seemed to figure prominently. Rip saws, panel saws, chop saws, band saws, mitre saws. I decided I needed them all and then realized I couldn’t afford them all so had to prioritise. Everyone, of course, has their own priority based, obviously, on what they make and personal preference. A planer thicknesser and spindle moulder were overwhelmingly considered essential. What width stock would I want to push through a thicknesser? This would determine the size, power and price, of the machine I needed. Throughout the forum threads on spindle moulders one thing became abundantly clear, if I wanted to avoid a lifetime of regret, get one with a tilting spindle. This was beginning to feel like walking into a car showroom to buy a car, simple really, and being overwhelmed with the options list. I would find a morticer useful. There are chisel morticers, horizontal morticers, chain morticers, probably other types I didn’t encounter. The rather artisan workshop I visited with Alex and Klein had a bloody lethal looking chain morticer which they used to make beds and other furniture. On you tube I learnt that one can drill a square hole with a chisel morticer so perhaps that would be better? Always as an afterthought, everyone agreed that a four sided planer moulder would be ideal for what I wanted… but I would never be able to afford one (I thought most machines had four sides as well as a top and bottom?)
I could see where everyone was coming from with buying second hand. You’d have to be mad to buy a new car. As soon as it leaves the showroom its value takes a dive. Let someone else take the hit and, sadly when you consider why, there are plenty of good second hand wood working machines on the market, someone’s shattered hopes gathering dust and available to another dreamer at 30% or more off list.
It’s the ‘list’ bit that bothered me. The second hand price in UK is discounted from the retail price which includes 20% tax. If I bought new for export, I’d get 20% off list straight away. If, rather than go to the retailer, I approached the factory, maybe I could get factory prices? Don’t forget, by the time you buy your wood working machine from the high street, it has probably been through many hands, each pair trousering a good portion of the price you paid.
I tried some of the well-known and prestigious UK manufacturers and was referred to distributors who in turn referred me to their favourite retailer. They weren’t interested in a one of order for single machines and the retailers weren’t interested in export orders unless I paid the VAT and claimed it back afterwards.
I tried an Austrian company, they farmed me out to a distributor in South Africa.
I tried a Swedish company. They handed my enquiry to their office dealing with Hispanic enquiries which, in turn, referred me to a man in Portugal whose sole product, it appears from his website, is sixty euro beehives.
All the time I was fruitlessly searching for a supplier, I had in mind that the tooling for the machines would be as expensive as the machines themselves. What I really needed to do was approach the problem of which machines from a different angle. I decided to look at the tooling I would need to make the things I wanted.
Pretty soon I had found a tooling company in UK which sold and, more importantly, explained all the tooling I could ever wish for. It was eye-wateringly expensive but blessed with heartwarming reviews for its simplicity of use and the ease and speed with which it could produce windows and doors. If you can match numbers and colours, and can fit a round peg into a round hole, you can set up their tooling and get consistent results every time. In addition to their tooling, they also offered a spindle moulder to run it on. The basic model was £6,800 excluding VAT, another £800 for the tilting spindle, which of course I wanted so that I would enjoy the whole new world of horizons and absence of regret promised me on the UKworkshop forum. I had a quick shufti on the web for a second hand set up and found one complete with window tooling for just under ten grand.
Now some people, unless they’re loaded, would be depressed by this but not me. Sure I was a bit pissed it was taking me much longer than I thought but I was pleased I knew what tooling I wanted and what machine I should buy to run it. I was willing to bet that this tooling company did not manufacture the spindle moulder. I reckoned they bought them in rebadged. I hoped that like a lot of ‘industrial’ machines sold in Europe (and I guess North America as well), they weren’t from China. There were quite a few disquieting accounts of poor tolerances and sloppy finish on Chinese made machines supplied by otherwise reputable UK retailers on the UKWorkshop forum.
Armed only with an image of the rebadged machine grabbed from their website, I set out to hunt down the manufacturer. It took me a while but in the end, on a French woodworking forum, I found a link to a pdf file for an operating manual for the identical spindle moulder. ‘Made in Italy’, was the manufacturer’s proud claim. I’m not an expert and haven’t even the experience on which to base the assumption but I had the feeling that Italy make quite good woodworking machines. I called my brother.
‘Leave it with me,’ he said.
Next day he called me back.
‘Their machines are made in Italy and are quite good, apparently.’
They’d have to be at least reasonable to command that price in UK, I thought.
I wrote to them with a wish list of machines, I mean a wish list, there was no way I would be able to afford everything. The best I had been offered so far was ten percent off the tax free price. If the Italians would give me twenty (dare I ask for thirty?) percent off, I’d go for it.
Now, the recent drop in the Euro does favour the comparison but they offered me far, far more than I dared hope for. I went through the rest of their offer wondering where the catch was. But I couldn’t find one. The company checks out, it has a good reputation and it wants to sell its machines into Angola. The terms constrain me from giving details of the pricing structure they were pleased to present me (and I was delighted, overjoyed, ecstatic to accept) so all I can say is that my entire wish list became, after I crossed their palms with a lot less silver than I expected, an order, and I enjoyed a little woody of my own at the thought.
It rather looks as though I am in the wood business.
|The machine I was looking for... the spindle moulder. |
One of the most dangerous machines in the workshop, apparently.
|... and one of these to save my remaining fingers, a power feed for the above,|
|The back bone of any workshop, the jointer planer thicknesser, 5,5 HP and 440kgs...|
|On to saws. Don Kev was very keen on a 'chop' saw.|
This has a blade twice the diameter of the largest saw I have at the moment.
The Italians call it a Seghe Radiali, Don Kev would know that.
|Another saw, this one a panel saw. 400 mm blade plus a scoring blade. 5,5 hp and 630 kgs...|
|No more saws after this: a band saw. At only 300 kgs, a bit of a lightweight.|
|Horizontal bit morticer|
|and a chain morticer. |
Why two types? Well, I am sure both have their applications...
|A copy lathe. |
I have always wanted one of these ever since I played with a neighbour's.
Nothing like the sight of a well turned leg...
Alex'll have me knocking out baseball bats for his mates!
|A few of these to keep the dust down.|
La Pièce de Résistance!
The Piallatrice 4 facce / Scorniciatice
It is big (1,640 kgs), powerful (36 hp total), has four sides and loads of buttons and switches.