On an overcast Friday afternoon, somewhere in the southeastern San José district of Zapote, we walked up a gravel driveway under dripping trees to a little shack with a tin roof. It was all very Costa Rican: 25 meters this way, 50 meters that way. Then we saw it. In the entrance to the shack was a meter-and-a-half-tall hardwood hutch, built lovingly from cypress and finished in a rich, glossy chocolate color.
Out stepped Carlos Cabrera, the owner of the little wood shop. We shook his big, calloused hand and he grinned, braces showing under his mustache.
“Watch your heads,” he said, pushing aside a piece of corrugated metal that drooped from the roof. “I’m working on an addition.”
We stepped inside and were struck by the damp, salty smell of sawdust and wood shavings, the rich, pleasant smell of wood stacked and drying in the corner.
This is where you go if you want handmade wood furniture in Costa Rica. Sure, you can buy it in stores, maybe take a trip to Sarchí, the craft town west of San José, where you can find both rustic and faux-Edwardian pieces.
But if you want nice, stylish wood furniture that doesn’t cost half a paycheck and isn’t shipped in from a province in China, you have to find a guy. Our guy was Carlos.
Carlos patted the big hutch sitting in the entrance. They were still finishing the doors for the bottom half, he said, then they would ship it out and get started on some new projects.
The workmanship was gorgeous. Perfect joints, elegant design, nice finish. It sat on wood blocks on the dirt floor.
How much would something like this go for? I asked. Carlos shrugged and replied, “Let’s say, oh, ¢135,000.”
That’s about $270.
He grinned again.
Finding a ‘Guy’
How do you find a guy like Carlos? About the same way you find anything in this country: Ask around. Shake the tree a little. Sooner or later, everyone knows a guy.
In the case of Carlos, it was our landlord who referred him to us, saying he did great work, a fact to which the cabinetry above our kitchen counter could attest. Carlos invited me to his little taller, and there I was.
Inside the shop, Carlos’ four employees were working away on an ornate door. The door, like most of the pieces made in the shop, was made of cedar. Carlos explained that it’s one of the best woods to make furniture out of in Costa Rica. It’s easy to find, not too expensive and, if you care for it properly, “it lasts an eternity,” he said.
Carlos had a lot full of cedar drying outside his shop, with some of the workable boards stacked inside.
Laurel is another popular wood in Costa Rica, as is cypress. Woods like melina and eucalyptus can be farmed without much trouble, so they are becoming more popular in the country.
Wood can be expensive here, sometimes costing as much as $6 a pulgada, an amount of wood one inch thick, four inches wide and 136 inches long. And don’t even mention exotic hardwoods, which Carlos said are almost impossible to get these days.
Still, the greatest cost of custom furniture is the labor. Carlos looked around his shop and estimated that there was perhaps only $8,000 of investment there.
“With that investment, you can make a lot,” he said. “But you need the people.” Even so, the cost of handmade wooden furniture easily competes with the prices at stores that import similar items, and when quality is taken into consideration it even compares well to the wooden furniture made in China and imported by stores such as Aliss.
The added benefit of finding a guy like Carlos is that he’ll make whatever you want. Show him a picture and he’ll draw up a design. It’s like shopping at the North American chain Pottery Barn, only about half the price and without the shipping.
We walked across the dirt road to another taller, where another carpenter – Orlando Rojas – also builds furniture. We shook hands outside as heavy drops of rain began to fall.
I asked Orlando about the carpentry business. He shook his head. After 50 years in the business – since the age of 14 – things didn’t look good, Orlando said.
People are buying cheap particleboard imports, as wood continues to get more expensive.
“Before, it was really easy,” he said. “They would beg you to buy (wood). Not now.”
He looked around his little shop with watery eyes, fragments of old projects leaning against the walls. He gestured up at a dusty little chair hanging from the wall, a chair whose legs and spindles were turned by hand.
Now, he said, you can never do that. Factories make copies by the thousands, and ship them in. He shook his head. No sir. Carlos and I walked out again. The rain had stopped. If Orlando’s pessimism about the future of Costa Rican carpentry had had any effect, it didn’t show. Carlos continued to talk about his shop, just opened two months ago and swamped with business.
The craft of carpentry might be threatened right now, as Orlando said. But everyone needs a guy to make something once in awhile, and guys like Carlos will always be around.
If you can find them.