Woodwork in Malawi

Posted by on Jul 29, 2016 in Blog, Uncategorized | No Comments

I have recently returned from a trip to Malawi to teach router skills to some carpenters in Nkhotakota, a town on the shores of Lake Malawi.

The teaching was fraught with some difficulty, I had to prepare the timber for the course from locally sourced wood using only tools I could buy in Nkhotakota locally. The problem was that the tools available were of the lowest quality plus we had problems with the electrical generator that provided power for the router.

In a way that last sentence sums up the problems facing carpenters in Malawi and other African countries.

I was dismayed at the almost total lack of decent hand tools either in shops or workshops. This is a major problem for local craftsmen, as they have no woodworking machinery, they work totally by hand. This includes cutting and preparing the timber form it’s sawn state as well as construction.

I visited a few workshops in Nkhotakota and saw timber preparation including hand planing and ripping 2” boards by hand. In fact I had to do exactly the same to prepare for teaching, and it was hard work I can tell you!

In my workshop I have a planer thicknesser and circular saw which will do this in a few minutes. In Malawi I bought an Anant jack plane from a local store, I knew it was a very low quality plane but that was the only one available.

Within a day the casting of the frog was broken so the lateral adjustment lever dropped off. The blade seemed as if it had not been tempered so it required re-sharpening every ten minutes.

I had bought a couple of hand saws In Lilongwe, the capital, when I arrived. These turned out to be almost useless because they had no set so they stuck in the kerf. Fortunately a local carpenter showed me how to set one of them with a nail!

Benches in the carpenters workshops which I visited were very basic with fairly rudimentary holding systems. I did not see a vice or clamps in use anywhere

The timber purchased locally I was told was blue gum. It looked a little like Luan, a mahogany substitute I used to use at home. The boards were of variable quality some with considerable bowing and all around about 20-25% moisture content I would guess. In a way this was a blessing as it made planing with a blunt plane easier.

I now have a high regard for the skill and determination of the local carpenters in there working against the odds. Will having and using an electric router help them? I’m not sure. As I said we had problems with the generator, I was only able to teach router skills in the second week. This would be a recurring problem for the carpenters as electrical supply is sporadic in the town. Also cutters would not be easily purchased. I am not sure what they will do when the cutter I took out wear out.

I believe this is a common problem with aid generally, unless appropriate, technical fixes do not work. A better approach would be to give access to good well made hand tools. I have been a long time supporter and volunteer for tool charities such as Workaid and Tools for Self Reliance, as such perhaps I should have realised that the router was inappropriate, but it’s only when you see the reality on the ground that clarity comes.

However my visit has helped me to realise how valuable is the work of these charities. What they do is collect old unwanted tools refurbish them and send them out to craftsmen in the developing world. I would urge everyone to get involved in such a group, it’s a great way to help craftmen working at the blunt end of woodwork in the developing world.

Here’s a list of such organisations in the UK. If you’re not in the UK I’m sure Google will help you find a similar one where you are:


Tools for Self Reliance                    www.tfsr.org.uk

Workaid                                               www.workaid.org.uk

Tools for Solidarity (Belfast)        028 9074 7473

Tools for Self Reliance Cymru     www.tfsrcymru.org.uk

Ilkley Tools for Africa (the group I work with)      01943 608655

Hand ripping 2" stuff at local workshop. Note holding device and big muscles
Wood yard in Nkhotakota. Some wood straighter than B&Q's
Chisels for sale in Nkhotachota
The best chisels available for sale locally.
Tools I used to prep. wood. The cross is not to ward off vampires, it's a makeshift square as the purchased one was not square.
Broken plane
Anant plane, falling to bits in two days.
Routed door
Partly finished door made with router.
Three woodworkers
Malawi door
The finished door all fitted

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Thankyou, Chris.


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