A small group of hotel guests and homeowners walks ahead of me into the Taller Ciego. We all pass under these words carved into wood and posted at the entrance to the artisan carpenter’s woodshop at Isla Palenque. The space is shaded by a high aluminum ceiling and carpeted in sawdust fragrantly unmistakable as cedar.
I wait for one of our guests to turn around and ask the question I know is coming, as someone unfailingly asks it on every Development Tour:
“What’s the name mean?”
I retell it as our artisan carpenter Juan Pardo first told it to me (except in English): that the final test for every piece of furniture to come out of the shop as “finished” is a blind test performed by Amble President Ben Loomis running his hand over the surface to check if it’s been sanded smooth enough.
Hence, Taller Ciego – the blind workshop.
“How do you cut such a huge piece? With a big saw?” asks a guest pointing at a massive slab of nispero.
“With a chainsaw, by hand,” answers Pardo.
“It’s just a guy and a chainsaw?” the guest comes back incredulously.
“Yes; we started to make parts that are conical to use with the chainsaw for better control, especially useful in carving the headboards for the beds in the hotel rooms.”
While half the participants in today’s Development Tour continue to engage our carpenter in Q&A, the others wander the woodshop examining the semi-finished furnishings that are laid across the workbenches and on crude tables. These pieces await further sanding and coats of polyurethane sealant. Even after they’re completely finished, these handcrafted works of art retain a raw, natural look and feel, but the blind test assures each piece of furniture incorporates smoothly and splinterlessly into the décor of the hotel rooms and island homes at Isla Palenque.
Juan Pardo heads up a team of craftsman at the Taller Ciego. The woodshop guys spend their days behind protective glasses and surrounded by huge chunks of hardwood. Pardo introduces us to a few of them by their Spanish names (not the guys, the trees):
Guayaba: guava tree wood, a precious hardwood we’ve used for the long dining table in the Great Room at the Villa Estate Inn;
Maria: or Santa Maria, excellent for cabinetry;
Cedro Espino: spiny cedar, seen at Isla Palenque as table legs supporting tabletops made of Maria or Guayaba;
and Nispero: the strong, heavy and extremely durable wood we’ve used for the bridges, balconies, and connection points of our hotel’s outdoor hallways, as well as in Juan Pardo’s favorite woodworking project to date: the steps leading into the infinity pool.
Our tour guide continues to translate between our smiling carpenter and curious guests. Their questions echo my own from the first time I visited the blind woodshop a few weeks before we welcomed our first guests at Isla Palenque. At that time, there was more timber lying around the Taller Ciego than furniture; President Ben performed a good number of blind tests in the week before we opened.
The skilled hands and trusty chainsaws of our woodshop guys have turned out beautiful dry bars for each room;
handsome trail markers to guide Isla Palenque explorers through our 220-acre nature preserve;
benches, chairs, tables, bartops, headboards, sinks, and all manner of other furnishings to outfit our resort in a style that harmonizes with the natural surroundings.
The wood for these various projects came primarily from the victims of a “ten-year storm” that rocked Isla Palenque at about this time last year. Ten big trees came to the woodshop through a single night of extreme weather in June of 2012. It will be a long time before all of it has been put to use.
Additional wood came from other island trees that had fallen a few years back, as well as driftwood recovered from our beaches. We also use Colombian guadua bamboo alongside these locally-sourced woods to serve many important purposes in constructing our sustainable resort: in flooring, siding, and in our super-cool outdoor showers.
Written into the woodgrain of each table or bed-frame made from Isla Palenque’s beautiful and useful trees, I read a testament to nature’s patience and fortitude, as well as her violence and caprice. Think: it took close to a hundred years for some of these magnificent giants to achieve such dimensions, and only one serious storm to knock them from their sky-piercing heights.
As he teaches us about his work, Juan Pardo gestures between in-progress furnishings and living trees just a few meters away in the jungle surrounding the woodshop. He first learned to recognize different wood species, and to know for which purpose each is best-suited, from his father and grandfather (both carpenters).
“So when you use the chainsaw on a piece of wood do you just start into it at a 90-degree angle to the surface, and whatever is cut is cut?” A guest pops a question I’ve not heard before and I tune back into the Q&A.
“No, we have to look for the cut, you have to find the angle,” answers Pardo.
“But the thickness is pretty consistent, you cut it all by hand at an angle?! Isn’t that hard?”
“Si, es la costumbre — you get used to it,” he says.
Photos by Michael Bauche. Additional photos by Adam Elliott.