Woodworking, the Haitian Way


Part two of my trip to Haiti to help out a medical team is on something I have a clue about –  woodworking. Last year, when I went to Haiti, I was the outlier. You know, the “furniture maker” among a tight knit group of guys who had been banging and  clunking and piecing this place along for 15 years, creating something really good with only half of whatever they needed.

The medical missionary team of people who built and maintain the clinic are known as “the construction team”, even if they current scene is to primarily correct, maintain, or otherwise improve the Haitian clinic mostly these days. This is a nice group of guys. Interesting, dedicated, and coming from all sorts of specialties, though 4 of them were general contractors (I will try not to hold that against them!).

Some of the maintenance crew from last year.


This year, I was alone as the maintenance guy, surrounded by a group of medical people whose needs were water and power, not wood, or so I thought. One of the surgeons  in the group had the first name “Mark”, so I became “maintenance Mark” to the team. Between my trips fixing toilets and other catastrophic plumbing situations, I had a several wood projects lined up to fill in my schedule – these were non-maintenance projects, non-critical improvements to the establishment.

We worked a solid six days while in Haiti, plus two more for travel. I made notes on what I did each day. Every day, every project, creating something required procurement of materials, which is a huge deal in the land of nothingness. Half the time on a project was spent scrounging for material. Everything was from used, re-used, or discarded materials, except some of the plumbing supplies. Last year, we had to go on a 4 hour round trip to the nearest town for lumber. This year, with all the exploding toilets and sinks, a trip like this was not going to be an option. There was no way I could leave for more than a one or two hours at best.

Hunting and digging for stuff to make things with , I remembered what a pack rat I used to be. We used to call this “leavin’s”, pronounced like something out of the movie Deliverance. When I was a kid back in the late 1960’s, we used to go to trash dumps. The municipal trash services had only begun a decade prior, and living in the country, there were many farmer trash dumps all over. My buddies and I would make the best crap from junk!

I once took home several smashed cabinets from where I worked in 1982, Conrans. We received broken stuff every week, and this was just par for the course. I remember spending my evenings piecing things together, saving the extra hardware. I had several wooden handles from the series of smashed cabinet projects. I kept those handles for about 27 years before having the perfect time and opportunity to use them…..like I said, a true pack rat (like most woodworkers). These lessons proved to help me in Haiti.

At work, let’s call it my real job, we operate to crazy tight and consistent tolerances, generally within .003 (three one-thousandths of an inch). This dimension is the width of a single hair on your head. Of course, I have some beautiful machinery to do this with. We have a table saw (two actually) that costs over $28,000, weighs over 4000 pounds, and can easily hold a full sheet of plywood on its bed. It is precision German workmanship at its best. In Haiti, I had a circular saw, a miter saw with a dull blade and no guards, and a pretty sad table saw with a bent leg, causing it to wobble nicely,  along with a dull blade, and again, no guards. Yes, I admit that I have gotten spoiled along the way in my real job.

Working the miter saw on a set of used lockers that I found for my workbench.

During the week, I made the following items from wood: Monday: a tall bookcase for the resident doctor. Tuesday: storage shelving high up in the tool depot, a second bookcase for the resident doctor. Wednesday: a trip to the hardware store in town and prep work for gun locker. Thursday: a two tiered stool for one of the doctors made, a third bookcase made for the administrator of the clinic, a gun locker made and hung, a kitchen door made and hung. Friday: a screen door security.

Tall Bookcase. Notice my pencil marks on the painted back of the bookcase.

Notice the wood used in the bookcase. While the plywood is from left over projects from last year and relatively new, the 2 x 4’s are weathered and worn from an old repurposed exterior structure I tore down last year.


The Thomassique hardware store. Well, it’s not Home Depot, and there is no lumber to be had, but lots of nails, wire, locks, paint, concrete materials, and machetes.



Our supplies from the trip to the Thomassique hardware store. That is Baloo in the background, a longtime trusted worker at the clinic.


Four locks, four hasps, four sets of hinges, a gallon of paint, two pieces of “Haitian fine grit” sandpaper – 80 grit (they had 80, 60 and 40 grit), and a can of WD-40. The WD-40 cost the most – $8.00 US. The locks were a dollar each. The receipt is on the table – $31.00 total.

Along with all this hardware in the photo is the notebook I carried with me at all times, making notes, dimensions, drawings, etc. I love the words on the front – “Work Hard and Be Awesome”. This notebook and saying is from my good buddy Jon Budington at Global Printing in Alexandria, VA.

Table Saw
Our poor bent legged table saw! Gun locker being made.
One of the two lower bookcases. Notice the sawbuck straps on the back, as materials were getting thin.



The urologist sitting on the two tiered seat during a procedure.
My buddy and chief helper ReNelson, with his “piggy bank” in hand.

I will leave you with one last story. While making our first bookcase, I needed to get the sides squared up. Using the basic Pythagorean theorem…..  You remember?…….A squared plus B squared equals C squared. Measuring the diagonals on the frame, when the two diagonal measurements are equal, the frame is perfectly square, assuming the other parts are all consistent in size.


I was making the point with my helpers, in broken Spanish and French and English. All the while, they are nodding their heads and saying “yeah, yeah, yeah” like teenage kids will do when you’re trying to make your point.

I was certain my helpers had no idea what I was doing, and I wanted to drive the educational point across, as I felt this was something they could use in their future experiences. I was committed to helping them improve their station in life with this critical knowledge I held. I could not imagine anyone with woodworking aspirations moving forward without this information. I was certain that I had learned in my life way more than I could possibly teach, and getting a bit agitated by their seeming indifference.

ReNelson is 15 years old, and James is 16. I went to the clinic and summoned one of the translators, a school teacher as it turns out. I explained what I was doing and why with respect to the bookcase. He begins to explain all this to the kids, turns to me and says “yes, they understand the theorem. They learned it last year in school. They understand this. Can we continue?”.

I found that exchange so delightfully serendipitous, like most of the trip, full of very unexpected experiences. I have one more Haiti post to do. I will work to have it by the weeks end.

Thanks for reading,

Mark Gatterdam





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