New Jobs from Old Logs in the Amazon

New - January 2011  Ingenious Jobs from Waste Wood in Milwaukee

“We never believed we could make money from an old log laying in our forest,” said Elias Alvarado of the Kallari Cooperative in Tena, Ecuador.  “Now we see for ourselves the values in this old wood.”


In most places around the world, the good trees have been cut and the timber industry has moved on.  Local farmers are finding new ways to make good money on what was left behind.  Ideas are being shared today all over the world and small businesses are popping up creating new jobs to use the wood that is now available in the local community.   Encouraging self-sufficiency vs charity

An example of this recently took place along the headwaters of the Amazon River.  Jim Birkemeier and Shawn Olmstead of Timbergreen Farm from Spring Green, Wisconsin, USA spent a week with the leaders and farmers of the Kallari Cooperative demonstrating sawmilling tools and methods for making slabwood furniture.    Watch a Video in HD   Watch the video in low resolution

Four new pieces of equipment were donated for the demonstrations and given to the cooperative for them to start a new woodworking business.  Granberg International in California provided a 56” Alaskan MK3 mill.  The Logosol Corporation in Sweden gave a Timberjig and a 36” bar & picco ripping chain, and Timbergreen Farm donated a new Stihl 381 chainsaw.

“There has never been any sawmill here, the men all cut  the logs with just their chain saws,” stated Fausto Cazco, proprietor of the Stihl chain saw store in Tena.  When shown the new rollernose chainsaw bar and 3/8” picco ripping chain he added, “I have never seen that kind of bar before.  That is not the right stuff for around here!” 

Photos from last year's visit:  Sawmilling logs into lumber with just a chain saw

Lumber has always been sawn by hand since chain saws were introduced to the remote forests of South America.  Birkemeier, now on his third visit to Ecuador since 2004 stated, “Every single board I’ve seen in use here shows the distinctive marks of a hand held chain saw cut.  The men doing this work are very skilled and their accuracy is remarkable.”

Lumber and cants, all cut by hand with a chain saw

The Kallari Cooperative has 850 family farm members owning 50,000 hectares and is growing quickly.  Gourmet organic chocolate bars and crafts are their main business activities, but the people need more work opportunities during the off season growing cacao.  Carlos Pozo, Coordinator for Kallari invited Birkemeier and Olmstead to visit their office in Tena to show the local people chain sawmilling techniques, woodworking methods, and solar lumber drying.

The North American pair had visited  Tena just 15 months ago, and two other cooperative leaders had traveled to Timbergreen Farm 4 years ago, so the area Kichwa villagers were familiar with the white skinned folks – but they were very skeptical of the new tools.   Merging the new with their current ways took some time to work out.

Day One:
Eighteen kilometers driving down a paved road, then 10 more klicks on a newly built gravel path to a small village.     The first day the only chain saw engine available was a Stihl 071 with a .404 chain, an old design still being manufactured in Brazil.  Judy Logback, a tall woman from Kansas who has worked with the people in Ecuador for over a decade, was the interpreter between the local folks and Birkemeier as the Alaskan Mill was assembled.  The group of over a dozen interested people hiked around a farm, eventually stopping at an old down tree.  Four slabs were cut, producing the first sawmilled flitches they had ever seen. 


This particular log was small, soft, and full of character features.  The big chain saw powered through the wood, but the cut was rough and difficult.   The farmers run their chains loosely on the solid nose ‘Duramatic’ bar, allowing the teeth to dig sideways into the wood with the Alaskan mill. The instructors kept assuring the doubtful onlookers that this waste wood actually would make valuable furniture.   The senior member of the farmers checked the flatness of the slabs with the edge of the guide board and was favorably impressed.

Another old tree was examined that lay, freshly exposed by a flood, along the river bank.  Plans were made to later cut slabs from this log with dark brown wood and a grain similar to oak.  Birkemeier asked the farmer if he needed permission from the government to cut wood from a tree in the river.  The thought was foreign to the local man, “That would be ridiculous” was his response.  He checked the wood grain by chopping into the log.



Day Two:

Don Ignacio (white T-shirt), the President of a local village - and his new Stihl 065 chainsaw joined the group the next day as the crowd traveled to Ramon Alvarado’s farm, a canoe ride across the Napo River and a hot km long hike further up the gravel thoroughfare.  Two old down logs were chosen for today’s demonstrations.  Both were very hard wood, (compared to oak or maple) in the Moral tree family.  The larger log was already dead when it fell 18 years ago.  The good logs had been sawed into lumber at that time, leaving a slabwood pile and a 4 meter long butt log thought to be worthless.  A whack with a machete revealed solid orange colored wood just under the rough surface of the old log.

The 30” bar on Don’s saw allowed a 24” wide cut with the Alaskan Mill. A guide board was nailed to the log and the outer slab was sawn.  Each man that tried the new rig immediately jammed the machine into the log, stalling the chain and engine.  They were accustomed to a method of sawing that didn’t fit this equipment.  Birkemeier coached the farmers to get the engine up to full speed, use very light pressure, and let the saw do the work.  Eventually the log produced the slab, but not without a major effort.  Starting with a brand new .404 chain, 6 of the teeth were broken off in the rough cutting of this one pass.


When the slab finally came off the log, the visitors were elated at the beauty of the wood’s color and grain – and the locals were bewildered by the notion this obvious “waste” wood had any value.  “That is just firewood to us,” said Pozo. “We just throw that away.”

The log was too wide for another cut, so the chain saw was switched from the Alaskan Mill to the Logosol Timberjig, and they moved to the smaller log.  They had not yet assembled the suggested T shaped guide board system recommended by Logosol, but simply used the flat plank used on the first log as the guide to make slabs.  This log was harder than the first and the initial cut was quickly abandoned in favor of “lunch” as the sun set into the forest.



Earlier, while the big slab was being cut, Olmstead had explored the aged pile of slabwood down the hill.  She found several 10 cm X 12 cm X 3 m cants, abandoned by the previous workers.  The wood was still hard and beautifully spalted, more intricately than the familiar spalted maple from Northern Wisconsin and the UP of Michigan.  The local farmers immediately challenged her to make something from that scrap, which she cheerfully accepted.  Her promise was to have a variety of fine wood products finished and waiting when Alvarado visits Wisconsin in November.  That wood is now in the Solar Cycle Lumber kiln at Timbergreen Farm.  Picture frames and wooden pens are among the planned products, according to Olmstead.



Over the weekend, Cazco finally accepted that the 3/8” roller nose bar and picco ripping chain might be able to run on Dario’s Stihl 065 chain saw (the fellow who showed us his skills on our trip last year) and sold the needed 3/8” sprocket for the chain saw.

During a rain storm on Saturday, in the home of Pozo, a laptop computer with a cell phone “air card” was used to view YouTube videos of the Granberg Alaskan mill and Logosol Timberjig in action.  The group also explored a variety of U.S. business’s websites showing slabwood furniture, and the selling prices for various products.  The excitement of the coop’s leaders visibly grew stronger just seeing the photos and the prices of the furniture - on the internet. 


Day Three:

Monday morning, Timbergreen Farm bought the Kallari Cooperative a new Stihl 381 chain saw, bringing a fresh smile and cooperative spirit to the chain saw store owner.

   Elias, Fausto Cazco, Carlos, and Judy at the Stihl Store in Tena
The Logosol Timberjig was installed to show Cazco this new sawmill

To start the work day, the Logosol Timberjig was fitted to the new 381 powerhead, also with a new slim 3/8” chain.  At the river crossing were a dozen piles of boards and cants that had been sold to a lumber broker and were ready to be hauled away by truck.   A rejected cant that contained a dark red colored “crotch wood” was pulled from the long grass for a demonstration.  Again the farmers were amazed that their northern visitors had any interest in that worthless piece.   Olmstead was seen sneaking off with two of the sawn planks to make cutting boards from “the prettiest wood I have seen the whole time here!”


Rosio Alvarado slices a rejected piece of crotch wood with the Timberjig

Birkemeier showed the group how the simple guide could easily produce more accurate cuts than sawing freehand.  A continuous high speed cut using the length of the bar could be made - instead of the rhythmic back and forth action just cutting with the round end of the bar - traditionally used to cut a plank from a log.  This jig would also be suitable for resawing the cants into lumber.

Dario joined the group today and makes another board


Another canoe ride and brutally hot hike back to the old logs soon followed.  The small log was again “attacked” with the Alaskan mill with the heavy duty traditional .404 bar and chain.  The log won, frustrating the demonstrators and onlookers.  Then the new 36” bar and 3/8” picco chain were fitted to the Stihl 065 powerhead with the new 3/8” sprocket -  and the Alaskan mill was reset for action. 


To everyone’s wonder, the rig began a new cut - smoothly and straight!  A beautiful bright yellow slab of hardwood was sliced off the log, each farmer taking a turn at a portion of the length. 




The group then insisted on going back to the larger log, with the new setup capable of a 30” wide slab.  Everyone got their chance to work the machine, including women who had never touched a chain saw in their lives.

Silvie, Ramon's wife saws her first slab


Shawn Olmstead makes her first slabbing cut


Four Fingered Chain Sawmilling
Birkemeier was thrilled to see the men learn quickly, not to force the saw into the log, allowing the engine to do the work.  He showed them how to gently use their left thumb and forefinger on the throttle, and two fingers on the right hand to finesse the sawmill through the log in a smooth, steady action.  Gravity and the chain’s teeth move the mill forward – only needing occasional encouragement from the operator.  He taught them to watch the volume of the stream of sawdust to judge the effectiveness of the cut.  Large strips and chunks of sawdust are best, fine dust means it is time to sharpen the teeth.



One problem with the Alaskan Mill is that the guide bars block the opening where you add oil to the saw to lubricate the chain.  Maybe the most popular demonstration of all was where Birkemeier showed how to pour oil down a stick, into the hard-to-reach hole.  The second filling was improved by taking a nearby leaf – forming a “funnel” to neatly pour the oil down the stem.  Surface tension of the liquid holds the fluid onto the vertical solid, directing it into the lower horizontal target by the force of gravity.  Excess oil on the leaf was dripped onto the roller nose and bar edges to add some extra lubricant.  “Getting enough oil to the chain is important when doing wide slabs in hard wood,” said Birkemeier.

Used motor oil is used to lubricate the chain - it is cheap here


Many lesson’s became quickly obvious; 

  1. The smaller 3/8” picco chain makes a narrower kerf, requiring less power
  2. The roller nose bar allows for greater chain tension, avoiding gouging to the side
  3. Modern high speed engines are superior to older models of chain saw
  4. Ripping chain is filed at a “flatter” angle than cross cutting chain
  5. Depth gauges (rakers) are filed so that the teeth just pull the saw through the log
  6. A smooth cut leaves a better surface than rocking the saw rig back and forth
  7. Four Fingered sawmilling can be done by about any person with little fatigue
  8. Cutting at an angle may speed the saw’s progress - if the bar is long enough


Two beautiful - 8 cm thick slabs were made, then the diameter of the log was too large to continue.  Birkemeier promised the farmers that he would search for funds to purchase a 56” double ended chain saw bar and ripping chain so that they could finish sawing slabs from this and other large logs.

Photos of a double ended chain saw in action at Timbergreen Farm

Transportation in the Rainforest

Each big slab weighed about 500kg (1,240 pounds) so they were cut in half to be carried.  Four men carried each piece 50 meters to the road, took a rest, then carried another 100 m to the riverbank.  A large - 16 m canoe was loaded with wood, tools, and crew for the float down to the road crossing.  Two men were busy patching the leaks in the wood floor while the others loaded the boat.  Several white water rapids and various shallow riffles made the trip exciting for the visitors.  Four men poled the boat along while another person continuously bailed out the water that was leaking in.
  Luckily, the trip was short as the inflow exceeded the bailout.


Darkness was falling as the slabs were carried up the river bank and loaded into a truck.  Lunch came after dark – a feast of chicken, fish, rice, yucca, plantain, tomato & onion salad, and tea.  Another special Dinner soon followed for Kallari to show appreciation to their guests for the demonstrations, information sharing, and new friendships. 

Day Four:

Everyone assembled again on Tuesday morning to stack the slabs in a solar heated shed (greenhouse style building they use to dry cacao beans) to dry the wood.  The ends of the slabs were waxed to slow the drying of the end grain.  Heavy duty nylon straps were tightened around the pile of wood to help hold the slabs straight while drying.  The daily heating from the sunshine then equalizing of the moisture content in the overnight cycle will dry the wood with minimal defects. 


The effectiveness of the solar drying sheds was quickly demonstrated as the hot equatorial air was superheated inside the structure as the wood was stacked and strapped.  After emerging from the photo session drenched in sweat - Birkemeier explained, “Lesson number one about using solar heated lumber kilns is to work on a rainy day, or at night!”

Once outside the dryer - Elias Alvarado, Production Director for Kallari stated, "A couple years ago I thought it was impossible for us to create these large slabs of wood from salvaged logs, I couldn't comprehend how to create value from something just laying in the forest. I never imagined it would be this easy - we needed so little to get started. We did not have the vision to use our scrap wood and make it into something valuable like furniture. I could see the finished product in books or internet, but didn't understand how to make it from our trees. Now I feel like my eyes have been opened with this lesson, as if we have woken up from our slumber and can now initiate a new woodworking facility."

"Our families have a small income and wood is something that will contribute to their overall family earnings, it still makes a difference for our village/community members.
It helps us rest at night as leaders, because our job is to find a way to create alternative income sources to the deforestation and contamination."
"I also want to thank the companies that donated the equipment and Timbergreen Farm for donating the chainsaw. These tools will serve as a cornerstone for the future woodworking business of Kallari."

"Please tell your friends that we appreciate the school supplies and education donations, but if others could come and share their time and knowledge like you have, we would be even better served by developing income generating skills and activities."

Kallari Board Member Edison Mamallacta added, " Our families trust us to find ways for them to add value to their cacao by making chocolate. But the wood seems even easier than cacao and nearly everyone has hardwood pieces resting on their farms that they could make income from."

Carlos Pozo, General Coordinator summarized, "Thank you for your technical training and the equipment donation, this will remain as a motivating force for us to continue. Next time you visit here, you will see a beautiful wood conference table in our office.  We have decided to build a woodworking shop to help our cooperative members earn a better income from their farms.  We have thousands of these old logs and stumps on our lands.”

The Challenge of Change:
“It is rewarding to see the many changes this cooperative is making,” said Birkemeier.  “We have been sharing ideas for 6 years.  Elias will stay in our home for 5 days in November, and he will be able to see and try many new things.  What he will value and take home to his people is hard for me to predict, but we will have some fun working together.”  Logback will tour the U.S. with Alvarado and bridge the language barrier.  “Judy has become one of us, she is a trusted friend,” added Elias. 

Naturalist Kurt Beate, owner of the Tapir Lodge near Quito, shared his views on timber harvesting in the Amazon.  “The introduction of chain saws greatly hastened the destruction of the rainforest.  Anyone could now easily cut down trees.  People don’t seem to value the forest for the many benefits and its simple presence, they just think about money for the moment….  The workers here today are very professional and produce high quality boards with their chain saws.” 

The purpose of this demonstration project was to develop a new woodworking business for the cooperative members, using the old wood that is available in the communities. 
These modern machines could also be used throughout the region by farmers to produce more accurate lumber and cants with greater efficiency.

“Woodworking is really pretty easy and can be done anywhere on a small scale with simple tools.  Most people just need the confidence that ‘this is not so hard!’  That comes quickly with some hands on the job experience.  Take what wood you have and make something that other people need – it is a great business,” summed up Birkemeier.

The cooperative buys Mahogany and other tree seeds for the members to plant on their lands to reestablish the valuable species that were devastated by commercial logging several decades ago.  These seeds will produce harvestable trees in less than 30 years.  Several cacao nurseries are also maintained for members to have quality stock for planting.  Each farm has a wide variety of crops for income and daily food.

Safety equipment:

“During my first visit to Ecuador, none of the sawmillers we watched used any personal safety equipment,” reminisced Birkemeier.  “Last year, ditto.  The first day of these demonstrations, everyone refused even the safety glasses.  On the second day, people would put on the glasses for the camera for a ‘magazine article’.  Third day, sawyers would wear the new orange hard hat, face mask and ear muffs, at least for the chance to be on a YouTube video. Next time maybe we will bring some leather gloves for CNN!  Chaps?? The skepticism of the equipment melted away at the same time as the beautiful wide slabs of wood piled up.  It is wonderful to see changes happening.”

Another goal of the inter-continental visit was to encourage education opportunities for the school children in the remote villages of the Kallari members.  With the regular visits between Tena Ecuador and Spring Green Wisconsin, Birkemeier is rallying community support at home to provide resources for the village’s schools. 

A frequent traveler to South and Central America, Susan Havekost from Florence SC emphasized the importance of this aspect of the sharing:  “Being able to communicate, to read and write – is the most powerful thing in the world.   Most people back in the States have no idea what it is like here in Ecuador, because in the United States, we enable disability with giving people a free ride.  The people here in Ecuador need somebody with their best interest at heart to help them be more self-sufficient.  Sharing opportunities and choices is empowering.”


Lots More Photos

Video of the project in High Definition

Low Resolution version of the Video