A Week in the Workshop

July 15-22nd

The workshop sits in the shadow of a mountain. At the foot are two ancient temples.

It’s been a week now since my tour of Mancora’s bathrooms, and t was our first full week in the workshop. To get a sense of the shop, you’ll need a sense of the scenery.

Peru is divided into three major climates. The coast, the mountains, and the rainforest. The coast is always cloudy during the winter, when the temperature hangs around 60. The Pacific is cool, but warms up as you head north toward the equator. The coastal earth is pure desert. Sand dune mountains, cactus plants, span for miles and miles, with a few scattered towns and cities. Trujillo is one such desert city. Between the coastline and Trujillo is a long road that takes travelers from the smoggy city to the nearby surfing beach and home of the Totora reed boats (more on that later). It is along this road, just past the pay-by-the-hour brothels with a codeword of “Orange,” that a small industrial area borders one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

A huge steel gate lined by towering concrete walls marks the entrance to the workshop. WindAid’s section is at the far end, past local guarddogs and guardpeople, a warehouse where Peru gets its wind energy. Inside the shop, we are introduced to steel cutting powertools. The angle grinder, and the tablesaw. A few feet away are the welding tools. Then the blades and the paint.

Christian cuts some steel.

The week is spent cutting steel, as we have to make all the parts ourselves, welding, cutting fiberglass, mixing resins, and creating the turbine’s base, body, and blades. We did some electrical work too, setting up the system by which the turbine harnesses the energy. When I understand it better, I’ll write about it, but for now let’s just say it has something to do with really high powered magnets and copper coils.

We have a pair of gloves, some safety goggles, and a dark green jumpsuit to keep us safe, but the first time I went to cut steel, a spark hopped above my goggles, singed my eyelash, and narrowly missed burning my eye. Now I’m so used to it that hot sparks landing on my face during up-close steel cutting sessions don’t even make me flinch.

An example of one of the workshops impromptu creations, the mold for the turbine's blades hangs from the ceiling in a testament to ingenuity.

The days are tiring, but I find myself really enjoying them. I have been reading Shop Class as Soulcraft, a book about the philosophical benefits to society and the self of a little bit of manual labor.

Essentially Crawford’s point is that the mental aspects of life, and work in particular, have been separated from the physical. He argues that craftsmanship is not just a physical challenge, but a mental one as well. His description of the difference between craftsmanship and artisans (like sculpture or woodcarving) explains it pretty well I think. He says that the art form is a gradual slope toward an artists envisioned goal. Craft is a series of attempts that, with adjustment, move in the direction of what the mechanic has in mind. To me it is that almost scientific in the trial process, but I’ve found my mind’s energy is consumed mostly in the process of tweaking.

In essence, you have something you need to create, and you have to figure out how to create it. When it is done, you have a product that benefits yourself or others, and provides some use. This is totally different from following an Ikea put it together yourself manual, and my week in the workshop has illustrated the process with an experience possible only in Peru.

This was taken when everyone was still frustrated, clearly, by the process described below.

Our contraption: Wieght pressed down on the paddle flattened the coil, weight on the crank tightened it.

Our first day, we had to take copper wire and make extremely tightly packed rings using a makeshift wooden crank. Nobody had used the crank before, so our pleas for help after messing up the first two received shrugs. The first was not tight enough, and it had to be exactly 37 wraps in each coil. We lost count. The second one was OK, but still not tight enough. The third one had the right tightness, but we put it on slightly wrong. Did I mention we had to make eighteen? The first three alone, all failures, took an immense amount of physical effort and almost two hours. The latter 18 took the same amount of time.

The difference was that after each failure, we reanalyzed how we needed to proceed and got better and better. We had no help and no directions beyond “You need to get it done by 5.” To me, that is what makes the WindAid workshop so great, and why it keeps the spirit of Crawford’s theories. We really have the opportunity to figure stuff out for ourselves, and the freedom to try different ways of doing things. It can be frustrating at first, but after a week of accomplishing task after task by bouncing ideas off each other, I realized that I would never want to just sit there and receive directions. That sort of environment, one in which I can spend I day cutting metal after reading the plans and not being told too, and doing it right, is one that makes engineering a lot of fun.

Finally, finished, the coils wait to be covered in resin.

And so I’m inclined to pick up some sort of craft as a hobby. Maybe I’ll fix up the Camino, or try building my furniture from scratch. I’ve always wanted to try woodcarving? Anyhow, the point is this: I loved shop class, and love working with my hands. Part of the reason I haven’t been writing much, and that when I have it has been not so great, is that I am focusing my mental energies elsewhere.

Solving problems in the workshop and concentrating on developing my skills with a whole new set of tools and experiences has shifted my focus, and new social situations I find myself in are pretty engrossing. As much as I’d like to say that all of that means I’m getting out of my head a little bit, that is not really the case. It is more that I am so mentally exhausted that by the time I actually go to write any of it down, it comes out poorly or not at all.

We’ll see if my writing continues to struggle, or if I find a balance. Honestly, I think it’s just that I’m too busy living to write about it.

The blade, made of fiberglass, carbon fiber, and resin, is removed from the mold and readied for sanding.

A day of work in the shop almost always ends with a dinner with the laughs cooked in.

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