A trip to the big box store

The Pelican case and its contents have arrived safely in Ecuador. One of the two locks on the case, however, did not make it. R.I.P.

We are now reasonably settled into our rental house, so it’s time to think about woodworking. While I believe I have pretty much all of the “real” tools I expect to need, I’m otherwise going to be bootstrapping this entire operation from scratch, so I need to buy some Stuff.

First stop was Ecuador’s version of the big box store, the Mega Kywi:


The Kywi stores are a lot like big box stores in the U.S., although the relative sizes of the different departments are different. They don’t have much of a garden section, for example, but they have plumbing fixtures out the wazoo. Like our big box stores, they’re tailored more to the do-it-yourselfer and homeowner than to professionals.

I was surprised to discover that they don’t have any of the standard-issue handsaws with uncomfortable handles and induction-hardened teeth that are omnipresent in the U.S. There were some Stanley saws that looked okay (well, not really), so I bought a 20″ 8 ppi one. I also bought a (too big) triangular file with the expectation that the saw would need some work. I could have bought a more appropriately sized file, but only as part of a set.

Among the hammers were these strange beasts:


The handle is a piece of galvanized steel tubing that’s swaged into the head. They were cheaper than the conventional hammers to the right ($8 vs. $13), but as you might imagine, they did not exactly fall naturally to hand.

These drawknives were hanging next to the saws:


You can’t really tell from the photo, but they’re very roughly ground, and don’t have any kind of brand marking. I thought $38 was a lot to ask for one.

Prices in Ecuador are weird. Food is generally pretty inexpensive, but other stuff is unpredictable. If it’s something that’s made in Ecuador, it’s usually reasonable, but if it’s imported, the price depends on whether or not it’s classified as a necessity or a luxury item. So some imported things cost about the same as in the U.S., while others are double or triple. A medium-sized Coleman ice chest is nearly $100. In our local supermarket, there is a locked glass case in the liquor department containing, among other things, four bottles of Johnny Walker Blue Label (I’ve never seen that much Blue Label in the same place at the same time) at $551 each.

One thing I forgot to pack with me is a countersink, and I have yet to find anyone that sells one here, which is strange since there are plenty of flat head screws for sale. I may have to have my brother-in-law bring one down when he comes to visit. Chris will be happy to hear that Kywi sells unplated flat head steel screws with slotted heads. Unfortunately, they appear to be available only in relatively large sizes, too big for hinges and the like.

Kywi doesn’t sell lumber, although they do have a small selection of rather pathetic looking sheet goods. So next up is the maderera (wood merchant). An architect acquaintance gave me a couple of suggestions for local wood suppliers, but I haven’t yet had a chance to check them out. At least one of the ones he mentioned sells colorado, which is known by the name quebracho in the U.S. Quebracho means “axe breaker,” which is apt, since its Janka hardness of 4570 lbf makes it the hardest commercially available wood species in the world. I don’t know if I have the courage to try it out.

Yesterday, we drove by the two places to figure out exactly where they were. Being that it was Sunday, they were both closed, so I didn’t get to see what they had in stock. In general, it looks like Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) is the common softwood, while blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) is the “utility” hardwood. Both species are plantation-grown.

As we were heading back from our quest, my wife noticed a small shop (also closed) with a sign reading herramientas para madera (“woodworking tools”) out front. So this afternoon, I walked into town to do some grocery shopping as well as check out this store. It turned out not to be of much interest, stocking mostly the same kinds of tools that Kywi has. They did have a much better selection of cabinet hardware, though, and despite not having the slightest clue what the Spanish term for it was, I was able to find a sliding bolt latch to replace a broken one on one of the windows at the house.

During my walk, I passed by a place that I had driven by several times but never noticed from the car. They stock a variety of sheet goods along with some S4S pine (madera cepillada = “planed wood”):


The prices seem a bit on the high side, but the (roughly) 2×8 boards look suitable for a workbench. And given that the place is about a five-minute walk from the house, I can easily pick up a board (or two) and carry it home without worrying about how to fit it in the car. Maybe not the 13-ft 2×8’s, though.

— Steve Schafer

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15 Responses to A trip to the big box store

  1. Alex A. says:

    I have been pleasantly surprised by my experience with Tasmanian Blue Gum. It planes well and takes dye easily and has been pleasant to work with. I did have some boards with so much internal tension they ripped themselves apart but I bought it green and did a poor job reading the grain. Mine were not plantation grown so you should have fewer issues.

  2. misterlinn says:

    Hi Steve,

    Must be exciting setting up in a new country! In your last post, did you say why you’ve had to move there? Just interested.

    By the way, here in Britain it’s Stupid Question day, so here’s mine. Where did the term “Big Box Store” come from? Is it because the stores themselves look like big boxes?

    Sometimes – not a complaint by the way; just an observation – Americans forget the rest of the world doesn’t use the same terminology. Chris does it a lot in his books.


    • misterlinn says:

      Here’s another: what’s a wiener? Seems German…

      • A wiener is a hot dog, named after the Austrian capital of Vienna (or Wien, in German). I doubt the American hot dog is similar to the original Austrian sausage that it’s named after, but that’s where the name comes from. More colloquially, a wiener is a sausage-shaped male appendage, often used as a derogatory appellate for an unintelligent or uncouth person.

      • steveschafer says:

        I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve read that residents of Vienna call hot dogs frankfurters, and residents of Frankfurt call them wieners.

      • So my son is just finishing a year as an exchange student right outside of Vienna (Wien). I asked him what they would serve me if I came for a visit and asked for a Wiener, and he said “there are several possibilities, none of which is remotely like a hot dog, and all of which are far better than a hot dog.”

      • Thanks for the confirmation, Jim Dillon. I suspected as much 🙂

    • steveschafer says:

      My wife (a professor of biology at Ohio University) is taking her sabbatical leave at the Tropical Disease Institute of PUCE (Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, http://www.puce.edu.ec and http://www.cieic.edu.ec), which has a collaborative relationship with OU.

      So we’re here for six months. Part of the purpose of the trip is to assess whether or not it would be feasible for us to live in South America (not necessarily Ecuador, and probably more likely Colombia) on a more permanent basis after retirement.

      My day job has been a telecommute for the last fifteen years, so I can work anywhere I can get a decent internet connection.

      I don’t really know why big box stores are called that. I’ve always assumed that it’s because the stuff they sell often comes in big boxes (as in, you have to figure out how to put it together yourself).

  3. Wow, draw knives for sale new? Yeah, they are rough, but how many people in the US even know what one is, much less what it’s used for. Seeing them in public like that blows my mind

    • steveschafer says:

      They also had miter boxes for sale, which I’ve also never seen in a big box store. The display unit had some plastic parts and was already broken in a couple of places, however, so I have my doubts about the quality.

  4. shopsweeper says:

    I actually used a draw knife for grafting trees before I ever held one in a woodshop. They are very handy for preparing and presenting the best surface for grafting.

  5. Jeff Faulk says:

    I suspect $38 is a bit dear for a drawknife in Ecuador, but I have a very similar, also fairly rough one from Ochenskopf that I bought at Highland Woodworking for pretty much the same price. I would not be surprised to find out that these are imported as well. Quite likely they’re used in a variety of trades– grafting as noted, woodworking, and lumber. I’m sure a creative tradesman could think of other uses. Honestly 38 is not that bad if you think about it, it’s hard to get a NEW drawknife for less.

    I’ll be watching these posts from Steve. I have a fondness for woodworking outside the more ‘advanced’ parts of the world… another reason I’m looking forward eagerly to Woodworking in Estonia!

  6. ouidavincent says:

    Midwest case was great to work with. Thank you, Steve, for helping me decide what to get to transport my tools to Wisconsin in a month. Keep us posted on your woodworking stories in Ecuador!

  7. Ruben "Rube" Villanueva says:

    I have always loved checking out hardware stores in other countries. I have mostly been to the ones in the Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE. Speaking to the local woodworkers reveals that most of the stuff over there is crap and that they prefer to buy off of eBay to get some good used power or hand tools. Camp Arifjan has a woodshop that was completely donated to them by a US expat who purchased all new gear. Great stuff and the folks that worked there loved it. They made some stuff in the shop to sell in the bizarre but they were mostly there to teach us how to work wood. You should have seen the work they produced. If those guys ever made it to the states they can get some pretty decent work.

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