Northern Story #6· Luís Portabales, MAKER


Photography: Mónica Bedmar

It has been drizzling for a whole day. We park our car and walk to the centre of Pontevedra. We walk briskly, searching for shelter under some balconies and cornices, until we get to San Román street. We get into Luis’ little shop, Carballo e Estrela.

After the apropiate presentations, we try on some caps, talk about mountain equipment and nose around the shelves, which Luís keeps in perfect order.

Luís greets us happily, he has a friendly smile and talks calmly. After the shop, we are going to his little workroom, in his house, so he takes four raincoats, just in case, and after a couple of indications, we go there.

There is a little room in the apartment where Luís and his family live: it works as his studio. Two benches, a drawing table and another table for the computer. There is a window at the bottom of the room from which we can see the sea and some boats, sign of the local fishing industry. On the walls we see a bunch of boards holding a collage of tools and some shelfs full of slingshots, birdhouses, jars full of brushes and stones and pieces of lumber found in the beach.

In one of the benches, Luís keeps a piece of rough ash tree wood. After noticing our curiosity, he tells us that ash tree wood is great for working since it is soft but resistant. It is often used to make the handle of different tools, furniture or baseball bats.

While we get comfortable, Mònica takes her camera out. Joan, who has been attentively looking at all the artifacts in the shelves, asks Luis about the origin of the whole thing. Luís smiles timidly and takes a red book with big golden letters from the bookcase: The Dangerous Book for Boys.

“When I was a kid, I used to go to the forest, climb the trees with friends and play with sticks… When I found this book, I think it awoke in me a desire to play this way with my kids. I did the first birdhouse with just a cutter and a stapler. Little by little I’ve been getting the tools I needed”

The walls are full of beautiful tools. I find Luís’ way to explain the things humble, not self-applauding at all, but nevertheless it is passionate.

Dani starts planing the wood: it is a first step to make the wood ready and it is simple. Luís calls it a “facelift”. Meanwhile he tells us that he used to be an art teacher but he became unemployed: “I started to trying to do things with wood to keep my mind busy. I would search information in the internet about artisans and the way they worked. Thus I got into the maker culture, and I got familiar with its benchmark brands… This is why I also opened the shop”. Thus we realize that his passion for wood, the forest and the nature are intimately related and that this relation is reflected in his good sense to choose the products for his shop in Pontevedra.

The guys design the shape of a slingshot over the ash board with a blue cardboard stencil. Now it is time for the jigsaw. Goggles on, Dani starts filling the floor with sawdust. Luís remarks that the jigsaw can be quite dangerous and tells Joan which is the best way to hold it. Joan, struggling with the curves of the slingshot, blows the dust out of the lines of the stencil.

We make two holes in the wood with a drill, the sling will be held there. Adding a bit of sandpaper to the drill we can soften the frame. Those are easy steps, but we have to be careful and we can not miss any of them. Dani is concentrated, he turns the three sides of the slingshot. The drill makes a very strong noise so we stay in silence. Mònica comes and goes, trying to find the best angle. Meanwhile, Luís puts all the tools that he is going to need in a case…

It stops raining and we do not need electricity to follow the process so we decide to go outdoors. We decide to go to Pazo de Lourizán, a historic manor with the typical Galician architecture. It is close to Pontevedra and today it is the home of a center for forestry research. Luís prepares a coffee and we drink it in a nice conversation full of laughs and anecdotes. We are ready to go: everything is wet but the sun seems to do a little effort to make us comfortable.

We get to the Pazo and we are impressed by its beauty, the beauty of the land as well as the beauty of the buildings in it. We walk its romantic style gardens around the main palace. Luís knows the place like the back of his hand. We walk through paths among chestnuts and he tells us anecdotes from his childhood, how he would sneak in the manor with his friends. “To me this is just like a garden… the possibility to enter the palace is pure enjoyment”.

We find a glade by a pond. We start working in a wooden table that we find there. We fasten the slingshots with a clamp. Now it is time to polish the edges with a plane. We have to find the right angle to be successful. “Should we finish it off?” asks Joan in a break. “I am a polisher” says Luís smiling; this sentence shows his perfectionism and thoroughness, I think it says a lot about him.

Now it is time for a knife with a curved edge, a garden knife. With it, we can work on the most hidden parts of the slingshot. Luís tells us that “it’s like spreading butter”. The boys work and keep asking things and joking… Suddenly, Luís, who has been instructing us on each step, says prudently and timidly: “I don’t really feel entitled to teach anybody about this. I started trying different things and searching the best way to do it, but it is my way, there might be a better one…” I do not know if there is a better way, but these slingshots look perfect to me.

Silence, we only hear the noise of knives carving on the wood. This part requires a lot of physical effort. Sometimes the rhythm of the knives is broken by one of us, snuffling. Mònica has walked to the other side of the pond and now is catching the scene with her camera in her very caracteristic way, quietly. The floor, full of wet leaves, is also getting full of shavings

It is starting to rain now. The raincoats that Luís packed before are very useful now. We keep working for a while, protected by the trees, but the rain gets heavier and we have to run to find shelter in a cape. We are soaked but this little break makes us feel as if we were kids on a hike.

It is clearing up now, so we go back to the glade. Luís wraps a piece of wood with sandpaper and staples it. Time to continue with the polishing. We are working and concentrated, and suddenly a sunbeam finds its way through the clouds and the scene turns magical.

It is drizzling again and we decide to go back to the car. In the way, we discover that “Carballo” means oak in galician. It is a nice word that gives a name to Luís’ shop. We find a shelter under the cornice of the Pazo, and we keep working. Joan and Dani give the finishing touches to the wood. Luís talks to the guard, he is in his element.

The time is come to put the rubber. It is a thick rubber, very elastic but hard. It is empty in the inside, like a tube. They cut two pieces of rubber, and cut the endings of the rubber in half in order to put it later through the holes of the slingshot. Following Luís’ instructions, they tight strongly the rubber to the slingshot. It is time now to put on the leather pad that will hold ammunition. Luís takes from his case a roll of red waxed thread and two rectangles of leather. Doing a couple of turns to the thread, he teaches them how to tight it strongly. Afterwards, he burns the knot and the thread melts, the knot becomes compact so it will never untangle: “it’s like a ritual, I always finish with this knot and burn it afterwards”.

There is silence again, the guys are silent, focussing on the knot. The emotion is obvious since they are about to finish.

And it is time to try the slingshot. Silfully and strong, Dani and Joan throw acorn, chestnuts and rocks behind a fence. They look like children, maybe the children Luís was talking about, the ones that climb trees, hunt lizards and throw rocks, maybe this is the way of being a child that Luís had in mind when he started “all this”.