The aboriginals of La Palma already worked with wood before the Spanish arrived, and with great skill, if one takes into account the rudimentary tools then available, all of them variations of cutting stones and seashells, since the inhabitants of the island were completely unaware of metals.
In La Palma, a good number of artisans make farm implements, furniture, musical instruments, hookahs, wine presses, measures, washtubs, balconies and other elements of popular architecture, models, boats, agricultural tools and a myriad of objects intended for both to decoration and domestic use.
The manufacture of barrels had special importance in the past, due to the high production of malvasia by the wine industry.
Laurel forests are relics of an eco-system from the tertiary epoch, containing a variety of characteristic tree species. On La Palma they grow at mid-altitude, kept humid by the influence of the trade winds. Above them, between 1,100 and 1,400 meters above sea level, there is an abundance of fayal-heather, mainly made up of fire-tree (faya) and tree heather, as the name suggests, plus small leaved holly and laurel in its most humid areas.
Wood from the tree heather, carved or worked on the lathe, is used to make spoons, shovels for rendering pigs in copper kettles to obtain lard, the handles of most tools, farm implements and hookahs. Although its wood is very hard and attractive, it has one drawback: if it is not carefully treated, it opens and longitudinal cracks appear, rendering it useless. So that the heather does not become unusable, once it has been cut and cleaned, the dry branches are cured by means of a light pass through the fire, a task that the artisans call charamuscado. It is then buried in moist soil for a week. The process ends by soaking it in plenty of water.
The peaks of La Palma and its Caldera de Taburiente are populated by fire-resistant Canarian pines, clinging tightly to the rocks, defying the wind, cold and heat. These pines jealously guard inside a heart of tea (pronounced tay-ah), a noble, strong and fragrant wood.
Tea, which in the Canary Islands is appreciated for its reddish colour and durability, appears in island constructions forming the beams and their supporting columns to ensure the longevity of the building. The carved doors and balconies in the churches and houses of La Palma are also made of tea, as well as the floors, ceiling braces, corner posts, lintels, gates, cupboards, well heads, gutters to carry rain water to the cistern and many other elements of popular architecture. The interior of the houses were also adorned using tea for furniture: It was the wood of choice for stools, benches, measures, tables, chairs, cots and boxes and chests for various uses.
Weaving tools, from looms to winders, are no strangers to this material.
Despite the wide range of uses of this type of wood, it is used less in recent years. This is due to both the influx of foreign woods, as well as a ban on cutting down pine trees in order to conserve the island’s forests.
Tea is eternal. Insects won’t eat it, it never rots and it always remains in good condition. The resin it contains provides its own protection, which prevents it from spoiling.
In the mid altitude and coasts of the island you can still make out the silhouettes of old twisted trees, the mulberries, which remind the traveller of baroque sculptures. Today they are abandoned, in contrast to the image of yesteryear, when they were always green or pruned. The list of beneficiaries also included livestock and, of course, the crafty artisans who found in its yellowish and soft wood the raw material to make mortars, barrels, cups, cheese dishes, …
The wood of the mulberry entered the houses; it was introduced in textile workshops in the form of shuttles and spindles; it participated in Christmas music on castanets and drumsticks; and it was, and still is, the dream of the wood-turner for his most elaborate pieces.
The cedar is perhaps one of the least known Canary tree species and the cedar that is worked today on La Palma is mostly imported. Cedarwood travelling trunks of people returning from Cuba are also reused. Due to its characteristics and special aroma, it is used mainly for carved furniture, ornaments and the sought-after boxes to keep cigars.
In addition to the tree heather, tea, mulberry and cedar, there are other woods used to a much lesser extent, such as fire-tree, Azores laurel, Persea indica (viñátigo), red eucalyptus, orange tree, almond tree, white wood (Picconia excelsa), chestnut and other species, which are also used to make items for domestic use.