Visiting Madagascar: Tradespeople

  • Model vehicles from recycled materials;
  • Objects made from Zébu horns;
  • Wooden veneer cut and stitched together to make art;
  • Wooden ornaments carved from local hardwoods;
  • Aluminum pots and lids cast from discarded window frames.

Recycled Models

The first shop we visited was in Antsirabe: a model shop.

Left: bicycles, taxis, rickshaws, and even planes wait to be taken home. Right: a workbench where a craftsman demonstrated creating a bike wheel.
  • The bodies and panels were snipped from aluminum cans, allowing each model to take on a unique color palette.
  • The wheels were discarded air hoses from refrigerators, sealed together with a bit of scrap tubing melted inside.
  • The wheel wells were aluminum, formed around a butane spray can and connected with a touch of solder melted by candle.
  • The spokes of the bicycle wheels were worn-out fishing lines, stitched through the aluminum, holding a spring from a mousetrap in the center.
In a remote village days later, ducks guard crates of flattened aluminum cans as a man on the left (not pictured) builds model bikes.

Zébu Horn Smithing

The Malagasy have a native cow called a Zébu. Like cows found in the US, Canada and Europe, they produce milk and are slaughtered for meat. In recent years, Zébu have been bred with Norwegian cattle. This extends a Zébu’s milk production from a few liters a day to dozens. You can identify a native Zébu by the hump behind its neck: the taller the hump, the more “pure” the Zébu. Zébu horns have an interesting shape, at a more acute angle, and the Malagasy have found many interesting ways to ensure they don’t go to waste.

A pair of native Zébu, with tall humps and large horns, struggling to climb a rough road to Lac Tritriva.
Left: a pan of beeswax, a sheet of steel where handmade saw-blades are cut, and discarded jeans from which polishing wheels are cut. Right: a pile of Zébu horns and the motor of an old washing machine allow a craftsman to sand the edges of a spoon.
  • First, the horn is boiled. This loosens the inner marrow from the horn so it can be pounded loose and removed, leaving the hollow horn shell.
  • A saw blade, each tooth notched by hand into a circle cut from a discarded sheet of steel, is attached to the motor of an old washing machine. This cuts the rough spoon template from the horn.
  • The template is then dipped in hot beeswax and burned over charcoal. This kills any parasites that might be living the horn and prepares it for shaping and polishing. The smell is like that of burnt hair.
  • A piece of sandpaper is then attached to the motor, and the edges of the template are sanded down.
  • Finally, five layers of denim, cut from a pair of old jeans, are stacked and attached to the motor. This polishes the horn surface into a smooth, shiny finished product. Each set of five circles can polish a dozen spoons.

Veneer Stitching

A few days later, we visited Ambositra, a city known for its artisans. One that struck me the most was an older man, perhaps in his late 50’s, sitting at a handmade scroll saw. He was cutting pieces of veneer to be stitched together to create artwork.

Left: a man at his homemade scroll saw, sorts through a stack of paper templates, with finished works on display. Right: a keychain pendant made from two different pieces of veneer combined.

Wood Carving

In a workshop across the square, several men sat working with tools on hunks of wood.

A man uses a set of carving tools and a wooden hammer to create a bookend shaped like a chameleon on a branch.

Aluminum Smithing

A day later we were en route to Antananarivo, and we would stop halfway to experience by far the most intense demonstration: aluminum smithing.

Left: a man in the background cuts aluminum window frames into four-inch pieces while another, in sandals, heats them to 800 degrees to remove debris. Right: steel pot forms rest beside purified aluminum ingots.
Making an aluminum pot: form, pour, drain, dump. These men produce a pot and lid every five minutes.
  1. The men use and reuse powdered charcoal in their molds. It is easily molded and can handle large amounts of heat all while not sticking to the aluminum.
  2. Wooden squares are stacked around a steel form using steel rods to keep them aligned. In the foreground, a man is making the pot. In the background, the corresponding lid.
  3. With each square added, powdered charcoal is added and pounded around the form with feet and hands. A plastic load and drain pipe is kept clear through each layer.
  4. Once the charcoal is packed around the mold, each square is carefully lifted and the form is removed, leaving an empty space, (not pictured).
  5. One man uses the steel form to keep pressure against the mold while another pours a ceramic container of red-hot liquid aluminum, fresh from the furnace, into the load pipe.
  6. After a few seconds, he pokes a steel rod into the side of bottom of the form, allowing air and gravity to push the liquid aluminum throughout the mold and any excess to drain.
  7. The aluminum cools quickly. The men dump the charcoal into the communal pile, leaving the freshly-poured pot contaminant free, (you can see the heat rising from the dumped powder in the photo).
  8. Once completely cool, rough edges are cut or sanded away, leaving the finished pot, (not pictured).



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Clint Andrew Hall

Clint Andrew Hall


Engineer and Geek; Tech Lead for Shared UX at Elastic, previously at Facebook; married to a gorgeous Canadian; community theatre stages are a 3rd home.