Over the hum of chainsaws and sawmills, sawdust flying about, in many parts of Costa Rica right now, Ticos are doing their best to explain to foreigners – in Spanish, of course – exactly how and what they are being charged for their lumber.
The first few times the system of varas y pulgadas was explained to me under such conditions, I left the mill mostly confused but also determined to investigate. With 10 years as a building contractor, university Spanish training and a rickety Land Cruiser, I figured I was just the Gringo to dig into this sawdusty mystery. A woodworker in the jungle is bound to pay a price for such knowledge, however, so before the comejenes (arboreal termites) and cuíscaras (tiny red lumber ants that bite like bullets) carry me and my house off in pieces to their nests, I figure I’d better share what I’ve learned.
Most of us who have purchased property here understand that a hectare is 2.47 acres – 100 meters by 100 meters, or 10,000 square meters. Others, through rough translations, perhaps, have been told a farmer is selling his land in manzanas, or “apples.” Interesting, you thought, probably letting it pass, concerned more with what was biting your legs and why it wasn’t biting anyone else’s. Later on, you would have found out that a manzana is 7,000 square meters (and that the farm had questionable water rights and no title, right?). Well, it turns out that a manzana is important to this discussion, for it is 100 by 100 varas, and varas are used as the principal measurement for lumber.
How so? Well, if we start by taking a simple square root of 7,000 square meters, we see that 100 varas is 83.67 meters, and a single vara would be 0.8367 meters or 83.67 centimeters (33 inches). When you buy lumber from a aserradero (sawmill) or ferretería (hardware store) here, the standard length will be cuatro varas, four varas, or 3.35 meters, or 11 feet. For reasons not known to me or any of the madereros (wood sellers) I have spoken with over the years, most logs are cut, and therefore lumber is sawn, in lengths of four varas. Depending on the sawmill, lumber can usually be ordered in lengths from one vara up to six varas or more, but it is important to remember that four varas is the standard, for reasons of dimensional measurement.
When you arrive at the sawmill or hardware store, you will be quoted prices for different species of lumber, milled and finished to varying degrees, all in colones por pulgada – colones per “inch.” A good way to associate Costa Rican pulgadas is as a measurement like board feet in the United States. A piece of lumber one inch by 12 inches, one foot long, is one board foot; the same board here would be 0.917 pulgadas. I’ll explain: Here, they multiply the width by the depth of the standard four-vara, 11-foot-long piece of lumber requested to get the number of pulgadas, or “inches,” to charge the customer.
So, in our example, a 1 x 12 at cuatro varas, 11 feet long, is 12 “inches” of wood. A 2 x 4 (which unlike in the United States is actually 2” x 4”, not 1½” x 3½”) at cuatro varas is eight “inches” of wood, a 2½ x 10 at cuatro varas is 25 “inches,” etc. (The same 1 x 12, 11 feet long, would be 11 board feet, so we see the ratio of Costa Rican pulgadas to board feet is 12:11. Basically, if you are familiar with board feet, you can use the price quoted per pulgada here, say ¢1,000, and add 10 percent to get a board-foot price: ¢1,100.) So, a 2 x 5 piece of milled teak, 11 feet long, priced at ¢1,000 per pulgada, would cost 10 pulgadas x ¢1,000, or ¢10,000 (about $18).
From logs brought to a sawmill to the tongue and groove ceiling in your house, all lumber is measured using this system. When a log arrives at the sawmill – with permits, harvested sustainably, we hope – 11 feet long, it is measured using a simple piece of string and a measuring tape. The string is wrapped around the log at a median width, not the widest part, nor the skinniest. This circumference is marked on the string, and that distance is halved twice by bending the string in half twice, resulting in a measurement one-quarter the circumference of the log. This measurement is then squared, resulting in the number of pulgadas to be paid for the log.
For instance, a good-sized log could measure 40 inches around. When the string used to measure it is halved twice, the result is 10 inches. Squaring 10 gives us 100, so this log is worth 100 “inches.” This is a calculation, basically, of what will be usable lumber after the log is squared up by the mill. If you are buying lumber to use round, the method of measuring is the same. As well, if you are buying lumber squared only on two sides, perhaps for a bar top or furniture, you will (or should, at least) pay as if the piece were squared clean on four sides.
Now, all lumber cannot be bought and sold in one length of four varas, of course, but it is critical to understand the system based on this measurement in order to understand how lumber of other lengths is priced. A 2 x 10 at four varas is 20 “inches” of wood, right? Right. Each vara is 33 inches, so if you need lumber in lengths other than four varas, just figure the closest equivalent in varas to order at the mill. For example, for a 4 x 6 14 feet long: 14’ x 12 (inches per foot) = 168” ÷ 33″ = five varas. To get pulgadas from a board longer or shorter than four varas, first figure how many “inches” that board would be at four varas, then either add or subtract depending on difference in length. That 4 x 6 at four varas is 24 “inches” of wood, at five varas it is one-quarter more, or 5/4 x 24 = 30 “inches.” The same board at two varas would be 24 “inches” x ½ = 12 “inches.”
So, the next time you need lumber, do some simple calculations and sound smart asking for veinticinco dos por seis en tres varas (that’s 25 2 x 6s three varas long), and know you’ll be paying for doscientos veinticinco pulgadas de madera (225 “inches” of wood). Right? 2 x 6 = 12 x ¾ = 9 x 25 = 225. No problem!
Adam Goldman is the owner of a construction and lumber business. He lives near Dominical, on the southern Pacific coast, and can be reached at email@example.com or 8911-1561.