Madness to our Method or Method to our Madness

“Looks like you’re doin’ that the hard way!”, a teasing observer comments while watching one of our shipwrights dub (carve or cut) material away from the stem using a traditional edge tool called an adze.

“Looks like you’re doin’ it the easy way!”, a visitor quips while watching a shipwright cut the profile of the sternknee out with a chainsaw.

All of our shipwrights are accustomed to responding to such sensible comments regarding our mixed usage of traditional and contemporary tools and techniques. Our methodology is one born of some philosophy, but primarily of necessity. While we do strive to maintain and preserve the competent use of hand tools; the preservationist inclination is not the primary reason for their usage at our museum, but rather the practicality of traditional hand tools, especially edge tools.

Take as an example the making of a gripe, a backbone piece joining the keel, stem, and keelson. When we approach a piece of raw material, we may begin by establishing a relatively flat surface using the bandmill, proceeding by then establishing an opposing parallel surface or perpendicular surface depending on the size of material and tools being used. The bandmill is a very efficient and effective tool. Care must be paid to its use as it can begin to dive into the material further than the set depth of the cut, especially with a dull blade, a significant imperfection in the wood like a knot, or improper lubrication. Without the use of a bandmill you can set up an Alaskan chain saw mill ( a chainsaw on a track cutting horizontally) or even a track to run a large skilsaw along. If a mill is not available, hand tools such as broad axes and adzes can be used to carefully hew a flat surface.

the usage of a large skilsaw while cutting the scarf for the keel

the usage of a large skilsaw while cutting the scarf for the keel

The usage of hand tools in this preliminary phase of construction takes considerable time. The advantage may be that error is slow as a skilled worker maintains constant control of the tool and slowly approaches flat. Another advantage lies within the accessibility of the tool, its maintenance, reliability, and simplicity. Power tools can be very accurate and very efficient, however, when mistakes are made they are made quickly and with typically greater consequences that are more difficult to reverse. When power tools are available and time is taken to perfect their use and maintenance the craftsperson gains a new agency and level of expertise in his or her relationship to the tool which can ensure the accuracy of their use.

Because we take maintenance into account and have trained and careful operators of our mill, it is the obvious tool of choice for the above application. The next step in cutting out our gripe is to cut the joinery which is relatively complex in a gripe as it is essentially a joinery piece. After a pattern from the loft floor (see previous post here) is placed on our milled material and its shape is traced, we then proceed by cutting its shape using a large skilsaw allowing a 1/16th or 1/8th of an inch of space away from our line. after a skilsaw cut is established on each face we complete the cut using our “Bigfoot” chainsaw jig. The bigfoot platform allows you to use a chainsaw for ripping while making a nearly perfect perpendicular cut. At this point we begin to get a lot of attention. Comments such as, “they would have used them back in the day if they had them!”, or the classic accusation, “that’s cheating!”. And now please allow for a minor digression.

Shipwright Cole Myerhoff and Lead Joe Connor using the bigfoot chainsaw to cut out the lower gripe.

Shipwright Cole Myerhoff and Lead Joe Connor using the bigfoot chainsaw to cut out the lower gripe.

We are not living history performers, but workers trained in a living discipline. The building of traditional wooden vessels has prevailed through technological innovation for reasons better suited for another post and the industry that supports the building and maintenance of those vessels has as well (shops, schools, tool manufacturers, captains, etc). We use the tools that make sense to us and do not work from a position of sentimentality or of a conscious demonstration of period living history style education regardless of the fact that we are building a 17th century reproduction vessel. It should be noted that we also do not maintain a defense of modern tool usage via an anachronistic retrospect or speculation as to what shipwrights in the past would have utilized from the present. This kind of rationale has a number of theoretical holes, the foremost being that, if we assume that a shipwright from the past would be delighted by the use of a pneumatic sawzall (yes, we do have one); then would it not be sound argumentation to draw the conclusion that they may also be delighted at the possibility of building their vessels out of steel, aluminum, or fiberglass? Many boat builders began to build using fiberglass or wood composite methods in the mid 20th century, others maintained the tradition of plank on frame boat building.

There’s an idea in linguistics that I like to apply to craft. If a linguist finds that a language has changed to the point that a significant population of its speakers can no longer understand that language, then indeed it has developed into a new language. On the other hand, if a language stops evolving, i.e., incorporating new words into its lexicon or shifting its grammatical structure ever so slowly as its speakers naturally dictate via its spoken use; or if the language is exclusively preserved for use in ritual, ceremonial, or educational function, e.g., liturgical practice or textual analysis- then it is a dead language.

Craft can be viewed through this analytic easily. First, lets look at the case of a new language diverging from a sister or mother language. Perhaps a few builders in the mid 19th century learn metal fabrication and incorporate iron workers into their shop and iron frames into their vessel, later the entire vessel is of steel and iron and the shops that produce them are nearly unintelligible to the workers who navigated the shops that built their ancestral types from wood. In this case through material usage (lexicon) and methodology (syntax) we have a new craft which the former craftsman are not competent in, although they may understand it better than someone in an entirely different discipline. In the case of a dead language, you might have something like a purely 17th century European building style which is constrained by historical norms that can then be studied through archaeology and historical record. The success of the project is only then judged by the historical accuracy of the methods and techniques of building. This would be akin to a student learning Homeric Greek in order to study the Iliad. It’s only alive insofar as our interpretation of history (of material, of texts, of historic sites) is alive. This style of building is essentially a practice of experimental archaeology, as it may help us derive conclusions as to how builders in the past may have had to work or of how the vessels that they built had to sail. Builders have also worked this way in order to better understand their living traditions via their historical roots, again, think of a student of Italian with an interest in learning Latin.

So we maintain that we are working within a living tradition, our influence from the past is considerably more self evident because the tradition is inherently conservative and the vessels we build are often inspired by 19th century or earlier types. Wooden boat building was refreshed in the 1970s during what some call “the wooden boat renaissance” which saw the birth of boat building schools and new cultural output such as Woodenboat magazine. This renaissance had a kind of Arts and Crafts movement ideal toward self reliance, simplicity, sustainability and perhaps a bit (or more than a bit) of romanticism. Here in 2019 we are still riding the wave of this movement. All of this considered, we also come from an Eastern Shore boat building tradition which is seeped in pragmatism, adaptation, improvisation and resourcefulness. I would say that both of these influences run through our shop strongly.

Getting back to our gripe! Its time to powerplane those chainsaw cut surfaces. Powerplanes are awesome tools. In my boatbuilding apprenticeship we never used them. My teacher thought they were too loud and annoying (see above on romanticism). We use power rabbet planes to get into corners, power compass planes to cut concave surfaces, and very large flat soled power planes for joining surfaces (bringing together two or more relatively flat surfaces). These planes will bring us down close to our line. At this point we may attempt a fit with the two or more joining surfaces. When you have a simple joining surface landing into another, you might go ahead, trusting your lofting and pattern making and cut right to your line before fitting; but when you need to wiggle a piece of wood in between three others you might want to check to see if everything is going according to plan. A 1/6th” of slope on one face could have big consequences for the overall fit. After a few marks are laid down signifying adjustments to be made, we might proceed with power planes further or switch to hand edge tools like planes and slicks. These tools make a smoother surface and can be used with great control and precision. You can also hack a good bit of material away with hand tools, do not be mislead into thinking that they are merely for the finish. When wasting a lot of material quickly in a complex form we often use axes and adzes then going to power planes and then back to regular planes. At this point our process is complete after a few more fits and adjustments. Our piece is painted out to ensure even drying and we move on.

Lead shipwright Joe Connor and shipwright Michael Allen establishing the final fitting surfaces of two joining pieces

Lead shipwright Joe Connor and shipwright Michael Allen establishing the final fitting surfaces of two joining pieces

In conclusion, we use new tools and we use old tools. We have a host of methods and techniques of building which may be slightly more slow to change than our tools. Like a language who’s structure doesn’t change much but that adopts and borrows new words and phrases often. Much more can be said here, but I’ll spare you. For the ultimate meditation on contemporary technique and traditional form check out Shipwright Cole Myerhoff’s blog posts on the building of log canoe Caroline. We also see many plank on frame vessels which have strip plank (edge glued) repairs, fiberglassed decks, laminate (glued) frames, etc. Some shipwrights are much more apprehensive or discerning in their use of such methods while others will quickly use whatever works in the moment. This irregularity or idiomatic reality of our trade is another testament to its life.

Till next time.


Wood is Good

An Eastern Shore stand of loblolly pine

An Eastern Shore stand of loblolly pine

Our forests and traditional resource base

Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (CBMM) is located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in the midshore region. Our forests are dominated by mixed pine-oak forest in a large topographic or “physiographic” region called the Atlantic coastal plain. Maryland lies in the north of this region, meaning that our native species are often at the northern limit of their range. Within this region we have Atlantic white cedar and bald cypress swamps, expanses of pine forest dominated by loblolly, salt marsh regions with smaller scrubpines and wax myrtles, and brackish tidal flats.

The pine oak forest includes short leaf and long leaf yellow pine, the latter of the two with a population 3% that of its former range. The very resinous long leaf yellow pine was the creme de la creme of coniferous boat building woods during the earlier centuries and was tremendously over harvested. Long leaf yellow pine is considerably more rot resistant than the other pines in this region and boards from virgin forest were known to be 3.5’ wide. These forests are now primarily loblolly pine, a wood commonly used in boat building on the eastern shore for anything from mast building to log bottom construction use. These forests are also home to red maple, sassafras, sugar maple, white and green ash, white oak, post oak, and southern red oak. White oak (Quercus alba) is a commonly cultivated wood which can be used for nearly anything aside from spars and masts and was used historically in shipbuilding, house construction and furniture making. White oak is relatively rot resistant and water resistant because of its cell structure. Red oak has been used in work boat construction but does not possess the same qualities of workability or rot resistance as white oak. Atlantic white cedar is another prime wood for boat builders as its tight buttery grain is a joy to work. It is considerably harder than red cedar although softer than the coveted west coast port orford ceder. Cedars are generally more rot resistant than pines. Atlantic white cedar is a wonderful wood to use for planking. Bald cypress, a species often associated with more southern states, covers the largest swath of land on the eastern shore in the most contiguous forest of Delmarva known as the Great Cypress Swamp. Bald cypress has been frequently used for planking, decking, and mast building. Cypress is very water and rot resistant. The last native species of note used in boat construction is white and green ash, both used for wooden fair-leads, blocks, and other rigging components. Ash is strong, dense, and straight grained.

Commonly cultivated on the Eastern Shore, but non native trees of note include black locust and osage orange. Both species are very dense, workable, pest and rot resistant. Osage has been used particularly for grown knees and futtucks. Black locust for smaller vessel backbone joinery pieces as well as for treenails in traditional construction.

Delmarva’s Great Cypress Swamp

Delmarva’s Great Cypress Swamp

What we’re using, how we’re using it, where it comes from, and why:

White oak: As mentioned above, white oak is a solid and very traditional choice wood for ship construction. Nearby we still have very large trees which are sustainably harvested. Our white oak comes from West Virginia and Ohio. We will use white oak for topsides planking, upper futtucks, clamp and shelf, mast partners, lodging knees, and for the breast hook. It should also be noted that the historical Dove would most likely have been built almost entirely from English oak, a material very similar to our local white oak, making this choice historically accurate as well.

Southern live oak: We are very proud to include this species as a dominant feature in the construction of the new Dove as it is truly as good as it gets from a ship builders perspective. Dense but not brittle, rot resistant, pest resistant, with extraordinary grown timber being available to us from Steve Cross in southern Georgia. If you are unfamiliar with Steve, you may be more familiar with a few of the large scale ship building projects he has supplied including San Salvador, Ernestina Morrisy, Mah Jong, Tally Ho, and HMS Surprise. Southern live oak was the ship building wood of choice for the US Navy during its centuries of wooden sailing ship construction. Constitution’s nick name, “Old Iron Sides” is a testament to its durability. We will use our Quercus virginiana for the stempost, gripes, apron, aft deadwood, lower futtucks, floors, main whale, and deck furniture.

Shipwright Jeff Reid works on fitting our southern live oak apron and stempost using a power compass plane

Shipwright Jeff Reid works on fitting our southern live oak apron and stempost using a power compass plane

White Ash: our white ash will be used for block construction, dead eyes, and other rigging components. Its use and workability is noted above. Ash was a very commonly used wood in English vessel construction during the 17th century all the way through to the 20th century as noted by prominent English maritime historian Edgar J. March. We owe our thanks to Capt. Rick Carrion for allowing us to harvest from his property in Cecil County just a drive up the road from our campus.

Black Locust: Why would you use anything else for treenails if you have locust available? its incredibly rot resistant and far more pest resistant than honey locust, and is locally available. Another shout out to Capt. Rick, as this was another species harvested from his large rural property north of us.

Milled white ash billets for solid construction blocks drying in our solar kiln

Milled white ash billets for solid construction blocks drying in our solar kiln

Atlantic White Cedar: another phenomenal local material, its light weight and rot resistance lends itself well to its use as bulwark material. Bulwarks are particularly prone to rot because of their vulnerability to standing fresh water.

Angelique: We are building to last and must ensure that our vessel does not fall victim to worm damage, a primary concern in the bay’s rivers such as that of where the new Maryland Dove will live at Historic St. May’s City. While we admire the existing Maryland Dove built by the great shipwright Jim Richardson, we’d like the new Dove to last longer. Jim built using nearly exclusively locally available wood and material, something which inspires our construction as well; however, hardwood timber in our scantling size with long uninterupted straight grain is exceedingly difficult to source locally. We have chosen to use Angelique from Suriname in south america for our below water planking and bilge stringers. Angelique is very resistant to worm damage and has become a boat builders go to wood for planking stock in projects such as our own. All of our Angelique is sustainably harvested and meets the highest demand of environmental stewardship in the exotic hardwood lumber industry.

Cortez: Cortez is a type of Ipe or Ironwood harvested in Suriname. It is heavier than water at around 70lbs per cubic foot. Its extraordinarily straight uninterrupted grain and superior qualities of durability lend its use to keel construction in ship building. Our Cortez will be used for the Keel, false keel, wormshoe, inner and outer sternposts, keelson, deadwood.

Our stockpile of cortez

Our stockpile of cortez

Part of the joy of woodworking is in recognizing that wood is not a homogenous material and that it not only varies species to species but piece by piece. Learning how to “see” wood is really a skill unto itself within the trade of boatbuilding. Come down and take a look at our stock of material for this project and ask us how we’re using it and why. As always, if you have access to material that you feel may be usable in the build and would like to donate, please get in contact with us!

Till next time.



On Lofting Maryland Dove


 Lofting is a process of drawing a complex vessel to scale typically from a set of plans in order to fair curved shapes, record bevels and rabbet lines, and conveniently build patterns or templates for construction. Fairing is the process of ensuring that all lines drawn and thus built are free of bumps, awkward flat spots, and hard to build curves. Fairing is accomplished by bending long wooden, plastic , or fiber glass “battens” around points relative to known grid lines and then comparing those bent lines to their corresponding lines drawn in two separate views.

There are many techniques and methods in recording information from a lofting and in drawing specific lines, however the foundational concepts as far as drawn views are concerned are more or less universal. There are three views often drawn overlapping one another and a fourth sub-view. The first is the “body plan”- a view of the vessel looking dead ahead or dead astern through the vessel. The second, the “profile”, is a view broadside, that is, viewing the vessel directly from the side. The third view is the “half-breadth”, or a birds-eye view of the vessel where the vessel is bisected directly down the middle through the fore and aft line. A last partial view is occasionally added somewhere above the lofting, which shows projected “diagonals”, more on that later.

Each view includes three types of drawn lines (and sometimes a fourth) which will come to represent the shape of the vessel. In each view two of the lines are straight and often double as grid lines, and one of the three types of lines are curved. The first type are called “station lines”, in the half breadth and profile view they are straight slices- like a bread loaf, and in the body plan they are curved lines which may approximate or directly represent the vessel’s framing. The second, the “waterlines”, are straight lines in the profile and body plan and are slices through the vessel like you would fillet a fish or cut a bagel. They follow theoretical waterlines as the vessel sits higher or lower in the water and are curved in the half-breadth view. The third are called “buttuck lines” and are typically the most difficult for a newby to conceptualize, they are slices through the vessel like you would cut focaccia- they are straight lines in the body plan and half-breadth and curved in the profile. Lastly, we draw diagonals through the body plan, which most closely follow the planking schedule and help us determine how difficult our vessel may be to build. When projected they might look similar to the water lines in the half breadth view, but are actually much more helpful in fairing the shape of the vessel as they more closely approximate what will actually be built.

Lofting begins with a smooth flat surface and carefully drawn grid lines to a convenient spacing. Points are traditionally drawn from a “table of offsets” provided by an architect which are relative measurements of points to loft given in feet, inches, and eighths. A baseline is selected to draw the half-breadth from and it is decided if you would like to loft to the inside of the planking (outside of the framing), or to the outside of the planking which will allow you to draw a vessel more accurate to what the finished vessel will look like. The first is more convenient and useful for building, the latter for designing.

Typically the profile perimeter, half breadth perimeter, and a midship station in the body plan are drawn. Afterwards, a few more bodyplan stations, a load water line in the half breadth, and a quarter-beam buttuck in the profile. As more waterlines, stations, and buttucks are drawn, intersecting points are compared against one another in the corresponding views and small errors down to a sixteenth of an inch are corrected. You begin with a lot of freedom and slowly lock yourself into your lofting. Mistakes and errors are easy to fix early on and can take a lot of time to work out further down the line.

Joinery details in the backbone build, rabbet lines, and frame bevels can then be recorded and used for the build. Shipwright, Spencer Sherwood worked on the lofting nearly single handedly for a month and a half. Master shipwrights Ed Farley and Frank Townsend helped with corrections for the last month, with the supervision of lead shipwright Joe Connor.

A brief history: Lofting was developed naturally during the 19th century as shipbuilding was industrialized and there was interest and economic demand to build vessels with a high level of precision in a production line fashion. Instead of vessels being built “by rack of eye”, using tacit knowledge and understanding perhaps aided by geometric or proportional rule- vessels were now being built piece by piece with the exact dimension of pieces known, you could theoretically cut to the line and install. Before lofting and still to this day in many boat building traditions, pieces were built to approximation and material was deducted by dubbing as further information was gained during the course of the build. It should be noted, that the historic Dove, and all 17th century vessels for that matter, were not built using lofting, the methods of building were based in geometric compass arches and passed on inherited and tacit knowledge. Certain aspects of the build were determined by general desired type to be built as well as tonnage. These methods of building are now far from us and could have been implemented in an experimental manner, but with a much slower time line in the construction. Today, most traditional boat builders built by analog lofting, computer aided drafting, or a combination of the two- as we are for the Maryland Dove.    



The Beginning


My boat building mentor had this almost mysterious platonic view of building boats. He’d express that because we work from an ideal form, that we are involved with the divine, whether we carry explicitly spiritual beliefs personally or not. He thought that whenever an ideal exists that one strives to make manifest in the material world that they are caught up in a larger story, an old dream that has descended upon so many minds.  You could call it beauty, you could call it something else. So when I thought, how to begin writing on the progress of the build of the Dove, I thought of how my mentor’s view complicates the simplicity of how to locate the  beginning of the building of a ship.

A materialist might say that we didn’t start until we put blade to raw material and cut something out of it. An idealist on the other hand might say that this project has existed perennially and that it has only fallen upon us to act it out once again. An existentialist might say something far too complicated for this blog post. Wherever we began, I think it absurd to begin with a picture of the keel in the shipyard or to begin with the loft floor or a shot of the architect’s lines drawing. So consider this a prelude and consider it a giving of respect to those who have been possessed by this trade of shipbuilding before us, to the history that we are swimming in, to the raw material that we (attempt to) bend to our will, and to the dream that keeps us going- that keeps us building.

Its a hot and humid day in St Michaels this July 20th at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. In the shop our massive loft floor fills what used to be additional space for workbenches. Out back we have pieces of southern live oak and cortez which are being used for the backbone build up all in various stages of shaping. Out front and piled up along the perimeter of the yard you’ll see slabs of white oak and long lengths of locally harvested ash and some not so locally harvested angelique.  Come on a weekday and you’ll surely meet a few of our eleven staffed shipwrights perhaps sweating beneath a straw hat- Anywhere you look you’ll catch a buzz of the Dove project.

We have nearly completed lofting out the vessel from the drawings provided to us by our architect, but born out of collaboration between lead builders, historians, archaeologists and sea captains; and we are close to finalization of our joinery configuration which is a dance between ideals of structural integrity and available material. We’ve also sifted through all of our cortez and live oak- setting pieces aside for the keelson, gripes, sternposts, etc. The keel was fastened a month ago and the stem and sternposts are being shaped currently.  In the coming week we’ll see backbone pieces getting closed out, and perhaps a rabbet cut into our keel. We’re in full swing and hope you’ll follow along as we craft a new icon for the state of Maryland and continue to peer into the mysteries of shipbuilding. 

-Samuel T Hilgartner
lead rigger/ shipwright