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.