Buttons and collars — marlinespike seamanship

I returned from Virginia to find a long box on the dining room table with a pair of new spruce Shaw & Tenney oars to replace the faithful, but fast fading crap basswood oars that have served me for the last six or so years.

Shaw & Tenney is an ancient company in Orono, Maine that makes very nice (and expensive) oars and paddles. I ordered my pair back in June, and finally, with summer on the wane, they arrived. After placing dead fat last in the morning skiff race, I opted out of the second punishment, came home, and sat down on the back deck with my ditty bag to get some leather onto my new blades.

Chafing is the enemy of the sailor, and a lot of seamanship is devoted to cutting down on friction. A frayed line, a chafed sail, or a worn spar can mean disaster at the wrong time and in the wrong conditions, so one does what they can to keep a boat from rubbing itself apart. Leather is a staple of any ditty bag, generally high quality tanned stuff for applying to spars where they rub against other spars. Boom crutches and gaff jaws are two places where some well applied leather will protect the brightwork (varnish), but nowhere is it more useful (and good looking) than on the looms of a nice pair of oars.

I have collars and buttons on my old oars, but I tacked the leather in place with bronze brads — a bad but quick way to get the leather on and the method preferred by my grandfather on his ash oars. Bronze looks good when it corrodes green with verdigris, but one is putting two rows of small holes into the oar which will eventually let water in and cause the oar to swell, split, and fail. So I decided to put my collars and buttons on the old school way — with needle and thread, and for an hour today put my ditty bag to good work. Paul Gartside, a boat builder in British Columbia, has excellent instructions on how to do this.
First, I took a leather collar kit and marked the leather around the shaft, centering the leather about 24 inches from the end of the grips. Shaw & Tenney recommends 20 inches, but I like to have my oar handles close together, so I move the collars out.

I marked the circumference of the oars on the rough side of the leather and cut it with a single-edged razor blade using a steel ruler as a straight edge. Then, with the ruler as a quide, I marked twenty points 3/8ths of a inch apart on each edge, and popped them through with a hammer and nail over a piece of scrap wood (an awl also works well). The holes don’t need to be particularly large, just punctures to guide the needle.

I lace with a six-foot piece of dacron sail thread thoroughly waxed with beeswax. I use two egg-eye needles — stout and blunt tipped on each end of the thread. Some experts call for shorter thread for ease of use, but I go with a long piece so I can have one continuous piece. I laced these leathers on by putting the oar across my lap, and had my sailor’s palm on my right hand to help drive the needles through. The stitch is easy — essentially the same pattern as a shoelace.

I start with a few passes on the top edge, pulling the dacron very tight to bring the two edges of the leather together. I cut the leather about 3/16ths short in the expectation that the lacing will bring it together super-tight around the loom of the oar.

I run the thread up and back, and wind up with this:

I finish it off with a Turk’s head over the button, and with some care, these oars should last at least ten years.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Buttons and collars — marlinespike seamanship”

  1. Looks like some nice, sturdy, and detailed work. I love spending weekend afternoons on projects like these 🙂

  2. Sloppy in my opinion. I shouldn’t have doubled back on the stitches as it was nearly impossible to track the original holes. Hence the second pass came off alignment.

  3. Way Cool David,

    You never cease to amaze us. It’s funny how what we consider a simple but satisfying project, impresses others who have never tried their hands at such things.

    Great post!

  4. I envy your craftsmanship, David, even though you were not happy with the final outcome.

    And I also notice that we both have the same orange fish glasses. How about that?

  5. David,

    My dad (Joe B.) says that putting a copper copper sleeve along the trailing edge of the oar to protect the paddle blade from hitting something and splitting is also commonly employed. Although I think this cuts down on the efficiency of the stroke it was probably required hardware for old time river rafters and fur traders for whom losing an oar represents a more significant problem. Taking a day or three out to cut down a tree and fashion a new oar because one happened to split on a river rock would make it worth the effort in that day.



  6. Sam,
    Your dad is right — brass flaps were tacked over the blade tips of oars to protect them from splintering. The old wooden racing oars used to have them (now the carbon fiber ones from companies like Concept2 have weird plastic baffles called “Vortex Tips) to improve stroke flow.

    I recall from old marine supply catalogues that one could buy the tip kits, but I suppose them could just as easily be fashioned from a sheet of thin brass. Tacking them in may not be a great idea (tack holes let water into the grain and will start rot), but epoxying them down may work just fine.

  7. Hello, I have read with interest your project and related comments. I am writing a feature about Shaw & Tenney. I would love to include some comments from you for Maine Boats Homes & Harbors magazine story. Best, Letitia Baldwin

  8. I’m interested in restoring some old 12 ft mahogany lifeboat oars. Does anyone have some of the old copper tip protector designs? PJ


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