Building a boat

I want to build a boat as an antidote to the pernicious effects of digital devices on my soul. I live in a house with a boat shop attached to the back of it, a place where my grandfather turned out a dozen Cotuit Skiffs in the late 40s, the lofting plans carefully scribed and painted on the floor by my grandmother who went to art school.

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This is an old urge, a genetic thing, a type of compulsion I can’t and won’t resist but still try to conceal from my wife Daphne who regards the shop as a place to hang raincoats and store rarely used kitchen appliances like rice cookers and deep-fat fryers.  She came back home after two weeks of travel to find I had proudly built four old-school saw horses. “What are those?” she asked. Knowing exactly what they are. “You aren’t going to build a boat,” she commanded, but there’s no way to hide the fact that over the past few months I’ve been cleaning the place out, purging it of a lot of accumulated crap and spider webs, poring over WoodenBoat magazine’s forums for advice on what tools to buy, to get ready for my first project.

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The house has no basement to speak of, so the shop has served as a  lazy storage area ever since we moved here in 1991. In the early 1960s, when I first came on the scene and my grandfather Henry was still alive, the shop was a boat shop, with drawers filled with templates and cast bronze boat fittings. There was a lathe, an oak  Gerstner machinist’s tool-and-die set, huge wood vises, and tidy little wooden drawers filled with silicon bronze screws. The tools were still all there then: an electric Miller’s Falls drill, a razor-sharp spokeshave, a collection of handmade wooden block planes, whet stones to sharpen them, boat maker’s bevels, wooden folding rulers, jars of boiled linseed oils and cans of Woolsey marine paint. The smell was of marline, that sailor’s twine that reeks of Swedish pine tar and Lapsang Souchong tea.

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A pot belly cast iron stove stood in a wooden box filled with sand, the chimney pipe curved into a brick chimney that exited the roof of the sail loft on the second floor. Working out there in the winter must have been cold, but in the age before temperature sensitive two-part epoxies were a necessity they just slipped on a faded denim shop coat, stoked the fire, and went to work.

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The ceiling was filled with scrap lumber in racks except for one big section where the trap door to the sail loft is located. My great-great grandfather, the whaling captain, after retiring from the sea,  made and mended sails up there, plying his trade on a sailmaker’s bench with a leather sailor’s palm, linen thread waxed with beeswax, three sided sail needles, big wooden fids for splicing ropes and hawsers, and all sorts of grommets and gasket. Heavy blocks with lignum vitae sheaves — blocks being the nautical term for “pulleys” — hung from the rafters, and above them, in the warmest, driest part of the room are still four immense rough sawn baulks of white Atlantic cedar, just waiting for me to take them down and turn them into a boat.

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Over the years the shop lost a third of its floor plan as we renovated that end of the house and turned a section into an  entry-way, or mudroom. Now, as I contemplate building an 18-foot long rowing wherry on a 20-foot long frame. I am reaching the limit of how big a boat I can build indoors.

What remains is the big double shop doors, the main workbench overlooking the flower garden through ten big glass windows speckled with fly poop and saw dust suspended in the spider webs, the paint rack with all the scrapers and mineral spirits, turpentine and cans of boat paint, the ceiling racks for battens and scrap wood, and a lot of antique tools that call back to the time, not so very long ago, when everything was done by hand. Holes were drilled with a bit-and-brace. Screws driven with wooden handled screw drivers.

Lots of the tools are gone, lost by me and my brother as plundered the shop after my grandfather’s death in the mid-60s to repair our boats, build fences, or fashion bongs out of whatever bong-like material we could filch — like the long bamboo pole used to roll up the porch rug every fall and which we sawed into three-foot lengths and drilled out to make devices to smoke the evil “love weed” as our zero-tolerance father called it. The lathe went to Bob Boden, because he’s a salty guy and a distant relative. The hand saws, the planes, the wooden handled chisels and block planes, the band saw, the screw drivers — all were lost or wrecked over the years.

But now I’m replacing that stuff one tool at a time. One favorite new tool is a Lie-Nielsen block plane. Planing wood with one of these tools is an immensely rewarding experience as the thing is so sharp, so perfectly engineered, that wielding it gives me a feeling of being one with the wood, understanding the first time the true spirit of wood grain and a deft touch.

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Now I’m getting ready to order the lumber and the various fasteners and adhesives needed to build the Petaluma wherry — an open boat with a sliding seat,foot stretchers, and stainless steel riggers I plan on rowing around the three bays next spring. But first I’m practicing not cutting off my fingers with my new Makita skilsaw, and not ruining a couple hundred dollars worth of Sitka spruce by building things like saw horses. I’ve also become addicted to a few wooden boat building channels on YouTube, especially Tips from a Shipwright by Wickford, Rhode Island skiff builder Louis Sauzedde; Acorn to Arabella, in which two young men in western Massachusetts are building a 38′ wooden ketch designed by William Atkin in the style of Colin Archer; and Sampson Boat Company’s restoration of the 107-year old Albert Strange English racing yacht, Tally Ho.

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The Petaluma wherry: project #1

All of this reading, watching and practicing is giving me enough confidence to be dangerous, but until I actually drive up to Boulter Plywood and start ordering pounds of copper nails from Jamestown Distributors, it’s all just an excuse to perform a kind of nautical puttering.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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