The Fair Curve – closing your eyes to see

Fair curves are important to ship & boat builders, carvers, furniture makers, and traditional sailmakers. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a fair curve as “a smooth curve; especially (Nautical) one in the body of a ship.” That works out well until you put practitioners of different crafts together on a stage and ask them to talk about fair curves. Then it gets complicated.
1988 – I was working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife in Washington. My job was “presenting” artisans to the audiences of festival attendees. I helped get the flow going and occasionally interpreted concepts to the audience. The audience had little idea of what planes, carvers gouges, sailmakers palms, fid, slicks, caulking mallet, or other such tools were. So I presented and made needed explanations. Later there were demonstrations.

One day I had a presentation to make with several craftspeople from different trades on the little stage we used.
We were to talk about their interpretation of craft. We’d been doing this all weekend, and the troops were getting bored. So, as we started, I asked the boatbuilder what he thought was a central concept in his craft. He opined that fair curves were critical. After a moment or so, I noticed that the silver tableware maker was getting excited and invited him to comment. Fair curves were crucial to him as well. Silverware with unfair lines didn’t please customers. Then the sailmaker chimed in with how fair curves were essential in sailmaking. At once, the three were in tune. And it all seemed like a sort of mystical union going on in front of the audience. The conversation continued after they ushered us from the stage for the next presentation.
All the members of the mystical union knew with exactitude what a fair curve was. When I asked, they repeated variations on the Oxford English Dictionary definition. But, I knew from the intensity of the conversation that it was more. Finally, the sailmaker told me that it was better if I saw and felt one. I was a bit mystified. But I had to move on; there was no free time for the pursuit of fair curves.

About four years later, I was working for the Department of Interior in Lowell, MA. My little corner of the National Park was the New England Folklife Center housed on the Boot Mill’s fourth floor. The Folklife Center was an educational hub for traditional crafts in New England.
I enlisted Ralph Johnson of the Pert Lowell Company in Newbury, and Bill Bromell, the Constitution Museum’s model maker, to build a project boat in the Center. After discussions of what we could make and still get out of the building, Bill commissioned Ralph to construct a thirteen-foot skiff based on a seventeenth-century plan. Bill was a nautical historian and model maker. He wanted something unique and historical.
Having decided on a plan they could build in the space available, Ralph set about producing all the drawings needed. We had a great time. Several members of the visiting public joined in the lofting and building. It was more like working in a boat shop than running a government program.
When we reached the point where we were planking the sides of the boat, Ralph decided that it was the right time for me to learn the proper way to mark out, cut, plane, and “hang” a plank. After careful measurement, sawing, and fitting, Ralph asked me if I thought the curve was fair and ready to hang. I took a few more cuts with my plane, stepped back, and declared that it looked fair to me. Ralph then had me close my eyes and walk down the length of the plank with my thumb bearing along the edge that I had declared “fair.” My finger felt every bump, unfair edge, and imperfection that my eyes had failed to pick up. Ralph grinned at me and said, “Sometimes you must close your eyes to see.”
What the sailmaker had said was true. Sometimes you have to feel to see.

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