The Fair Curve – closing your eyes to see

replica Viking era ship at Mystic​ Seaport, 2017

The use of “fair curves” is pretty central to building ships and boats, but also to carvers, furniture makers, traditional sailmakers, and other crafts. 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 to talk in front of an audience of the uninitiated about what a fair curve is. It gets complicated.

My first experience with the down deep and gritty of curves was probably in 1988. In those days I was working as an anthropologist and doing a lot of folk festivals that featured traditional craftspeople. I “presented” the craftspeople to the audience, helped get the flow going, and occasionally interpreted concepts to the mostly office working folks in the audience who had little idea of what a plane, carvers gouge, sailmakers palm, fid, slick, caulking mallet or other such tools were.

One day I had a presentation to make with several craftspeople from different professions on our little stage.
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 maker of silver tableware 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. All of a sudden the three were one, 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 is was more. Finally, the sailmakers told me that it was better if I saw and felt one. I was a bit mystified.

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 fourth floor of the Boot Mill. The Folklife Center was an educational hub for traditional crafts in New England. Somewhere along the way, I decided that we’d build a project boat in the Center. I enlisted Ralph Johnson, of the Pert Lowell Company in Newbury, and Bill Bromell, the model maker at the Constitution Museum. After some discussions of what we could build, and still get it out of the building, Bill offered to commission Ralph to construct a thirteen-foot skiff. Being a nautical historian, and model maker, Bill wanted something unique and historical. He found it in a plan book produced in the 18th century by a Swedish naval architect. Searching the plans, they decided how much hull they could create in the space available, and get it out of the building; also, the boat must possess good rowing and sailing characteristics. Having decided these issues, Ralph set about producing from the book all the drawings we’d need to build the boat. 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 preliminary 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.