The Transom Eagle

During the nineties, I frequently went into the old Boston Navy Yard to have lunch with my friend Bill Bromell. Bill was the model maker at the Constitution Museum and had an absolutely to die for shop above the Constitution’s maintenance shop. Going to visit was one way of ensuring that my friend, who was just a bit of an eccentric, got out for some fresh air.
One day, we were walking through the maintenance shop on our way to lunch and stopped to watch one of the carpenters working on the transom eagle seen in the picture I’ve attached. I was doing the traditional carver’s routine of looking at all the details of someone else’s work when I noticed the paint pot nearby and the sad look on the carpenter’s face. We did the usual thing and asked what was wrong. He explained that he had just finished carefully stripping the old bird and was about to prime it before it was re-installed. It was carved in 1910 of Ponderosa pine ( not wood we’d generally look to these days for carving, but old-growth? That might be a different story). This eagle was probably a replacement for something earlier. Carved wood on vessels does not last forever.
It turned out that he’d just finished stripping multiple layers of old paint. Wood on vessels needs paint or varnish to aid in preservation. But, the detail disappears. And, the detail on this eagle’s bare wood was incredible. The carver had been interested in creating an accurate portrayal of each feather. I felt a pang of sympathy for the carver who created such beauty, knowing that it would get covered in paint.

I remembered back to my own Navy days. And recalling the old rubric that “if it moves – salute it. If it doesn’t paint it,” I asked: How many coats did you take off it? 56, he said.
I thought about the average bosun and the average bosun’s frame of mind when confronted with keeping the deck division busy: ” Hey you! Johnson! Rig a bosun’s chair and paint the bloody eagle.”
I understood the sadness of both the carpenter and generations of seaman Johnsons.

6 Replies to “The Transom Eagle”

  1. Ponderosa Pine is beautiful. 56 coats of varnish though wow! Love this line too “if it moves – salute it. If it doesn’t paint it,”

    1. Hi Mason…think thick coats of brown and white paint. Any carver shudders to think of their baby so encased! Ponderosa is lovely stuff, but the wood we now use is nothing compared to the old-growth they were cutting and using in the early 20th century.

      1. Yeah all that varnish almost hides all your work doesn’t it.

        We need to stop cutting down forests and woodlands the world over. In the last 30 years humans and wildfire have cost Earth 45% of its trees. Another 40 years unchecked will see Earth resembling Mars and the death of every living thing in the process. Its harsh but reality sadly.

  2. I’ve stopped working in non-sustainable woods, except for old in stock pieces. the last teak I used was grown in a sustainable tree farm. but carvers use small amounts of wood. I hate the waste I see in elite construction projects where rare wood is use a piece of conspicuous consumption.

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