Taking Care Of Business

The Maine Boatbuilders Show was an unusual event. They held the show on the first full spring weekend in the old Portland Company complex on Fore St. in Portland, Maine. The show was funky. The overhead cranes in the big bays still loomed over your head. The cranes were reminders that this space had been a locomotive manufacturer in the 19th century. Used as workspace by Portland Yacht Sevices, it was lucky to get a brooming out between when they moved their boats out and before we put our displays in. No matter, it added to the ambiance of a casual “have a good time” show.

My booth was always on the second floor under a leaky ceiling. Did I mention that the first full spring weekend is fickle? Some years we’d have full-blown blizzards; next year, lush spring weather- though usually not the lush spring weather. Black plastic was frequently spread over our heads to keep the water off our displays. Despite these issues, the Maine Boatbuilders show was the must-do, must-go to spring event for many of us in the maritime trades. The longstanding comment was that despite the crowds ( thousands every day), it was the best opportunity for the builders and craftspeople to get together before things got crazy in the spring.

I was always in the same spot. It was one I proclaimed to be mine show after show. There were historical reasons. In the first years I did the show; I brought along a portable workbench and tools to demonstrate carving. The only place to put the bench was along a planked knee wall. In the first year, while working on an eagle, I noticed that there were newspaper clippings and poems varnished to the planking. My booth was in the old pattern makers shop. My bench appeared to occupy the same space as a craftsman of the 1850s. The pattern maker whose station I held had been a strong Abolitionist by the essays and poems he had varnished to the plank knee wall. I could almost feel that carver looking over my tools, checking my sharpening, and doing a critique on my technique.

Friday was the first day of the show, and as is the case with many of these shows, it was the day most likely to yield serious business. A good Friday would make the show, repay booth fees and other expenses. Saturday yielded serious visitors early in the day, and Sunday was for families. Sunday also died well before closing. Sunday, you had to watch out for the three PM bargain hunters- “Hey, I’ll give you five bucks for that, and you won’t have to pack it out.” But, care was required because people who were serious attendees who had not been able to get to the show earlier blended into the late show crowd. I was scrupulous not to pack up first because I found those individuals to be great customers. Sunday was the day that frequently sold out on my assortment of spoons, spatulas, cutting boards, and other galley items. One could expect that predominantly women were buying those, but it was equally male and female. Youth looking for presents were also frequent shoppers.

Early in the day, before the show opened, booth holders would walk the show to see who had made it this year, make early deals, and arrange for evening plans. After ten or so years of doing the show, acquaintances became friends and business associates. We had dinners in groups on Thursday ( setup), Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Lunches, on the other hand, had to be rather hurried because we had to tend our booths.

Sunday, at closing, there were those in a hurry and those who took their leisure. Most of my friends did an efficient job of packing all the goods and then sat down for a drink, soda, crackers, cheese, and conversation. There was no sense hurrying; people were hauling out huge displays, and the relatively tiny loading zones would be jammed for the first hour or two after closing. Exhibitors with boats inside the building would typically wait till Monday morning to finish packing out.

As we sat there Sunday, the only thing that wasn’t under discussion was how much money we’d made at the show. It might be weeks or months until all the work generated showed up in our shops or wound up in our bank accounts in the form of deposits.
So, we talked about clients…oh, yes! Rudder Kickers – who came around asking a thousand questions but never buying. Strollers – who endlessly walked the show but somehow never looked at anything. Standing Room Ony- who stood in rapt conversation for half an hour blocking access to your booth. DIY’ers – who came up to you and said: “You know I could do this myself.” You politely smiled and restrained yourself from saying, “but you never will.”
After it was all over, we parted company for the drive home. Our community of three or four days dispersed until next year.

Neither I nor any of my associates still do the show. Four days is a considerable commitment and a bit too much show for aging bodies. Regrettably, some have gone over the bar, and we’ll never see them on this shore again. Other shows, like the WoodenBoat Show, have similar features and casual communities that coalesce and disperse annually.
Next time you attend one of these shows, look a bit at the interactions. A lot is going on besides sales.

A Small Eagle – A flashback Friday presentation from 2018

This eagle is barely eleven inches wide, not my smallest, but diminutive none the less. It’s a good miniature project for a woodcarver. Pine is great wood, but fine detail in small sizes are not its strong suit. Would this pop out at you in cherry, plum or box? Sure, but my objective was to do what was possible with a butt end from a #3 common plank. A piece of kindling in other words. Why, just because it was the middle of summer and I needed something to do while larger projects developed.
Like my 19th century antecedents, I created my design from pattern elements used in other projects. I then altered them to make a plan I liked.
This method of work from patterns was traditional. Patterns adorn the walls of my shop, as they do in small boat shops. If you are good at drawing feel free to do so, but the advantage of patterns is having a good record if you need to duplicate work. Patterns are also handy if you need to make alterations in a design.

The photos show the method of carving through to completion; except the gilding. I gold leaf but acknowledge that I am not a gilder. I’ll do leafing for customers, but I feel ambivalent about the effect of gold leaf. Under most lighting conditions leafing washes out the fine details. But, so many love to see a gilded eagle that presenting one without it almost automatically invites the question “why didn’t you gold leaf it?” I’ll cover this in more detail later in other posts. For now, I’ll say that I’d rather leave an eagle varnished, or tinted with bronze.

If you enlarge the first photo you’ll see the defects in of pine I am using. I once had a student who got mad at me because I didn’t carve everything in the very best quartersawn stock.  he also refused to believe me when I told him that White Pine had been the preferred wood for most figureheads carved in the northeast. It’s too soft and prone towards rot he proclaimed. I suggested that he research the issue, but he departed my class in a huff when he discovered that basswood was not my favorite carving wood. I wasn’t being perverse. Patterns, molds and carving blanks come to a shop from boatbuilders with imperfections. Normally they understand the needs of the carver for clear stock, but not always. Of course, you send back anything that’s too awful to work, but life is not perfect and even a hobbyist needs to learn to work with imperfection.

The important thing to learn from the first photo is this:  we get rid of those knots before carving, but their effects on the grain persist just like water currents around reefs influence our path through the water. We have to learn to compensate in order to make something beautiful. The same as in our daily lives.

The Golden Zapf Chancery M ©

For about six years, I made an annual pilgrimage from Massachusetts to Maine to teach marine carving at the WoodenBoat School. The courses tend to be intense, with long days full of hard work, camaraderie, and stories. So many stories that you’d think that we’d all run out by mid-week. But, there we were Thursday evening after dinner sitting in the cellar barroom of the Irish Pub telling stories. The group was about half students and half instructors. The theme that we all seemed to be following was weird tales about boat owners. Builders and yard owners have dibs on the best stories; they get to see the worst idiosyncrasies of boat owners.

It was a round-robin story session, and my turn finally came. Carvers get some odd requests – guys at boat shows who’ve had two too many drinks asking if you’d carve a figurehead of their wife, but with large breasts, and the like. But that wouldn’t match up against some of the golden goodies trotted out that night. So, when it came to be my turn, I settled for sharing a mystery.

Some years earlier, when I started as a nautical woodcarver, a friend who owned a yard called me with a commission. The owner of a lovely ketch wanted a fancy M carved & gold-leafed in his boat’s bilges. Taking a pause, I asked him if he was sure that he wanted it in the bilge. “Yep. Down as low as you can go, he said. But still visible from the cabin when the hatch is open. He wants a fancy Zapf Chancery M. One in bright gold leaf.” Taking every job seriously, I went to the yard and investigated the bilge. The M needed to be low in the bilge but visible when you looked for it. Eventually, I settled on a spot, measured the angle at which I’d be carving, and went to the shop to plan. Whenever I cut something directly into a boat, I do a practice piece to ensure my final cuts will be exact.

About a week later, I finished the job and collected the princely sum of $90 for the work. I also left the yard with a mystery. The yard owner had no more an idea than I did about the meaning of the letter M or the positioning. So, there you have it. The mystery of the Golden Zapf Chancery M, and I have no idea why he wanted it there.

Polite laughter followed the story. And then one of the yard owners from Mount Dessert piped up: “I know that boat, and I can solve your mystery. The boat’s in my yard right now. The owner is looking to sell. I asked him about that M. He told me that he was going through a terrible divorce six years ago and got taken for just about everything he owned. He managed to keep the boat because she just wasn’t interested in it. His wife’s name started with an M, so he had the M carved where it’d get wet, dirty, fouled, and where he could watch it and enjoy the process because it was the only enjoyable thing he got from the marriage.”
Not intending to, and with an unexpected assist, I had just won the informal “who can tell the best story” competition and had a mystery solved.

The Rangeley Boat

I was almost 19 before I had that adventure with boats that most coastal brats have at an earlier age: having possession of a stable, able, and adventurous small craft to create mayhem. It was a seventeen-foot Rangeley Boat. The Rangeley Boat could handle almost any challenge an adventurous 19 years old could throw at it. 

Designed for use on the lakes of Maine, the Rangeley could handle a week’s worth of camping supplies, numerous teenagers, or powered by an outboard be your ticket to exploration. I still recall its graceful bow, the green paint on the hull, and the carefully varnished interior. 

But, this story is not about that boat or my adventures in it. It’s about Old Woodsman fly dope. For those younger than fifty, the current fly dope with a similar name is probably instrumental but does not contain the same active ingredients. Said active ingredients could leave you reeking in the woods so severely that if you collapsed, the odor would guide the rescue party to your corpse. Also, no self-respecting fly wanted to settle on you. But, then, that was the point. Old Woodsman probably contained ample amounts of pine tar, botanical oils, and who knows what else. For sure, “in the day,” everyone in the north woods had a bottle and hoped that it would never leak in their car. The smell persisted.

Much more valuable products that are probably less carcinogenic have come along, and I don’t think I ever spared a moment to think about the old stuff. But, early one spring, I was perusing the annual MaineBoatbuilder’s Show in Portland, and an unexpected odor wafted towards me from a back corner of the show. Curious, I walked down the row towards the fragrance. In front of me appeared a beautifully restored Rangley Boat. The varnish was bright, the lines beautiful, and the memories savory. Around it was a group of students from one of the many boatbuilding programs that dot the coast of Maine.

“We don’t know why it smells that way. The smell stayed through all our restoration work. No matter what system of removal we tried. We figure it must have been some preservation technique.”

The reek was pure Old Woodsman. Over the boat’s long lifespan, gallons must have been spilled in it because no amount of restoration would ever remove all that smell. 

But, the new owner would have to use very little bug dope.


Unless you have strict deadlines hanging over you project completion becomes a flexible goal. The little eagle in the picture was started at the end of June as a demonstration of carving in very sub-optimal wood. It should have been completed weeks ago, but work on gilding was held up while I waited for a period when I could gild without large amounts of dust ruining the gold leaf. On the other hand, the little Town Class sloop is handily racing towards early completion. It’s destined to be a Christmas present and will be done as soon as I sand and varnish the mast hoop that it is going to be mounted in.

In the machine shop, there is a large bucket of spoon and spatula blanks that have been roughly carved, and are now waiting for finishing. I finished the blanks in August. They are what made the carving shop unsuitable for gilding. The bench in the machine shop is covered with cherry planks destined for a large ship portrait (an 1880’s era composite steam/ sail vessel). I have to finish jointing the boards and make final decisions on the arrangements of the planks before gluing up the blank. To ensure that blanks are stable and won’t split open after carving they have to cure for a few weeks before I start carving. So while I am very excited about the project I know that I won’t start it till January. More likely to see early completion are a few blanks destined for portraits of small catboats that I hope to take to a winter show.

So completion gets to be an elastic phenomenon. Clients complicate this elasticity; they want their portrait in time for an anniversary, birthday or before launching so the new quarter boards, billet head or transom eagle can be installed. The carver, boatbuilder or other craftsperson learn to plan. Eisenhower said that: “in preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Although he never worked in a boatyard or carvers shop he had it right. You spend time planning, but admit that strict plans don’t always work well in small craft shops. That’s why there is that large rick of planks in the rafters – just in case. That’s why you have models, templates and notes on practice pieces for all your projects – in case you have to do it again.
Plans are certain to go awry: the wood needed is hard to find in local yards, the gilding has to wait, the paint or varnish is dry, but not cured, so, we have to wait. Most importantly to the company’s cash flow – The deposit has not been paid so now everything has to wait.


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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