Decline & Fall – Ships Carving

The gilt-edged age for the ship carver had to have been the 17th and 18th centuries. The figureheads were the least of it. There were gilded coats of arms, allegorical figures, swags, and elaborately carved moldings everywhere.
Set sail, wind up in a storm, get into a dust-up with the Dread Pirate Roberts or meet up with a French corsair, and when you came back into port, watch the carvers bill rachet skyward. Those cherubs on the starboard Quarter gallery? Somebody’s cannon blew away? They need replacing.
I doubt that carvers grew wealthy. But, there was steady work. Think of it as a handy 17th and 18th-century body shop for ships. “Here’s the estimate- we can try to save that Neptunas Rex on the transom, but it’s cheaper to replace.”
Sometime in the Napoleonic Wars, the British Admiralty began to budget the purse into which captains could dip for replacement swag. Just so much for a frigate, this for a fifth-rate, that for a third and so on. I’ve suspected that the Admiralty knew that some skippers and bosuns were in on a deal with with the carvers – ” I’ve got some cherubs this week buy them from me rather than Smithwick, and I’ll kickback 5%.” The fine art of naval chicanery in practice.
Thus began the inexorable decline and fall of the honorable trade of ships carver. Over on this side of the Atlantic, there were no royal purses to fund tons of gilded frippery. During the glory days of American sail, journalists would visit the docks and write a commentary on which newly arrived vessels were most tastefully attired. Many Maritime Museums display the fine figureheads that once graced the bows of the clippers.

Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum

Then along came the Quakers. They caused crews to mutiny by taking figureheads off vessels and replacing them with sober billet heads. Sail without our Jeremey Bentham figurehead? Never. Figureheads continued to have their day for a while. But, gradually, more modest accouterments became the rule. The cost was part of the reason; fancy carvings were expensive to maintain.
The following photos are from the U.S.S. Constitution Museum (for a detailed article on the Constitutions bow candy dip into this Article:

The first photo came off the Constitution, and the second came from H.M.S. Cyane. Both are good representations of early 19th naval billet heads, spare and none too fancy. But, great representations of the carver’s art.

Two -headed equestrian figurehead from a Royal Navy vessel ( Peabody Essex Museum)

Compared to the two-headed equestrian figurehead ( circa 1750, in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum), the billet heads appear downright dowdy. The final billet heads are from the Penobscot Bay Maritime Museums collection. They have the distinction of being in mint condition Carved by either Thomas or W.L. Seavy of Bangor, Maine. They never were mounted on a ship and represent the end of billet heads for commercial shipping.

Here is a shot of more recent work on a contemporary sailboat.

Lastly, here is a ridiculous bit of plastic on an otherwise pretty boat.

sic transit gloria mundi

Adventures In Coastal Living: Missing Your Timing

The Captain thought it a good idea. Because the Captain thought it a good idea, my wife thought it a good idea. If I hadn’t felt railroaded into it, I would have thought it a great idea. Spinney, Kora, aunt Martha and my friend Bob all chimed in, and the consensus was that it would be a “bullet product” for a carver to create and sell. The fishermen would buy it because it was useful to them, tourists would buy it in the shops because it was a genuine part of local life that they could take home. 

The item was a netting needle. Netting needles are still used by fishermen to make and repair all sorts of network. My only surviving needle is the first crude attempt that I made. I did improve. My first five or so were kindling ( ash burns with a beautiful sweet odor). But then I caught the skill of cutting out the tongue ( that small needle in the middle of the netting needle) without splitting the whole into pieces. At about six inches, my one remaining netting needle is on the tiny end of useful sizes. Needle size depends on the net size you are creating. You charge the needle with twine looped around the tongue and the fishtailed end of the needle, and then you are ready to go. The images here come from an exhibit at the Maine Maritime Museum ( Visit it!!)

To make them traditionally, the Captain and Spinney had me split out local ash with a froe – a tool that looks like a sideways chisel. Spinney called this riving, and it is how planks were split off logs before pit saws, circular saws, and other machinery came along for creating planks. If you have ever split firewood, you’ve done it. Woods like ash and oak have tremendous resistance to rot when split this way. After riving the split piece of ash was planed smooth and flat, and then taken to the local tidal inlet, weighted with stones in the ebb and flow of the tide and left. Some months later, the salt darkened wood was ready to be worked.

The only additional equipment needed is a hook or ring, to attach the top cord of the net to, and a rectangular piece of metal or wood to determine how big the net’s boxes will be. If you must see the whole process, I advise a visit to Youtube. I just made the needles.

The needles are easy to make. When adequately finished, they have a nice feel in the hand and are useful. So why did I title this Missing Your Timing? Well, the wooden ones last for years as long as the tongue doesn’t break. You can whip one together in a pinch using a metal coat hanger and a pair of pliers. Any competent fisherman can make his own, and around the time I began to make them, they started to be available in plastic. 

They didn’t sell well in the shop where we placed them; people didn’t understand what they were for – they required too much explanation. A rubber lobster made better sense. So the stock I had carefully made were distributed to friends and their friends. I considered myself well rewarded if someone liked my needle well enough to make it a favorite.

My Brain Trust shook their collective heads, as did I. You can convince yourself that your newest widget is the best thing since Mayonaise, but that doesn’t mean it is. That’s why market research needs to be more than a group of people sitting around saying, “Hey! Here’s a great idea!”

I made some very sweet cutting boards with the remaining ash, and those sold well.

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