Tide

The scent of place ties me to the memory of it. Walking into my shop and smelling varnish and linseed oil transports me to boat shops and boatyards where I’ve worked. Without a moment in transport, I’ve returned, even if it was long ago. Sometimes these “smellucinations” are just a bit too close to tearing the veil of reality.
I left the mid-coast in 1975 for grad school as my first marriage dissolved. I didn’t return until the dissolution of my career, as an applied anthropologist, completed and a rebirth as a carver began.
Never really being satisfied as a flatlander, I had found ways to work boatbuilders, marlinespike people, and lobstermen into the cultural programs on which I worked.
Then I got involved. I was drawn back in. You couldn’t even call it a seduction because I dove in headfirst.
I helped hang planks on a dory with a boatbuilder. I started working at my friend’s booths at boat shows, explaining to the uninitiated what a mast hoop was. Then one day, someone walked up to the booth looking for a transom banner and was referred to me.
Soon I was running my own small shop. I was ‘Yahd Cavah” at a boatyard, and I even ran ads in WoodenBoat magazine. An offer spend a week in coastal Maine teaching a Maritime carving course was not an offer I’d turned down.
The first morning I decided to walk the two miles to the shop where I’d be working. I had never been to this particular community, this specific island before. As I walked down the road, the scent of spruce came to me. Being not far from the water, the salt scent of the sea surrounded me. Not too far away, a tidal flat gave off that distinctive odor of low tide.
Off to the west, a small road led to a cove. I could almost see the 34-foot ketch Psyche swinging at her mooring, my bane, and pleasure. The Cap’n would be shoving his pipe full and agitating to set sail.
I shook free of the hallucination. It had been years since I thought of any of that. I hurried on to shop.

Hancing Pieces

I think it was 2001 that I came across these small carvings on a boat in Newport, RI. I took the photos because I hadn’t seen many examples of small “hancing” pieces on modern watercraft. In traditional ship carving, a hancing piece was a carving applied to the break between decks. Or, placed at the end of a beam. In general, you might have a hancing piece in any place that needed a graceful transition. In this case, they have the semi-practical purpose of reinforcing a stanchion base.
Both would be great projects for a budding carver who owns a boat and wants a bit of eye candy to make it genuinely notable.
The star is an easy do. Navigate to my post on carving a star for much of the information you’d need to carve this piece.

The little eagle head is a gem, and more of a challenge to get the look right. Look for a pattern you can modify, and do a practice run; eyes and feathers can be painful to get right without practice. I have a tradition that I picked up from other eagle carvers. After roughing in the body plan, I work on the head of the eagle first. The nearly completed eyes and beak can watch me carve the rest. In this case, it would only be the head. So be kind to the birdie.

Titanic

Salvaged from the Titanic, this carved panel still looks like the woodcarver finished yesterday despite having spent most of a century in the darkness of the North Atlantic.
I looked at the panel in front of me and lusted quietly after the skill that had created it. Have you ever wanted something so badly that it becomes a physical phenomenon? There had been an opportunity years ago to stay with my mentor and become an apprentice. Warburton had offered, I had declined. I wanted to go back on the road and bum my way to the west coast.
I might even be able to duplicate the panel now- given five years to do it in. My work turned in other directions, and the classical, neoclassical, and renaissance tropes I found engaging, but not enough to dedicate myself to learn.
When I did the Maine Boatbuilders show every spring, an older retiree would show up like clockwork at my booth. He had trained in a trade carver’s shop in France before World War II. Sometimes he’d take the opportunity to take over my bench. Once, he took a length of scrap, and using a small assortment of the tools I had there showed me how fast he could turn out two feet of fancy carved molding. Minutes. ” Once you learn, you’ll never really forget.” He smiled and left me hoping that he’d return the next day. Part of the difference between being self-taught and having worked in a craft/trade environment are all the methods you learn that make basic tasks easier, and basic tasks are the building blocks to the Secrets of the Masters.
It’s like going from the darkness of the North Atlantic into the light.

Inspiration

Boundless inspiration. It’s not always available. That’s why art books and museums are so valuable. In my very earliest days as a carver, my mentor Warburton insisted that I regularly go to galleries and museums. Admittedly he may have wanted to get me out of the studio to where I would be someone else’s nuisance.
I always took sketching materials when I went. Not because I was so skillful at what I rendered, but because we did not have pocket phones with cameras. Well, we did not have pocket phones come to think of it. Then too many museums forbade any photography by visitors. If you needed a rendering, you drew it.
Warburton had an extensive art library to which I received limited access. Rare volumes were off-limits, but everything else was open to me. The library was several hundred of books, portfolios, pamphlets binders and loose material that begged for cataloging. Sometimes you dug for items in the piles. As a result, you frequently went on artistic detours as you found interesting diversions that related not at all to what you needed.
I had been fortunate to grow up in New York City, which still had free museums. I was no stranger to losing myself in exhibits. Warburton would send me away to the Walters or other locations with goals. Not exclusive goals, but purposeful enough a directive that I had to prepare for the inquisition when I returned.
I saw no particular discipline in Warburton’s directives. As in all things, he wisely refused to be my master. But, staying at a distance as my mentor allowed me to grow.
Never thinking of these influences over the years, my collection of books has grown. I haunt museums and scour the internet.
There are only a few points of contact where my collection overlaps with Warburton’s; we have different interests. But there are several hundred volumes, portfolios, pamphlets, booklets, binders and loose piles that make inspiration easier to find.

A Halibut Schooner

I’ve had my prejudices when it comes to selecting east coast ships and boats to carve. Perhaps it’s that I’ve lived on the east coast, and sailed on the east coast. Recently a favorite Facebook group ( ships and shipyards before 1945) posted a photo and builders article of the west coast halibut schooner Republic. I was hooked and wanted to create a halibut schooner portrait.

There is no definitive book on halibut schooners. It’s hard to define a “type” there is so much variation. Some are transom sterned, but others like the one I’ve carved are canoe sterned. All had moderate deadrise ( not flat bottomed), and tended to be plumb stemmed, but not always. See the problem?
Common features included a midships fish hold, pilothouse aft of the mainmast, raised foredeck, and a “sorta schooner rig.” Described as auxiliary schooners, they depended on gas engines for propulsion. The sails were primarily for emergencies, or perhaps for use as steadying sails for stability. Old photos of halibut schooners frequently show them with a foresail and jib.


The main boom seemed to have served as a lift for dories when involved in the dory longline fishery; or as a cargo boom. I’ve no documentation of sails on the main. And, that’s why I’ve described it as a “sorta schooner rig.” The Republic was built in 1915 at the John Strand Yard in the Ballard area of Seattle. Extensively remodeled Republic is still afloat.

A hand-carved sailor’s model of the halibut schooner Republic

About the carving:
I’ve carved the hull bold in relief on eastern white pine. I like to place the boat on grain that suggests water and sky.
I applied the deckhouse and other details. After carving and gluing the added parts down with Titebond and cyanoacrylate, I sealed the carving and rubbed on a light coat of varnish.
I learned some new techniques and used some new materials in making this “sailor’s model.” That, in part, was the objective of doing this wintertime project. There is still a bit of finish work to do, and I am not completely satisfied with the railing.

Thoughts On Carving – Pine

A professional carver who gives internet lessons on carving commented online to a student that pine was not a suitable wood for carving, get some good basswood was the advice. I laughed at this. Pine was the go-to wood for several generations of New England ship carvers, and the lines of many a schooner hull were carved first in our regional white pine, not to mention figureheads and much of the work of John Haley Bellamy. Pine is terrific to carve is you are mindful of its character and use sharp tools.

Here is a pine paradox: southern yellow pine can be harder than many hardwoods, and was once widely used for pattern making and shipbuilding. In the ’70’s I was gifted with a section of southern yellow pine that had been a beam in an old factory. Cutting it up into carvable pieces was challenging. In that case, the sample was old-growth cut in the 1890s.

Regional variation, the environment in which the tree grew, how the sawyer cut it ( quarter sawn or plain), how fast it grew, how it was seasoned, and other factors all contribute to suitability for carving. For example, the transom eagle on the USS Constitution is ponderosa pine. These days ponderosa is better known for its use as structural wood and not for its use in carving. In 1910 the old-growth ponderosa selected by a Philadelphia shipyard carver was not exceptional. The ponderosa chosen was sturdy, hard for a “softwood” and tight-grained. Until the Constitution maintenance shop carpenter told me about the carving as he worked on it, I’d never have thought to select ponderosa for a project.

This Transom eagle on the USS Constitution was carved in 1901 from Ponderosa pine. At some point it was modified to allow a line through the lower section of the carving.

Another pine that you might be interested in trying is western sugar pine. It has a clean tight grain and a distinctive sweet odor. You may need to shop around for this, but won’t be disappointed in the real deal. I carved this little eagle out of sugar pine and loved the experience.

A few words of caution on technique while using pine: it can seem like a good idea to try to “hog out” wood fast with a large gouge and a mallet. If you are hollowing the wings of an eagle for depth and shape, this can be a temptation. In fast grown pine, this is a mistake. Your gouge will tend to dig into the grain, and if you attempt to wedge it out, the grain will tear out deeply, leaving you with a rough and deep tear in the wood. Be gentle. Remember going fast is not always going to get you there sooner.
Another issue can be cuts that run on a bit further than intended. The answer to this is less force and more finesse on the cuts, If you are using a mallet switch to a lighter one or use your palm. Some years ago, I took a knot of elm from the firewood pile and fashioned it into a palm mallet. The palm mallet protects my hand from impacts while allowing me to get a bit more force into a cut.

Pine is a worthwhile wood for carving: It’s readily available in a variety of species; many times, it will be the economical choice of wood, and with sharp tools can yield a rewarding carving experience.

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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