Generosity – a Flashback Friday presentation from July 2019

I carved this banner around when the Patrick O’Brien books like Master and Commander were popular. With so many boats being named Surprise, I thought it might be an attention-getting device at boat shows, and it was. Around the time I began to focus on portraiture, this quarterboard still looked tremendous but lost the booth space competition to portraits. It was regularly trotted off to WoodenBoat School for students to examine.
With the popularity of Surprise, I wasn’t too amazed at the number of people who’d come up and tell me that that was their boat’s name.

One year at the school, we had a Waterfront manager who particularly admired the board. He’d more than gone out of his way to help many of the students, and the students appreciated it. He became a regular visitor to our class. One afternoon while class was in progress, he was in the shop admiring the student’s work and casting glances at the Surprise quarterboard. Of course, his boat’s name was Surprise, and the poor thing was barren of any display of name. So, I reached over, grabbed the board, handed it to him, and said: “it’s yours.” I think he mounted the board almost immediately that afternoon.

We are in business to earn. But, as an artist is within your scope to please with a gift. You get as much, if not more, than the receiver out of that transaction.

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 Desk

After teaching a week-long class in woodcarving at Woodenboat School, it’s sometimes hard to say goodby. One year a group of us extended our mutual tour of duty with a trip to Liberty, Maine. We visited a cluttered tool store: Captain Tinkham’s Emporium. The store is a sort of tool Mecca for woodworkers. Looking for a set of feathering planes for fairing out lapstrake planking? Try the Captain’s. Looking for some specialty gouges or chisels? It’s a great place to start your search. Even if you don’t find what you are looking for, you will find something you want.
And so it was that Saturday while my students and I spent a full half of an afternoon browsing.
What I found was not a tool; it was a desk. It was a drop front oak secretary. This sort of little desk was seen all over at one point. The particular model I was sitting in front of started life as a reward from a shoe polish company. My former father in law, the Cap’n had won it for sales of Shinola shoe polish as a boy in coastal Maine. It had graced the back corner of the living room. From the adjacent window, you could look down into the cove and watch the 34-foot Ketch Psyche swinging at her mooring. Reaching up to the bookshelf, my hands could almost feel the 1941 edition of Bowditch that I used to study, the Coastal Pilots from places in the Pacific, and the thick book of navigational tables. The cubby holes were empty, but my mind could fill them as they had been with receipts for work on the ketch. Over the desk, I could see the framed Master’s certificates.
Then my students came in a rush to show me their purchases and make suggestions for a late lunch before hitting the road.
On the way out, I took one last look at the desk, turned and went home.


“Now let the tool do the work. The edge is sharp. All you have to do is guide it.” That was me to a student at the WoodenBoat School years ago. More recently, sensei said to me, “Lou, the sword is sharp, let it do the cutting. All you have to do is guide it.” In the first case, I was an instructor in maritime carving, and in the second, a student in Iaido – a Japanese sword art.
After years of working as a carver, my hands knew how to finesse a cut. To apply just enough strength to shave off what I wanted, and no more. As a neophyte student of Iaido, I was fighting the impulse to put too much power into a cut, and not trust the sword to do the work.
The solution is, as it always seems to be, lots of practice. With a gouge as with a sword, the control you need can’t be just a matter of mind over a tool. Something called muscle memory needs to develop. Muscle memory allows you to do the right thing as required without thinking now I’ll apply just this much pressure, rotate the tool five degrees, swivel two and finish.

When you begin carving, you can’t imagine how the carver almost idly manipulates the tool to remove precise shavings with the gouge. The secret is in part in the hands, but the entire body can be involved. Watch a carver or the swordsman cutting. The body shifts, the hips move, the shoulders flex. The hands are the recipient of all the focused energy and direction. Ask to be shown in slow motion how to do it, and most people won’t be able to explain it. It slips from the mind. One day you’ll be carving and wake up from musing on car repair or cooking dinner. You’ll realize that the past fifteen minutes, your carving has been on a sort of autopilot with your hands, body, and some deep part of your mind operating without you.

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