Sippican Cottage



A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

My Mallet Don’t Ring (from 2007)

This is Provincetown, Massachusetts again. 1940 this time.

That’s a working boat. By “working,” I’m referring to the fact that it’s used to catch critters in the ocean or haul stuff around. A working boat is not a pleasure boat. There used to be many more working boats than pleasure boats.

I love this picture. You can still go places and find people caulking the seams of a wooden boat in this manner, but it’s getting pretty rare. Most boats are made of fiberglass now, and are one big lump built on a plug and them popped off like a muffin from a tin, only you keep the tin and throw away the muffin. If boats are made from wood now, they are generally “cold molded;” that is, they are laid up from epoxied layers of marine plywood.

This boat is carvel planked. That means that the planks butt up to one another, and display a smooth hull when they are complete. Other wooden boats are made lapstrake, which means each successive plank overlaps the one placed just before it, which renders the zigzag profile you are familiar with from clapboard siding on a house. Most old salts call that method “clinker,” not “lapstrake.” You should hear what they call you after you leave their shed.

The hull of this boat is probably made from oak frames with cedar planking, but there are lots of species of wood that work as well for either item. Each plank on a carvel planked boat has to be fitted to the curve of the boat, usually a multiple curve with a twist thrown in. And the inside must be “backed out” to match the curve of the perpendicular frames, and the outside must be made “fair,” or shaped to remove all trace of the faceting that a series of flat planks presents. If you saw the pieces laid flat you’d think their crazy shapes could never fit together to make much of anything. The curves of a boat hull, gentle and sharp alike, are exceedingly beautiful.

The planking is fitted in a very unforgiving way. The frames are like a skeleton inside. They are usually steam bent to get them to the curved shape you need. In WW II, Liberty boats tried to improve on solid wood steam bent frames, and made massive built-up frames using the then currently newfangled epoxy to hold it all together. They were immensely strong, and they all broke. The sea requires a certain flexibility.

As I was saying, the planks must fit together very tightly on the inside edge, but be open a bit on their outboard edge, to allow the planks to be caulked to seal them from leaks properly. The boat in the picture is being refurbished, not constructed, so you can see traces of the paint that has been scraped off on the planks. The planks were usually screwed to the frames, with each screw head painstakingly countersunk and plugged with a wooden plug. The old salt would call the plugs “bungs,” and would make sure the grain in the bungs ran the same direction as the plank, even though that was unlikely to make a difference. If you asked him about the bungholes while referring to them as plugholes he’d probably tell you to shut your cakehole, after your check cleared, anyway.

You can see the skein of unspun cotton in the picture as the man works it into the seam with a “crease iron” and mallet. He has all sorts of irons for all the various places on the hull, but the crease iron is for long straight runs. He works the cotton into the seam by rocking the iron, which looks like a wide chisel, back and forth, and hits it at the opportune time to set the cotton in the seams.

There was an expression then. “His mallet rings.” It was a sign of respect for a man whose easy familiarity with his task and his tools manifested itself with an audible clue. The sonorous, metronomic ringing of the wooden mallet, wielded expertly on the rocking iron, marked you as a man who knew his business.

My mallet doesn’t ring. I have spent my life trying to manufacture with my effort and my mind what my hands do not give me naturally. In a way, it is like manners. If you don’t have them, you can pretend that you do; it is essentially the same thing in practice.

But I know it, just the same; and in a quiet moment it rankles.

8 Responses

  1. I'll bet that mallet of yours rings just fine; it's just that you can't hear it if you stuff that cotton in your ears.

  2. Greg, you are too hard on yourself, and I suspect, your harshest critic. The table you made that sits in my entryway is the only piece of furniture in my house that rings my bell every time I walk past it. Take all your compliments and put them away in a portfolio. Pull it out and look at it whenever you feel like you are "not good enough".

  3. I'm a time traveler in reverse when it comes to this. I worked in aerospace for about 20 years on and off. Terms like "fairing" are familiar to me, but in an aluminum and composite context. I've slowly learned that the different terms I'm used to in that context had their origins centuries ago in yours.

    I still haven't found out why the port side of the craft is designed first (as opposed to the starboard side), and then mirrored to complete the design.

  4. drdave has a point… whenever I've been too self-critical and now I'm questioning my credibility in this universe, I simply open up my positive feedback page on eBay and bask in the warmth and praise. "Excellent eBayer AAA+++++ and BEST eBayer EVER!!!! and FASTEST PAYMENT!!! and best of all….. fast smooooth transaction… A+ ALL THE WAY!!!!!! I've got HUNDREDS of these heartfelt sincere proclamations from total strangers! I am LOVED! I am APPRECIATED! I am SOMEBODY!!!! Get a grip, Sip. Don't reach for the mallet.

  5. What a treasure. This post is like roaming through a familiar old house, realizing you've never lived there, but you've visited a time or two.

    I laughed at the story of the Liberty boats and their broken frames. These days, I send customers who want two-part polyurethane or epoxy coatings on their masts and such off to find another varnisher. Those coatings will crack, too.

    It's just such fun to see details – like running bung grain with the planks – written about so lovingly and with such humor.

    Since it's so cold up there, you might enjoy watching some pirogue makers while you dream about spring.

  6. just found this, and wondering how you end up with a P'town thing. I grew up here,and am a junior historian. Would like to know the provenance of that picture.

    I love your site, through IMAO.

  7. Hi Glenn- Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I am originally from Massachusetts, and spent many summers playing music in every bar on Cape Cod. I was once on a float in the Fourth of July parade in Provincetown. Won first prize, too. Many members of my family lived in various towns on Cape Cod since the 1950s, and some live there still.

    The picture is from the Library of Congress, I think, but it's been so long since I wrote this, I can't recall exactly where I got it.

    I've written rather a lot about Cape Cod. You can read more here.

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