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Hey, Norm Made a Sailboat!

Norm Abram is retired from both his TV shows now, I think. I haven’t had a lot to do with television for a long time now, so correct me if I’m wrong. He was different than every other TV person who made stuff. He banged on houses with Bob Vila and all his replacements on This Old House, and he made sensible furniture on The New Yankee Workshop on the side. I certainly never saw all of his output, but I never saw him say something stupid. No one would ever say that about me, even if they only met me yesterday. He was always avuncular and productive and sensible on his shows. He never built anything ridiculous that I saw.

The internet is now chock-a-block full of people building stupid stuff, stupidly. This Old House has devolved into nothing more than dreadful homeowners picking out the most expensive things from every list put in front of them, and has long been unwatchable. It wasn’t always thus. The crew used to help homeowners repair and remodel their own houses in a robust but sane fashion. The sweat equity was real, and the results were sensible, if not flashy. The sensible but not flashy ethos is as dead as a Pharaoh now. It’s been decades since I’ve heard of any dwelling of any kind on television construction shows referred to as anything other than a “dream home.” No one is willing to settle forĀ  a regular home they might be able to afford, or even build themselves. They’ll live in a shipping container, but not a ranch.

Building a boat in the basement was a pretty common thing back in the day. I did it myself, once, though I never launched it. I got to wondering if it was still “a thing.” A quick scan of YouTub seined a huge trawl of ridiculous boat projects. Dream boats, if you will. All the smaller stuff was people wondering if they could make a silly boat out of the wrong materials.

And then Norm appeared. Look what he made. It’s a modest, useful, intelligent thing, made to last. Just like Norm.

If You Make Things, You Are My Brother: Wooden Breeze Buckets

A sailboat is a hole in the ocean into which you pour money.

I built a wooden boat once, from scratch. The design was called a “Flapjack.” It’s a 14 footer or so, designed for rowing or sailing. It’s made almost entirely from mahogany of one sort or another. I began it — well, I don’t remember when I began it. I recall there was no Internet then. I bought the plans mail-order, long before I began working on it. I read a book or two about boatbuilding, and daydreamed about building it from time to time. I also recall having the desire to build a wooden boat as far back as the 1970s.

I began building it, oh, I don’t know, maybe fifteen or twenty years ago. It was just some forms for the planking, a bow, and a transom for a long while. It was in my basement. I used to joke that I worked as steady as taxation on that boat. Forty-five minutes a year, without fail. Eventually I needed my basement much, much more than I needed a half-built boat, so I finished it in a couple weeks of furious activity, and put it outside under a tarpaulin, and eventually, in someone else’s garage.

When I say I “finished” it, I meant it was a launchable boat. It didn’t have a mast for a sail, but you could row a boat like that if you’d rather. Then again, it didn’t have rowlocks for oars either, because they cost money and I never had any money that didn’t have a use more useful than oarlocks. I could have put a gusset on the transom in order to mount a small outboard motor I own, and forget about oarlocks and mast and sail entirely, but I never got around to it. I guess the siren song of the sea can’t be heard clearly over a running table saw.

I have finished, to a fare-the-well, so many things since I started that boat that I’d be unable to calculate their number or value — big things, little things, expensive things, enormous things, all sorts of things. It’s strange that I would associate this almost-made boat with leisure, because there has never been even a hint of leisure in it so far, and I know there wouldn’t be any leisure in it if I did turn the last screws in it, either. Perhaps I know without thinking that I have not had anything resembling leisure for almost the entirety of my life, so the boat is better unfinished. If it was entirely finished, perhaps it would weigh on my mind that it went unused. In its current condition, it doesn’t bother me like that. Almost done isn’t done. I am very careful that I’m never past almost done, myself.

It’s outside my house, its third home now, upside-down under three feet of snow. I know in my heart that if I finished it, I would die, or have to take a day off, which is much the same thing. Some things, like marriage, or raising children, or building a boat, are best done continuously, but never finished.

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.

Canvas Stretched Over A Wooden Frame

Dull people are more interesting than interesting people, generally.

These fellers aren’t putting on a phlegmatic act, as far as I can tell. They might be mugging for the camera for all we know; catch them on a regular day and they’d be cigar store Indians.

Businesses, even businesses that are interesting to people who aren’t customers like these boatbuilders, need sober and industrious people to take risks and stick to business. I grow weary of lamebrain pitchmen. Make something people want, and make money at it, and don’t fold your tent in the night five minutes after your first profit. Then you’re a businessman. 

Breeze buckets!

Brothers From Other Mothers

Arch Davis makes boats, teaches boatbuilding, and sells boat plans in Belfast, Maine.

I’ve built a fourteen foot skiff using methods nearly identical to those shown in the video. I never launched it.

I’d never met or heard of Arch Davis before, but I knew he was my brother from another mother when I saw his sawhorses there in the background in the video. I have waxed poetic about sawhorses before:

(From 2008: An Invitation Into A Disorderly Mind)

I’m not a blogger.

I hate the word. It’s inelegant. The Internet is disorderly and inelegant, so it fits, but I more or less have never gotten the urge to be “a blogger.” This might seem counterintuitive to those who read the URL for this page and see dot blogspot right in my name. Google named it, I didn’t. Google couldn’t even name themselves properly. Who should expect them to name others wisely? I tire of gibberish in great things.

Bloggers are other people. I am not casting aspersions. I’m just telling ya, is all. I confused a few people yesterday, because I put the raw feed from my head on the page. If you look at the picture I supplied, and read what I wrote, it’s entirely coherent. But old friend AJ Lynch’s observation:

Say that again but slower this time.

and new friend anonymous’:

You want to share whatever you’ve been smokin’?

are entirely fair. They are cruising the Internet looking for people expressing themselves forthrightly. There’s nothing more forthright than the Internet. I can’t ever recall being told to Die In A Fire in real life, after all.

So I’m a little too obscurantist for the Intertunnel. I can’t help it. I write essays here. It’s different. I apologize unreservedly, in advance, for everything I’m ever going to say in the future.

Those were my wedding vows, by the way.

Perhaps I owe it to my audience to explain the idiosyncratic workings of my mind. Here goes.

See the picture at the top of the page? I saw it on our beloved Intertunnel yesterday. What’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you see it? Wanna know what mine is? This:

Marilyn Monroe is sitting on a very old school sawhorse, one that I’ve made myself. I have never encountered another person still making them this way. I learned it from men, all dead now, for whom Marilyn Monroe was more than a Elton John retreaded song reference. My modern carpenter friends would never make sawhorses this way, as it is complicated and labor intensive compared to their designs. But I’ve used mine for 25 years and kept them outside for much of it. They don’t even wiggle in the joints yet. I do, and I generally am kept indoors at night. There is no shame in the carpentry trade in buying pre-made sawhorses now, either, although the people I first learned carpentry from would have never spoken to you for the rest of your life if you brought one to work.

Oh, and Marilyn Monroe? She’d be camped out on my doorstep waiting for me to come home, if she was still alive. Girls like that are a dime a dozen. I’d have to send my wife out to shoo her away. But man, look at those legs.

They’re 1×6 utility grade pine. Set the framing square at 24″ on the blade and 4″ on the tongue to get the angle right.

I’ve Eaten Many Elephants. You Take One Bite At A Time

Sad to see that Suzanna Brandis is no longer with us. Jock Brandis is still working, though. Tugging on things on a movie set, mostly.

“Alternative lifestyles.” It’s a loaded term. I feel a sort of kinship with these people that’s hard to explain. It’s as if you are trained to be normal, and you find there’s no normality anywhere in the land, so you set up normalcy in your own little sphere as best you can and people call you a weirdo. 

The Young Man Don’t Know Nothin’ (from 2008)

Ya see, the young man comes in and he don’t know nothin’. That’s a given.

Well, not precisely nothin’. He knows all sorts of things. It’s just that everything he knows isn’t so, or ain’t worth a fart in a whirlwind to know. Useless.

But a young man ain’t born useless. You got to make him so. A young man is born to be a boon to his fellow man and a credit to his parents, if his parents don’t pay too much attention to him and ruin him. Let him be.

They come all in here, extravagant of hair but miserly with manners. They want to start right in being something. Son, you’re an unthrowed pot. Stand up straight and listen.

You see, you ain’t born knowing, and you can’t learn it in a book. How you gonna know to put fabric softener in the steam box to make the oak come out of there real withy and limber? Your grammar school teacher don’t tell you that out there in the real world you gotta use the ceiling for a brace for the inner stem while you make down the bolt.

Oh the smart ones come in, though, not as often as you’d like but often enough, and just remind you how dumb you were when you were their age. They’re young and handsome and clever and the whole world stretches out to their horizon. You’re already on the horizon and you know it. And you think to yourself how wise that boy is to come in here and stand up straight there with the wrong clothes and a box of the wrong tools, and not enough of them, and his hands like his momma’s –smart enough to say “I don’t know nothin’ but I’m willing to learn if you’ll show me.”

That boy knows everything.

Tag: boats

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