Archive for June, 2008

WoodenBoat School – Being Here

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

The “Week 1” post talks of the school itself and what we are covering in the “Fundamentals of Boatbuilding” course. This post is more about the rest of life at the school.

Driving here from New York, I saw the “Welcome to Maine” sign which included the slogan “The Way Life Should Be.” I’m not sure I am experiencing that particular life, but this is what it is like at WoodenBoat School.

boat houseNearly 600 people pass through the school each summer. The school’s staff seems to be remarkably small and incredibly well tuned to people’s wants and needs. Rich, the “Director,” is one of those people who learns everyone’s name instantly. He doesn’t appear to “direct.” He does, and does almost anything. One morning this week at 5:30 AM I found him outside the boat shop hooking a trailored boat to a pickup to haul to the waterfront. Every staff member I’ve met presents themselves as family and works hard to make everyone feel at home.

The general atmosphere is one of respect, honor and trust. For example, if you’re a guest and want to have lunch, sign up on the lunch sheet. Your meal will be delivered to the boat shop, as are all the rest, and you can pay for it by remitting cash in an envelope found beside the sign-up sheet. The envelopes are on the honor system and collected occasionally.

The town of Brooklin is about 650 people, and as far as I can tell has a general store, one small cafe and two bed and breakfast style Inns. The school is located pretty far down a peninsula on Naskeg road. Naskeg is an old “Native American” word that means “cellphone don’t work here.” slow sign and woodenboat storeActually, right at the crest of the campus where the gravel road heads down to the waterfront, there is a “Slow” sign. That sign is apparently a cellphone antenna device of some sort. People go there to make phone calls. The other place to make cell calls is from a widow’s walk atop one of the residence buildings.

It’s about the same for Internet service too. Neither of the residence buildings have Internet service. There is WIFI service at the WoodenBoat Store. I sit on a bench outside the store. When the store is open, the store manager always invites people to sit inside and use the WIFI service. I’ve found that doing that tends to heat up the plastic in my wallet, so I stay outside.

There is a student residence up near the general store, the Mountain Ash Student House. That building and the smaller Farmhouse near the boat shop provide rooms for students. They are simple rooms. Students double up. Room and board are quite reasonable and the food is very good. Don’t expect fancy, but expect to be satisfied with tasty and plentiful. Don’t expect heat either. The buildings are lightly heated (emphasis on lightly). After all, the school is open during summer months. The other 47 continental states have summers which include warmth. For Maine, don’t pack sandals or shorts; bring more long sleeves.

There are three large sections in the boat shop. Currently, each of the classes in session uses one of those big sections. I’m not sure how they divide up space when more classes are running concurrently. Just in back of the shop is a lumber room that is well stocked with the kinds of wood that make boatbuilders drool. Fortunately, there’s enough sawdust on the floor to sop up the drool. Beyond that is a room full of power tools, big power tools. The band saw could probably resaw railroad ties. The table saw is one of the state-of-the-art “SawStop” models. The planer is a 24 inch model and the jointer is also industrial strength. All are available for any of us to use.

The school has a waterfront which sits in a wide cove on Eggemoggin Reach. By the way, a Reach is a section of water upon which the prevailing winds allow a sailing vessel to traverse the length of the Reach in either direction without need for tacking. One of those directions might actually be a sailing reach, where a baot sails its fastest before the wind. The school keeps quite a few small boats, from small rowing dinghies, to single mast sail boats (prams, skiffs, Havens, H 12.5s, etc.), up to a two stick Mackinaw boat. All are available for student use after classes in the evening and on Saturdays.

The school is very strong on safety, strong meaning good briefings and expectation of good behavior. They warn and instruct, but do not hover and meddle. They have a great safety record with no serious shop injuries in all these years and fewer capsizes than can be counted on one hand.

If you are considering attending, you are very likely to have a very good time as long as your expectations focus on the classes, the boating, and for the friends you will make. If you absolutely must have the best in accommodations, maybe you belong at the Cipriani instead.

WoodenBoat School – Week 1

Saturday, June 7th, 2008

WoodenBoat school signThe center of the universe for people interested in wooden boats is Brooklin Maine. Don’t let anyone else fool you. The people in Brooklin will set you right. Brooklin is a little place on Maine’s central coast with a winter population of about 650 people. The WoodenBoat magazine, and others, is published from Brooklin. Nearby are 7 to 9 (depends on who counts) thriving boat shops, many of them building mostly with wood.

boat shopThe magazine has been operating the WoodenBoat School for 27 years. The school manages 99 courses over the duration of the summer months. Most courses are one week, with a few running two weeks. I’m attending the ever popular two week “Fundamentals” of Boatbuilding” course, which runs 5 times each summer. Course instruction rotates among several highly respected wooden boat builders, each teaching one or more iterations each year. The instructor for my iteration is Greg Rössell, who builds with traditional techniques and operates a sole proprietorship boat shop in Troy, Maine.

Greg promotes traditional boatbuilding. That means using traditional materials, local wood varieties, and traditional building techniques … as opposed to building epoxy embalmed boats, or tortured plywood boats. I can see the course curriculum following fairly close to the material in Greg’s books, “Building Small Boats” and “The Boatbuilder’s Apprentice.” It doesn’t take long to recognize expertise, and Greg has it. He also has an entertaining style, always a bonus.

demonstrating loftingI’ve read Greg’s books and magazine articles for several years and have what I think is a good general understanding of what he teaches. What I lack is practical experience, and more importantly, knowledge of what to do when things don’t go exactly according to plan. That’s where this course excels. We get some time for practical hands on work, but more of the time is Greg’s instruction, and that instruction includes a tremendous amount of information about other ways of doing things and how to recover from things gone wrong.
Greg Rossell and Maynard Bray

The typical day is part instruction and part hands on work. Most days, the work is the lesser part of the time. Instruction, not step-by-step “do this – do that,” is explanation and demonstration of techniques. We’re swimming in information and taking every opportunity to get all of our curious questions settled. The course follows the logical progression of building a boat: materials, woods, fastenings, glues, understanding lines and drawings, lofting, setting up building molds and other jig parts, setting up stems keels and transoms, planking, joinery, spar making, and on and on.

Sometimes a colleague stops by. That’s Maynard Bray, frequent WoodenBoat author, standing by the “powerpoint display device.”

We are working on two boats and will complete neither. One is a Chaisson semi-dory. The other is a Whitehall. Each offers unique building lessons.

Chaisson semi-doryThe Chaisson, being basically a dory has a flat bottom and lapstrake planking. It is built upside down over four molds and has light frames bent into it after planking is complete. Planks fasten to each other, mostly with copper rivets. It is called a semi-dory because it has a transom that is broader than most dories and has lines that make the hull more rounded than most dories. It’s a very pretty small boat. The one we have in the shop is partially planked and will be off the molds and turned over next week.

whitehallThe Whitehall is a round bottomed boat that is carvel planked. It is built upside down over its frames. The frames are bent over ribbands supported by molds. The jig is substantially more complex than the one used for the Chaisson. Planks fasten directly to the frames with screws. Ours is called a “baby” Whitehall because it is shorter than most. Yet, it is not so short as to make it look bad. It has very sweet lines. It wants to have 10 planks per side and currently has 4 on one side and 3 on the other. Lots of work remains and we won’t see it fully planked.

spiling battenOne of our work sessions this week was spiling and getting out a plank. Spiling is thought to be some form of black magic. At least that’s what it sounds like when reading about it. Actually, it is only two parts black magic and one part semi-Euclidiean geometry. Take 48 measurements per pank. Find a suitable piece of wood. Transfer the 48 measurements. Connect the dots, very smoothly of course, and that’s spiling. Then get the plank out of the wood by removing all parts that are not plank, and affix it to the boat. Simple! It took my partner Paddy and I about 8-9 hours to spile, get out, and hang our first plank. We learned lots, about 17 tricks and 38 pitfalls. Greg’s reaction was, “Women and children will squeal with delight.” We’re not sure he was talking about the plank.

Other hands on tasks this week included making two new transoms, making a new Chaisson bottom, making a new Chaisson stem. All of these were for the next boats, not the current ones. There were also a variety of “fix this” activities.

Maybe it’s the students who should squeal with delight. There is universal agreement that it was a very good week.