Monday, August 06, 2007

The Mallet Rings

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 like this, 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.


Pastor_Jeff said...

"It is our choices, not our gifts, that define us."

Harry said...

I remember a chapter from "Learning to Sail" by H. A. Calahan that had quite a few details on the proper tightness to stuff caulk when caulking seams, and the danger of fire in boatyards.

The book was written in the 1920s, but you can still get it on Amazon. Alas, "my" copy (the one I read as a boy) really belongs to my dad, who still has it. Otherwise I would give you a sample quote.