Handcrafting Wooden Boats

Posted on 15 July 2010

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By Francesca Normile

Building wooden boats by hand seems a craft more prevalent in the South Fork of the early whaling days than it does to the South Fork of today. However, the East End Classic Boat Society (EECBS) — which is based in a newly crafted boat building workshop (complete with water view) in Amagansett — proves that notion wrong.

A not-for-profit organization focused on sustaining the traditions of wooden boat building and restoration, the boat society a group made up of primarily 10 regular participants (mostly men) who are, according to member Burt Van Deusen, “All up there in age.”

“I found out that we can share a lot of things together even though we’re all from different backgrounds,” says Van Deusen. “And I kind of like the experience of all the people and what they bring to the boat.”

“I mean, no decision can be made without some kind of group therapy session ahead of time,” continues Van Deusen laughing. “Nothing goes smoothly, but it gets done and these boats are just winding up so beautifully. I think it has surprised us all that we could do it. We all bring different things to the boathouse every week. I look forward to the lunch breaks with these people, I’ll tell you that.”

The society’s most recent project is a just completed 12-foot 8-inch Catspaw dinghy. It will be the featured vessel in the society’s upcoming Classic Boat Fair, which will take place rain or shine on Saturday, July 17. Over 30 boats (some of which are for sale) will be on view in addition to the Catspaw. Ray Hartjen, president of the boat society, expounds on the difficulties and rewards of building a boat by hand.

“The operation is kind of fun and awing,” says Hartjen. “You steam a half-inch piece of wood for half an hour and when it comes out you could tie it into a knot it is so limber.”

“It’s a challenge. When you’re steam-bending the plank, essentially you’re torturing it,” adds Hartjen with a laugh. “And you’ve only got a minute and a half after you pull it out before it gets too hard to manipulate.”

 “One of the most interesting parts of whole process is that we were able to get Atlantic white cedar for the boat [in boards that were] cut from a tree from balk to balk,” says Hartjen. “So you can see how the wood is at the base of the tree and as it tapers up, you can really see the shape of the tree.”

Van Deusen adds that symmetry was important in building the Catspaw, and obtaining it required an immense amount of care and labor.

“We’re making a smooth boat,” said Van Deusen of the Catspaw. “You keep each side identical — and they have to be as close to identical on each side as possible. You split each plank down the middle to make the left and the right side planks[…] The splitting is probably the hardest thing. It takes about 10 minutes to split one and we all hold our breath while we do it.”

This group has a lot of boat building experience under their belt and have worked through the trials of accidentally split planks and the challenges of meticulously matching up each board with the others to create a smooth exterior. But as a result of their efforts, in the end they have produced an object that is a source of great pride for everyone involved. Lovers of wooden boats will be happy to know that raffle tickets are being sold for the Catspaw.

The Classic Boat Fair will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Community Boat Shop, located behind the Marine Museum at 301 Bluff Road in Amagansett. The event — which includes light food and beverages, demonstrations on rope tying, splicing and whipping,  a raffle for the Catspaw, and a nautical flea market (which, according to Hartjen, “is a bunch of excess junk that belongs to boats”)— is free of charge. The Community  Boat Shop is also open Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.


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2 Responses to “Handcrafting Wooden Boats”

  1. DJ says:

    What a beautiful boat! Thanks for keeping the art of wooden boat building alive.

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