The Tao of Boatbuilding
Credit: Wooden Boat School
Lore has a lot to do with the building of boats. So here's some lore: The WoodenBoat School, where I periodically sat in on a two-week Fundamentals of Boatbuilding class, began in 1974 as a magazine produced by a guy named Jon Wilson from his rustic cabin. (The website includes this detail about Wilson's telephone: It was "nailed to a tree half a mile down the road.") The WoodenBoat brand has since expanded to become a publisher of primarily boat-themed magazines and books, as well as an internationally renowned school. In 1979, Wilson upgraded the headquarters to a two-dozen-room summer "cottage" located on 64 waterfront acres. The experience offered to students is a uniquely Maine one, boldly splicing opulence and deprivation. Classes meet in the former barn, i.e. a huge, unheated, bug-plagued building, and students sleep in a shared dorm room or in tents pitched near the rocky beach.

The first day of class, 13 of us (us = me and 12 men ranging in age from 32 to 60; some are data processors and engineers and lawyers, but a few are boatbuilders brushing up on their skills) sit on stools among rowboats at various stages of completion. These will be our cadavers, so to speak – the partially deconstructed bodies on which we'll bunglingly practice our skills.

Our teacher, Greg Rössel, is the stereotypical old salt as interpreted by Jim Henson. In his opening lecture, Rössel repeatedly admonishes us to "try to avoid using numbers whenever possible" and that we "have to get over this accuracy business," a statement later modified to "you need to be accurate, but not to a high degree of analness."

I quickly ascertain that boatbuilding is not suited for people who can't embrace "gray mushy area" as a technical term. Not that boatbuilding language lacks technical precision: "As you'll notice, where the buttock slices cross the topsides it gets pretty bogus" and "There are always some funkadelic points in the outliers" are but two of the technical utterances made by Rössel that first class.

Rössel directs our attention to a pad of paper slung over a dry-erase board's easel. Unlike a house or cabinet builder, a boatbuilder must, to some degree, "design" every boat before he builds it, even if he purchases a plan. This process, Rössel informs us, is called lofting. In the extremely understated words of Paul Waring, a designer at Brooklin's Stephens, Waring & White Yacht Design, "Lofting's a little hard to explain." He describes it most simply as "the 2-D representation of a 3-D object." Traditionally, boats were lofted on the floor of the builder's shop. We're working with a 1:1 scale, 2-D representation that's been drawn on a piece of plywood and elevated on sawhorses.

In lofted form, our boat resembles a highly detailed and inscrutable meteorological map. Curved lines swoop and cross everywhere. Waring relates a joke told to him by an old boatbuilder: "Lofting a boat is a lot like a relationship with a woman. After laying down all these lines, I find that I've crossed them all."

Because a boat is a three-dimensional curved object – a sculpture, really – it forces builders to invent ingenious ways called offsets to sidestep mathematical inaccuracies. As Ward the Lawyer says: "There are no right angles. These things are carved, not built." Rössel teaches us how to use the lines on our lofting table to measure and create building guides made of wood; these guides, called molds, help us accurately transform the 2-D lines on the table into the 3-D object they represent. The tricky part is transposing the curved lines from the lofting table onto the wood used for the mold. Thus, the Amazing Dance of the Nails.

Rössel places the nails on their sides so that the head of each nudges the curve he's trying to transfer from table to wood. Then he engages in some "high-level-of-accuracy stomping." When he's done, Rössel turns the board over to show the nails embedded sideways in the wood, the heads indicating the shape of the curve. Rössel uses a batten (a bendy piece of plastic), held down with metal weights, to connect these "data points." Using a pencil, he traces the arc of the batten, et voilà – transposition complete.

Rössel's lofting adage – "If you can loft it, you can build it" – arises from the fact that there is no one official way to take a boat from a 2-D representation to a 3-D shape. Builders problem-solve and generate solutions to the pretty bogus gray mushy areas where curved lines cross curved lines without relying on measurements (since, as Rössel reminds us, "anytime you use numbers, things can go wrong"), using a method that makes the most sense to each builder's particular brain. By the time you've lofted the boat, you've done all your major problem-solving. Now comes the easy part. You just have to build the thing.