Woodworkers and boat builders are, on the whole, a contentious bunch. They argue about all kinds of things: tools, methods, aesthetics, materials. But their favorite topic, the one to which they have turned with unfailing habit for centuries, approaching it with an alchemical reverence that borders on mysticism, is that of wood finishing. Fine finishes – lustrous, highlighting the wood’s grain, inviting the hand to touch – have long been the pinnacle of wood craftsmanship. Some violin makers still preserve, even today, secret varnish formulas that have been passed down through many generations. The long history of secrecy and experimentation in wood finishing has led to its status as the most complex subject in woodworking. This makes sense; there are, after all, hundreds of ways to effectively finish wood. Depending on the intended effect, excellent results can be achieved with milk, crazy glue, the oil from walnuts, and many other surprising products. Faced with the overwhelming diversity of finishing products on the market today, many people working on boats surrender either to the marketing ploys of manufacturers or to the old habit of finishing everything with spar varnish. But wood finishing can be a joy, and if you follow a few simple guidelines, it can be easy as well.
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In February 1933, on its way from San Diego to Manila, the US Navy ship Ramapo was caught in the teeth of a relentless storm. The wind had slowly gathered momentum across thousands of nautical miles of the open Pacific, piling up monstrous swells: twenty feet, then thirty, then higher. On the seventh day of the storm, with the east wind howling at sixty knots, the swells grew to an average of fifty feet. Every fifteen seconds a new behemoth — large as a five-story office building — shouldered its way into the stern.
Continue reading Rogue Waves, Wanderers of the Sea
Late in Heart of Darkness, after Marlow has meandered deep into the jungle but before he meets Kurtz, who utters his now-famous judgement upon human nature, The horror! The horror! – before this, the most famous scene in twentieth century literature, Marlow finds himself making necessary repairs to the ship. He ruminates on these activities as distractions from the shadows around him, from the haunting underbelly of his own nature that he sees in the wilderness around him, in the passionate abandon of the local tribes-people. Here’s the full passage:
Continue reading Blinking Cursor, Blank Page
They were led, one at a time, from the smoky dark of the hold and up the narrow companionway. Each man was flanked by a crew-member who spoke in clipped and rushing tones. The ship was quiet, the sails slack.The men in the hold waited, unsure of what was happening. Dread spread among them. They did not speak the language of the crew, though they understood perfectly the gestures of the guns.
Continue reading Casco, The Ship of Robert Louis Stevenson
The indomitable spirit cannot be diminished – by negligence, by war, by time spun farther than the grasp of memory. This occurs to me on September ninth, in the Egyptian gallery of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as I stand before the only remaining fragment of an ancient sculpture. The body has vanished, and most of the head is gone. What remains is a small artefact, about six inches high: an elegant mouth – smiling, in repose – and the beginning curve of a face, carved from yellow jasper. Between ragged fractures where the stone is sheared off – one just above the top lip, the other below the chin – the mouth has been sculpted with astonishing precision by the craft of a culture now strewn across the debris field of history. This statue, all that’s left of the queen of a remote age, was fashioned in devotion and shattered by war, almost twenty-five centuries ago. And still, she smiles.
Continue reading The Jasper Queen