In an age of plastics and composites, wood has not surrendered its claim on the mariner. The color and texture of grain, the particular warmth of wood in the sun, the way a teak gunwale is shaped precisely to meet the grasping hand: these qualities of wood embody the romance of the sea. But unlike our nautical forebears, who were intimately acquainted with the properties of spruce and cedar and teak and jarrah, many mariners of today are not familiar with the proper means of selecting woods for marine use. In this two-part series, we’ll explore a straightforward procedure for choosing, installing, and finishing wood. In this issue, we’ll begin on the boat, with the challenge of wood selection.
We tend to think of the tension between pristine nature and human ambition as a contemporary struggle, but the urge to own and exploit forests is a fundamental human impulse. At every point in history, wherever humans have possessed sufficient technology or population to deplete natural abundance, we have done so. In much of Central America, Australia, Europe and Africa, territory that has been void of trees for centuries was once cleared by people to make fire and build homes. According to one theory, the Sahara is the result of a giant, ancient clearcut. Today’s forestry dilemmas are simply the latest round in what has been a protracted engagement.
In the greatest sea epic of Western literature, the mariner Odysseus is held captive for seven years on an island by the enchantress Calypso. Eventually, in a debate among the gods, it is decided (grudgingly, for Odysseus has offended Poseidon) that the hero should be freed to return home. Zeus dispatches Hermes, the Wayfinder, to impart the verdict to Calypso, and after a fit of pique, she relents.
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.
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.