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Posts Tagged ‘boatbuilding philosophy’

In response to a post at the end of July about re-canvassing the 1937 Old Town, reader David Little posted an interesting comment in response to my use of epoxy as a canvas filler:

I understand the need to make things last longer…although it seems the previous traditional filler and paint lasted pretty long considering it was put on over 70 years ago….i do not subscribe however to taking the tradition out of traditional…i would not have gone to modern methods as a filler…the synthetic somehow doesn’t sit well with my view of tradition…just my thoughts.

His thoughts prompted some thoughts of my own, beginning with the words of a true expert on the subject.

Fiddler_on_the_roofAs the film opens, Tevye says:  “Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!” (boat builders and restorers might take some ironic pleasure in the other song the film made famous: “If I was a Rich Man. . .”) But what is tradition, and by association, what is traditional?

At a fairly fine and granular level, tradition means simply keeping things exactly like they were. In the context of boatbuilding, this might mean that a steam-bent rib of white oak should always and only be made from white oak. At a mechanical level, traditions can be founded on properties. The oak rib, for instance, is such because oak happens to be an excellent material from which to bend ribs. But, it isn’t the only one, so one also sees small boats with ribs made of ash, elm and cedar, among other woods, because they share the same mechanical properties. Substituting one of these woods for another might therefore be “un-traditional,” but it may not necessarily change the fundamental character of the boat, because the steam-bent rib is still doing what has always done.

However, if you were to make a change in the structure of that rib, you’re dealing with tradition in a different way. Let’s say that your steam-bent oak rib becomes a laminated epoxy oak rib. Now you’ve introduced a significant change and, I would suggest, broken from tradition, because the rigidity and strength of the epoxy change the properties of the rib. The outward similarity–someone looking at the boat would still see a thin bent rib–masks a significant change. In the same way, a glued-lapstrake plywood boat is still lapstrake, and therefore nominally traditional, but whatever the outward similarity, it is a fundamentally different structure with different mechanical properties whose component parts have a different working relationship than in a traditional lapstrake boat.

To me, one test to apply would be the Arts & Craft movement’s maxim “Truth to Materials.” If the component parts of a boat still bear the same mechanical relationship to each other as they did in the original, then, possibly with minor variations, the boat might be said to be traditional. That is, a lapstrake dinghy built with clench nails and rivets and steam-bent frames in North America is traditional with respect to the same dinghy built in the UK, notwithstanding that when the builder moved across the pond he found out that he couldn’t get the larch stock he was used to for planking so he substituted oak.

Thus, with all due respect to American Traders, who build this canoe, this is not traditional:

Trapper14What started life as a wood/canvas canoe, where a non-water tight wooden shell supported a layer of waterproofed canvas stretched tightly around it, is now a different kind of watercraft, where resin-impregnated fiberglass cloth not only keeps the wood water tight but is also mechanically and chemically bonded to it. Before the mail starts coming in, I’m not saying it’s not a good canoe, just that for all of its outward similarities to wood/canvas canoes it is a fundamentally different structure.

This, by comparison, is traditional, at least to my way of thinking:

DSCF0426

Yes, the canvas has been filled with epoxy, and not a mixture of silica, linseed oil and white lead. However, 1) it’s still cotton canvas; 2) it’s still not fastened to the hull except by tacks at the ends and gunwales; and 3) it still comes off in a couple of big pieces when it’s time to re-canvas.

Interesting topic to ponder. What do you think?

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