By Evan Wing
Wood is a deceptively challenging medium to work with: easy enough for a first-time builder to work with, yet with a learning curve so steep and so broad that no carpenter could ever seriously claim to know absolutely everything about it. And while the tools have improved and techniques debated and refined, the basic principles and traditions behind woodworking have remained unchanged for millennia.
At Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, these traditions come to life in a real, tangible way: through our boats. Our schooner Lois McClure, a faithful representation of the cargo vessels which plied Lake Champlain and the canals of New York throughout the latter half of the 19th century, is constructed with materials and methods which would have been quite familiar to shipwrights and mariners of the day. And much like parts on the original canal boats, the parts which make up the whole of Lois must occasionally be replaced; and this year, it was time for a new mainmast.
How were such large wooden masts built before the age of power tools? Rob Thompson, of Windfall Woodworks, gave us a valuable glimpse into this world as he brought Lois’ new “stick” to life. Once a suitably tall and straight tree – white pine, in this case – is cut and shorn of its branches and bark, the carpenter takes a seemingly counterintuitive step: he “squares off” the stick, shaving off the outside edges until he has four flat sides of uniform width. This allows him to control how straight the mast will be, and remove any slight imperfections in the tree’s natural shape. Incidentally, this step also removes any near-surface wood which might be rotten, knotted, or damaged.
Once these initial shaping cuts have been made, the builder shaves off each sharp corner, creating an octagonal mast. He repeats this step again and again, shaving corners and multiplying the number of sides until the mast appears rounded once again. On Lois’ mast, a few feet at the bottom and top are left square – the bottom, so the mast rests snugly in the square “tabernacle” which clamps it securely upright on deck, and the top, to allow mast fittings such as blocks and crosstrees to be installed.
Finally, the round part of the mast is sanded smooth, removing any remaining imperfections, before the whole stick is coated in a fragrant mixture of pine pitch, turpentine, and linseed oil. This pitch gives the mast its characteristic coffee-brown hue, and preserves it from rot. Once this pitch is dried, the mast is ready to receive its fittings and rigging before being stepped, or mounted, on the vessel.
Difficult as it is for us to imagine today, this process was performed countless times in Vermont alone throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, supplying thousands of commercial ships which plied Lake Champlain and the surrounding canals carrying all manner of goods to ports near and far. In fact, logging for shipbuilding (among other purposes) reached such a fever pitch in the state during the latter half of the 19th century that in 1900, then-governor William Stickney is reputed to have quipped that there was not a tree left in the state “big enough to make into a fishing-pole.”
Though the trees have long since returned, the maritime tradition of the region carries on through vessels like Lois McClure. Lake Champlain is quieter now, with no traffic jams of coal barges or cacophonic symphonies of tugboat horns, but its historical significance as a marine highway cannot be lightly discarded. A wooden schooner may seem a tad anachronistic in the ports of today, parked as she is between sleek fiberglass yachts and ponderous steel ferries, but her presence is what keeps this history alive.
And, thanks to a new mast, alive and running.
This project was funded by an agreement awarded by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission to the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission in partnership with the Lake Champlain Basin Program. NEIWPCC manages LCBP’s personnel, contract, grant, and budget tasks and provides input on the program’s activities through a partnership with the LCBP Steering Committee.
The viewpoints expressed here do not necessarily represent those of NEIWPCC, the LCBP Steering Committee, or GLFC, nor does the mention of trade names, commercial products, or causes constitute endorsement or recommendation for use.