Next to my name on the front page of the Rabbit Room it claims that I’m a boatwright. That’s a bit of a stretch in my mind; building boats is something I’ve done little enough of and something I do only as a small part of my larger job as an Arts and Crafts Instructor for teenagers. But it’s something I love, and something I really believe has worth beyond its obvious end product.
I’ve completed two cedar canoes in the last two years and as my bio points out, I’m in the process of building a small sailboat. Each time I’ve delivered one of these boats out of my shop and loosed it into the world people congratulate me and tell me I’ve crafted a true work of art. That accusation, that a boat is a work of art, is one I struggle with. Part of my definition of art is that it has to convey meaning, however tenuously, and I don’t know how people can see meaning in my boats. But I have come to the conclusion that they are works of art after all, even if I don’t consider them ‘art’ when approached objectively. How’s that? Well, the best way I can answer that is to tell you how a boat is made.
I begin with a form. A simple skeletal shape, upturned on a bench, and looking like a canoe to no one but me. Each piece of this temporary structure is painstakingly positioned, aligned left and right, up and down, plumb, fair, and true. If the underlying shape is not true, the final vessel will reflect those flaws.
Then I go to the lumberyard. They hate me there. I pick through all their cedar boards, inspecting each one for knots, grain orientation, and color and set a precious perfect few aside. I buy the few I find and ask when the next shipment might be in so that I can inconvenience them once again.
Back in the shop, I take these few chosen boards and break them down, cutting them into thin, brittle strips and then running each strip through a router jig to get them ready for their purpose. During this cutting and shaping, many break and find their way into the scrap pile, those that complete the process are sorted by color and laid aside to await their purpose.
When enough strips are cut, they are one at a time bent to the form and glued together. Slowly, over a matter of days and weeks, the shape of a canoe begins to materialize from so many disparate parts. When the hull is complete, each piece has been planed, cut, and fitted by hand to serve the exact purpose for which it was designed. No strip is interchangeable with another, they are each unique and each supported by the one above and below it, each a small part of a greater form.
Then with the entire form visible, it is easy to think the work nearly done. This is a deception. The hull is roughly shaped and must be faired. Every errant corner and imperfection must be planed and sanded away. There is no shortcut. This is when you come to know the thing you are building. You close your eyes and work by the feel of it beneath your hands. You run your fingers around its curves and flanks and cut away everything that doesn’t belong. You lay your cheek against it and smell her cedar perfume as you follow her sweeping lines from bow to stern. It is a singular and exalting experience to fair the hull of a wooden canoe.
With the hull at last faired and perfected you sheath her in fiberglass to give strength. When you think the work is nearly done, you remove the hull from the form and she stands on her own, maintaining the shape you gave her, but you find that while she’s fair on the outside, she’s rough and empty on the interior.
So you start again, feeling, cutting, sanding, making her fine and once again when you’ve done all you can do, you sheath her in glass to give strength. Then she’s solid, she’s seaworthy, she’ll float. But she’s not finished.
She needs gunwales and decks, seats, and a thwart to keep her sound, steady, and comfortable. So your work goes on and little by little you watch her become what you saw in your mind so long ago when others looked at the form you made and scratched their heads. And in the end, your hands have bled for her, the sweat of your brow has dropped onto her and become part of her, you’ve held her and caressed her and been silent together a long time, and at last she’s beautiful. Time to give her away. You deliver her to strangers that haven’t known her, and they call it ‘Art’. But they don’t know what she means.
I know. The boys that helped me build her know. She’s an art of work. The art is the blood and sweat. The silence. The ache in the bones, and finally the knowing that whomever she carries, she will bear them safe across dark waters.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he’s the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.