Mea commentarius. Praecepta mea.
Wooden Boats; in Pursuit of the Perfect Craft at an American Boatyard
by Michael Ruhlman
Food Network watchers and food book readers are keenly aware of Michael Ruhlman. His books on food, technique, and the culture of food form a canon all on their own. In 2001, when Wooden Boats was published, Ruhlman brought his soaring, analytical style to bear on the construction of traditional plank on frame wooden boats. Based on Martha’s Vineyard, the Gannon and Benjamin yard continues to build wooden boats with the craft proven by hundreds of years of boat construction. As a result, G&B builds boats which are works of art, not art for art’s sake, but because an object perfectly created glows with an inherent inner beauty.
Ruhlman captures that beauty. He spent several years working and living with the men and women of the G&B yard. As he went into the project, he was not “boatstruck,” nor was he experienced with sailing, boats, or even waterlife. What he brought to the project, just as with his food books, was an insatiable curiosity about how things are to be done properly.
G&B requires large quantities of properly chosen tropical woods from Surinam. Their man, Brad Ives, slogs through the rain forest, interacting with the local woodsmen, as he chooses and supervises the felling of trees and the cutting of raw lumber. Ruhlman accompanied Ives on several of his visits.
Many of G&B’s boats are custom, one-off designs. Nat Benjamin (the “B” in G&B) is an oft-lauded designer of wooden boats. Ruhlman sat at Benjamin’s side during the drafting of several boats and captured perfect word portraits of Benjamin’s thought processes, and Nat’s wondrous skill at moving an idea from brain to a hand rendering on paper which will translate to a 3-D object; a 60 foot hand-built yacht.
Ross Gannon (the “G”) is equally well-captured by Ruhlman’s prose. A throwback; Gannon is a man who can fix anything, who can create any tool needed to build or fix anything, and a man with a rare ability to visualize a massively complex planar drawing into a three dimensional object which will float, sail, and last for generations. Gannon’s ability to out-work his employees is legendary at the boatyard, and inspiring on the page.
If there is a slight flaw in this book, it is that at times a bit difficult to follow some of Ruhlman’s descriptions of technical building issues. Wooden boat construction tools and techniques have very specific names and functions. It was occasionally necessary to backtrack in a chapter to refresh one’s mind as to what a spile was, and why it was needed. Perhaps a glossary would have been useful.
Don’t let that keep you away. Ruhlman can write. He can tell a story.
On clear afternoons the low sun angles into the shop, alighting on wood grain and sawdust. At around three-thirty the shop turns from dark brown to a bright honey-gold. The grain of the angelique (wood) Jim is carving lights up as if a switch has been hit on some inner bulb. The old tools and machinery, the chisels and planes, the wok surfaces, all covered with wood shavings, golden excelsior, seem to glow. During the hour the winter sun angles in, the shop appears to be a strange, magical room. Soon after that, dusk seeps in and light bulbs are switched on. Heat leaves the building with the sun, and breath once again is visible in clouds of exhalation, smoky in the electric light. By Friday, the end of the first week of work on the new boat, most of the pieces for her backbone have been cut and are being worked by hand into shape. Patterns for the double-sawn frames have been made, along with patterns for the floor timbers, triangular pieces to which the frames will be bolted, and the first of these have been cut out. The fundamental pieces of the boat-stem, keel, frames, transom-are coming into being.
What makes this book work is that Ruhlman allows himself to both awestruck by the skill of the G&B craftspeople, yet he shows us that, much like fine cooking (Ruhlman is a graduate of the famed Culinary Institute of America), craft is ultimately best described by a logical progression of very simple steps, perfectly and properly accomplished.
Are you interested in craft? 2 Nods
Are you a boat guy or gal? 3 Nods.
Visit Michael Ruhlman’s website by clicking here.