“Well, ever since I was a boy, I see a crooked stick I’d cut it,” answered Ray Boone when asked about getting into boat building. He was around fourteen years old when he built his first boat with his brother, Ron, who was just a year older. “It was a big challenge to take on that… the first one,” Ray noted. The boat, a rodney, was built by the boys for their father to use fishing for lobster.
As a boy growing up Barr’d Islands on Fogo in the 1950s, Frank Combden learned how to build boats as part of a way of life. He watched as his father, George, and others built their fishing vessels and started building his own as a teenager. We met Frank in his shed where he described his process for building a 14’ row punt.
Frank uses a three piece mould to get the shape for the three main frames of the boat: the forehook, midship bend, and afthook. The three sticks are aligned according to sirmarks which indicate what section of the boat is being determined.
Native Labradorian Joe Goudie began building canoes in 1996 after a chance encounter with canoe builder Jerry Stelmok of Island Falls Canoe in Atkinson, Maine. Joe grew up around canoes and had helped his father and others build and repair them, so his interest was piqued when Jerry invited Joe to his shop in Maine.
C.B: “How did you learn how to build boats?”
V.P: “I’ll tell ya now… you just never had to be afraid to start.”
When the Pettens needed a new larger fishing boat, Henry Petten began to consider who they would hire to build her. “We’ll do it ourselves,” said his son Vernon.
I first met Edwin Bishop in September of 2015. When I pulled into his driveway, I was greeted with an open garage door and the stem of a small boat barely visible in the sunlight. Freshly planked and without paint, it was a clever looking boat that revealed a particular attention to detail.
The inside rooms were painted a deep blue with white accents on each side. Edwin was working diligently in the back corner of the shed, but was eager to stop and chat about his project.
“Everything is governed by the moon,” says boat builder Sam Feltham, “You wouldn’t cut timber when the moon was wasted; you would cut on a new moon. If you cut it after a full moon the wood shrinks faster.”
Jack Casey from Conche, on Newfoundland’s northern peninsula, also abides by the cycle of the moon when cutting wood for his boats.
Juniper (Tamarack) is a strong softwood that grows mostly in wet swampy areas and is the preferred timber for the ribs of the Gander River Boat. Builders heat thin strips of juniper in steam or boiling water to make it pliable to bend the wood to the desired shape.
“I usually put about half a gallon of Javex in the water with it. That makes the juniper pretty soft.” – Eugene Saunders, Glenwood
Displacement boats are designed to minimize resistance when travelling forward through the water, whereas planing boats are designed to travel on top of the water. Prior to the use of engines, all boats were built with displacement hull forms.
Carvel planking on traditional wooden boats relies on the wood and caulking between the planks swelling to seal the hull against leaks. Since the 1950s numerous marine sealing compounds and adhesives have been developed, allowing progressive boat builders to modify this traditional construction method to take advantage of these new products.
Steam bending wood is a technique used in boat building to shape the ribs of the boat. While most builders in Glovertown learned how to build using sawn timbers, they switched to steaming juniper laths when this method gained popularity in the 1950s. Those who grew up on Deer Island recall James Feltham (1883-?) as the first to use steam on the island in the late 1940s. “He was that kind of person,” remembers Sam Feltham, “He liked to try new things and was always up for a challenge.”
In Salvage, Stewart Sturge switched from timbers to ribs when he started building speed boats in the 1960s. “It’s much quicker,” Stewart says, “you could have a rodney ribbed out in a day, but if you were using timber it would probably take you a week.” Edgar Butt also switched from timbers to ribs, saying that “it’s harder to get all the timber and it’s more work.”
Before building a boat, every builder must first acquire his timber. The types of wood used for building boats varies depending the kind of boat being constructed and what is available in the area.
For planking, builders in Glovertown once preferred fir but have substituted spruce since fir populations have suffered damage from aggressive insects. Bill Feltham switched to spruce when he noticed that fir was becoming more prone to rot, noting that one disadvantage is spruce tends to have more knots.
When looking for timber for their boats, builders prefer to cut near the coast. It is said that wood cut close to the coast is a better quality than wood from further inland. Edgar Butt says that “it was a better fiber. [Wood further inland] was more brittle. You could tell by the shavings when you were planing where the wood came from.”
When building boats, Jack Casey uses a set of moulds that once belonged to his grandfather, Michael Casey. When Michael Casey arrived in Conche in 1850, he made a set of moulds which he used to build his fishing boats. Passed down to his son Michael Patrick, and from there to Jack, these moulds were used to build rodneys and punts for 160 years.
As is common practice in Newfoundland and Labrador, Jack Casey of Conche cut all his timber in the fall of the year.
“We had a camp in there, about 8 miles,” he told WBMNL researchers, “we’d walk in there and cut our timber and pile it up on stumps. And in the spring of the year, when the snow was hard in March month, that’s when we would go in and take it, haul it out then.”
By Jerome Canning
The three-piece mould is an old method for designing and building boats. A lot of the first boats to come off our beaches and take to the fishing waters were boats built with these curved sticks of wood. The method was widely used in Newfoundland and Labrador in the 1800s. Moulds still survive in some communities; but mostly as items saved from the old boat sheds of our past builders.
One method of boat design used by wooden boat builders in Newfoundland can be traced to a method of design employed by English shipwrights in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Known as “whole-moulding,” this method was brought by those who settled in Newfoundland during the same period.
David A. Taylor describes the three-piece mould method used by boatbuilders in Winterton, Trinity Bay. Similar to whole-moulding, Taylor describes these moulds as, “a wooden, three-piece adjustable template used to draw the shapes of the three principle timber pairs”.
One of three methods of design Taylor observed among Winterton builders during his research in the 1970s, the three-pieces were referred to collectively as “moulds”.