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
Eugene was born in 1944 on Indian Islands, Notre Dame Bay to Frank and Netta Saunders. When he was three years old, his family moved to Glenwood where Frank, a blacksmith, worked with Anglo-Newfoundland Development (AND) Company.
Eugene grew up in Glenwood alongside the Gander River and learned how to build boats at a young age. “It always enthused me building boats. I used to go out to my uncle Nat Gillingham’s when I was growing up. They were boat builders,” Eugene says.
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.”
Edgar Butt was born in Glovertown in 1926. Son of Joseph and Patience (nee Greening), Edgar was the last of their children and the only to be born in Glovertown. His parents moved their family from Flat Island to Glovertown in 1921, with the promise of work with the pulp and paper mill that was scheduled to open the following year.
At the age of fourteen, Edgar began working at a wood working factory owned by Arthur J. House. He worked with House for number of years in Glovertown, St. John’s, and briefly in Corner Brook, before returning to Glovertown with his wife Patricia to raise their family.
Sam Feltham learned how to build boats on Deer Island using cut timbers, but has been using steamed laths since moving to Glovertown in 1954. This punt, completed in August 2012, is just one of more than 100 boats built by Sam over the years. While Sam would normally cut his own wood, he finds it increasingly difficult to find suitable timbers. For this punt, Sam used store-bought spruce.
Typically, says Sam, “we would cut a knee in the woods – a flaring knee, with an angle about 18 degrees – for the stern.”
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.”