Steaming Laths in Glovertown

Rodney built by Stewart Sturge using steamed juniper laths

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.”

Each builder had his own techniques and steam box designed from what was available. “I had the inside of an old hot water boiler and I cut a hole in the end of it and put water in it,” describes Bill Feltham. “I would put it over a fire, placed on rocks with [the open end elevated]. I’d tie a bundle of eight or ten laths together and when I figured they were steamed enough, I would take them out.”

Edgar Butt describes his steam box

Edgar Butt describes his steam box.

Stewart Sturge shows David Saunders of Terra Nova Park pipe used for steaming wooden laths

In the past, builders would have used pure steam but in more recent years they have resorted to placing the laths of juniper directly in the boiling water. “The original method we had on Deer Island would be pure steam, ” says Bill Feltham. “When you steamed them like that you could almost tie knots in them. It was unbelievable what you could do with a piece if juniper.” While both steaming and boiling allow builders to shape the wood, even those who boil their laths agree that using pure steam is better. “Pure steam makes the wood more malleable,” says Sam Feltham. “When you boil them, the wood gets hard again as soon as it starts to cool off.”

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