Materials, Methods, and Tools
I think recreating all the steps necessary to build a Baidarka (my Day 1 post) was the wrong way to go – instead I’m going to pull out bits and pieces from the day, and let the professionals handle the how-to’s.
Today I pondered the materials we used, the methods, and the tools. When I sat down and tried to categorize any one part of the construction into those three categories, it became clear that each influences the others.
Your available materials will necessitate certain tools and not others (little use for a TIG welder when constructing a wooden boat), while both the materials and tools you have will influence your methods (don’t have a set of calipers? better find another way to get good measurements). Meanwhile, our methods lead to the creation of tools (whoever invented the rasp probably wanted to work with wood) and the incorporation of different materials (building a skin boat requires sinew to sew skins together, while a dugout does not). So it’s a big, iterative cycle: materials, methods, and tools.
A new use for something very old, and very simple: Bamboo chopsticks make the perfect pins to join pieces of my Baidarka. We snip them into manageable sizes and occasionally trim the leading end to better follow the drill holes.
Here they are holding the gunwales to the stern – notice that one is connected perpendicularly, and the other at an obtuse angle, which steadies the pieces against slippage.
Speaking of gunwales (or gunnels), old growth red cedar. Fine grain, air dried. We’re spoiled here.
Some cracking at the ends, which can’t be helped. We take that into account, cutting that part off when possible; gluing the cracks together when we need length.
The cross beams, seen here rough-cut, are
yellow [also red] cedar. One classmate has this gorgeous grain pattern on his center beam, which will hopefully show through the skin – looks like birds eye maple!
This embarrassment of fine woods contrasts the lack of wood available to the Aleuts who designed the Baidarka – most of the wood available was driftwood, and a good amount of bone and ivory was used in parts where we can rely on wood.
The chopsticks have a few inherent properties making them perfect for joining dowels. First, they’re bamboo – hard, environmentally sustainable, cheap. Second, they have long and a short sides, so you can adjust their orientation (no pun intended) for the pieces you’re connecting and the direction of the stresses they’ll encounter. Finally, they’re printed with characters for longevity, good health, and a bunch of other wonderful things (tasty chow fun for all I know – this is what Corey told us, based on translation by a former student). We’re building very lucky Baidarkas!
Here’s my bow assembly, finished early in the day. The pins keep everything in line, but it’s the lashings (nylon instead of sinew) that hold the boat together. You can see this looking down the hull, where every piece is tied to the adjoining pieces.
And when it’s done right, all that lashing work is beautiful
Where there is traditional joinery – a rabbet join in this case – we followed the edge we wanted to match with the Japanese saw, using the kerf to trim the joined piece to the exact angle.
It took a few minutes to do, but the end result was incredibly satisfying. A clean, tight join.
Once the gunwales connect to the bow and stern, the project starts to look like a boat! Before moving on to the beams, we had to verify even lengths on both sides. It took a bit of measuring, some center lines, and a taut line stretched between two pins…
…not to mention good eyesight. There was something wonderful about this: in the end it wasn’t a number or a dial telling me if the boat was even, it was a piece of twine stretched tight between pins. This image is used both as an indicator (think of graduated markings on a measuring cup) and a metaphor (don’t have any examples at the moment – too tired to look) for the accuracy you can achieve with a straight line over a good distance.
With even lengths confirmed, it was time to measure and cut the beams.
Again, simple methods. Line up the beam, use a straight edge to mark the gunwale position, then cut.
With a Japanese saw, of course. Which brings us to….
It started with the saws: teeth aligned to cut on the ‘pull’ instead of the ‘push.’ Then the rasps: a diamond array of hacksaw-sized blades, with large gaps to let the shavings exit.
Now… chopsticks – the perfect wooden pins! You’d have a hard time convincing me that any culture developed better woodworking tools than the Japanese.
Any leftover chopsticks were put to use cleaning the wood shavings out of router-ed mortises on the gunwales. I’m thinking there may even be a way to use these things to eat food….
Not to put down the western woodworking tools – they’ve obviously functioned well enough to build a few civilizations. And the old standards have a noble quality to them. These wooden clamps, for example, have such lovely form and functionality.
And the plane – there’s not much difference between Japanese and western planes. Shaving off a thin layer of wood with an inclined plane is a simple (machine) solution.
Before I sign off, it did occur to me to ask what the Aleuts used for tools when building their Baidarkas. It was a harsh land, with almost no vegetation (other than seaweed), and howling winds (apparently they lived underground because of this – didn’t know that!), but one thing they had in abundance (besides seawater and cold) was obsidian. So in addition to sinew twine and bone needles, add some razor-sharp cutting surfaces for working the seal skins and driftwood beams.
Thanks again to the squadron of four-footed shop assistants who made sure empty hands always had a furry head to scratch.