In the not-too-distant past, all boats were made out of wood. It was a highly refined art that required proper materials, extensive knowledge, and patience. Today, this skill survives among an elite group of craftsmen.
Jim Crocket is one of the elite. He has spent a lifetime learning about and building classic wooden boats. His experience began when he was nine years old, at the Tahoe Boat Company, where he was responsible for varnishing, among other tasks. It was then that he discovered a passion for working with his hands. This passion later took him to the National Maritime Museum in San Francisco, where he studied lapstrake (i.e., clinker) boat building. Although he had never built lapstrake style before, the educational staff appreciated his work, and they eventually asked him to teach!
Later, he moved to Fresno, where he built boats in his carport, rolling all the tools out of the way when his wife got home. In 1994, he spent time as an Artist-in-Residence at the Fresno Art Museum, receiving a commission to build a small boat for use at a nearby lake. Jim decided to build the boat right inside the museum, in the children’s space, in order to demonstrate his craft for an audience.
Today, he lives in North Fork—the very center of California—along with his wife, Lloyd, and his two dogs, Pebbles and Foxy. His shop is an unassuming structure with a dusty dust collector, an Italian-made MiniMax track saw, and a pair of sliding doors that open to the boat bay.
Think With Your Hands
I recently spent some time visiting with Jim in his shop, and got to check out his latest project (more on that in a bit). I asked Jim what got him hooked on building boats, and his answer was simply: “They’re fun to build, and fun to row.”
He has a similar passion for free-flight model airplanes, which he has been building since he was six years old. These are the old-school variety, cut from scratch from balsa wood and covered with Japanese tissue paper. His extensive collection includes both rubber- and diesel-powered models. He even builds the engines himself!
Jim’s philosophy of life begins with his hands. “If you can do things with your hands, you’ll always be OK,” he says. He also asserts that innovation starts with your hands. By way of illustration, Jim told me about Burt Rutan, an Aerospace engineer who launched SpaceShipOne in 2004—the first privately funded, manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 100 km. Not unlike boat-building, this was a project that required some careful and creative engineering.
The design features a unique ‘feathering’ atmospheric reentry system where the rear half of the wing and the twin tail booms folded upward along a hinge running the length of the wing; this increased drag while remaining stable. [Source: Wikipedia]
According to Jim, Rutan didn’t get this idea from a textbook—he got it from building and flying model airplanes. When we familiarize ourselves with building, fixing, tinkering with, and tweaking things, our minds can become more inclined towards inventiveness and creativity. Thomas Edison said, “Great ideas originate in the muscles.” As our educational system focuses more and more on academic instruction rather than vocational, and as more and more building and manufacturing processes become mechanized, sometimes I fear we are forgetting how to think with our hands.
Jim Crocket is someone who has certainly not forgotten.
Boatbuilding: Design and Construction
The current boat in Jim’s shop is a recently completed Lincolnville Salmon Wherry—the Kokanee. It’s based on a design that dates back to 1750. These boats were originally built for fishing along the coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia. In the early days, they were towed out to sea behind the schooners. Later on, the thwarts were removed, the boats were nested and stacked on deck, and the iconic grand banks dory of Captains Courageous was born.
During our time together, Jim gave me an overview of the design and construction process of building a boat like the Kokanee. All of the details on these boats are purposeful. I’m going to review the salient points for the sake of this article, in order to illustrate a bit of Jim’s craft, its history, and his mastery. Unfortunately, I was too late to catch the actual construction process, so I’ll only be able to share photos of the finished product. Besides, Jim would need to write an article himself in order to provide a more thorough discussion of the art that is boatbuilding!
Jim explained that these boats were designed before docks were common. The transoms are angled outwards so that, when launched stern-first, the boats would rise easily over the breakers. There is a half-inch-thick piece of beechwood affixed to the bottom of the keel board, not because it is particularly hard, but because it “wears well,” and would protect the boat when it was dragged on shore. The keel itself was flat to prevent the boat from rolling to the side and crushing the bilges.
Construction begins with a straight strongback, running the length of the boat. With the keel board, transom, and prow in place, the planking begins. The boat remains upside-down beneath the strongback throughout this process.
The Kokanee is constructed lapstrake style—the style Jim studied in San Francisco—which means the planks are overlapped. Each successive plank is glued to the one below it with marine epoxy. Sometimes Jim also rivets the planks together. On this boat, he only riveted them to the carved oak stays.
The planks themselves are 1/4-in. 5-ply mahogany plywood with no voids. Jim says this plywood, first manufactured by a Dutch company called Bruynzeel, “revolutionized wooden boatbuilding” when it became available in the 1960s. The old cedar boats of Nova Scotia never shrank because they never left the ocean, and so they never dried out. Today, we haul boats down the highway on trailers. Jim told me stories of launching cedar boats into the water and then having to wait for the wood to swell. Modernized transportation methods require a modernized material. Bruynzeel plywood answered the challenge of contemporary boatbuilding—it’s a marine-grade plywood, with no voids, designed to be water and weather resistant so it won’t split. Almost overnight, building and maintaining a wooden boat became a lot easier; the craft (pun intended) started to attract more attention.
The “plans” for a boat like this consist chiefly of full-scale outlines of the molds, which are positioned along the length of the boat and determine the finished shape. When the planking is completed, the molds are removed and the stays are installed. Jim says you don’t really need stays for strength in a boat like this, but he added them anyway, so the boat would have the proper weight—250 pounds. If a boat is too light or too heavy it won’t sit on its waterline properly, and might be tippy or sluggish. When Jim weighed the Kokanee on a friend’s scale, it was dead on.
The Kokanee has a workboat finish, which means that it’s painted. If he’s not going to paint a boat, Jim’s finish of choice is Captain’s Varnish. He once had a conversation with the senior researcher at 3M who told him that they’d never been able to develop anything better.
Jim’s latest creation exemplifies his expertise. It was a privilege to see the Kokanee in person, and to spend time with such a passionate craftsman. Jim told me how, at one time, he wanted to sail around the world.
And then I raced large boats out to Catalina [Island] and beyond. I got into some big storms out there, and I said, ‘No. I don’t think so.’ It’s a lot of hard work, a big boat. I feel a lot safer here.
Before I left, Jim gave me a beautifully carved pelican. It sits on my desk today, constantly reminding me to do things slowly, and to do them well.
Aaron Telian is a lead carpenter for Andrews Construction & Remodeling in Knoxville, TN. He and his wife, Jessica, have two children—Cedar (2) and Genoa (1).
When he’s not out on a job or organizing tools, Aaron enjoys reading, building simple furniture for his family, and endurance hiking (followed by a good beer, of course).