My industry has for the last 150 years or so relied heavily on tropical timber imported from Africa, south America and Asia; hardwoods grown in the rainforest regions. For little boats and launches English Elm may have been used if available, but especially since the effects of Dutch Elm disease, good sized Elm is hard to come by. West African Mahogany was the answer as it was very cheap and available in huge clean logs that were easy to work and finished beautifully. In the days before glass fibre boats, and in a time when the effects of the deforestation of rainforest was little, if at all known, it’s understandable that tropical timbers were thought to be a good materials choice.
We live in different times now however. There is much more awareness of the problems that can arise from the use of natural materials, and, I believe there is no good argument for not making the “better” choice when options are available. Especially when the ethical choice is also the stronger, more durable and interesting one.
This clinker launch is to be planked from Sweet Chestnut, all from a log grown in Devon/Cornwall and sawn by a small family run business in North Devon, in fact all of the timber for this launch has, and will be supplied by the same timber yard, who buy their logs from the estates locally.
There is a myth that tropical hardwoods are always more durable. Of course they can be, but it also depends on usage, and they manner in which they are finished and kept. I understand from conversations that I have had, that I have brought upon myself a challenge to convince people that that tropical doesn’t mean best. Sweet Chestnut is in fact a whole category higher* than the usually used African mahogany in terms of durability and the same category as the more durable South American Swietenia mahogany. I know that even when this is explained there will be some distrust, people understandably feel safe with the way things are usually done and will suspect that there is a catch. Well, here is the catch: I have to make a little more effort, I have less chance of finding long clean wide boards of pristine timber. It simply comes down to convenience, which is no price to pay for timber listed as endangered on the IUCH Red List.
The chestnut log sawn for me by Tom Bedford at UK Hardwoods yielded clear and relatively wide boards which was all I could ask for. The wood did give me something that I couldn’t have reasonably asked for, which is a ripple in the grain which runs right through the log. Ripple is seen sometimes on the inside of a bend or where the tree has some compression, It is less common however to have it running the length of a log. The inside of the planking will be varnished and this ripple will give a beautiful three dimensional look to the finish, something rare and special. Another gift is the darkness of the colour which has something to do with the minerals in the soil most likely. This darkness will give some contrast to the rest of the chestnut used for the fitting out.
The materials for the hull were important to get in good time. The planking needs to air dry slowly enough to be in the best condition for building. This gave me time to design the boat, make the frames and backbone. The shape of the boat was drawn and developed on the floor of my workshop in the traditional way using the spring of a wooden batten for fairing my curves and the black magic of intersecting lines and curves, I enjoy this process, it’s pure geometry without the need for numbers, even the measuring tape can be put aside in exchange for a stick with pencil marks on. If I do my job correctly, then somebody who knows how could transform those lines and curves into harmonious numerical relationships. The design is quite simple. I start with obvious parameters like length, height, width. Then add the shapes that come from my experience of what works with hull form, and what works to make a good practical boat. The lines on the floor a drawn, proved against one another and re-drawn until I, and the spring of a batten are happy.
Drawing on the floor is the start of design. I am not building to strict measurements as I would be with a pre designed or racing dinghy. I have the freedom to change what I like or what I should along the way. The transom was an area that I was unhappy with and so simply removed the aft mould and reshaped the transom as I pleased. The Transom itself is made of plain quarter cut Sweet chestnut, plain is good on a transom as the purpose of the timber is structure and form, it’s not the place for pretty wood grain. A blank canvass for some tasteful letter cutting or name board.
I choose to wrap battens around new build boats. These are not part of the finished boat but show the lines that the planking will take. Each batten shows every other plank line so there will be twelve planks per side. Doing this is important for me as the aesthetics of the lines are one of the many make or breaks of boatbuilding, if I get these wrong the boat will look ugly. Again there must be some interesting complicated maths that makes these lines “correct” I do this process by a combination of experience and trial and error, moving and shifting battens until they look even and fair; The truth is though that they can’t strictly be both, but they can look as though they are. This is where boatbuilding gets really interesting and experience is needed to influence what The eye will notice and find pleasing or not.
After the hull is built she will be fitted out with more Sweet Chestnut. Another log from north Devon this time cut to various thicknesses and placed in the kiln in my workshop. The Chestnut is steamed in the kiln for 8 days and then dried for the next six weeks by which time the moisture content will be reduced to whatever I want it to be. Most timber whether kilned or not will end up settling at 12-16% in my workshop any way so this will go no less than that. The way that I like to work is to have more control over the wood I use, from cutting of the logs to seasoning and kilning to final use. It is important to me that my materials are not simply inert purchases but have been chosen and carefully nurtured in the way that I want, in the way that gets the best out of them.
I have bought and used most of the major wood types from all over the world. I don’t have a clean record of ethical decisions. Some of that was being afraid to think for myself and act outside the safety of common practice, and partly there was an excuse that small usage of endangered woods was ok as it’s the slash and burn mentality of big industry that is the real problem, not me.
The truth is neither being scared to do what I believe, or using false justification as an excuse for being reckless with resources is acceptable, not if I have a choice, and that choice is a better one.
I’m building this launch with the benefit of all that has lead to this point. She is to be the best of the boats I have built and restored up until now and will mark 20 years of my working in this trade……
*BS EN 350-2:1994