Testing One’s Metal

It wasn’t until I moved to Washington, D.C. and landed a job at the Smithsonian Institution that I learned I could do more with metal. I was hired by the National Museum of African Art as an exhibits specialist, part of the crew making display cases and installing artifacts. For a few weeks I assisted contract workers brought in to make mounts to support the objects that would be put display. They used brass rod and flat-bar, annealing it to make it pliable and joining pieces with silver solder with an air-acetylene torch. I learned a lot watching them work, and after they left I did much of the mount-making for the museum.

Caring for Tools

Hanging on a pegboard is a 10” steel spring-joint divider, the very first tool I bought in 1977 when I decided to build a boat and needed to tool up for lofting a dory skiff. I bought the divider for $6 in a second-hand tool store. The store occupied a two-story clapboard building that was torn down decades ago and replaced with a welding supply store; that was torn down and replaced with a pumphouse for one of Seattle’s new sewer mains. The divider has a brass ball on the end of the screw and a threaded brass knob for adjusting the span. The knob spins so freely that it’ll travel a full inch along the screw if I give it a good flick with my thumb. Every time I use it I see my 24-year-old self, looking for a direction to take in life, and finding one in boats.

Wagner Education Center

The building has over 9,000 sq ft on its two floors, tripling the space CWB has to work with. The walls are a bit of fir-plywood heaven. Over 700 sheets of it were prefinished by volunteers, edges gently rounded and faces given a clear finish. The floor upstairs is cork; on the main level it is concrete, except for the boatshop. There two layers of 1-1/2″ plywood have been recessed to be flush with the concrete floor. The plywood is kinder to tools accidentally dropped and provides an easily renewed surface when the top layer is worn out. The combined 3″ thickness of plywood is a good base for boatbuilding forms that need to be screwed down.

Phil Thiel’s Workshop

Sitting on ledge near the drafting table is a stack of paper models: a tombstone-transom dory at left and a double ender sitting in a pram. The two at the bottom are for the 5’7″ Skiffcycle, one of the smallest of Phil’s “pedal-powered boats for the flâneur-afloat” and designed for a commercial Sea-Cycle drive. Phil’s graph plotting boat speed and pedal rpm shows the Skiffcycle reaching 5 1/2 mph, though Phil, a flâneur himself, wouldn’t dream of rushing about at such a pace, missing all of the sights, sounds, and scents to be taken in at a more leisurely pace. On at least one occasion, he furrowed his brow when I told him I usually paddled my kayak at 6 mph.


The steam launch E. SCOTT HAMMOND is just one of the many boats John has built. Its lines were inspired by a Karl Stambaugh cruiser that John scaled down to half for an electric launch, then stretched to 18’ for the HAMMOND, launched in 2009, which was initially diesel powered and then converted to steam on 2016. The switch was one John was destined to make; his father worked with a logging crew in the Washington forests and ran a steam donkey, a powerful seething machine with a tall boiler and a powerful winch, all mounted on a pair of hip-high log skids.

The Blind Side

I row and paddle year-round along the city’s ship canal. There’s a 7-knot, no-wake zone all along its 7-1/2-mile length, and during the summer, especially on weekends, the canal sees a lot of pleasure-boat traffic, the majority of it power boats. Most abide by the limit and trail a rolling corrugated fan of waves. If I’m paddling my kayak and taking an oncoming boat’s wake head on, I’m through in a few strokes without breaking cadence.


In one of the do-it-yourself magazines I liked to read, I saw an ad for a bandsaw built from a kit. It had the necessary metal pieces; all I had to do was make the plywood and lumber frame. I mailed my order with a check for around $35 to Gilliom Manufacturing in St. Charles, Missouri; when the plans and parts arrived I built the frame, installed the metal parts, added a 1/3-hp electric motor, and I was in business. There was nothing fancy about the bare plywood bandsaw, but it got the dory project moving along at a satisfying pace and I began to enjoy the work. I finished the dory skiff and a few months later began building a second boat, a gunning dory.

Getting Out of Line

When I decided to follow the route Nathaniel Bishop took from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cedar Key, Florida, in the winter of 1874–75, I chose not to build a replica of his CENTENNIAL REPUBLIC, the sneakbox at the heart of his book, Four Months in a Sneak-Box. I was drawn to build instead the Barnegat Bay sneakbox detailed in Chapelle’s American Small Sailing Craft because it had an intriguing feature: a daggerboard set 10″ to starboard, on the outside edge of the cockpit coaming. Bishop’s boat had its daggerboard just aft of the mast, on the centerline, where you’d expect it to be. Chapelle offered good reasons for moving the board to one side.

Fatherhood, Childhood, and Boats

My son was late in arriving. Nine months came and went without any stirrings from him. Another week went by. Still nothing. Cindy and I had both taken leave from work and we had time on our hands, so we loaded up the lapstrake decked canoe I’d built and headed for the lake. We had paddled a mile or so and it was then that Nathan, as he would be named, made his move. Contractions had begun, and not long after putting the canoe back in the garage we were on our way to the hospital.


Buildings like the one that looms behind the store will eventually eradicate neighborhood businesses that have been a part of Seattle's University District for many decades.

When I moved back home to Seattle and began building boats in 1978, there were three shops where I could buy new and used hardware and tools. There’s only one left now and its days are numbered. Hardwick’s Hardware was established in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression by the current owner’s grandfather. The store has been in its current location since 1938. It’s a single-story building being engulfed by the construction of new, much taller buildings all around it.

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