I first met Phil Thiel in 2009. My son Nate had just graduated from high school and was eager to build a boat, so we decided upon Phil’s 18′6″ Escargot canal boat. We paid a visit to him at his home, only a half dozen miles from ours, and he led us to his basement shop where he had his stock of plans, all stored in cardboard tubes. Over that summer, I coached Nate and his friend Bobby through the build and kept Phil up to date with the progress.
I continued to keep in touch with him after BONZO, a slightly modified Escargot, was launched in October. Phil was ill, with no hope of recovery, so I visited with increasing frequency, offering to help in any way I could; I had several of his plans sets scanned so they’d more easily made available. I had lost my father suddenly the year before, so I knew how important my remaining time with Phil would be. When I was offered this job, working with
WoodenBoat as the editor of Small Boats Monthly, I knew how happy that my father would have been for me, but he was gone. I told Phil, and I got the smile I needed from him.
I was with Phil, his family, and a few friends when he passed away on the evening of May 10, 2014. Since then I have had the privilege of visiting Phil’s shop and have kept in touch with his family—wife Midori and children Kenji, Tamiko, and Kiko. It is with their kindness that I can share a few glimpses of my absent friend.
You could say Phil’s shop is “organically” organized. His tools and materials aren’t separated into categories, they’re intertwined like the roots of a tree, and the juxtapositions—waxed paper, an old brass scale, and a padlock, or tarred marline, a trailer ball, and toothpicks—have an engaging, even poetic quality.
Over his home’s front door, there is a sentence, one of many written in all caps in white chalk on the dark exposed ceiling beams, that reads: “A LOT OF WHAT I DO GROWS OUT OF WHAT I’M DOING.” The shop fosters that sense of unexpected possibilities and is fertile ground for the imagination.
Phil bought this machinist’s lathe, used, on November 24, 1987. It’s a South Bend C9-10JR, manufactured in South Bend, Indiana. Its original owner purchased it in 1949. The headstock needed some work and a few parts were missing, so Phil wrote to the manufacturer on January 9, 1988, beginning with:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have recently achieved a life-long ambition and at age 67, a few weeks before retirement from teaching, acquired a South Bend Lathe.” The motor, here hidden from view, delivers power to the lathe with a flat leather belt, seen on a three-step pulley.
For woodturning projects there is a small lathe driven by a motor mounted underneath the workbench. Here, it has a sanding disc attached to the headstock and a wooden table on the tool rest. His daughters have fond childhood memories of spending time in their father’s shop using this lathe.
The anvil was made from a section of railroad track and fastened to a short timber. It was portable and could be set on the basement’s concrete floor rather than a workbench, which would bounce and rattle everything else on the bench top.
The pedal drive in Phil’s Sanpram required a propeller specifically designed for modest power and a peddler doing about 60 rpm, so Phil designed a wooden prop of stacked plywood. The pattern for the plywood rests on the workbench. Stair-stepping the pieces according to the marks on the paper pattern creates the proper pitch. The long cone on the finished prop reduces drag.
Phil made a lot of paper models as he developed his designs. This one appears to be the 22’9″
Joliboat. He used a similar angled roof as an option to provide more headroom in the L’Ark version of the Escargot. The drawing below is a freehand sketch of the 22’9″ Friendship.
Phil kept busy right up to his last days. This is his desk as he left it. I haven’t been able to figure out what his last drawing was about.
For all his technical prowess, Phil never went digital with his work. He did all of his drawings by hand, inked them flawlessly, and then taped pieces together to make masters to be photocopied. The year before he passed away, I took the originals drawings for his small wooden boats to a copy shop and scanned them. The digital files will assure the survival of his work and make his boats more easily and widely available.
The red stamp has a propeller and bicycle pedals joined and set inside a circle. It’s an indication of Phil’s interest in Japanese culture. In Japan, a Kamon is a symbol of one’s clan and has been used since the 12th century. It’s like a European family crest but with a broader set of relationships. Designs in circles are a common form of Kamon. Phil had another circular symbol—a snail, set on ripples of water, with SERENDIPITY written in an arc to complete the circle. His serendipitous snail is a reminder to go slow while boating and to leave yourself open to chance.
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 at right. The two long models at the bottom are for the 15′ 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.
Models for the 15′ 4″ Aphasia (left), designed in 2006, and the 12′ 4″ Sanpram, designed in 2011, are resting on drawings for the Escargot. The Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle has had the first-built Aphasia in its rental fleet for many years and it’s the most popular boat in the fleet. It is equipped with two Sea-Cycle pedal drives, making the boat extremely maneuverable. With one drive pedaled forward and the other in reverse, it can spin around in its own length. The Sea Cycle drives are expensive, so for the Sanpram, Phil designed a drive for the do-it-yourselfer. Bicycle pedals and cranks turn large pulleys and V-belts transfer the power to a small pulley and an idler on the propeller shaft. The propeller is made of stacked plywood, like the one on his workbench.
Phil kept the tools he treasured most in a locked file cabinet. This is the first time the drawer has been opened since his passing. In the wooden box to the left is a proportional divider. To its right are two dial opisometers, or curvimeters, for measuring lengths long curved lines. I don’t know what the three devices with handles are. The black one to the right, made by Nikkor, has a lens that provides a fisheye view. The two with wooden handles are Phil’s home-made versions using wide-angle door viewers for lenses. The leather case at the bottom holds one of many slide rules.
I only knew what this was because I have one was passed down from my grandfather, a civil engineer. It’s a polar planimeter used to measure the area of shapes on a drawing. The top arm has a pin with a weighted disk to hold it in place. The other arm has a pointer that is used to trace the shape’s perimeter. The cylinder on the lower left has a polished steel wheel that both rolls and slides as the pointer moves. By some miracle, the area shows on the scale when the outline is complete. The planimeter can be used in boat design, for example, to measure the areas of hull cross sections.
This second model of the Aphasia was Phil’s most recent development of the design and did away with the expensive Sea-Cycle drives, adopting instead the DIY system of the Sanpram. I found the remains of two moths in the cockpit, the only passengers to ever get aboard the redesigned boat.
There are no markings in this half hull. Phil did some work designing commercial vessels and this may be one of them. It hangs in a room adjoining the shop, a windowless room lined with bookshelves.
Among the models in the shop is a steel passenger ship of unknown origin (Identified by a reader as the SS Tacoma. See Clayton Wright’s comments below.) and a freighter with a nesting barge. As I recall from my conversations with Phil, he designed the freighter while working as a naval architect. The idea was to create a system where cargo carried by two different means did not have to be reloaded. It’s like the freight trains that carry trailers or containers that are also hauled by truck or by ship. A barge used for inland waters could be floated aboard this purpose-built sea-going vessel.
Phil did a lot of international travel and has bookshelves full of photo albums and file cabinets full of slides. His interest in boats of all kinds is evident in his photographs.
Hidden in the library was this painting. On the back is written in Phil’s hand: “Philip Thiel, late ’40s, early ’50s while student at M.I.T.” His oils were applied quite thickly, giving the painting rich texture. I knew he could draw well, but this was the first indication I’d had that Phil was, among everything else, a talented painter with an exceptional feel for color and free-flowing forms. It was a side of him that I discovered only after he was gone.