Kevin Walsh
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Fat Guys
Building Boats

Amateur Hour
by Kevin Walsh

The Noble Spokeshave

I suppose that most people who decide to build a boat in their garage or backyard have at least some experience in wood-working that would make the idea of constructing something as complex as a boat somewhat less ludicrous than it appears to be. It's been my experience that most people who know the difference between a jack plane and a one-eyed jack learned such subtle distinctions from their father, or grandfather, or favorite uncle, or some other flannel-clad, work-booted, tobacco-chewing male role model. 

It's just not all that weird to most folks if you have some skill in making things out of wood to turn your attention to a boat of some kind. This naturally excludes those of you who are even now furiously engaged in building a plywood replica of the aircraft carrier Hornet in your living rooms while your wives spend what money you have left over on high-priced divorce attorneys.

But what about those of us whose fathers enjoyed, say, watching TV? The only hobby I ever observed my father indulge himself in was sitting down. As the son of an accomplished Lazy Boy jockey, I grew up blissfully unaware of the satisfaction to be derived from transforming the elegant, delicate cellulose structures Nature spent perhaps billions of years evolving, into a useless heap of undersized kindling. 

When that peculiar schizophrenia known to wives throughout the world as, "That idiot wants to build a boat in the garage" struck me, I was equally struck by the fact that I knew nothing, and I mean NOTHING about boats, boat building, building in general or in particular, tools of any kind, power or otherwise, nothing. 

We'll leave the analysis of why such a babe in the woods turned to the construction of traditional sailing craft some other time, when I have the time to make up a reason that doesn't sound stupid. Suffice it to say, I've got it bad, and it ain't pretty.

As this strange passion engaged me, I eagerly consumed book after book on the subject of building a boat. Over time, and many books I learned a great deal. Aside from the obvious fact that for me to become good at building boats I must grow a gnarly beard and a big, wiry head of hair, wear L.L. Bean clothing and live in Maine, another incredibly important insight occurred to me. The straight line in a boat is an exceedingly rare thing. That in order to shape many of these demonstrably non-linear boat parts, I would need something to remove wood from a concave surface, something for which the pedestrian Stanley Plane, available at Home Depots the world over, was singularly ill-suited. 

Only you, gentle readers, you builders of Bolgers and whittlers of Wharrams, only you can imagine the shock, the horror, the utter dismay with which I was faced when first I found that I would need to acquire and master the spokeshave. 

And so, ever eager to put off actual, physical activity, I read some more. I turned to that great Pantheon of procrastination and inactivity, the Internet, and I discovered a curious and perhaps even a frightening thing. I found that many, many people in this great nation of ours suffer from a peculiar affliction known simply as Obsessive/Compulsive Spokeshaving. 

For example, I found the web site of Dave Wachniki, owner of Dave's Shaves: 

who reproduces traditional spokeshaves. Dave has turned what most would experience as a casual, somewhat utilitarian encounter with a nice hand-tool into a gold-plated science. My confidence, already at a low ebb, was nearly irretrievably shattered when I encountered this blurb on his site:

"Get the most out of your Conover shave. The supertune includes a new sole-to-cutter geometry, new brassing and a larger throat opening. Re-contouring of the finger rests and sharpening the Conover cutter completes the tuneup."

Needless to say, many questions bubbled into my fevered brain. Tune up a spokeshave? Is this a simple plugs-and-points job, or does it involve strings? Will I have to go back to school to brush up on my geometry to operate this tool? Will my project suffer grievously if I stick with the old brassing and smaller throat opening? And what, dear spirits, what is brassing and where is the throat opening? Clearly, Dave is in at least the next galaxy over from me when it comes to knowledge of cutting tools, totally out of my league, so I continued my search. 

After further investigation, I found a web site that restored my belief that I could do this, that I could, if not master, at least become not so dangerous to nearby dogs and children when handling a spokeshave. It turns out that the spokeshave is an ancient implement, older even than Dick Clark, if you can imagine such a thing. The web site of the Authentic Artifacts Collector's Association:

goes a long way toward answer the question burning in every man, woman and child's breast: 

"How did ancient amerinds straighten their wooden arrow and spear shafts? With a spokeshave!"

Naturally, questions like, "What the heck are amerinds, and what were they doing making arrows and spears anyway," popped up, but I struggled to remain focused on the issue at hand, and I successfully shook them off. As I examined this site and it's accompanying handy reference on how to tell an authentic ancient spokeshave from a field plow ding, my confidence returned, even though the example spokeshaves on the site look much more like the crusty gunk in my water pipes than a scraping tool intended for the skilled hands of a fine spear craftsman.

So why did this make me feel better? Well, after all, if stone-aged cave men could not only use spokeshaves, but assemble them from rocks and sticks, why then I, a well-educated, computer-wielding, totally modern man could do it. Thus armed with manly pride I proceeded to and purchased a shiny new Stanley spokeshave (I know, I know, I used the Internet to actually do something, forgive me.) Oh sure, I could have gone to John Gunterman's site:  

to learn how to make my own spokeshave, but remember, I don't know how to make anything yet, right?

I waited impatiently for many years for the spokeshave to arrive, and three days later, it did. I anxiously tore the packaging apart, pulled out the swaddling paper and there it was; a Stanley 12-951 Contractor Grade spokeshave. I admit to feeling a little guilty, not being a contractor and all yet presumptuously obtaining the Contractor Grade tool, but it felt pretty good, too. Surely with the presumably much higher grade tool, my work would be much improved, wouldn't it? 

Clutching the thing to my chest, I ran to the garage, pulled out a piece of scrap lumber, clamped it to the bench and poised the tool over the surface of the wood and - proceeded to inflict wounds not seen since the Great War upon this hapless, innocent piece of wood. Once the screams of agony died away, I pondered what I had done. 

Perhaps there is something to this tuning business after all? Maybe the iron must be positioned properly, and the blade sharpened at the correct bevel? The Internet had a lot to offer me there, too. This web site:  

shows how to impart a bevel so fine to the iron that it is "ScarySharp (tm)." So I think that maybe I'll give this ScarySharp business a try and see how things go. If it works out, imagine the quality of work that I might produce, given such a magnificently tuned instrument? And if it doesn't, I can always type with my feet.