Deadwood

By: Porter Hoagland, Boatbuilding & Restoration Year 2

 

The second year students at IYRS now have become skilled at selecting, milling, spiling, sawing, shaping, beveling, backing-out, adding-in, bending, and fastening wood to become the fundamental building blocks of a boat, including its backbone, transom, frames, floors, planks, centerboard cases or keels, bulkheads, sheer clamps, deck beams and deck, coamings, risers, soles, seats, spars, rudder, and tiller. The most commonly used woods for these elements comprise white oak, either green or kiln-dried, Atlantic white cedar, white pine, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, African mahogany, and sometimes southern yellow pine, teak, black or honey locust, or live oak. Each of these types has its own idiosyncrasies in terms of how it can be worked; all show up at the yard in rough cut form and all consist of wood that is most assuredly not alive. Even so, each type seems to continue to respond to the environment in and around Restoration Hall in sometimes unpredictable ways, making us wonder whether the boundary between life and death in a tree is as discrete as we often assume. We ask: “Does the incorporation of wood into a boat help to extend its life, imparting a new body and—daresay—even a soul to a former existence?”

From May to November of last year, the environmental artist, architect, and memorialist, Maya Lin, created a temporary installation of “spectral” trees called the “Ghost Forest” at Madison Square Park in downtown Manhattan. Its intent was to draw the public’s attention to the prospect that forests could be harmed both by unsustainable cutting and by a changing environment due to global warming. In this instance, the ersatz forest was made up of 49 Atlantic white cedars up to 50 feet high that had been cut from the pine barrens of southern New Jersey. These trees had perished because of the infiltration of salt water into an underlying groundwater lens; this intrusion was the direct result of sea-level rise, itself the consequence mainly of a warming ocean. Lin was said to have been inspired to create the exhibit when she observed a stand of dead timber outside her home in Colorado, and the installation was hoped to spur efforts to give a second life to white cedar habitat in the Pine Barrens through efforts at environmental restoration and replanting.

 

Maya Lin, Ghost Forest, 2021. Forty-nine Atlantic white cedar trees. Collection the artist, courtesy Pace Gallery. © Maya Lin. Photograph by Andy Romer/ Madison Square Park Conservancy. The exhibition was organized by Madison Square Park Conservancy, New York, and was on view from May 10 through November 14, 2021. Last accessed on December 31, 2021 at: https://madisonsquarepark.org/art/exhibitions/maya-lin-ghost-forest/

 

But just what is deadwood? Deadwood exists as a real place in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Located just northeast of the town of Lead, the town was likely named for a nearby stand of timber on a hillside that had been flattened by avalanche or a powerful wind. Deadwood was the quintessential western frontier town, populated by those seeking gold and others seeking to take it away. It was also where Wild Bill Hickok lost his life during a game of poker in August of 1876, holding his “dead man’s hand” of two black aces and two black eights. As Bob Dylan sang “…make your money while you can, before you have to stop; for when you pull that dead man’s hand, your gamblin’ days are up…” Initially a mining camp, Deadwood grew and then contracted as boom turned to bust. More recently, it has been reborn as a tourist destination.

 

The juxtaposition of lead ballast and yellow-pine deadwood in the fixed keel of a Herreshoff 12½ mirrors the geography of the Black Hills region of South Dakota. https://www.google.com/maps/place/Lawrence+County

 

In “South of Deadwood,” the raconteur Louis L’Amour wrote about that rough town. In L’Amour’s story, the plucky—but naïve—Claire Marsden is traveling alone to appeal to the jailed Curley Starr, whose gang had killed two innocent people when robbing a bank in Texas. Marsden was trying to save the life of her brother, who had been mistaken as a member of the gang and who was now on death row. On the coach to Deadwood, she meets the taciturn Texas Ranger and protagonist Chick Bowdrie, who is tasked with transferring Starr to North Texas to face charges. Bowdrie asks Claire to sit with him at dinner in order to learn more about her brother’s situation. “What’s Deadwood really like?” she asks. Bowdrie lets out a laugh, but then his smile evaporates… Eventually, Starr is shot by members of his own gang, and he gives a second life to Claire’s brother in a deathbed admission of the latter’s innocence.

The story “South of Deadwood” by Louis L’Amour first appeared in 1948 (volume 35, number 2, pp. 87-97) in the magazine Popular Western. http://www.louislamour.com/shortstory/collectedfontier2.htm

 

For boat-builders, the term “deadwood” holds a special meaning. According to Rene de Kerchove, the maritime lexicographer, deadwood is: “…the solid timbering built forward and abaft the square frames and upon which the heels of the cant timbers are stepped. It is bolted to keel and sternpost aft and to keel and stem forward. Also called rising wood…” Deadwood clearly is one of the fundamental building blocks mentioned above; it comprises an element of a boat’s backbone, but the gloomy moniker seems inapt. Could deadwood too represent a second life for the wood embodied in a boat?

 

White-oak deadwood incorporated into a horizontally sawn white-oak sprung keel for a Woods Hole spritsail boat (circa 1905) under restoration at IYRS. Evidence of extensive decay due to encasement with fiberglass (left) necessitated the complete replacement of keel and deadwood (right).

 

 

The Herreshoff Manufacturing Company’s Buzzards Bay boy’s boat (the Herreshoff 12½ footer) was designed with a ballast keel and accompanying deadwood attached to its backbone. A ballast of 735 pounds of lead was meant to provide stability and safety in the often choppy and breezy environment of Buzzards Bay. Located centrally in the “thoracic” region of the boat’s backbone, between frames 7 and 19, the lead ballast, looking like a rhombus in profile, is attached to the white-oak sprung keel and its floor timber-frame pairs with only five bronze bolts. Triangular in profile, and filling the space above and behind the trailing end of the lead ballast and in front of the rudder, between frames 13 and 22, sits the “deadwood,” also attached with five bolts.

 

Deconstructing the keel of a Herreshoff 12½ (HMCo. #1159s, Katy-did). Bronze bolts were sheared first above the floors on the inside then just under the sprung keel to lower the lead ballast (left) and the yellow-pine deadwood (right). After the removal of the old bolts, the scraping off of built-up paint, and a resurfacing with epoxy filler, the lead ballast will be used in the boat’s restoration. The 90+ year-old deadwood exhibited large checks that necessitated a complete replacement.

 

The deadwood in a Herreshoff 12½ was made of southern yellow pine, typically longleaf (Pinus palustris). Due to its widespread availability, strength, ability to hold fasteners, straight grain, and resistance to rot, longleaf was harvested heavily from forests extending across the southern United States from Virginia to East Texas in the 19th and early 20th centuries, reducing its coverage by as much as 95% from an estimated original 90 million acres. It was used principally in the construction of factories, mills, houses, and ships. Today most of the yellow pine comes from its cousin loblolly (Pinus taeda), but some longleaf is attaining yet a third life through its reclamation from old factories and houses. One local example is the yellow pine removed during the demolition of the Howard & Bullough American Machine Company factory in South Attleboro, Massachusetts, a former manufacturer of machinery for textile mills, which now is being repurposed into flooring products and architectural design elements by Ark Woods and Services at the Phillipsdale Landing on the Seekonk River in Rumford, Rhode Island.

 A glue-up of yellow-pine deadwood for the Herreshoff 12½ (left) next to the original deadwood (right) from Katy-did. Other than the checking mentioned in the previous figure, the original appears to be in remarkably good shape after nearly a century on the boat, even though it had been encased in fiberglass. Can we repurpose it for something else?

 

And even the Atlantic white cedars used by Maya Lin in her Ghost Forest now will live a third life. The cedars were taken down, milled into rough-sawn planks, and sent to “Rocking the Boat,” a dynamic STEM educational program in the Bronx, where young students are taught boat-building skills and learn to be more confident in setting and achieving their life-goals. (IYRS is a partner in the school’s boat-building program.) Clearly a misnomer, “deadwood” is not the end of the line for the wood in a wooden boat, and at IYRS we continue seeking ways for giving it a new life.