Everything is a Chisel

Porter Hoagland, Boatbuilding & Restoration - Year 1

Archaeologists theorize that humans have used watercraft of various types for at least 40 millennia, but it wasn’t until the onset of the Bronze Age—more than five millennia ago—that metal tools began to be designed to shape wood in ways that could build much more sophisticated boats.

Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” which emerged probably around two-and-a-half millennia ago, tells the story of the journey home from the Trojan War of the Ithacan King Odysseus. Beset at sea by an angry Poseidon, the ocean god who was also known as “Earth Shaker,” Odysseus becomes shipwrecked on the island of Ogygia, where he is held captive for seven years by the nymph Calypso. Counter to her amorous wishes, Calypso is forced by the Goddess Athena (a weaver and inventor of the sail!) to allow the king to continue his journey. Calypso has no ship to give him, but she agrees to help him build one [from the translation by Robert Flagler, pp. 84-85, which can be found online]: 

“[Calypso] gave [Odysseus] a heavy bronze axe that fit his grip, both blades well-honed, with a fine olive haft lashed firm to its head. She gave him a polished smoothing-adze as well and then she led the way to the island’s outer edge where trees grew tall, alders, black poplars and firs that shot sky-high, seasoned, drying for years, ideal for easy floating…

“[Odysseus] set to cutting trunks—the work was done in no time. Twenty in all he felled, he trimmed them clean with his axe and split them deftly, trued them straight to the line. Meanwhile the radiant goddess brought him drills—he bored through all his planks and wedged them snugly, knocking them home together, locked with pegs and bolts.

“Broad in the beam and bottom flat as a merchantman when a master shipwright turns out her hull, so broad the craft Odysseus made himself. Working away at speed he put up half-decks pinned to close-set ribs and a sweep of gunwales rounded off the sides.”

Instructor, Dave Redero, demonstrates the use of a large chisel called a “slick” to cut a scarf joint in a pine plank.

During the very first week at IYRS, my colleague Evan Orlic and I observed that all the wooden boatbuilding tools are really just different kinds of chisels. Referred to more specifically as “edge tools,” they comprise hand chisels of all sizes, slicks, spoke-shaves, block, bench, rabbet, and backing-out planes, drill and router bits, cabinet scrapers, files, and knives. Dozuki and Ryoba pull saws are two of the more exotic but also more useful than others for fitting a bench joint. Larger cutting machines are variations on the theme, including radial arm saws, chop saws, jointers, planers, table and band saws. Even sandpaper (the use of which is sometimes frowned upon here), teeth, and fingernails could be interpreted as edge tools, although that might be pushing it (through!) too far.

George Sheehan powers through a rough cut plank using a timber saw.

For each of the components that make up a wooden boat, there is a process for shaping them. One could begin with a large timber saw (see the pictures) or a radial arm saw, moving next to the jaw of the jointer, then to the maw of the planer, and on to the precision of the table or band saws. Finally, hand planes and chisels are used more subtly to finish the job. We have been schooled quickly in the use of these tools, and it’s surprising how fast we have become proficient. When the shop is busy, the noise resounds, and the earth shakes in a way that would impress Poseidon. As our managing instructor Joel Senger likes to say: “no percussion, no production.”

Tristan Sess and Quinn Dorchies mill the plank to size using a planer.

At IYRS, teamwork, for reasons of both productivity and safety, is a fundamental aspect to using all the chisel forms to craft a boat. Following the legends of the ancients, it often seems that the work is done in no time. According to Homer, Odysseus needed only four days to finish his ship. That may be true, but it’s pretty clear that he couldn’t have done it alone.