Two years ago, on April 15th, the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris ignited, causing a conflagration that took down its emblematic wooden flèche. Construction in the great cathedral had begun as early as the 12th century, but the building gained widespread notoriety only with the publication of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Although set in late-15th century France, the story’s publication in the 19th century comprised a unveiled appeal to preserve French gothic architecture in a rapidly industrializing world. Most remember the central allegory where the bell ringer Quasimodo swings down from the “forêt” of Notre Dame’s timbers to rescue the Roma street-dancer Esmerelda from the gallows, claiming authority under the “law of sanctuary.”
La cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris en feu, le 15 avril 2019 à 19 h 51. Photo by LeLaisserPasserA38. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0
Notre-Dame itself eventually was protected, becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site and attracting more than 12 million visitors each year. After the 2019 disaster, French law required that the cathedral’s flèche and roof be rebuilt exactly as they existed architecturally before the fire, and more than €1 billion has been pledged for the restoration. To carry it out, 1,000 oaks—some more than 200 years old—were felled early this year from their own preserves, including trees from public forests that had been set aside to provide lumber for the French navy when it consisted entirely of wooden ships. (While it might seem obvious that Notre-Dame should be restored to its original construction, the signatures of more than 42,000 French environmentalists question whether ancient oaks should be removed from their own preserves to do so.) Many of the oldest (and tallest) oaks were selected because they exhibited natural sweeps matching the curvatures of the flèche. These trees must now be seasoned by air drying, and restoration will commence in 2022.
One day, this oak will transform. Press release on the contribution to the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris from the Fondation France Bois Foret, a French national association of foresters. https://franceboisforet.fr/2021/04/14/communique-de-presse-notre-dame-de-paris/
For the first-year IYRS Boatbuilding & Restoration students, spring has sprung, and bit-by-bit the doors are opened to let fresh air pervade Restoration Hall—our own sanctuary. The Beetle Cat hulls have been closed up, and the planks forming the hulls have been planed and long-boarded to become fair. Minor imperfections were filled, countersunk fasteners puttied over. The final touches comprised the scribing of waterlines and the painting of hulls with gray and white primers, below and above. With these finishing touches, the boats were turned over, and work began to reinforce the frames with interior sheer planks, to fashion the mast support structures, and to construct the decks.
Along with hull construction, we have been learning to read patterns appearing in rough-sawn lumber, realizing how little we still know about this adaptable and resilient boatbuilding material. Establishing the boundary between long-dead heartwood and (more recently) live sapwood is essential, because the former contains natural resins and other chemicals that help to preserve it, while the latter will shrink and be more subject to fungal decay as it ages. Grain orientation is equally critical, however, as straight grain lines will maintain strength in places where strength is needed, especially where bending and twisting is required. Choosing the wood for a plank or spar becomes a sleuthing to skirt live sapwood, to seek straight grain lines, and to nimbly avoid pockets of disease.
We have been taught that lumber is organic, at one time full of life, and occasionally it appears to come back to life even as it’s worked, apparently eager to take on the character of a boat’s soul. Working with wood is at least as spiritual as it is practical, and humans may have always depended upon this balance. Indeed, the oldest extant wooden art, the 12,000 year old Shigir Idol, a larch totem excavated from a peat bog near Yekaterinburg, Russia in the late-19th century, likely was carved to embody forest spirits, possibly even depicting the creation myth followed by its Stone Age sculptors.
The Shigir Idol, stored in the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore (Yekaterinburg). Radioactive dating conducted in 1997 showed that its age is about 11,600 years old. Photo by Владислав Фальшивомонетчик. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0
Some of the most beautiful but puzzling features of plain-sawn lumber are the aptly named cathedrals, entailing the run-out of grain in the middle of a plank. These features are prized for some aesthetic applications, such as tabletops, but they can be difficult to work with hand tools, as the grain can reverse with little warning. With information from a plank’s end grain, indicating the orientation of the outside of the tree from which it came, cathedrals can be utilized to help guide the shaping of wood. We’ve learned to try to plane into the points of a cathedral on the outside and to run with the cathedrals on the inside. Even so, some cathedrals are highly complex forms, as if the tree went for a walk, according to our instructor Joel Senger. Perhaps one of the most extreme, but imaginary, examples would be lumber from the 3,000 year old Olive Tree of Vouves on Crete—unlikely ever to be felled—as long as it keeps on producing olives!
The Olive tree of Vouves in the village of Ano Vouves in Crete, Greece. Photo by Eric Nagle. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0
A sanctuary is by definition a safe place, and Restoration Hall provides such security, as we continue to learn—often by correcting mistakes that might not yet be tolerated in the profit-driven outside world. The bevels that must be cut for each fitting remind us of larger tradeoffs as summer externships loom on a rapidly approaching horizon. We begin to ask ourselves: what will we encounter when we leave our boatbuilding sanctuary to exchange our current circumstances for new ones? With each fitting of African mahogany to white oak to Atlantic cedar to southern pine and back again, we grow more confident in our abilities to take on the next boat and the one after that and…