Locally Sourced Timber; or, Logging by Hand

Posted By on February 28, 2014

Hauling spruce logs. The blue plastic half-barrel helps the logs skid over the snow instead of plowing into it.

Hauling spruce logs. The blue plastic half-barrel helps the logs skid over the snow instead of plowing into it.

We knew going into this project that we were going to have to get creative if Heron was ever going to see the water. As a wooden vessel, she obviously was going to call for almost a literal ton of timber. Fortunately, we live in a very rural and heavily wooded area, so we have been getting to watch her change before our eyes from a group of standing trees to a finished wooden sailing vessel. Much of the timber that went into Heron came from our own woodlots or those of friends. Since we don’t have much in the way of heavy equipment, that meant hauling chainsaws and comealongs into the back mountains (often on snowshoes) and then dragging logs down the mile or so to the boatyard. Once in the yard, they’re either sawn or hewn near the boat or lugged into the truck and taken to a nearby sawmill. It’s backbreaking work at times and definitely gives you a feel for the sheer amount of effort that went into woodworking in the early modern era!

Heron contains at least seven different kinds of wood. Her keel and frames are made of oak. The keel is made of 5 runs of heavy oak planking (2″+) trunneled together with locust and tarred all over. We made the trunnels with locust timber from a friend’s woodlot that had had windstorm damage – all that locust was literally a windfall for us, as it is extremely durable and long lasting. Ekk made the tools necessary for cutting and shaping trunnels, copying the equipment as seen at Essex Shipbuilding Museum. We wrote a blog post about the whole trunnel process a few years ago.

Moving logs.

Moving logs.

She’s planked with Eastern hemlock. We chose hemlock for a couple of reasons – it’s affordable, durable, and commonly available in our area. We’ve seen untreated exterior porches made of hemlock last 15+ years, so we’ve got high hopes for it lasting even longer with all the tar we’re using to preserve Heron. In the next town over from our place in Northern Vermont, an old sawmill site along a river was exposed a few years ago via bank erosion. It had been buried for about a hundred years, but the lumber piles that emerged were still sound enough to provide the wood for a new deck for the current landowner. In the 18th century, and especially in the rough and ready shipyards that sprung up during the numerous armed conflicts along Lake Champlain, shipwrights tended to use any wood they could find to do the job. One prominent example is the brig Eagle, built in only 19 days in 1814 at Vergennes, VT. She served throughout the rest of the War of 1812 but was abandoned to sink a few years into the peace.

Taking a break from logging, with a goat in my lap.

Taking a break from logging, with a goat in my lap.

We are making her spars with spruce from our back lot and from a neighbor’s lot and sawmill. Spruce was the timber of choice for spars on sailing vessels, and still is highly prized for that purpose among traditional wooden sailing craft aficionados. The logs from the neighbor’s lot were being taken down as part of their farming operation, as they were clearing more pasture for their sheep and goats. The spruce logs are all nearly 30′ long, which gives us plenty of leeway to trim them down to their final length as trunk (lower) masts. Topmasts are also spruce and the rigging is designed to let us hoist them into place from on deck. This will give us more flexibility in her sail plan while keeping her crew requirements small.

All in all, the vast majority of her timber has been sourced within 20 miles of her construction and obtained either through our own labor or bartering with friends. We’re now at the point where the materials we need can’t be provided by our own labor alone. If you’d like to have a part in seeing Heron finish her transformation, or have enjoyed these blog posts, please consider throwing a few dollars at our fundraising efforts to help defray the costs of the 200 yards of canvas and nearly 2 miles of rope and other cordage she’s still going to need. We can handsew the sails ourselves and turn that smaller cordage into the heavy cables necessary for her anchor & shrouds, but not without the raw materials to work with.

About the author

I'm a museum professional with an MA in Museum Studies and Atlantic History. A lot of my research has been in colonial and maritime history, as well as material culture of the 16th - 19th centuries. I've held a lot of weird jobs covering everything from beekeeper to tall ship deckhand. I currently live with my partner on the Canadian border in Vermont.

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