Over the past year and a half, I have been taking the Saturday class at the Arques School of Traditional Boatbuilding in Sausalito, CA. The program focuses extensively on traditional wooden boat design - construction, use of hand tools and wood technology. Donlan Arques endowed the program as part of his trust and vision to continue educating people on wooden boat construction. The school is now run by master boatbuilder, Robert Darr, or Bob as his students call him.
I stumbled across the school onlineafter moving to Sausalito in 2014. I had always been fascinated by wooden boats and their construction and had looked into courses in Maine but found them to be prohibitively expensive. The Saturday class, of which I was a student, is made up of eight students and caters to each students individual skill level. The course enrollment is fluid, in that students come and go as they complete the course or move onto other things.
Bob is a fascinating character, a great storyteller and an excellent teacher. I looked forward to going to the class every week. Each student must first learn to properly sharpen their tools. I spent the better part of a month of Saturdays learning to properly use the stone to hone my chisel and plane blade. Next I moved on to a simple mortise exercise. Although I grew up working in the trades and doing carpentry with my father, the skill, precision and attention to detail required far exceeded my past experience. I learned to properly chop and pare a mortise and then cut a tenon using a Japanese pull saw.
I was fortunate to have already collected some of the necessary tools for boatbuilding of the course of several years doing carpentry work. Hammers, a combination square, bevel square and other tools I already had and was comfortable using. Bob gives recommendations on tools that he has used over the course of thirty plus years; he has the same No. 4 Stanley plane that his high school teacher gave to him when he was 18. In addition to the tools i already had, I purchased a set of chisels that I had wanted for a long time - Lie Nielsen bevel edge. A small low angle black plane. A Japanese pull saw. A Stanley rabbet plane. These were the primary hand tools we used in the course.
After doing countless mortise and tenon exercises, I moved on and built a hollowing plane. The hollowing plane has a curved bottom and curved blade and is used to add “hollow” to planks and other objects. I made mine out of Pepperwood, or Bay Laurel which is local to Northern California. The process is fairly simple. You start with a block of wood, about 3x3x12 and then you transfer a template onto this block. The mortise is both angled and tapered and receives the blade, chipper and wedge. The design is such that the shaving comes out of the top and does not require one to reach in to remove material. After you have put in this mortise and added the necessary slots you shape the bottom of the plane. We used one half of a joint compound bucket with sand paper. This produces a fairly gentle curve in the sole of the plane. After the curve has been added, you can cut the plane with a band saw to the desired shape and then ease edges and clean up. I made two during the course. The first was okay. The second one I spent more time and it worked great.
The final step in the course was to spile, cut and fit a plan to a lapstrake student boat. Although it may sound simple, the process requires many steps and I spent several months working on one plank. The first step in the process is to spile the plank, or pick up a template that you will then transfer to your actual plank. The plank was made of coastal fir and was vertical grained, but a bit swirly in places. The process of transferring the lines from your template to the plank is fairly straight forward. The template is cut a bit smaller than the full size plank. When the template is on the boat you take a protector and place the tip on the top of the gain from the previous plank at a given station ( or mold ) and then outline a half circle onto the plank. ( The diameter of the circle is arbritary, it is just important that you keep track of the exact diameter somewhere on your template ). You do this at every station on both the previous plank and the line of your own plank. After you have these lines you simply lay this template over your plank piece and take your protractor, and transfer these marks on the plank by placing the protractor on two points, ninety degrees to each other on the half circle of the template. Once the point have been transferred I cut out the fir plank, planed to my lines and test fitted on the boat. Next is the process of adding gains so that the plank is able to lay onto the previous plan and receive the next one.
I immensely enjoyed my time working at the school and learning both the hand skills, planning and theoretical side of boatbuilding.