Editor’s note: The role of Christopher Columbus in bringing violence, slavery, forced religious conversion, and disease to the Americas is not something to celebrate. This piece focuses on the technical aspects of his ships and their journey.
There is no field of woodworking that puts wood – our material of celebration and choice, to the most extremes of tests, use, and abuse, as in the discipline of boat building. While wood in buildings and bridges need to carry the load and often protect the structure from the penetration of water from above, in traditional boat structures wood needs to withhold everything together, repel water from all directions and persevere blows and immense forces that are levied at it from all sides.
The art of making a boat from wood had been perfected over the centuries and reached its pinnacle moment in the 19th century. The talented men (these days we can also see women joining in) that design and construct tall ships had phenomenal knowledge about wood species, what are the most adequate ways to incorporate them in the boat, and how to bring them together in a dependable manner to ensure that the ship is sound throughout the many years it will spend at sea.
In the age of sail, a ship would have been constructed from different types of wood for each of its components. A strong, yet flexible wood, such as Live Oak for the keel, tall and straight Longleaf pine for the masts, teak for the deck plankings, lots of rot-resistant mahogany all over the place, and insanely hard and erosion resistant Lignum vita for pulley blocks.
I have always been fascinated by ships, their struggle through tempests, and their perseverance against the elements. And there are perhaps no more famous ships in the Western world than those of Christopher Columbus. The story of the three little vessels, led by a voyager who was convinced that he is destined to find China and India across the unknown Atlantic ocean is quite an achievement. Just the sheer technological feat of the Italian-born explorer who navigated kept the ships afloat, and found the way back to the old world, is worthy of examination. And then, from a woodworker’s perspective, there are the fascinating details about the Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria and the arduous tests at sea that they and their wooden body had to withstand.
Here is a 2006 documentary by WGBH on the life and travels of Christopher Columbus.
And in this video, we visit a replica of the Santa Maria at Erie’s Tall Ship Festival.
The YouTube sphere is filled with beautiful videos that showcase the ways in which traditional wooden boats are built. Since I watch and subscribe to a few of these channels I thought that it might be interesting to highlight the Sampson Boat Co. channel. This is the brainchild of Leo Sampson Goolden, a boatbuilder, sailor, and writer from Bristol, England, who is restoring/reconstructing a beautiful yacht name Tally Ho in Port Townsend, Washington. Leo and a group of boat enthusiasts have been toiling on this magnificent project for more than three years now. Throughout this reconstruction voyage, this group of men and women have conducted remarkable research, forded immense fabrication challenges, and had to collaborate with craftspeople from near and far. They had to rediscover construction techniques that have been long forgotten and overcome immense difficulties. There is a lot to learn by watching the episodes, not just about woodworking, but also about metalworking and bronze casting and other elements of the long-forgotten trades that denoted an area of human achievements. Thankfully we have Leo Sampson Goolden and his dedicated supporters who preserve these past treasures and pass them on via the digital media to the next generations.
Please enjoy this digital voyage.
Tally Ho reborn Chapter one:
And here is a link to one of the most recent videos that show lots of heavy lifting woodworking and the final stages of constructing a massive Scarf joint.
Here are some supplies and tools we find essential in our everyday work around the shop. We may receive a commission from sales referred by our links; however, we have carefully selected these products for their usefulness and quality.