What does it take to build a lapstrake? Novices find out in Seattle boat building workshops

The Center for Wooden Boats, tucked in the southern tip of Seattle's Lake Union, caters to people ``who are dying to get their hands on old-fashioned hand tools and build something,'' says founder Dick Wagner. Just outside his small office is the center's main room, dominated by a 19-foot rowing boat resting on braces. The product of one of the center's boat building workshops, it's constructed in the traditional lapstrake style that dates back to the Vikings, with hull planking overlapped in a shingling fashion. Overhead, antique wooden canoes rest on rafters. Outdoors, rentable skiffs nestle against floating boardwalks. In fact, the whole center is afloat, a replica of the lakeshore boat liveries of 70 or 80 years ago.

A few times each year, varied groups -- schoolteachers, executives, pilots, carpenters, whoever -- meet here to fulfil that yearning to build mentioned by Mr. Wagner. They join in one of the workshops, under the tutelage of a master craftsman like Simon Watts from San Francisco. On average, the boat building sessions last a week -- days filled to the gunwales with measuring, sawing, clamping, steam bending, clinch nailing, and other tasks required to shape a vessel.

The work can go 10 or 12 hours at a stretch, but no one complains. The consensus seems to be that those hours spent breathing sawdust and wielding tools aboard the center's floating headquarters merge into ``one of the best experiences'' of their lives, as retired teacher Gary Cassel from Spokane, Wash., put it.

Mr. Cassel participated in the seven-member workshop that built the rowing boat. Other classes have built lapstrake prams (square-ended boats) and Chamberlain dories (as in the accompanying pictures).

``Having taken that workshop,'' says Cassel, ``I feel I could look at a set of plans for any lapstrake boat and build it.'' Apart from the techniques learned, the workshop was a study in good teamwork, he adds. ``We all got along famously.''

John Elliott, a computer consultant from Mercer Island, Wash., heartily seconds that.

He also recalls feeling ``some sort of kinship with the past,'' discovering ``just how intuitive this particular style of boat building was. In the machine age we're in, we marvel at how people 1,000 years ago could have built the boats that carried the Vikings across the sea. After doing it with our own hands, we understand how it could have been done.''

While he does some woodworking at home, the boat building stint was a sharp break from the normal for Mr. Elliott.

``My wife got it [the workshop] for me for a Christmas present,'' he says with a chuckle, noting he's grateful she did. It was the type of experience, he observes, that nudges you ``into doing something you know you can do. You're told it'll come together and you find that in fact it does.''

A third workshop participant, David Caslick, an Air Force pilot from Marylhurst, Ore., emphasizes the feeling of preserving a tradition.

``It further deepened my appreciation for the histori cal aspect of boating, how important it was to this country through the 19th century, both for commerce and recreation,'' he says.

That tradition is clearly what Dick Wagner had in mind when he established the center a decade ago. It was to be a ``working museum,'' a place where people experience history by doing more than looking. The workshop participants ``are living history when they're building a boat,'' says Wagner. And the end result is a thing of beauty, he adds, something that fiberglass or metal can't hold a candle to, in his view.

In a recent copy of ``Shavings,'' the center's publication, Wagner noted that classes in building wooden boats are now held in a number of other locations in the Northwest and in Maine, often in the context of professional training.

He explains that such schools are ``a new phenomenon,'' and that each operates a little differently, following its own ``instincts.'' What distinguishes the Center for Wooden Boats, he says, is its emphasis on giving the novice -- the ``desk-bound bureaucrat,'' as Wagner puts it -- a shot at creating a vessel.

People sometimes come from afar to attend workshops at the center. Wagner ticks off Alaska, Oregon, California, and Colorado as places participants have hailed from. He also mentions a recent call from a woman in Des Moines, who wanted some more information and proclaimed, ``I'm signing my husband up!''

Boat building workshops, which run around $300 per person, are one type of activity sponsored by the center. It also holds instructional sessions on sand-casting, oarmaking, boat restoration, and other skills, as well as boat auctions.

The Center for Wooden Boats is located at 1010 Valley Street, Seattle, Wash. 98109.

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