When we were very young, and wished to give wings and magic to our skiffs, we'd go deep into a spruce swamp to find a tree that had died standing. Trim off the small dead limbs, smooth it with a drawknife, keep the taper that came naturally, maybe fi t a sheave at the top for a halyard, step it in a hole in the forward thwart, fit it with some kind of sail (made from a discarded bedsheet or a painter's drop cloth)—and the winds of Heaven were our companions in a glorious voyage to the Happy-Isles. These were four miles (and half the World away) downwind. If the tide didn't favor, we might have to row a spell on the return voyage. It was worth it. That little spar was the ultimate key to romance and adventure.
Now, some 60-odd years and perhaps 400 spars later, the same feeling flows from a new one, half-shaped on the bench. We've learned ways to build it to any size or shape we want, and we can make it lighter in weight, more enduring in the frost and fog and heat of the sun; but we haven't improved its purity of form and purpose. It's still a fine, natural thing that, aspires to the clouds.
(And do you remember Herman Melville's most beautiful spar in all the world? I think her name was Favaway, and she lived in the Vale of Typee. She stood in the bow of his canoe and spread her raiment to the benevolent trade-
wind, and they sailed across the lagoon with no thoughts of the evil in a great white whale.)
I suppose I should say something about materials for wooden spars, even if I thereby damn myself as one grateful for second best. I have known men who, despairing of getting Sitka spruce, have given up the whole project as impossible. I have small sympathy for them. They'd as well starve in the presence of food too plain for their educated taste—which is to say that you can make splendid spars of slow-grown Douglas-fir, Eastern spruce, and dozens of other woods around the world. Elijah Kel-logg's fisher boys stepped hemlock masts in their Chebacco boat, and I think some of the Block Island cowhorns, like the fabled/?oaring Bessie, sailed with natural unstayed cedar masts from Block Island's Great Swamp.
Back in the '80s, when we first learned about box-section masts and casein glue, we could buy, at the local lumberyard, a clear fir timber 6 inches by 8 inches by 26 feet long. We'd slice it, painfully, on the big table saw, scarf and taper the four staves, and glue them together. This was long before epoxy, even before resorcinol glue, but the joints still held—and so far as I know, are still holding in some of those masts, now nearly 50 years old. And we learned (or thought we did; answers came more easilv and less dustv in that fresh j /
dawn) that if you had enough spruce and glue figure 18-1 Taper in a solid spar
and clamps and time, you could build a spar that would reach the moon.
But until the great breakthrough, which happened less than a hundred years ago, mastmaking was not much more complicated in theory and practice than that foray into the swamp to find a tree. If the mast was to be free-standing, as in a catboat, you kept the taper of the grown stick and cheerfully accepted a very loose fit of the gaff jaws when the sail was hoisted. If the vessel was a sloop with shrouds, and reason told vou that the mast was now a
strut in pure compression, you still knewr that constant taper saved weight aloft and certainly looked better. (And furthermore, you avoided with clear conscience the tedious and painful job of squaring and re-rounding a bigger trunk.) I went through all this—with broad-axe, draw knife, spar planes, special soft fillers for the inevitable deep checks—until I discovered that I could buy a square timber of Douglas-fir, perfectly clear, cut from outside the heart of the tree, in almost any size I might want. Of course, the price was shocking—as much as 10 cents per board foot on the wharf in Portland—but even I could see that life was simpler, the end result, better, if I needed only to taper and round this precise piece of heart-free timber.
This is how it's done—on a solid or hollow mast, the loom of an oar, a handle for a boat-hook, or a flagpole for the front lawn—in progressive steps, as follows:
First, taper the end or ends exactly to the dimensions given, exactly square at all points. (On most spars, such as masts for a jib-headed rig, and for booms and gaffs, the side next to the sail should be kept straight, with all the tapering done on the other three. Elementary, of course.) You'll mark for these taper cuts (with an honest batten) on the top face of your timber, as shown in Figure 18-1, and make precisely plumb cuts with bandsaw or tablesaw— or with portable power saw or even an axe and an adze, if the timber is too big to be brought to the mill. Turn it, then, 90 degrees and make the remaining cut or cuts, always remembering the need to keep all cross sections exactly square. Any sloppy work at. this stage will persist to the end of the job; you'll have lost control, and the final product will be something less than perfect.. (And don't roll self-righteous calipers around a spar that I shaped last year. My hand slipped.)
Slabs are removed with plumb cut (this is why the sides are not laid out for taper on the first marking).
Side slabs removed
Mast stave is flipped and the taper is applied to the former side face.
Side slabs removed
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