Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Stich, Glue, Row your Boat...

In May this year, the VERVE: Need / Make / Use project embarked on one of its most ambitious public workshops yet. Under the guidance of expert local woodcarver and shipbuilder Simon Clements, the vision was to build a small fleet of “water-worthy” Nessmuk canoes in just four days!

They did it!  Four days, eight boats, and eight wannabe canoeists.
© Pitt Rivers Museum

The Nessmuk is one of a family of lightweight, stitched vessels found in the Northeastern Woodland areas of USA and Canada, used by the Algonquian-speaking peoples of the Great Lakes and east to the coast. Traditionally made out of birch-bark around a wooden frame, they are remarkably stable, dry and light to carry. They were the water-going equivalent of an SUV, used for everything from transport to fishing to hunting, and are still used today. As part of VERVE the boats displayed high up at the back of the Museum were cleaned, re-lit and re-positioned. These incude a 20-ft long canoe from eastern Canada made out of a single piece of birch-bark, sealed with resin, and more than 150 years old.
Birch-bark canoe, Canada PRM 1886.1.864 .1 © Pitt Rivers Museum

Simon Clements and Dr Laura Peers, the Museum's Curator for the Americas,
discuss function and construction with model North American canoes
© Pitt Rivers Museum

The VERVE project aims to re-connect people with the skills and crafts inherent in the collections  - not just to learn about them, but to have a go themselves. Due to time and space, we had to limit places on the workshop to just eight places, and we were soon oversubscribed. Simon came up with a programme that would enable the participants – some of whom had no prior knowledge of either boats or woodwork – to construct their own canoe from a single piece of plywood to take away. 
We're looking forward to releasing a film about this workshop soon. Here, though, we hear from three who took part – Jane tells how her boat ended up in her bed, Pete recounts what happened afterwards when he went home to paint it and test it on the river, and Darina - a marine archaeologist - came all the way from Ireland...

Jane says:

"Museums have changed a lot since I was a child in the 1960s. I remember being towed along by my mother through large and unwelcoming buildings; they had the feel of a library or church where you had be quite and reverent. Today, more people are visiting museums than ever and new ideas bring new people through the doors.
"I congratulate Pitt Rivers on its best idea yet, one which would have been hardly feasible in the dusty old days. I felt this was the best course I had ever been on. Simon was a brilliant instructor and not only taught us how to build a canoe from scratch, but also the history of canoe building and how to identify different types. Here was a teacher who was first rate and described every tiny detail.
"It's hard to believe that the canoe came from a flat piece of wood. The wood was called tortured ply, and it lived up to its name by making the most unpleasant noises when bent by hand. We worked in pairs and were lucky to be among such a nice group of people sharing a real sense of comradeship. 
"What I liked the most was that the boat was cut from a single template; bent, cut with hand-saws, then held together with recycled wire. Simon taught us how to strip old electrical cable to get the copper wire out. Many museum staff wandered into the workshop and were impressed with to see the progression of the boats over the four days.
"I have called my boat ‘Nigel Havers’, as I am a fan of his. However, as I no longer have a shed, I have to keep Nigel in my car, then move him to my bed when I need to use the car! When I finish sanding and painting the boat, I plan to sail off with Nigel Havers into the sunset; kind of a dream come true really."
Does Nigel Havers look as good as this? Photo: Simon Clements

Pete says:

"As promised to myself, I went straight home with the canoe with a goal of trying to finish everything that weekend. So via a trip to Wickes on Friday night I managed to get the whole boat painted on the that night with the aluminium paint that was recommended. The paint was thin and easy to work with and went on fine and dried very quickly. 
Epoxy magic © Pitt Rivers Museum

"The next day I screwed on the small "breast plates" triangles at either end which was quite fiddly and then glued on the outer rail using epoxy and screwed it in for good measure. I used a bit of epoxy and woodchip as a filler for any small gaps. This was all a little tricky and took a lot longer than I expected. With hindsight I'm not sure I got the right ratio in the epoxy mix exactly right...

Same day, I painted the whole thing with a thick exterior gloss paint I had lying around - a nice burgundy colour - that the kids - unprompted - thought was pretty nice.

The next day I was hoping to take it out but alas the gloss paint took nearly a week to dry properly. The last task was to screw in the rather large back rest / thwart (with a dollop of epoxy glue for good measure). I decided in the end to go for something fairly chunky so it could act as a back support. The very last things to do was to put some wood protection varnish on all the exposed wood. I also stuck a little chrome ring for a rope on the front peak. All this took a few days to go totally hard. 

So finally, last week, I took the canoe out for a quick test paddle with my 11 year-old son at Sandford-on-Thames. The boat was OK for me but as a heavy six footer, it felt like it was very low in the water though still perfectly safe on flat water. As with any canoe, getting your body gently balanced is the first challenge - always a bit shaky in the first few moments as you settle and distribute the weight correctly. My first impression was how unbelievably fast the canoe is, and how easy it is to manoeuvre.  Next my son had a go. He took to it with no problems at all and the waterline didn't even go past the side cut. He was zooming about on a very still river.

"We spent a good two hours in the canoe on Sunday pottering down the Thames. The speed of the little Nessmuk is unbelievable, it's so light it doesn't need much force to move. It's perfect for my kids and its light weight means they can drag it to the water from the car, and paddling doesn't seem to exhaust them as much as a big canoe. 

"The canoe's been bumped about a little over three trips and everything is still totally rock solid.  I'll probably put on a second coat of gloss in at the end of the summer, and I'm definitely going to make another, probably using two sheets to create a longer canoe!

"So what new tricks did I learn from the workshop?
  • Working with Epoxy and copper ties - Absolutely eyeopener for me - I was always nervous of using such a strong chemical but with tuition it just needs a bit of care, planning and timing
  • Japanese saws - I didn't realise how good these tools are. Much more sensitive and responsive than any saw I've ever used.
  • Manipulating the plywood into a tortured shape - this felt really creative and something that you cann't pickup from reading books.
  • Weight is everything - the canoe is so light that you are much more likely to use it."

Sawing, 'stitching', glueing and sanding. Photos: Alistair Orr

Darina says:

"As a maritime archaeologist I have been collecting data on skin boats for years and I have also been looking at similar ancient technologies such as bark canoes. A friend who works for the Oxford University Press contacted me and told me that there was a course at Pitt Rivers Museum that was “made for me”. Applying for the course was a simple on-line process and there was excellent follow up informative emails before and after the course from the Museum staff. 
Simon talking about paddled craft in the Museum
"We had a good introduction from Simon in the morning and while we were using modern materials the similarities to traditional stitched bark canoes and other boats was emphasised. Simons was not only a great and patient teacher but his enthusiasm for all paddled craft was infectious. I had not expected to get so much information on traditional craft and I was delighted with the constant references to the stitched boats of the Americas.
"I have always been fascinated on how flat materials can be turned into things of three-dimensional beauty that can float. While everyone got a finished canoe to take home, I think my main outcome was finding out the so much more information on stitched bark canoes of the Americas including their propulsion methods. Also, for me, doing the course in the environment of the Pitt Rivers Museum with their unique collection of ethnographic material was an extraordinary opportunity. Thank you to all the extremely helpful staff for such an enjoyable week and experience."

Thanks again to Simon and all who took part. In June, a grand launch of some of the boats was held at Port Meadow so watch this space for film footage of the results!

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