James Chandler and Eric McIntyre
Here in Arcadia we are coming to the middle of our semester. Days are getting shorter, the lake is becoming colder, and leaves are turning the most shocking yellows and vibrant, crimson reds that we have ever seen. As we arrive at the end of summer and enter into autumn, so too we wrap up our first course in woodworking.
For the last six weeks we worked with Adirondack boat builder Everett Smith. He gave us an introduction to the histories of boat building, wood working, and paddle making in this region of the world. At the start of each week we have canoed across Lake Massawepie to an old lodge on the Boy Scout land where we worked for three hours. On our first day, Everett presented to us some of his own hand crafted canoe paddles gathered from yard sales, private family collections, and his own woodshop. The following week we selected from several types of wood including spruce, butternut, maple, and cherry. After testing Everett’s canoe paddles in the lake, we designed the shapes for the paddles we would spend the next month crafting.
Over the last four weeks we have learned to use hand tools of all kinds to shape and carve our projects. The only power tool to be seen was a band saw used to cut the rough shapes we had created. Otherwise we rummaged through the stock of tools available to us, searching for the proper blade to match the job we wanted to do that day: a scrub plane for the blade of a canoe paddle, a block plane, and a cabinet scraper too. For the shaft various spoke shaves were gathered. On the top grip, a rasp and hand chisels could make us any shape we could dream up. Certainly each tool brought with it a new learning curve, but Everett guided us through every set of new techniques.
With a plane you have to get your blade set just right. Too deep and you’ll gouge the wood; too shallow and you’re wasting valuable time. Cabinet scrapes, a small rectangular sheet of steel filed to a burr edge, must be kept sharp and ready. Spoke shaves are hard to control, and on the shaft you will be doing risky work. Check frequently to be sure the wood is still as straight as a pin. Use a chisel to find the rough form of your upper grip. Tap lightly, though, with the mallet. If you work too quickly you are likely to cut deep and make a weak point. For a smooth, even and symmetrical shape take a rasp and round off the rough spots.
Once the job is done with hand tools there are still hours of sanding to be done. Most of us have not quite finished all the steps to shape our canoe paddles. Everett will return for one more day later in the semester to help us with stains, oil, and finishing coats.
Beyond the practical skills gained from cutting and shaving wood, our time spent with Everett showed us what life is like for the people of the Adirondack Park who make a living by working with their hands and natural materials. Out here at Arcadia there are trees all around us; their trunks and branches tower high above our village. For having gone through Everett’s lessons, we feel we know them and their stories a little better.
With forest love,
Wolfie and Macadamia Nut