In 1808 Thomas Jefferson wanted a comfortable chair to rest his aging body. He ordered three Campeachy chairs from New Orleans. The chairs were sent by the most efficient and speedy means of the day: by ship. Unfortunately, the ship was lost at sea. Years later another order was placed, the ship arrived in Richmond, Virginia and Jefferson had his Campeachy chairs (or as we know them Campeche chairs).
From the earliest days of the American colonies carpenters, sawyers, shipwrights and other craftsmen were recruited from Britain and other parts of Europe to build everything for the new settlements. Ships of all sizes were needed to move goods and passengers along the coastline, along rivers and bays. Major coastal and river cities, smaller settlements and plantations all had shipyards to build and repair all manner of boats.
All the shipbuilding tools should be familiar to the modern shipwright or any woodworker. It is thought that when Ake Ralamb started out publishing his scientific encyclopedia he was not saying these tools are new, rather these are the tools that have been traditionally used for shipbuilding.
Masts were generally made at a separate site from the shipyard and required another set of tools. The complexity of the construction depended on whether or not the mast was made using a single stick.
Here is an excerpt on making a single stick mast from ‘Masting, Mast-making and Rigging of Ships- Ninth Edition’ by Robert Kipping, 1864:
If you find that hard to follow, Charles Desmond’s ‘Wooden Ship-Building’ from 1919 has a simplified description of making a spar by essentially the same method:
“The spar is first worked to shape by hewing in the manner shown [1.]
…and when this has been done, and the stick is fair, the sparmaker dubs off the square corners and makes portion of the stick that has to be rounded eight sided. Next he makes it sixteen sided, by again taking off the corners, and after this has been done the stick is rounded and made perfectly smooth [2.]
Of course as a spar has a rounded taper from butt to point of greatest diameter, and from this point to top, it is necessary that sparmaker “lay on” longitudinal taper lines very accurately and work them.”
If the tree procured for a mast was examined and found not sound, or as the supply of massive mast trees was exhausted, another method was used to make masts. As Robert Kipping phrased it in his treatise, “They [the masts] are therefore composed of several pieces united into one body…seems to fulfill the old adage of “a bundle of sticks that could not be broken when so united.”
The Library of Congress has a short article on the history of the old (and very long) Mast House at the Norfolk Navy Yard. The description of composite mast fabrication using coaks (scarf joints) begins on page 5 and you can find it here.
When our waterfronts were crowded with sailing ships and the wooden masts and yards swayed as though blown by the wind the oft-used “a forest of masts” was a fitting description. Although there aren’t as many wooden ships on the water they are still made, and with tools and methods that haven’t changed much in the last few centuries.