The Scratch Built Collection

The Whaleboat

Frigate Under Glass
Boats of Hell's Kitchen
The Votive
The Honey Fitz
Higgins Boat
Da Vinci's Dilemma


                    By Dean A Beeman

                                             Copyright 2014 All Rights Reserved

Available as a download:


If this is your first attempt at building a wooden ship model, then time well spent will include reading the text and deciding if building a boat from blank pieces of wood is a good way to relax and enjoy life.


In order to enjoy building a wooden ship model you will need a few tools, some patience, a little experience with various woods, glues and paints, but most of all an appreciation for what a particular model represents. Most available kits will fill you in on most of that. Whether you start with a four-foot man-of-war or a ship- in- a-bottle, you will eventually get to the point of scratch-building or you won’t. A kit is a good (and probably the only) place to start. You may want to finish at least one kit first.


Please note the word finish. Based on my experience there are many more unopened and abandoned kits (dollhouses, airplanes and ships) than builders. Completing any model lands you in rare company.


This may be the time to point out that a wooden model is quite different from a plastic model. On this boat we are conveying a sense of the original without the detail that is possible using modern plastics. So while a plastic or other molded model should be created with the same detail as the original, the objective here is to capture the original as interpreted by a model builder. There are a fair number of closet plastic modelers who attempt the same precision with wood, thus creating a wooden interpretation of a plastic model. All kits and commercially- built models fall into this same paint-by-numbers chasm.


This model could be completed in less than a week or more than a month with the same level of quality. But whenever I feel the urge to hurry and finish a model I just walk away from it for a few days. Speeding up the process is like flying home in the middle of a cruise- you get there but miss half the fun.


A text reference that would be very helpful if you can find a copy:

"The Whaleboat: A Study of Design Construction and Use from 1850 to 1970", Willits D. Ansel, Mystic Seaport Museum, C. 1978). This is the definitive text for this model, and will allow any builder to base a model on all the details of a particular design or incorporate many differing details on one model. It covers the historical periods and design basics in a simple text with  many drawings.

While I will be using that text to build this boat, you'll see as we go along that all of the schematics and photos will be provided from scratch..

These and many other authors acknowledge sections of the original documentation on the subject by George Brown Goode, "The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States", (7 volumes), Washington, 1887. If you look closely at the model on the title page, you'll see a drawing beneath the model. That drawing is a direct copy from the Goode text, and is a classic. It lays out an entire whaleboat in detail. In order for you to read it on a web page I cut it into 3 sections, and included the original footnotes:




A problem with the history of the whaleboat (and much of all history for that matter) is that the engineering documentation was carried in the heads of the builders and sailors, dying with them: there were as many variations as there were men. As a universal guide we can only rely on good hard speculation and common sense. So as we construct the model I will present some alternatives. These are limited by my research and experience so they should be expanded and improved by yours.


This model is primarily based on the Beetle boat drawn to scale by R.C. Allyn (Ansel,  pp. 133-135). This was chosen because lifting the dimensions directly from the drawing results in a scale of 10mm=1 foot, or a 12-inch model. Since I plan to display the model together with others ranging in size from inches to feet, a large whaleboat would have seemed out of place. The chosen scale will fit in nicely with my fleet. I will provide sketches that correspond to what I am using.


Escaping the necessary confines of a kit in this or any model allows a builder to experience many of the same types of choices and problems faced by the original boatwright, as we shall see.




Whaling, like any enterprise based on sailing ships, was a risky business. One way to minimize the risk was to spread it over a number of smaller investments, and that was whaling’s business model. The most attractive ship would have been a worn-out merchantman and the most attractive crew would have been men who had no other choice. The whaleboat, like rope and canvas, was a necessary cost of business that had to be minimized.  Boats are carried on ships, but unlike the ships, the whaleboat was a major contributor to a set of design principles and construction methods that are being employed today to build a variety of seemingly high tech boats, not to mention such things as airplanes and nuclear submarines.


The speed and maneuverability of the whaleboat were noted in detail by the Royal Navy, following a couple of wars that did not go well for them. By then the British had a proud history of constructing their warships based on very detailed scale models approved by the Admiralty. It is not difficult to surmise that all boatwrights (and shipwrights) patterned their molds and boats based on this practice. (Ironically, many of the original scale models can be visited at the US Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis. The Rogers Collection, as it is known, is the standard to which any ship model may be compared.) 


Until the Industrial Revolution, lubricants were simply not needed. Wooden axles were greased with animal fat, but as steel replaced wood and moving parts became complex, whale oil became a necessity. Baleen, used in such things as corsets and collar stays, and sperm oil, used as a lighting substitute for camphor, are often cited as excesses that led to whaling. But mills, railroads and printing presses evolved as better and cheaper lubricants evolved.


Unchanged by historical necessity is the fact that there has never been a humane way to kill a whale. This text is not the platform to expand on that point. Once stated, let’s get on with the evolution of the boat.


Whaleboats were hybrids, based on early Mediterranean theory, with a nod to the skin-on-frame of the Aleut whalers and bark-on-frame of some Native Americans. Whether you choose one or none of these as its precursor, you will recognize the whaleboat concepts in quite a few 21st century boats and other modern designs.


Most sailing ships enjoy a carvel, or smooth hull, so that they glide through water with the least resistance (turbulence). Most smaller boats are lapstrake, or formed by overlapping the hull components (strakes) to achieve the greatest strength with the least material. The whaleboat is also a hybrid in this sense.

 A convenient way to think about the light weight and strength of the boat is to imagine that it was woven, much like cloth, with light horizontal and vertical components coming together to form a very strong (wooden) whole.


The 20-man crew of the main whaling ship (mothership) consisted of a captain (master), a handful of petty officers and a crew. Most of the petty officers were apprentice captains, while most of the multinational crew signed on because that was the only work and food they could find (or in other cases a way of escaping from something or someone). At the end of the cruise, a crewman could have been paid a share of the income (lay), or wound up owing money to the owner (often the captain). Most crewmen, unlike Melville, were not in it for adventure. They believed, as did some authors, that whales were fish.


At the time of this whaleboat (1844 or so) there was considerable trade in guano (resulting in the Guano Islands Act) already established at the port of Callao, Peru. Whether they were avoiding another trip around Cape Horn or loath to return home, many crewmembers who hadn’t already jumped ship in places like Oahu did so in Peru, to the point of creating a minor diplomatic crisis. A barebones crew on the trip home was one way to maximize the captain’s share- a single barrel of whale oil on the dock ($2.50 per gallon and more) could easily have been traded for 20 barrels of decent whiskey ( 12 cents per gallon or less); baleen was often traded by the piece, and ambergris by the ounce.


The whaleboat, like its mothership, was a tool- once it wore out it was discarded or, more likely, traded for something on some atoll.  It was built with economy in mind- it had to be cheap, work well and, romance aside, keep a small crew alive so they could kill the next whale. It was built on an assembly line: if you substitute wood for metal and bend it rather than stamp it, the boatwright’s shop contained all of the elements of a modern automobile factory. (Of course you would have started with an upside-down body before adding the frame and engine.)


To put the model in perspective, from 1840-1849 well over 50,000 whales were killed by more than 700 whalers in the Pacific. (These were mostly right and more valuable sperm whales-the Atlantic right whales had been hunted to extinction by 1800. No sane sailors attempted going after blue whales- the specter of an annoyed 190-ton mammal bearing down at a speed of 30 mph would have been the common sense equivalent of gazing at a steam locomotive speeding toward your whaleboat as you sat on the tracks. The largest rhinoceros, by the way, weighs less than 5 tons.)


So this would have been one of more than 30,000 whaleboats turned out by assembly lines. Economic theory being what it is, these shops would have been located near raw materials (forests), parts production (sawmills) and customers (whaling ships). At this time in American history, New England was the only region that boasted all three.


Also at this time the forests would have been virgin, or first cut. White cedar trees (the main raw material) would have been about 40 feet tall, and their branches would have been concentrated toward the forest canopy, with few if any branches (knots) on the lower trunk. White cedar flourished on the alluvial plains (near the coastline), so in addition to it being a very good structural material, it was plentiful, easy to mill, and the trunks would have yielded clear (knot-free) planks.  Crotches, or burls, (where branches meet the trunk), were used to form the strongest boat parts (stems and knees). These and other parts might have been economical if produced by single-man mills, but as mass production drove out the small mills these natural components became man-made.

This boat would have been built at the earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution. Very few metal items were available at a reasonable cost, and items as simple as the wood screw might have been used on the finest furniture but not a boat or ship. Water, and to a lesser extent steam, powered relatively few machines and vehicles, so the whaleboat and its builders shared technologies that were centuries old. A high tech fastener on a whaleboat would have been a cut (flat) nail, and the most sturdy fastener would have been a copper rivet. 

These boats disappeared for the same reason as the first hamburger- they were constructed for a limited life, were consumed, and that’s that. Their documentation, like that of the ships, disappeared for the same reasons. The carpenters who built them took their skills and tools and employed them in more profitable ways- like building mansions for the whaling captains. So while it is interesting to speculate about details that went into any one boat, it is just as interesting to speculate about the people.

Much attention has been given to the Beetle boat since it is one of very few that can be documented. (And in fact, the Beetle families of boatwrights were also one of very few still engaged in variants of that business in the 20th century.) The construction of the whaleboat varied, often by boat, but a certain set of rituals and details evolved into what today would be called best practices.  

So as the boat is built we will use measurements, construction details and methods that are subject to inevitable, lively and pointless debate. This debate may be of some interest. Where history, science and common sense don’t completely harmonize I will side with history, vague as it may be, and common sense, whatever that may be.

On land, the most common forces are gravity and friction. On sailing ships these translate into pressure (water and air) and mechanical advantage (leverage). These will serve to explain just about every design aspect of the whaleboat as it is being built.

Fnally, a note on equifinality.

Equifinality can be thought of as a tool, a state of mind or an objective.  As you approach every aspect of scratch-built construction it’s always fun, and usually profitable, to think about what piece or part the boatwright studied, and how it was placed. If it seems that a departure from this or any other text is a good idea, then, by all means do it. The worst that can happen is that you had fun learning something from a disaster. The best that can happen is a better way to build a boat. These outcomes are equifinal.

So let’s begin.




Every model-building text starts with a tool description. I built my first scratch model using a machinist's rule, a razor blade, a hat pin and scraps of sandpaper. That model took awhile, and I've only added tools that fit what I needed. My advice is to read the text, figure out what tools might be handy, and buy them only if you feel you need them. What comes next is the result of many, many models, including the ones in this series..

While I started this series of books with a description of a set of tools for each model, the sets began to look very similar, so here are most of the things I use every day. ( In order left to right, top to bottom.)

The Workboard and Tools


Scrap Bins- one for short and one for long scraps. Indispensable.

Cord Box. In this assortment I have rigging cords that start at .008 all the way up through sewing thread, button thread and 48 pound hemp.

Clamp Box. In here you'll find wooden clothespins, adjustable bar clamps, bulldog clamps and paper clamps. Almost hidden in front of that are a couple of ship model planking clamps- I have many more, and they are very handy.

Sanding Wands. I'll describe these later. There are also some emery boards, a round, small wand and one scrap of many scraps of sandpaper.

Micro files. Sharp and broken-off round, plus the normal assortment. Very handy.

Fences. These are actually metal rulers, a machinist's rule and a machinist's square. All stainless steel, to stand up to the knife blades.

Loupe. Only handy if your eyesight is as bad as mine and the work is really tiny.(It will be tiny as we go along.)

Glues. CA gel, craft and waterproof wood glue (not interior carpenter's glue). Mandatory.

Template Bin and wire. All small templates, subassemblies and small parts I'm working with on a given model go in here or they'll get lost. We won't be using that much wire or brass rod..

Pin Board. This once was a piece of foam craft board that now has hat pins and various other pins that I use for marking, gluing, clamping and other things that I forget until I need a specific pin. Stuck into the side are sewing needles of various sizes- there is no logic to explain how they got there.

Scissors. Any sharp pair will do.

Step gauge. You can't see this too well, but this homemade gauge is cut (stepped off) in 1mm increments from 1-5mm. I have another one stepped off in 1/32nds. As you'll see when we stab-mark and cut thin strips of basswood these make the job simple and repeatable. If I know I'll be working in large increments like these, this is also how I measure and cut at the same time.

Tweezers. Large and small, and sooner or later you'll be filing the tips because they just don't work right until you do. The tape on a couple of these is to disable the locking feature- sometimes that feature is good, but the spring-loaded pair on the right is usually better.

Masking tape and Q-tips..

Rigging needles. I use two types- the "big eye" and the twisted steel beading needle. The beading needles are much easier to use on small diameter threads.

Saw (draw) blades. Fine (54 teeth per inch) and medium (40 teeth per inch). You'll need both.

Blade pack. I rarely use anything but X-ACTO #11  blades and I buy them in bulk. This pack of fifteen might last for years or for weeks.

Knives. I keep two of them on the table- the one on the left always has a clean, sharp blade, and the one on the right (red paint) always has a used, not-as-sharp blade for applying glue, breaking out pieces, cutting paper, etc.. The red one is the one I use when I know that I'm about to wreck a blade somehow.

French curves and pattern templates. The curves are indispensable.

Dividers- Map (rough) and student (fine). You can't transfer or repeat any measurement accurately and repeatedly without them.

Beeswax. Handy for preventing lint on cotton line, but indispensable for creating a release when gluing.

Forceps. I also use hemostats, but this is my go-to  pair.

Compass and Angle rule. Both very handy. Both are worthless for tiny angles and tiny circles.

Hand gouge (chisel). Indispensable for breaking glue joints, I keep this razor-sharp, because it comes in handy as a cutting/punch tool as well.

Rigging scissors. Cuticle scissors, suture-removal scissors and optical surgical scissors. Each is valuable for a particular rigging task.

Large tonail clipper. The flatter (or convex) the better.

Large T-square. For squaring cut card stock. We'll be using a lot of card stock, and I like to keep my scrap square.

Calipers. I still use the plastic one for very rough measurements, but a digital caliper spoils you for any other type.

Miniature linemen's pliers. Also a heavy wire/rod cutter. The flat face comes in very handy for breaking pieces away (mistakes) once the glue has set.

Pin Vises. I use the pair because I usually drill a pilot hole before I drill a finished hole. These have bit storage in the handles, so you can't see my drill bits. I suggest you start with a standard 20-bit set (#61-80, You'll quickly discover which ones you break, lose or otherwise need- buy a few of those at a time and store them in a secure place. In my case they're in the handles- one for 1mm and smaller and the other for larger.

Oriental (decorative) toothpicks. I forgot to put these on the table, along with bamboo skewers. Indispensable for gluing, making small parts, etc..

Paint Brushes. I didn't include my paint brush collection because it might depress you. I've cut off handles to make spars, used junk brushes to apply glue, and generally destroyed many of them. And you'll have to decide what brush material works best for you. I can say that you'll eventually need brushes down in the 00 range for detail work- in this case buy the best brush you can find. I have about 4 brushes that I care about, and the rest were purchased as sets ( and I probably kept one out of every set and wrecked the others).

The very small tools go into a large tackle box that also contains hundred of little gil-guys, pieces and parts. If it's very small or very large and isn't used often it goes there. Everything else goes into a rotating divided hexagonal thing that I found at a garage sale. Whatever it once was, it's perfect now.

Let's discuss the large sanding wands. I make these out of wooden paint stirring sticks (paddles). By applying contact cement to the stick and various (60,100,150 & 220) grits to the paddles I have an easy-to-find tool that is also handy for everyday use. Simply cut a piece of sandpaper to a slightly larger width than the stick, apply contact cement to the paper and the narrow and wide faces on one side of the paddle and when it's ready, fold the paper onto the sick. Use a sharp knife to trim the bare edges and put a different grit on the other two faces: this is now a huge emery board and a very accurate straight-surface and fairing sander. One paddle is for rough (60 & 100 grit) and the other (150 & 220) is for finished sanding.It will be a great loss if these paddles ever disappear.

At the extreme, these paddles are made from clear (knot-free) pine. They are very exact, well-made and free, but getting harder to find. (I'm guilt-free because of the small fortune I've spent on house paint.) They are very handy for drilling and other experiments- as a matter of fact I think it might be fun to build a complete model from a single paint paddle.

Note that the work board I use is about 18"x24" from a piece of scrap ¼ inch balsa-faced plywood (generally available at homestores).  It has a number of holes drilled through it that act as holding dogs, a cutting and clamping fence and has rounded corners. The balsa accepts things like pins and knife blades while the plywood ensures a flat and, when needed, rigid frame. (This board replaced my earlier one that I made from a sheet of birch veneer plywood. On that one I had glued (contact cement) a 1/8th balsa plank in front of the cutting fence. It worked well for about 20 years until I found the balsa-faced plywood.) If you look closely, you'll see that I've covered the area in front of the board with 1/64th aircraft plywood because it has gotten so chewed up.

A very important feature of any work board is that small cutting and clamping fence. Mine have either 90- or 45-degree angles cut into both ends and they're the right size for any number of cutting and clamping tasks that require a sturdy brace and guide. (The 90 is on the able. They are screwed-in from the back) The holding dogs (holes) elsewhere on the table are used when the fence is not the right size or shape- dowels or other things can be stuck into the holes to hold odd shapes or an entire model.

This size fits between the arms of a comfortable chair and goes wherever I feel like working- including outside on a nice day. Also, trying to work at a heavy traffic location like a dining table can be a domestic disaster unless you can move all of your work all at once.

And keep in mind that even the right or most expensive  tool might make the job easier, but not better.



For the whaleboat I'm cutting all of the basswood strips I need from 3" x 24" sheets.

Two (2) sheets of 1/32nd, one (1) sheet each of 1/16th, 1/8th and 3/16th basswood.

I'll also be cutting strips from a 6" x 8" sheet of 1/64th (aircraft) birch plywood.

Some (6) 9/128th dowels for the oarlocks.

One (1) 1/8th  x 1/16th mahogany strip

A bunch of .028x5/32nd (7mmx8mm) brass nails.

About 3 feet of  20-pound natural hemp.

About four (4) 3/32nd x 12" dowels.

A 1/32nd brass rod

And for the davits and blocks:

Two (2) ¼ x 3/16th  basswood strips cut from the sheet ( or bought as strips)

One (1) ¼ x 5/32nd strip of mahogany

Heavy (.03) black rigging cord

Finishing the model as best you can is more important than perfection.
 Any time I think that I could have built a better model I consider the first attempt to be a prototype. You can call it research, or any other name that allows you to live with imperfection. Until, of course, you have the tools and the experience to build the perfect whaleboat. Or not.               

The Mold

All boat builders (boatwrights) employ templates and forms (molds) - this is as true today as it was when the first log was hollowed out; some of these are more tangible than others. We’ll be using the mold as a tool- once built it may or may not have any future use. The dimensions for the mold are based on a copy of an Allyn drawing (Ansel, foldout p.133). If you are using a different drawing and set of dimensions, these can be scaled to fit. 
I am using drawings that are incorporated into the Ansel text. That book is out of print, and the Seaport Museum has no current plans for a reprint. So if Abe Books or another source can’t come up with a copy, the following drawings of the critical dimensions will probably suffice. The original was laid out on a 14 x 11 grid that will not reproduce, but if you apply the noted scale to however you decide to reproduce it, the dimensions of all of the parts will be correct. You will also have to adjust the port-starboard dimensions based on the width of the material used to construct your mold. The centerlines, sweep and sheer are very close to exact.


Whaleboat Scale Outline

The outline of the hull shape can be transferred onto a 3/16x3 basswood blank using tracing paper, a tracing wheel, or a large French curve (marked using adhesive tape). Once a thin pencil line is drawn, and the measurements checked against the original drawing, the hull outline can be roughly cut out and then sanded down to the outside edge of the lines. I started with a piece of  the 3/16th stock cut down to 2x13 inches, then rough cut and sanded to shape, with marked lines showing the top of the sheer strake (top of the hull) and the diagonals as drawn.

A note here on lines. No matter how you sharpen a pencil lead, a pencil line has width. On very small models a pencil line is unacceptably wide. On this size model it is good practice to mark a thin line, cut to the outside and sand toward the center of the line, test-fitting the piece as you go. Better yet, whenever possible, use a knife tip or hatpin as your marking tool. This may sound ridiculous unless you study the infinite care that model kit makers bestow on their pieces and parts.

While we’re at it, let’s also spend a minute on steaming. Wood is traditionally warped (bent) using steam to soften the fibers. Since you probably don’t have a steaming oven (pressure cooker) that is the right size for this model, one will be needed.
One alternative is to wrap the strakes and other pieces of wood in a very wet paper towel and microwave them on high for a couple of minutes or so- 21st century steaming. This is no more damaging to the microwave than making popcorn, but it may encourage some unwanted discussion. A steam iron might or might not work for the same reasons.

If you are blessed with hot tap water or can put a disposable pie pan on a stove, or have  a steam iron that is normally on you can steam any wood we're using. If it is hot to the touch it is probably hot enough.

If you are using a good water-based glue, wipe the wet (steamed) piece with a paper towel, apply glue and clamp it without letting the wood dry completely; the glue will leach into both edges of the joint. It’s always a good idea to let such a glue joint dry somewhat before starting or clamping the next adjacent joint. 

As we go there will be an area where the glue squeezes out of a seam or joint. On the outside, where finish-sanding is easy, a fingertip may be an OK cleanup tool. On the inside of the hull or in tight corners you will need to clean these off more or less completely before they dry, probably with a knife tip or a disliked paint brush.

Back to the task at hand.

Each of the mold sections (hull outline) is lifted from the drawing. Note that the curves are based on the numbered diagonals- #5 amidships (middle) and descending to the bow (front) and ascending to the stern (rear). Each mold section is composed of identical half-sections. Also note that the bottom edges of the mold sections lie above the drawing’s baseline- this reflects the slight curve of the keel.

This might be a good place to point out that nautical terms are very precise: at sea in a storm or a battle is not the best time for detailed discussions. Historically many new crewmen did not speak English (more likely Gaelic or Portuguese), so a nautical vocabulary of a few hundred words was much easier to grasp than an entire language.

Having said that, I have spent enough time at sea and sailing to know that when someone repeatedly assaults me with arcane nautical terms it’s time to practice being polite. (This also applies to trout flies and psychology.)

The descriptions that follow will hopefully side with the sensible (with parenthetic notes). 

The easiest way to transfer the drawing to the wood is by marking the extreme limits with a straight line and fitting a French curve to the drawing and then the wood. (I use adhesive tape to mark the outer limits of a curve and then trace the curve onto the wood between these points.) Using a divider here is painful but worthwhile.

The small mold pieces (to form the sides of the hull) can be marked, then rough-sawn (using a razor saw, a fret saw or any other small saw), and then held together and sanded down to the outside of the marked line. At dead center on each piece a line should be drawn from top to bottom, and using the outline piece; the width of the piece plus the central mold piece should exactly equal the section drawn on the paper plan.

Both mold pieces should be held together and sanded until they are as close to twins as you can make them. This symmetry is important to the lines and curves of the completed model. 

The 19th century boatwright would have used mold templates that were very similar to our mold sections. These would have been based on a master set of templates that were the heart of his craft and business, just as they are today in building a fiberglass yacht.

The waterline (sheer) mold. The pencil line on the wood represents the boat’s profile in one dimension (viewed from shore, or the sheer)- the curved pieces of the mold will conform to the shape of the hull at the various diagonal points laid out on the other (plan) schematic. You will note that I sliced off a section of the waterline profile so that the sheer mold could be lined up with the keel line. This is not necessary.

Once sanded, the mold pieces can be glued using the diagonal and sheer lines drawn on the outline piece. I chose to use diagonals 2-7, since the natural curve of the wood will cause the strakes (hull planks) to bow slightly, resulting in the curves where the first and last mold pieces are omitted. You may choose to add these.

Marking Sheer lines

Here the diagonals are being marked on the mold. These will be important, and should be marked on both sides, along with the bow and stern.

Completed Mold

The completed mold should look something like this. Some of the side sections were not trimmed exactly and some may appear slightly crooked. These and similar minor anomalies will not effect the finished model. This photo was taken long after the mold worked well and was set aside. This is testimony to the fact that in scratch building, as in the boatwright’s shop, you can compensate and correct as you go. 

The Spine (Stems and Keel)

To get close to a whale the boat had to run silently. Therefore the bow and stern were sharp, the sides were very smooth and the draft (depth) of the keel in the water was minimal. All to avoid turbulence. Thinking of a ship as an airplane is aerodynamically correct- they both move through their environments following well-established design rules. If you are in any doubt, compare the shape of a nuclear submarine with that of a passenger jet wing. Or consult NASA’s airfoil design drawings- they are based on the curves and dimensions developed from sailing ships well before NASA (and the USA) existed.

The bow and stern stems are so named because they were originally carved from tree-branch stems, making them very strong and graceful. The stems on this model are made by laminating thin strips of 1/32nd basswood.


To begin, rip (cut with the grain) four (4) 1/32nd strips of basswood, each 5mm x 8 inches long. Cut them in half, resulting in eight pieces each for the bow and stern. You don’t have to be fussy about the edges yet.


To cut multiple long strips like these I mark off the width on the first one, either locking the vernier caliper’s locking screw or using a step gauge. On one end I line up and stab a used #11 blade into the material. At the other end I stab the knife into the material on that line. Then I move a straightedge to rest against both blades and draw the knife lightly along the straightedge to mark the cut. This is a rip cut (with the grain) and very little pressure is needed to pull the blade a second time along the line, this time with or without the straightedge. Since this is very thin material one or two light cuts will usually do the job- if the wood doesn’t completely part after the second pass, bend it slightly and it will break off cleanly.


If the strip passes inspection I cut the same width into from something like a plastic lid (something easy to find when I need it). A simple step cut into one section works fine. The next time a repeated measurement is needed, cut another step next to the first one, and so on. Each cut-in step in this marking fence will eliminate using the caliper to measure that width. That's a single-width step gauge.

After any cut I usually run the sanding wand over the cut edge of the remaining material to maintain a clean and straight edge. Even if you are through cutting a particular set of pieces, it is helpful and less wasteful to keep the edges of the remaining material sharp and square for the next time you need it.

From the drawing, mark the keel location on the mold. This is the inner boundary of the stems. You will notice that there is plenty of room above the sheer line on the mold- since there will be a lot of pinning and unpinning as we go along, this allows plenty of room.

Steam half the pieces. (Soak them in hot water or use another method.)


For both woods, start at the top of the mold and drill a hole in one side near the end. Bend and press a scrap of .02 (1/64th or 20 gauge) rod into that hole. Bend the rod again to hold the end of the bent stem in place. Don’t worry about overlap at the ends. Repeat this clamping process about three times so that the stem can dry in place. Repeat these steps at the other end.


In the case of basswood, the sticks may break if the original tree wood was cut at an angle. To correct for this, use the razor saw to cut a series of very shallow kerfs (cuts that equal the width of the saw blade) on one edge of each strip. As you bend the wood, these kerfs should be facing the mold. These will disappear due to the pressure from the outer edge of the curve as the wood is bent.


If cutting kerfs doesn’t work you may have to bend the wood in steps. In this case, drill holes and place wire clamps close to the bending moment (fulcrum where the wood broke). Steam and bend the wood and clamp it at a less-severe curve (re-bend the wire clamps) and let it dry. Steam again, this time bending the wire to bring the wood closer to the mold. Repeat this process until the wood fits the mold without breaking.


After the stems are dry, pull the pins and remove the first stems from the mold. The stems should retain their shape exactly. If they don’t, re-steam, re-clamp and allow more drying time.


Apply wood glue to the mating (inside ) edges, press them to the mold under the brass wire. The wire should hold them in place and centered on the mold.


The stems should be snug against the mold. These pieces will overlap at both ends of the mold, and will be cut to fit.

Holding one end and then the other to the mold (bow and stern), sand a bevel onto both sides of the mold and bent piece, leaving about a 1/16th flat area in the middle of the bent piece (strip). The bevel angle should be about 30 degrees, but precision is not that important.
Now steam and glue another set of strips to the 1/16th flat area created in the previous step. This time apply glue to the 1/16th area and between the new strips. The angled area ( the area you sanded away) is called a rabbet- an angled groove that will accept the front and bottom edges of the strakes (pieces of the hull). When everything is dry, remove the built-up stems and compare them to the drawing- they should be very close.

Bow (or Stern) Stem

The bow stem. This step is difficult to visualize. Note that the stem itself( the bent strips) is too long at both ends. These will be cut to fit the keel and the bow chocks. The wire and quick clamps are to illustrate various ways to fasten things. Notice the angle sanded into the mold that carries onto the first section of the stem (where the strips meet the mold). When the next set of strips are glued and clamped on top these strips, the area that was sanded away becomes a rabbet, (a socket, or groove) . The hull planks (strakes) will nest in (fit into) this grooved area. A special plane was used by the boatwright to fashion a similar groove. This groove was and is also needed at the stern.

Start the keel by cutting a ¼ in wide strip from the remaining basswood slab, or use a length of 1/4x1/8 strip. It should be about ½ in longer than the keel length on the drawing.


On the wider edge mark the centerboard slot ends, and between those, mark a centerboard line down the middle. Using a 1/16th  drill bit, drill a series of holes along the centerboard line. Then, using the knife, cut out the wood between the holes. Keep cutting until you can slide a narrow piece of coarse sandpaper into the slot. Then sand out the rest of the holes until you have a straight and true 1/16th inch wide  centerboard slot.


Using the drawing and a French curve draw a line on the keel from about an 1/8th in. from the centerboard slot ends toward each end of the keel so that it that tapers to the width of the mold. Whittle or saw if you will, but you will eventually sand down to the marked lines. If you line up the centerboard slot on the center of the mold the keel should be symmetrical. The keel plays a large role in the eventual shape of the boat so take your time here to examine, measure and compare to the drawings.


Keel Layout

A blank strip marked for the keel, the joints with the bow and stern stems and the centerboard slot.


Once the keel looks right, mark the stems at the keel joint and cut the stems to create a scarf joint( a cut at a low-degree angle to maximize the face area to be glued). Then cut the corresponding joint in the keel, allowing yourself space on either end for sanding. You will be matching the keel to the stem, so lightly sand the keel joint until one and then the other stem joint fits when the keel rests on the mold. If one side if the joint is slightly raised this can be sanded away.

This is a good time to create a release on the mold. A release is a coating applied to a mold so that the material applied over it won’t stick to the mold when it is removed. That is how fiberglass boats are built. In our case, beeswax is a very effective release and will not be absorbed by the wood. You can also spray the mold with vegetable oil (also effective but not particularly elegant). I have also used scraps of canning paraffin. In any case, rub down the mold edges that might be subject to unintentional gluing. If in doubt rub down the whole thing. You may still have to break apart glue spatters, but not many. Remove the stems, rub down the mold, and replace the stems.

Apply a dot of glue to each scarf surface, drill pilot holes through the stems and keel (in the middle of the scarf) and pin the pieces so that they align. You can bend the wire to clamp the joint or hold the pinned joints in place using masking tape. When this assembly dries it can be removed and put back at will.

As we go along I will frequently “drill holes”. This sounds simple, but it is always a three-step process. Shorten this process at your peril.

First, stab a pin or divider point into the wood at the precise location of a hole. This is the center-punch. Model drills are somewhat pointed, but will wander and split wood unless they have a good spot to grab. So, once punched, drill a pilot (small) hole at that point. This serves as a guide hole for the final drill bit. The final hole can then be drilled using the correct (final) drill bit. If I am about to drill 2,000 holes in the planking of a large ship model or hanging a hinge on a door in my house I will follow this sequence.


Vertebrae (Garboard)

The garboard is the first strake of any hull. Some authors believe its name might derive from early Dutch. A more compelling derivation comes from early English when soldiers were using spears (gars). This resulted in the common name of the garfish.

The garboard is usually wider than other strakes because of the compound curves and angles that the wood must follow in order to join up with the keel, stems and side strakes. In actual building it was always cut, steamed and clamped and formed until it fit exactly into a rabbet that was planed(cut) into the stems and keel. Once fastened, the 5 components (2 garboards, keel and 2 stems) were the backbone of the boat.

For simplicity, the width of the garboard for the model can range from 5- 10mm. If anyone else wishes to question this dimension (or any other, for that matter), keep in mind that you and I are the boatwrights so that’s that. I’m using 10mm, but narrower is fine. All of the strakes, inclding the garboards, are ripped from a 1/32nd sheet.

Since our keel is one solid piece you may choose to carve or file away the garboard rabbet (on the keel) or not. In any case the garboard must be sanded at a clean (fair) angle where it joins the keel such that the keel would protrude slightly into the water (keeping the boat on its line) and into the boat (so that ribs can be fastened). To accomplish this I placed a length of beeswax-treated twine on the mold to achieve the spacing. This results in about 1/64th in  of the keel exposed( to the water) on each side and below the garboard.

A close approximation of the garboard’s curve at the bow and stern can be made using a paper template that is cut to the width of the garboard. By running a pencil tip along the rabbets that were created in the stems, the paper can be marked, cut, tested and cut again until it sits cleanly (with minor twisting) on the mold and into the groove in the stems. The length of the paper is not important- the wood will be measured, cut and sanded to fit.

Garboard and Blank

The starboard garboard, ready for tracing onto the port garboard blank. These should be pretty exact mirror images, and with a little sanding, fit very tightly to the keel and stems.

Now rip (cut lengthwise) two 10mm or so strips from the 1/32 basswood. Sand the edges lightly with the rough paper and run the edges between you thumb and forefinger. They should feel perfectly smooth- if not, continue to sand them using the entire length of the wand until they do. I prefer using the rough paper because it sets up microscopic grooves in the wood that tend to hold more glue.

Again, using the entire length of the wand, sand a bevel into the garboard edge where it will meet the keel. Keep at it until the garboard and keel fit together cleanly. Then trace the line from the piece of paper onto the garboard at the bow or stern.

Mark that end, (“B” ,bow or “S”,stern  is as good as any other). At that end of the garboard sand a much steeper angle into the part that meets the stem and, holding the garboard against the keel, press the garboard down. Sand and trial-fit that end until you are satisfied that the garboard fits into both stems and the keel. Place a reference mark that spans the garboard, keel and mold using a sharp pencil point or knife blade tip.

Using the same or different piece of paper repeat the tracing process at the other end. This time mark the end of the paper strip where it meets the mark you placed on the keel and/or mold. This will yield the exact length of the garboard. Cut, trim and sand that end, trial-fitting as you go.

If you flip the completed garboard onto the other side it should fit fairly closely. Trace out the other side and rough-cut the board, again noting bow or stern.

Back to the first garboard, it is time to glue and clamp. First, select your clamps. You may choose to use pins, masking tape or some other clamp that does the job. I'll be using hull clamps that are screwed into the mold and are very strong. (If you have built a plank–on-bulkhead model or two you already own these or you hate doing planking. Or both.)

Apply a bead of glue to the bevel edge of the garboard, place it and clamp it. Once it is completely dry repeat the fitting, sanding and gluing process on the other side.

When both sides are dry remove the hull from the mold and inspect it. It should be symmetrical with smooth lines. Up to this point and for the second strake the boat builder probably would have been working as we have, with the boat upside down: a comfortable working position. This is at odds with some texts, but given a choice that’s how I would have worked.

Garboards and Keel off the mold

The stems fitted to the keel, the keel slotted for the centerboard, and the garboards in place. It is taken off the mold to allow a critical inspection of its symmetry

The Skin (Strakes) 

The second strake (the garboard being the first), meets the garboard using a scarf(angled) joint. Some builders would have used battens at this point and some would not have.

First, cut six or so 5mm strips (strakes). These should be measured, cut and sanded like the garboard blanks. The later Beetle boat employed five side strakes- in order to match that you will need to cut the strips to a width of 4mm. As the builder it’s up to you. (I’m going with 5mm since this corresponds to 6 inches on actual scale.)


Sand the garboard edge to a shallow (scarf) angle, and sand a corresponding angle into a strake. Label one end and holding it tightly to the mold and garboard, draw a pencil line where it meets the stem. At this point you might start using the concave toenail clipper to cut the ends of the strakes, but however they are cut,  leave about 1/64th  outside the pencil line and sand the mold-side at a very slight angle so that the curve in the strake fits cleanly into the rabbet(groove) in the stem. Once you are satisfied with that end, mark a line (reference mark) at some point so that you can line up the strake with the garboard. Repeat the shaping process at the other end. Like the garboard-to-keel you should have a clean (fair) joint along the strake-garboard seam. Any tiny overlap will be sanded smooth..


A word on battens. A 19th century boatwright would have been astounded by the clean edges of the material we are using, and speechless if he found the same precision in dimension lumber at his local home store. His objective with a seam was to make sure the boat that had been drying (and shrinking) in the air during an outbound voyage would float when it first hit the water. Some land-based boats were easy- they were filled with water (or sunk) and when the seams swelled they were emptied out and good to go.


As a practical matter, joints found on most other ships and boats would not work nearly as well or be as strong as a batten, or an overlap joint. Joining (nailing) the batten to the strake created a seam that was much less prone to movement as the wood dried, and created a cavity at the strake seam that could be filled (stuffed) with various types of caulk(oakum). The batten did not add much strength to the boat until the ribs and ceiling were added (as we will do later), and  thin boat nails were driven through all four elements of the hull. When these were joined and braced with thwarts the boat was lightweight, very strong and very seaworthy. I’ll stop with the aircraft design analogy but it applies here, too.


On a ship model of this size the battens are optional because even on some Beetle boats they were omitted by design. In a model, the larger the model and (the thickness of the wood), the more risk of strakes spreading and cracking the glued seams. Battens are optional, and since they will be completely hidden by the ceiling (interior deck and sides of the boat), using them or not does not add or detract from the boat’s appearance. (I choose to omit.) Ansel provides a very good discussion of the alternatives.


Glue and clamp one side and then repeat on the other.

This same fabrication pattern will continue until all except the final side strakes are in place. On strakes 3-X  the upper strake may be slightly beveled so that it meets the lower strake cleanly. If you wish to accentuate the seam line to emphasize your stick-built construction skills, don’t bevel and don’t completely sand the seams smooth. Remember the builder’s use of caulk.

As you continue up the hull you will notice that while the earlier twist stresses were at the bow and stern those areas become flat. Amidships the strakes are being forced into latitudinal stress (they want to remain straight instead of curving). If you aren’t using planking clamps you will need something like miniature c-clamps to maintain the bending force. Always clamp or apply pressure on the mold, not the previous joints.

For the strakes that curve around the sharp angles on the mold, a cupping will set up the angle for the sheer strakes. For this model, this can be achieved by steaming the final strakes, and then clamping them with clothespins to a round #2 pencil or other small-diameter tube. The round inner curve on the clothespin will match the curve of the pencil nicely. This curve need only be formed on the midsection of the strake, about ¼ of the way in from either end. When placed on the mold this curve should closely fit the curve of the mold at that point.

Strake curves steamed and being bent

Cupping the strakes. This cup in the wood will allow the strakes to more closely follow the curves of the mold. As you will see, these and all the other strakes will be formed in final fashion after all have been fitted and glued.

Once the final flush strake is in place and fully dried, remove the hull from the mold. Any glue joints that might have set against the release will easily break with a tiny bit of blade-tip pressure.


I didn’t steam (microwave) the strakes as I went, so the wood is now trying to return to its original (flat and straight) shape. The hull appears significantly narrowed. You may choose an elaborate bracing scheme, but that is going to interfere with the interior work. My solution is to heat a kettle of hot water (or if you have very hot tap water use that instead) and steam everything all at once.

The next step is not for the faint of heart.

Clamp or pin the keel and stems back on the mold so that these are strongly secured. Then pour the very hot water over the entire hull. Get it thoroughly soaked, shake it off and let it dry overnight on the mold. (Remember the waterproof glue?) Some seams that had been filled with sawdust will now show quite clearly, and some of the lightly-glued stems may separate, or pop. This is not a big deal- reglue and reclamp as needed. The payoff is that the hull will now conform fairly precisely to the mold and carry the curve of the sheer and gunwale strakes (the final pair), much more gracefully.

Bare Hull After Drying

The first time I tried this steaming method (on a small bulkhead model) I had my doubts as to how close I was to causing a train wreck. But the hot soak works well and also tends to lift the wood grain, yielding a surface that can be sanded very smoothly using finer paper. But it does sound extreme.

Body Shape (Final Strakes )

The final two strakes were lapped on most boats in place of the battens, and because they would not have been below the waterline, did not contribute to turbulence and noise. There is some departure in the literature as to whether the topmost strake is referred to as the gunwale strake or the sheer strake. Both are descriptively correct, but in the course of building the boat it is more likely that the workmen would have referred to the final strake as the sheer, and the gunwale (to be added later) as the gunwale.

In most original boats, the sheer strake and gunwale took a beating and so while the lower strakes were typically constructed using clear cedar, these would have been made of oak or some other handy hardwood. The final strakes also define the sweep, or the curved top lines of the boat (as it would have been seen from shore). Again, this is a matter of taste and/or how closely you want to adhere to the Beetle boat. I’m comfortable staying reasonably close to those lines. As much as anything else, the tolerance of the wood for bending dictated the limits of this curve. In constructing the Mystic Seaport boat the sheer was planed to fit the sheer of the Beetle boat. Beetle and his men probably would not have bothered.

The sheer strake that I’m using will be wider than the side strakes, or about 7mm.

To match the sheer line, first scribe a 30+ mm straight line on a piece of scrap wood (the wood I am using is the same as my work table, and comes from a piece of ¼ inch plywood that is balsa faced). Transcribe the curve from the Ansel drawing using a French curve intersecting the bow and stern. Bend a length of ¼ inch strip to the top strake without consideration of outline curve, and then mark and cut it for about a ¼ inch overlap. Steam it under hot water, and bend it to fit the curve on the board.

In the photos I'm using push pins with large heads and strips on both sides of the target piece. The piece will want to buckle as it is being bent, so the large heads will force the buckle to flatten along the sheer curve. The smaller strips protect the target piece from the imprints from the pins- there is significant pressure needed to bend the target strips to a flat plane, and unless the target is shielded from the pin shafts there will be some unsightly dimpling of the sheer strake.

Bending the Sheer Strake

For this and all other stick bending, a blow drier of some sort will work fine to speed up the process. Unfortunately, as in using the microwave as a steaming oven, this may unleash some negativity from other appliance users.

On the subject of steaming and bending there is some dissonance on the subject of the steaming appliance. If I were the boatwright I would have used a very simple kettle for this repetitive task. It would have been made of the same copper plate used on ship’s hulls, up to about 30 feet long, rounded or square (perhaps a foot high and a foot or so wide) with or without an indented water pond somewhere in the middle (fitted above or into a pot belly stove. Due to the effects of heat and moisture a wooden kettle would not have lasted very long.). Like a tea kettle it would have had a release spout to make noise as the steam pressure rose ( to trigger timing of the batch and to release some pressure). The strakes would have been inserted or placed in it and individually rested (not stacked) on some form of grate to insure uniform exposure of the wood. Different woods and thicknesses would have determined the steaming time. This simple appliance would have worked extremely well for this and other trades (coopers, etc.). There might have been both a long and a square version in the same shop, and these would have been located inside the shop to provide heat to both floors(needed for nine months out of the year in New England). Much of the other work would have been done on the shop’s heated and dry second floor.

Since these strakes were hardwood it would have been a chore to plane to a particular shape. And since they will overlap(lap) the strakes, they can be placed with a partial or full lap at the bow and stern, depending on the sheer that looks best.

The foremost part of the sheer strakes were the cheek (chock) pieces. These would have been made from much wider and heavier hardwood, since they had to bear the angular weight of a fully loaded boat as it was towed by the whale; this was never in a truly straight line. So the bow of the boat was held together by rivets instead of nails, and the laminated pieces of hardwood (strakes and cheek pieces), came together at the bow stem, creating the strongest area of the boat. An analogy to an arrowhead is not far off. So an allowance must be made in the sheer strake for fitted cheek piece.

To make the top strakes behave it is easiest to tack the middle points first by applying a tiny bead of CA gel to the mating edge of the lower stake near diagonals (mold sections) 4,5&6, and then firmly hold the first of the top strakes in place for a few seconds. Once firmly held, a bead of wood glue can be applied to the remaining edges and the lapped strakes clipped (held) in place at the ends. The lines at the joint should follow (fit together), but if they don’t, a clothespin or two will be needed to insure a solid fit.

The cheek pieces complete the sheer strake. A rabbet (chunk) is cut out to allow a fit overlapping the forward edge of the sheer stake. Another is cut at an angle to allow (much like the keel-stem joint) for the fitting of the gunwale, and the sides are beveled to allow a pleasant line to the bow stem and fitting to the lower strake. These would have been rough sawn and chiseled, then smoothed with a rasp. To achieve maximum strength all the pieces would have been carefully fitted before rivets were placed.

The sketch shows the lower, or permanent cheek. We'll add a tear-off cheek later. You can add this now or when we apply the gunwales.

To ease the cutting and shaping task, first measure and mark the length of one cheek piece on a long strip of basswood. Perform all the cutting, shaping and sanding, and then cut the piece from the strip using a razor saw. Trial-fit and sand until it looks perfect, glue it and move on to the other side. While this is significantly out of order when compared to the model text, it is on target in terms of how the boat was built.

The whale’s run would have created a concentrated tension and compression at the point where the line rubbed and ran against the frame of the boat. As Ansel points out, the line would have run through a pair of bow chocks: these were separate pieces which, although riveted to the cheek pieces and wales, would have been loosened or even torn away under extreme pressure, thus not ripping out the bow of the boat. This explains why the Beetle shop shifted from a one-piece to a two-piece design in 1833. The bow stem can be trimmed flush with the cheek pieces and these bow chocks will be added later.

This requirement for the boat to spin in the direction of load also explains the very shallow keel. This load would have been transmitted by way of the frame and the line from the bow to the stern and will be dealt with later.


Chest Strength (Ribs)

At this point the shape of the boat is trim, so it could move through the water cleanly and straight. The hull, however, is probably weaker than if it had been made of thick canvas. From this point forward most of the construction would have been based on the fact that most sailors did not know how to swim, and if the boat sank they drowned. In terms of priority, bringing home a whale was most important to the ship’s owner, but returning home alive was number one with the crew.

Given a length of about 29’6” (30 mm) and a spacing of 12”(10 mm) on center as was common, the first step is to make a spacing template for the ribs. Each 1/16th rib is .0625 in. wide, so to achieve the correct spacing the template is 10mm (.4”) less half of both ribs, or .34 in..  Using thin scrap, cut a piece of wood to any appropriate length and cut and sand one end to .34 or better yet, .3375 in. This is your spacing template. Mark or note the business end.

This might be a good place to also point out that boatwrights, cabinetmakers and virtually all other skilled craftsmen had many sets of measuring sticks and templates carefully stored around their workrooms. In place of calipers and rulers, these were used to consistently measure and mark the components that they were fitting together. Likewise their tools, such as planes, were similarly marked and shaped. The crude spacing template that we just completed is one replica of the hundreds of ways that wood was precisely marked.

I am using 1/16th (24 inch) strips for the ribs and I will bend them all at once. First, cut a about six full strips in half, and tape them (at right angles)to a scrap of wood that is quite a bit longer than the combined width of the now-twelve inch long  strips. Tape a similar strip at the other end- it doesn’t matter if the ends line up perfectly. Next, steam the strips on both sides, and tape first one large strip and then the other around a round frame. (I used a beaten up lobster trap float, but that’s only because it was on the shelf in the workshop. Any can or round object will work. ) Let these dry and you will have the material for too many ribs. You should get a yield of about six ribs per strip, and once bent they will retain their shape.

Bending the Ribs All at Once

The steamed ribs being bent. I was curious as to whether mahogany would behave well under these conditions and the one (darker) strip came out just fine.


On each end of the strips the curve will flatten- save these for the bow and stern.

Using the mold, mark a line at  diagonal #5, and a few more- perpendicular to the keel and parallel to the first mark. (True-up to these as you go, but don’t use them as glue-lines.) Glue a rib on either side (port and starboard) of the line. A simple way to apply glue is to smear some on the face of the glue applicator and run the ribs over that flat area as you go. Clamp the first two- these will be your reference marks going forward and aft. The ribs are placed on opposite sides of the line because in the real boat the foot of the ribs would have overlapped the keel, so they would have been laid in a to-and-fro fashion. Also in the real boat they would have been fastened with cut nails. (The Tremont Nail Company is a good source for understanding the methods and varieties of nails that were produced in the 19th century. The company and the nails still exist 200 years later.)

Since these were cut (flat) nails they would have been driven with the grain (thick nail face parallel to the grain). An apprentice would have drilled a pilot hole of some fashion through the strakes, battens and ribs. A backing iron (a small concave anvil with a groove that approximated the width of the nail face) would have been used to bend and guide the pointed nails back into the wood (cinched) as the nail heads were struck with a small sledge (large hammer). One man would have performed the nailing as one work step. This would have been the job of a top craftsman, probably a Beetle

In our case, use the first two ribs as a reference point. Once dry, use the spacing template created earlier to place each rib as you go. Rough-trim each rib with a nail clipper. Then rough-trim and apply glue to as many ribs as you want, ( I’m doing three at a time on either side), hold in place with a spanning piece of scrap and clothespin-clamp. The ribs will go more quickly than you think.

Ribs Off the Bending Appliance

A collection of ribs, one broken. This is far more than enough. Note the flatter ends- these will fit nicely toward the bow and stern as the curves( of the strakes) flatten.

Placing the First Set of Ribs
The two reference ribs. The ends will be snipped with the nail clipper
Multiple Ribs Being Glued

Clamping and gluing multiple ribs in a single step. Three seemed like a reasonable batch size, but gluing six at a time would probably speed things up a bit.



                                                       Keel Furniture- Centerboard Case

This step can be completed now or later.

Anyone who has sailed vintage centerboard boats understands that nothing will scuttle (sink) a wooden sailboat faster than the failure of the centerboard box. The failure (and sinking) is sudden and dramatic, followed by strong non-nautical expressions.

In the 20th century Beetle catboat (built much like their earlier whaleboats), great care was still taken so that this part of the boat did not fail. The chilly waters of Narragansett Bay are one thing, but the shark-infested waters of the Pacific were quite another.

A typical centerboard box size for this model would be about 60mmx5mmx20mm, constructed of 1/16th in basswood in all dimensions (leaving a 1/16th slot width). If your keel was opened to a slightly different length, you can adjust the box to fit- there was no design rule.

Now is also a good time to construct the centerboard itself using 1/32nd  basswood cut to fit inside the slot. You will note that the box is biased toward the bow- this provides balance with the rudder. Since the centerboard is thin and narrow, however deep it sat in the water (typically ½ its face area) would have been roughly matched by the face area of the rudder in the water. While the sail would have been used during all points (direction) of wind, it was not a hot rod but it had to generally keep up as the boat approached a whale from a rear quarter.

The lower forward and aft upper corners are rounded so the centerboard does not hit the box as it swings up and down, and the swing pin would have been located in the center of the lower rounded semicircle. Drill a pilot hole through the centerboard and box, insert a wire pin and rotate the centerboard, for fit. Since I have a supply of 3/32 dowels on hand for odd jobs I’ll use a piece of one. Drill the final hole through both pieces and enlarge as needed with a rattail file. Paint the centerboard (black is fine) and let dry.

Run a short (sharpened) length of round pin through the box and centerboard so that the centerboard (reluctantly) swings on the pin. Swing the centerboard into the box, up and out of the way for now. (In practice this pin would probably have been the shaved trunk of a small tree so that it was slightly tapered, and probably oak, so that it was straight and strong. It would have been driven into the centerboard box to form a permanent waterproof seal and then cut off with some allowance for future pounding and tightening. Unlike modern centerboard fulcrums, the pin was probably placed above the waterline, and toward the middle of the box.)

Before gluing the case to the keel, first check for fit by pushing the centerboard up and down. Then glue the box to the keel using the (lowered) centerboard as a guide. Take care to keep glue away from the centerboard so that it will swing in place.

Centerboard Box and First Ceiling Brace

The ribs are glued and trimmed, the centerboard box and centerboard are glued in place (note the pin) and the first ceiling (deck) brace is in place, and a couple of others are ready.

(If you chose to use battens the ribs will need to be fitted. You will need to mark and cut a notch in each rib to clear each batten. In this case, cut a bunch of curved strips to a rough length, line up the bottoms exactly, and tape them back on the bending mold. Measure the length at each diagonal from the keel to each batten center. On the taped rib blanks, mark each point, (the keel being represented by the straight line of the bottom) with a straight line marked as the batten center(s). This is the batten line for notching the ribs. Since the first fore and last (aft) ribs need to be notched, you can notch each one separately, and use them as markers for drawing the batten lines on the others. Using the razor saw, lightly score a kerf (cut) on each side of each batten line so that the width between the cuts will span (miss) the battens. These cuts should be very shallow. Then as you go, use a pin or the point of the knife to chip out these notches. Work on all the ribs between each diagonal at one time, chipping out the notches as you go.)

If you want to have nails appear on the finished model be aware that they would not have been visible on the original, since any surface blemishes would have been faired (filled), unless the ribs were riveted. Riveting was not a common practice. You can create a nail effect by lightly poking uniform holes in the hull and ribs using a hole template, or by marking the nail points using a spacing fence or pocket comb.

You can finish all the ribs in one sitting and, since this is pretty boring production work, plan to do this phase while watching something like a baseball game.

Ansel describes the molding trap built at Mystic for bending the ribs. It is most likely that an original bending frame would have been notched at the batten and lap locations and thus the ribs would have at least been marked if not cut while on the frame. It is also safe to say that the battens were positioned using a master set of templates. Using individual marks would have been too time-consuming and inconsistent.

Once all the ribs are set they can be trial-trimmed to be level with the sheer strake. They will be trimmed to their final length later, so go lightly with the glue on the upper parts of the ribs. Use the nail clipper for this trimming.

                    Body Shape -Wales (Gunwales and Rub Rails)

To bear the stresses of deck hardware and rowing posts, the gunwale (pronounced “gunnel”-where guns on ships would have been mounted or rested) would have been fabricated from oak.

If you are planning to use a decorative wood such as mahogany or oak for the gunwales, the steaming and bending process will be slightly more difficult, and to achieve a crisp line, the top of the sheer strake should be painted and the hardwood coated on the exposed sides before gluing.

To simplify placement, each gunwale should be steamed and bent on a scrap board using the hull plan drawing. The sticks are 3/32x1/16th, and should conform to the pattern much more easily than the sheer strake, so buffer strips may not be required.

Gunwale and Rub Rail

Steaming and bending the gunwale. Note the various markings on the scrap board. It is just as busy on the other side from previous models.



If you choose to run your ribs to the gunwale they should be trimmed to allow the gunwale to follow the top edge of the sheer strake. The forward (bow) end should be cut and fitted to cover the interior face(s) of the cheek pieces.

Rails and Braces in Place

The ribs, gunwales, braces and, cheek pieces (far right) in place.

At this point, as you compare the shape of the boat to the drawing, imagine slicing the boat vertically at Diagonal #6 or further aft. Visualize adding a transom in place of the severed stern, and you should see that the boat (given that major surgery) is a model of virtually every hull shape in the modern sailing cruiser fleet. This was not lost on the Beetles in building their catboats or on today’s sailboat builders. It is likewise certain that the second boat ever built owed much of its design to the first boat ever built.

Hull and Rib Protection (Ceiling)

Having protected the delicate cedar hull from the ocean with ribs, the next important step would have been to protect the hull from damage caused by people and objects onboard the boat. It is useful to think of all the work steps performed by each of the crew members, and how that could easily puncture the hull and sink the boat. With this in mind, the presumed order of construction probably became a matter of priorities.

To begin, men had to enter the boat, thus the floor(deck). Given a rib thickness of ¾ inch, paired at the keel, and given the greater width at that notch resting on the keel, the deck braces would have been at least 1 ½  inches wide, notched on opposing corners at each end of each brace, and nailed to the rib at the point where the brace nested on the rib. This would have placed the points of load on the ribs, not the battens.

The bow and stern braces would have been fitted first. A string would then have been run between them, creating a precise line for the placement of all other braces. (The top line of the centerboard box would have been the line to follow for the thwarts (seats).

In the case of our model, the braces are fitted at each end to leave a bilge space of about 5mm (1/4 inch). To simplify construction, a short length of 1/8x1/4 inch scrap (spacer) is placed on the keel, a 20mm length of small scrap (1/16 x 1/32)’  is cut and beveled, and then positioned to fit the garboard wherever the brace lies flat on the spacer. Using the keel as a horizontal guide for the spacer, all other braces can be placed accurately. A total of four to six braces should be sufficient. Each added brace introduces another source of error, but add as many as you want. In the actual boat, every fourth rib would have sufficed.

The bilge space between the hull and the deck would have held a small amount of seawater, but allowance can be made for a small bailing well hatch(cover) in the forward and aft deck. This would also allow access to a hull plug (bung) that would have drained rainwater from the boat while it hung in the davits. Little if any bailing would have been done on the water because of the shifting attitude of the boat and the lack of spare time available to the closest crew member (the first oar, boat steerer, or harpooner).

If the water level rose above the deck the crew would have had a lot more to worry about than a bailing well.

From this point forward in the construction all wooden surfaces would have been protected from seawater and rot. The coating would have been linseed oil in one form or another, and pigmented (colored) or not. Because of its “breathing” properties, linseed oil would not have blistered or peeled, and because of its absorptive properties, would have outlasted the softwoods (white cedar and pine).

For lack of a better term all the model coatings will be referred to as paint(s). Whether from craft tubes (a good choice), leftovers from a house painting project or clear (clear nail polish), the choice for the model is strictly a matter left to the boatwright and the buyer. There being no buyer the matter rests.

After any sanding or other finishing, paint all interior surfaces to taste. While it may seem like a shame to cover up all of your joinery, everything will show through any good paint. As for colors, the choices were not whimsical. It was essential that the boat be easy to spot in poor or no lighting, and branded so that it could be identified by other crews. The dominant color would have been white to contrast with the ocean, tools, fittings and lines. The tinted linseed oil may have leached the cedar over time to a pale gray. The branding and other colors would have been sharply contrasting-  black to hide something and blue or red to highlight something. Gray is OK for an aircraft carrier and green may be OK for a canoe. If you see any other color on a serious marine object then you are probably gazing off the coast of Las Vegas.

From this point forward, all components should be painted before being installed. The best modeling masking tape and/or brush will leave ragged paint edges on wood, so the crispest presentation calls for painting before placement.

This also requires a shift in adhesive from a wood glue (that is not clear) to another type that is clear. If a stronger joint is required I will use tiny spots of the CA gel. Otherwise, clear nail polish. Any clear-drying craft glue should work well.

It is useful to refer to the detailed Goode drawing for the size of the bow and stern platforms. Rough-cut and sand these to fit, and then cut 5mm strips to span the remaining spaces from both ends of the centerboard case to the platform edges. With a dull blade the bailing well can be outlined on the platforms (but not cut through), and finger-holes drilled in each. (If an admiring guest wants to look inside the bailing well I just won’t invite them again.)

The deck will be built using long strips laid lengthwise starting at the ribs and ending at the centerboard case. This is the reverse of the most logical way to construct the deck.

Cut a length of 1/32nd x 5mm strip to span the two outer braces (bow and stern), and trace the curve of the hull at the braces, leaving a small square end for gluing. Cut, sand and fit the curved piece so that it rests cleanly on the braces and against the ribs. (no bevel is needed) and is parallel to the centerboard case. When it fits pleasantly, invert it and test for fit on the other side of the boat. (It will be surprisingly close.). Mark the curved piece on another strip and cut and sand that strip until it is a mirror image of the first.

That is the outer ceiling (deck). Cut and fit as you like to complete the deck inboard to the keel line.

Paint the strips. I chose white for the deck, and since I painted the centerboard black at the same time, mixed the two globs of paint to create a light gray that is now the color of the fore and aft platforms. I also painted a piece of scrap white to use for something that I don’t need yet, but probably will need later. From now on, if I use a particular color I plan to brush any extra someplace on the boat . So the hull and other parts will seem messy in the photos but cleanup is much easier.

Please note that virtually all uncut pieces have been the same width and thickness as the original strakes. This is due to the fact that the boatwright would have ordered this material in bulk from the mill, and he would have used every scrap of it in building the boat. When a piece was too small or otherwise unusable it would have provided kindling for a fire, or traded with another craftsman for some other material. Sawdust, mixed with linseed oil or pine tar would have been used as putty, and shavings as fire starters or something else. Waste, here as on the farm, was an unknown concept.

The paint will lift the grain slightly on these and all other cut faces(edges), so a touch-sanding of the edges after the paint dries won’t affect the paint (that has been absorbed), but will result in a worthy razor edge. This is good practice for all cut edges.

Glue all four outboard pieces in place and then cut, trim and paint the remaining straight deck pieces to fit. If sanded using the wand the deck strips will fit snugly and should not be glued. This will permit future access to the centerboard pin, mast step, etc.. They would have been lightly attached on the original boat for the same reason.

The thwart risers (resting place for the thwarts) would have been placed next: level with and parallel to the centerboard box. These would have provided some bracing to the ribs, since the ribs were thinnest in this area and the risers were fastened to the stronger oak strakes. Horizontal (inward)stress would have passed from strake to rib, then the riser and through the knees to the thwart.

The boat might have been ceiled (completely planked) from the deck to the risers. There are a few options here, but I prefer to display the ribs.

The risers may have been made of thicker or doubled material, but for the model 5/(1/4 in)x1/16 makes use of existing dimension material.

As a note, the position of the seat and oarlocks on a racing skull are not accidental, and the dimensions of racing oars are not that different from those on a whaleboat. The men, whether rowing or paddling, had to be seated within an efficient distance and angle to the waterline. Higher in the boat is better, and leverage being what it is, furthest from where the oar entered the water (opposite side of the boat). This may look like an awful seating arrangement until you factor in the power needed on the open ocean.

I have trimmed the ribs on my boat to a point slightly above the edge of the riser, rather than leaving them beneath the gunwale. If in doubt don’t trim them.

Once the risers are in place I will use a single 5mm strip between the deck and the riser to show more of the rib detail. You might otherwise fill in this area with strips or leave it open. Any one of the three options would have been adopted at the time by somebody.

To finish the bilge, cut a mast foot (keel brace) from a piece of 1/8x1/4 scrap and shape it using the text. The mast would have slid through a tabernacle (brace) attached to a strong thwart that sat on the forward part of the centerboard box. We’ll deal with tabernacle issues later, but for now drill a 1/8th in. hole and shape it to accept the mast. A square-rigged ship would have had masts that were squared at the base for a number of reasons- those reasons don’t make much sense in a fore-aft (flat) rigged boat, so this hole was probably round, and tapered (filed ) down at its edges so the (round, tapered) mast could be easily dropped into place. (As whales became scarce and wary, sailing became the prevalent method of stalking, but boats with sails (centerboard boats) would have been present on Pacific-bound ships as early as the late 18th century.)

Drill a pilot hole through the piece of decking that will fit directly above the hole in the mast foot. ( A 1/8th drill bit will split this piece, so drill a smaller hole and use a rattail file to size it.) When it looks like a 1/8th mast will sit neat and proper into both holes, glue the foot, the decking piece and all the remaining decking in place.

                                    Bracing and Seating (Thwarts and Knees)

The thwarts were essential components placed so the crew could achieve rowing leverage, but also served to stiffen the hull laterally. In functional order, load placed on one side of the boat (on the strakes), would have been transferred to the knees(thwart braces), then the thwarts and finally, if any load remained, by the opposing components on the other side. Since this load was rarely placed at one point, multiple thwarts shared the load.

In addition, the mast was braced by a thwart, and the thwarts provided a protective cover of sorts for the gear that was laid out on the deck.

The most critical and the hardest to fabricate parts will be the knees. These were curved wooden pieces that were originally cut from tree trunks and branches, but later steamed and bent to a somewhat-right angle, one leg being attached to the thwart, and the other to the wales. To spread the incoming load, filler pieces connected the inner face of each knee to the wales and strakes. (In the earliest whaleboats, the tree limbs would have been cut to fit instead of using filler pieces.)

On this and any other model you reach a point where the cellular structure of the wood will collapse in the bending process, breaking the fibers and the wood. 150 years ago you could have substituted baleen, or today, heated and bent plastic for the wood in making this model. I admit to a prejudice against anything plastic on a wooden model, so with that  I’ll describe one way to fabricate the knees. You can much more easily crush the wood with pliers, form plastic, etc..

First cut  a 2 in. long piece of  1/16th basswood (across the grain) from a sheet, and steam it. Clamp a pencil to the cutting brace in the direction of (with the grain of) the wood. This forces the strip to form up (bend) around the pencil while laying flat against the brace and the board. I am using micro-clamps, but heavy paper clamps work just as well to clamp the pencil tightly toward the brace.

Bending The Knee Blank

A press, shaping the knee blank. The pencil (fulcrum) follows the direction of the wood grain.


Once the curved sheet has thoroughly dried, remove it from the press. The sheet will be weakened at the curve, and the wood will be slightly shredded when you slice it with a saw, so before cutting (slicing off) the knees it is a good idea to first reinforce the wood using at least two coats of clear nail polish. This tiny reinforcement makes a big difference. After this coating, paint the entire sheet white.

As a general rule, cutting or sanding will be successful if you respect the limits of the wood and use very a fine saw blade, sandpaper and files. The cut knees will be manipulated with tweezers, so my advise is to be careful and patient. The 1/4x1/16 and the 1/8x1/16 strips that will be cut for the thwarts and filler pieces, along the curved knee blanks should be painted before cutting and trimming. It is easiest to hold them with a bulldog clamp, paint and set them aside as you go.

When the paint on all the blanks is dry, trial-mark the gunwales with the centerlines on the thwarts using the Goode drawing. The center thwarts will span and rest on the centerboard box. However you choose to space these, the thwarts would not have been fastened to the centerboard box until much later in the century, if at all.

Cut, place and glue all the 5mm (1/4)x1/16 thwarts to span (rest on) the risers and fit between the opposing ribs. If a rib interferes with the spacing and placement of a thwart, move one end of the thwart until it sits square, and trim the thwart to butt the rib. The thwarts are glued to the riser(s), not the strakes or ribs.

Using the clippers, snip the spacers from the 1/8th strip at slight, parallel angles and fit and glue them under the gunwale, against the strake and resting on the thwart. Sand to a best fit and the glue.

When all has set, the thwarts are square to the centerline and the fillers square with the thwarts and hull. Now cut and place the knees. The most accurate way to achieve the best knees is to first cut as many of them as you can all at once and then pick the best ones as you go.

Using a razor saw, slice each knee from the formed curve to a width of 1/16th . This will require a few light (drawn)first-passes with the saw to score the wood.(I have found that the big handles that come with razor saw blades are more destructive to the blade than helpful in cutting, so I don’t use them.)  

It is helpful to lightly mark a straight line on the thwarts that will mark the outer lip of the knees. Apply a straight glue line from this point along each thwart, up the filler edge and on the gunwale, then clamp. In the photo it is difficult to see the tiny knee between the clamps but it’s there. The partially-cut “book” of knees is also shown.

Knee Braces Being Glued

The bow and stern platforms, ceiling and thwarts in place and painted. The knee is being clamped to the filler blocks which are barely visible, and to the thwart. The knee blank is being harvested.


Final sanding can be done on the cut edge of each one, but safer (nondestructive) sanding of the cut edge of the knee is best left until all knees are in place and the glue has dried. (It is not obvious in the photo that these clothespins are part of a collection that has been cut down in various ways. If a “normal” clothespin does not fit an appropriate curve, trim its outer face with the razor saw.)

Final trimming and sanding is done when all the knees are in place and the glue has dried. The thwart edges should be trimmed with a pin or the knife tip to the marked line and then feathered into the thwart using a rolled scrap in fine sandpaper. The gunwale edges should be beveled into the top of the gunwales, and slightly rounded. The straight edges should be dressed (lightly sanded) to eliminate any shredding, and then a finish coat of paint should be applied. Until all the details pass inspection, re-sand and repaint.

To complete the basic boat, add the rub rails. These would have been narrow strips that protected the boat’s hull from the ship while carried aboard the mothership, from the ships hull as it was raised and lowered, and provided the final, if not necessary, stiffness to the hull. These would have been fabricated from rejected or scrap planking, ripped to a width of less than ½ the width of the strakes, and fastened to the sheer strake or gunwale- most likely the gunwale so as to provide a gripping surface for the crew in case the boat capsized. Use (2)1/8/x1/32 strips. At the bow the strips should fit nicely into the rear edge of the cheek pieces ( since a 1/32 lip edge was intended way back when those pieces were cut. If you are faced with an overlap, overlap the cheek pieces with the rail by about 1/8th of an inch and feather the rub rail after the glue dries.) Trim the strip even with the stern stem and leave the rear edge flat or feathered into the stern.

With variations based on choices, the boat should now look like the photo. You will note that it is light, rigid and tough. After taking the photo I tossed mine across the room at a chair. It survived without a complaint, so on to finishing details.

Framing Complete

The completed knees.


                                    Working Components

At sea, the coxswain or boat steerer would have established a navigating line to the most likely point of attack. By the time this whaleboat was built, the dominant method of approach would have been under sail, using some amount of paddling for final positioning. The whale or whales might have been sighted from the crows nest at a distance of about ten miles, but the mothership would have been maneuvered to a horizon spot line of three miles or less.

The boats would have been lowered with bow and stern crew aboard, preferably from the leeward side of the ship. At times two or three boats would have been launched. The mast would have been raised as the boat was lowered, as part of a well-practiced series of actions.

Cut (5) 1/32x5mm strips, using the hull as a marking guide, to form the cuddy planks. A slight overhang is desirable. Cut a 15mm strip from a 1/16th slab as the cuddy, or forward plank. (If you only have 1/32nd pieces available use the thickness, but not the other way around.) Using the Goode drawing as a guide, mark the loggerhead center on the wider (cuddy board) plank, and using the electric drill with a 3/8th bit, or by drilling and filing, enlarge the hole in the cuddy board to a diameter of 3/8th’s.

To form the loggerhead, first cut a 3 in. long length of  5/16th or ¼ in. dowel. Mark this at lengths of 7mm (5/16th) and 40mm (1.5 inches). Chuck the dowel into an electric drill.

Using the wand or a file, operate the drill and mill down the tapered head to the 7mm mark. Then leaving a small collar, mill the remainder at an opposing angle to the 40mm mark. The dowel should resemble the photo. Using the wand, square off the longer(logger) milled area. This should be a perfect square, but close enough is OK.

Loggerhead Blank

The loggerhead. The dowel scrap was painted from a previous model.


The taper in the head forced the taut line downward. The squared taper prevented the assembly from rotating and flying out. The material of the loggerhead (oak or ash) and the grain of the decking (fore-to-aft) would have provided the lateral strength, which was reinforced on the cuddy(small cabin) by the lion’s tongue (also oak). As the whale towed the boat on a “Nantucket Sleighride”, the weight of the boat would have been borne at the loggerhead as the line from the tubs spooled out to the outboard edge and toward the bow on the inboard edge of the head. The head was probably oiled at some point to reduce friction, and multiple turns of the line provided another source of drag.

The lions tongue ran from the cuddy plank to the stem. It was probably made of oak. Many of the pictures and drawings display a whimsical curve aft of the loggerhead. This would have been one of the boatwright’s trademarks.

Cut a straight 10mm strip that will run from the cuddy board past the stem, so that the inboard edge lies in on the center plane of the boat. Notch one end to fit the stem, and drill another 3/8th hole at the location of the hole drilled in the cuddy board. (This won’t turn out to be exact unless you drill both holes at once, which will likely result in one or both being shredded.) Trace the hull on the outboard edge and cut and sand to fit. As a curve I’m going to parallel the outer line with an inner line.

The cuddy is painted white, so I’m painting the lions tongue black. While I have the black out, I’ll go ahead and paint the gunwales and rub strips. Since the dowel that I used for the loggerhead was already pretty worn, I’ll just give it a coat of clear nail polish.

With the cuddy board and loggerhead in place, ream the drilled hole so that the loggerhead ring stops on the lions tongue. Drill a hole in the deck to accept the loggerhead post, and square it using a micro-file to accept the loggerhead.( or simply drill it to fit the loggerhead post, cut the loggerhead slightly long, and press it into the hole. The wood will yield slightly to fit the square post, but don’t force it to the point of splitting the platform.)

Lion's Tongue

The cuddy board and cuddy, lion’s tongue, loggerhead and lifting ring (strap) in place. The steering oar brace will be removed and replaced- it may be representative but it’s ugly.


The bow assembly served as a steadying platform for the harpooner, storage for a small amount of line, and a base for the chocks that kept the line running as a straight fore-to-aft vector.

The chocks would have been mounted to the cheek pieces. In some designs the chocks and cheek pieces might have been one solid assembly, but this option would not have improved the whaling process and  would have endangered the boat.

Cut (2) small pieces (+/- 25mm) from a 1/8/14 in scrap. Holding the together, sand the outer edges and top edges to an oval. Saw both pieces again to form an angle from the top oval to the rear of the piece. Reverse the pieces, and the outer, rounded area become the area where the line will run and the upper area permits the line to run over the chock without damage. The texts suggest that a pin may have been placed between the chocks

to keep the line from jumping over the chocks in a heavy sea, or if the whale took a sudden turn. That detail can be added now or later. (If at sea in this boat, my bias is toward the largest chock that fits, so that is how mine are built.)

The forward line box would have been a simple affair, containing about 90 yards ( 15-30 fathoms) of coiled line. Cut a triangular piece of 1/16th or 1/32nd scrap into a blunted triangle. The blunted tip will fit against the stem and the stern edge will fit against the forward edge of the riser. (I have placed 1/16x1x16 braces along the hull to act as a shelf bracket but that is not necessary.)

A back plate would have held the aft-edges of the coils in place, and this would have extended from the rear edge of the box level with the gunwales. Cut and shape to fit.

Water from a wet line would have drained off the coils into the boat, so this shelf and back plate would have been a loose fit. If the boat was to be drained of water as it was being lifted onto the ship, the stern would have been raised and the water run off the bow, depending on the amount of line left in the tub(s).

The thigh board was set high- atop the gunwales. It was shaped (concaved) at one point so it caught(braced) the left leg of the harpooner somewhere above his knee while his right leg levered him forward and into that area (thigh cleat). This was as close to a safety harness as the harpooner was going to get. Also, good order on any small craft begins with weight on the centerline and no leaning to the side, so the harpooner would have  positioned himself accordingly.

Last is a set of preventer cleats that would have caught the line if it escaped (jumped out of) the bow chocks. A pin and damping line (kicking strap) through the bow chocks should have prevented this, so these cleats would have been useful as the boat was drawn close to an exhausted whale.

Drill a 5/32nd or ¼ in. hole toward the far end of a piece of 3/32x1/4 in. scrap. Round that end slightly. Saw the piece at a right angle at the far edge of the hole. This will create a curved lip on the open end of the cleat. At about 5mm from the other edge of the hole make 1/16th slices with the saw and whittle the outer edges behind the hole toward those slices to create a rough bevel. Rip (saw) the piece using the hole diameter as a center mark back to the slice points and then cut off both halves, each becoming a cleat. There is some controversy as to exactly how these were shaped and where placed, so the Beetle drawing is a reasonable guide. 

The Beetle drawing also includes placement holes for a kicking strap, or line that was rigged in a port-starboard fashion on the clumsy cleat. This is not present on the Goode drawing. The purpose of the kicking strap was to keep the line from escaping from the bow-chocks (unlikely under load) and to prevent the line from moving aft in the event that the bow chocks were torn away. Since these functions are served by the preventer cleats, that detail is not essential, but may be added.

Keep in mind that the boat would have been towed by the whale through moderate seas, but waves often come and go at random, so the boat would have been fitted with that in mind. Also, unless the previous boat had been lost, any usable fittings on this boat would have been scavenged before it was scrapped or traded. These would have been fitted to a new, bare boat.

The hinged mast step would have been one of the final pieces fitted, if not at the shop, then onboard the ship. The hinge was probably smithed, so that is how this one will be made.

First, find a scrap of sold copper wire- 16 gauge electrical cable is typical. Bend it in half, and then flatten it slightly with a hammer. (I am using the face of a hand-sledge as an anvil, but any heavy surface will work.) At the point where the hinge would be located, slide a brad or a straightened paper clip under the wire and flatten the entire assembly until its height is about ½ its original diameter, with a depression where the wire was flattened over the brad. Use a round micro file to enlarge (ream) the end until it is the same size as the mast hole in the boat.

Next, drill a centered hole in the end of a 1/8x1/4 piece of scrap, and ream it to the same diameter as the mast step. Round the end and if the last inch of the scrap hasn’t been painted, do that now.

Attach a small length of wire in the depression in the flattened copper using super glue. This is a non-working representation of the hinged on the mast step. Cut the assembly at a point that would have been the rear edge of the hinge and paint it black. Since I have a gold pen that I use for small brass highlights I will pass it lightly over the dried black paint to give it the appearance of weathered brass. Or just leave it black.

Rough Mast Hinge

Line up the copper and wood pieces by inserting a short length of the mast through the holes, apply a dot of super glue to the wood, and glue the hinge in place.

A working hinge can also be made by using a dollhouse or gun window hinge that has been cut and filed to size. I had one in my toolbox but the handmade assembly appears adequate for making the point.

With all pieces in place, line up the mast with the hole in the deck and trim it to fit on the thwart. Glue and finish painting.

For rowlocks I will be using tholes (pins) instead of cast iron locks for a few reasons. First, they would have been appropriate to the period. More importantly, a squared edge on an oar is a much more powerful surface than a rounded edge: it keeps the maximum (squared) amount of water on the blade under any sea condition. Pin (squared) locks would have served other purposes as well, acting as belaying and chock points.  Rounded cast rowlocks and round oars compromise effective rowing. (If in doubt, study the oars and oarlocks of a modern racing scull.)

In the Goode and Beetle drawing the rowlocks are patterned for a right-handed harpooner (seated to port, swinging on the thwart, crossing the keel and grasping a harpoon from starboard with his right hand). The length of the oars will be dealt with later.

The texts describe iron lifting straps that were fitted( riveted) to the stems and protrude up through holes in the thigh and cuddy boards. These would have been unwelcome on the boat, but necessary leverage devices to keep an otherwise-unbalanced boat level as it was raised and lowered. A boat that tipped in the davits would have resulted in a serious loss of lives and equipment.

For the straps I have fashioned an eye into one end of .02 brass wires, drilled centerline holes though the cuddy and thigh board into the deck, and glued these in place with super glue.

If the steering oar brace was made of iron it might have been added by the ship’s carpenter. If made of wood it was most likely a sturdy peg. There appears to be great variation in how that oar was held in place, but my vote would have been a becket ( eye splice), with the bitter end (rope) either threaded through the rear stem and held there by a knot or by another eye splice looped over the stem. This would have placed all port and starboard steering stresses on the stem, and with the right splices, eliminated the need for a post altogether. I made the post out of flattened copper wire drilled to accept a non-spliced lanyard. (I don’t care for this look, so after I think about I will tear off this brace and fashion a new one.)

Since all the running rigging on a sailing ship eventually wound up being belayed (figure-eight hitched), and since I would not have set out sailing on a whaleboat without a mast that was held (stayed) securely, I am adding what appear to be a set of hardwood braces on a slightly aft line from the mast step. Small belaying pins through these braces would have secured the standing rigging (side-stays) from the masthead (top of the mast). This may have just as easily been accomplished by extending certain rowing posts through the gunwale, thus treating the posts as belaying pins.

(Sail design will come much later, but most sailing rigs (with the possible exception of a spinnaker) are designed to force the center of load toward the center of buoyancy (pressure). Closer is better. This acknowledges the fact that the leverage moment in the boat is the mast step, braced in the mast foot. Even in a fair breeze, a sudden gust could have easily torn the entire mast assembly through or out of the boat. I would not have trusted gravity to brace even the heaviest mast on a whaleboat. (See, among others, “Elements of Yacht Design”  by Norman Skene.)

As a first approximation I have painted a fire-engine-red stripe on the sheer strake. I may change that, but it would appear that the boat could have easily been sighted and identified at a distance.

This photo is my interpretation of a delivered whaleboat (without factory options).

Bare Boat

Mounting (The Boat Onboard the Ship)

I have sliced what remained of the original 3/16th basswood blank into a number of square and rectangular timbers that will be used for the davits, cranes and eventually, masts, oars and other pieces. (You may find it easier to purchase these at a hobby shop, but I’m sticking with minimal waste.)

If you are content with the boat as a standalone model, skip this step, mount it on wooden (golf tees) or more formal brass pins on a suitable base.

If you have built a wooden ship model you know that ship hull construction is much easier than the skin-and-rib construction of our boat. So it should be quite simple to build a backdrop consisting of a planked ship and rail. A problem is that much of the detail that goes into the whaleboat may be lost if attention is paid to the detail of the mothership.

What distinguished the profile of a whaling ship from all other merchantmen at the time was the appearance of whaleboats mounted in the davits. Even empty, the five sets of davits would have been noticed at any distance. So I will hang the boat from the ship’s davits, resting on cranes (shelves), leaving the larger ship to the imagination of the viewer. (For that, by the way, they can study any square-rigged model).

The load point of the davit would have been the tip of a bent curve on a substantial squared timber (large stick cut from the basswood blank). Achieving this bend stresses the outer edge of the timber, causing it to stretch as the inner edge is severely compressed, often forcing the wood to break. So the davits can be made by using laminates, just as we fabricated the stems, but the edges cannot be hidden under paint. The same stress-relief can be achieved by cutting a series of kerfs (cuts that are the width of the saw blade) across the grain into the inner edges of the timbers, much like the bow stem.

In this case I previously traced a curve onto a scrap of 2x4, and drilled a series of holes that will contain nails and/or pegs as the bending moments (points). ( This survived an earlier ship model’s rib-bending.) For the davits I am using 1/4x3/16 basswood cut from the original slab. After cutting a series of kerfs ( about 1/16th apart and deep), the wood is steamed, buffered, (this time with plywood scraps), and left to bend and dry.

Davit Blanks

The davits after bending. Since you know that the kerfs are there you may be able to spot them. Not so after a light sanding.



To achieve the appropriate radius without destroying the wood, the timbers and nails are moved to a few different positions, gaining additional arcs that will eventually add up to an overall structural arc. This will take a few days and require re-cutting or additional kerfs, but when it is complete the kerfs will disappear (as they did in the bow stem) into the arc, and the davits will be solid. Some ships may have utilized a crane affair much like the frame supporting many of today’s suburban mail boxes- if you choose this option take a look at a mail box support and build an exact miniature. Or study the cranes, below.

For a temporary base cut a piece of wood (plank), (in my case a 3/16 x 3 in basswood plank) slightly longer than the boat. Using the lifting eyes on the boat as centers, mark the davit centerlines on the back edge of that base. Cut a mortise (notch) for the foot of each davit and glue so that the davits stand out of the back edge of the flat plank. For further support, drill 1/16th holes through the davits and into the centerline of the base, and glue (insert) dowels or round toothpicks through the davits and into the base

Crane Base

The cranes, lying on the base, with the posts and davits in place.


To construct the cranes (brackets), cut (4) 3/16/3/16x2” timbers. Cut a notch approximately 3/16x3/32 into two of the timbers, about 15mm from one end of each. Cut another notch at the end of two other timbers so that it each will fit into that notch. (If you are using a pencil to mark these, cut the edges of each notch on the inside of the mark, leaving room to sand out to the desired width.) Carefully fit these together and they will form an off-balance “T”, with the longer arm about 2” long. It isn’t necessary, but I am going to drill, pin and glue these where they come together. Next, cut a brace about 30mm long, with facing 45 degree angles, and glue this in place so that it meets the longer arm at about 1”, and the shorter arm where it fits. (In the real ship these would probably been mortise-and-tenon joints. They should look like the mailbox post.)

Mark a spot on the base about 40mm from the inside edge of the davits. Cut two more timbers to a length of about 140mm- these will be the resting posts. Hold a bracket and a resting post together and measure the width of the combined base. Mark and cut the base to fit both. Once the notch is sized to hold the resting post and the shelf in place, hold all three together and drill a 1/16th hole through the resting post and the base for another glued peg. Remove the bracket, insert the peg and glue the post.

On the ship, the davits, posts and cranes would have rested on a timber that was in turn fastened to and braced by timbers (beams) inside the hull that in turn braced the deck at that level. There may be other artistic ways to imply the existence of that timber, but notching and pegging the base seems plausible.

The cranes are removable because aboard ship they would have been hinged or removable. A strong hinge of some sort might have been found on later ships, but in this time period screws were more a jeweler’s novelty. So a simple brace or pin would have held the cranes parallel with the posts. The cranes would have been removed as the load (the boat) was lifted. On most ships of this period the boats were simply hung on davits and held to the davits or the ship by gig tackle and gripes (ropes). I have opted for the cranes because they will stabilize the whole affair when the model is moved or cleaned.

A classic block and tackle consists of a line (rope or chain), and two blocks. The rope feeds around a sheave (a tapered wheel inside the block) and the blocks are attached at one end to a fixed object ( such as a tree) and on the other to the object being moved or lifted. (Your local mechanic lifts engines out of cars using a block and tackle.)

Mechanical advantage being what it is, a block would have been attached to the top of a davit. Another block was attached to the boat. A line attached to the davit fed to the sheave of the lower block, up and through a sheave in the upper block and down and up again, with the bitter end of the rope fastened (belayed) on the ship to a cleat or a pin. If you were to pull on the rope the whaleboat would rise: two men could easily raise and lower a whaleboat weighing almost a ton. For a more precise picture, observe window washers at work, and imagine their scaffold as a whaleboat.

Cut a strip of 1/4x3/32nd  to a length of about 40mm. Find a piece of 1/32nd scrap with a good flat edge slightly longer and wider than that piece. Glue the two pieces together pressing their long edges against a flat surface so they are glued flush, and the scrap ends stick out. Place glue on the opposite side of the thin piece and glue a strip of any length 1/4x3/32nd exactly opposite the first. The ends of the thicker pieces should align. I am using 1/4x3/32 walnut strips as the outside of this sandwich and basswood as the center to make the visual statement that the blocks were homemade. (This an abbreviated version of a way to create many small blocks all at once.)

I prefer blocks that will apply some tension to a line (string). If you prefer to build blocks with brass (rotating) sheaves follow the Ronnberg text, using ½ thickness pieces.

Once dry, mark and cut (4) 10mm blanks. Chamfer (sand off) all straight edges and corners and round them as best you can. Mark, pilot and drill (4) holes in each narrow face to simulate the openings of the sheaves. Using the saw blade, lightly score a line down the face(cheek) of each side of the block on center with the holes, and on the mid-point of the sides (shell). Using a round or triangular file, lightly form depressions in these cuts so that the line(fall) can be guided on the (drilled) face and held in place by lines around the cheeks (on the sides).

Blocks and Sheaves

A raw block in the center, a sanded block to the right and a drilled block with hemp.


The blocks can be rigged using metal eyes or hooks in the ends or lines(straps) around the sides. I’ll be making both kinds. For the lines I am using braided hemp string (available in the jewelry-making section of any crafts store). This is a miniature version of the same three-strand hemp that would have been used by sailors at the time. It comes in a natural color, and usually on cards with assorted strengths (line sizes). For the straps that go around each block I am using .08 diameter line (string)- 36 pound. (Early “manila” or “manila hemp” refers to rope made from the fibers of the abaca, native to the Philippines. It was commonly used after the Civil War but it was relatively expensive. Let’s stick with hemp as the dominant fiber used in making ropes.)

On the subject of line (rope, thread, string) knots, the bitter end (the end that went around a bitt) is the loose end. The standing end is the end that took the initial load or formed the knot.

Most lines on the whaleboat would have utilized eye splices. These are permanent knots that form eyes of various diameters in the ends of rope. The eye, since it is woven, should be as strong as the original rope. Bowlines were also used, but could loosen if not kept under load (and the bowline consumed more rope).

There are two ways to create an eye splice on a model- the real way and the glued way.

First, the real way: this will require a surrogate marlinspike (a dull needle will do) for separating and holding the strands open as you weave the knot. Or, to make things easier, a rigging needle to both open the closed strands and pull the loose stands as you go. (This is also known as a beading needle.) If this is your first tiny eye splice, think of the first few as practice, and plan to throw them away.

Make a loop in the thread out of a long length, or leave one end of a thread on its card (spool) leaving about an inch of line on one (the other, or short) end. Note where the thread crosses itself and tie a simple knot (using any other piece of thread) around the short end at that point. This knot will hold things together as we go.

Using the marlinspike (or a pin, or the needle), shred (separate) the short end into its three (free) strands. Reform the loop, and at the point where the lines cross, insert the marlinspike in the thread, slightly lifting one whole strand.  Thread one of the free strands through that hole and pull it about ¼ of the way though. Lift the strand next to (away from the loop) the first, and thread the next loose strand into that hole. Repeat for the third and pull the loose strands snug to what is now the main thread.

The knot that was tied earlier should now be snug to the main line, and the loop should be the right size. The loose strands should each be under a different strand on the main line, and crossing as a group at roughly the same point.

Open the main line at a point close to where the first loose strand can go over and under a main strand. Follow that with the second and third loose strands. Snug them and look at the line. You should see that the loose strands are parallel to the main strands and are filling in the valleys  that were created by the strands of the standing line (worming). In a large diameter three-strand rope this is easy- not so easy using thread.

Cut off the first strand, (leaving a small length for error and tightening), and weave the next two. Cut off the second in the same way, weave the third and cut it off. Cut off the spacer knot. The end of the loose strands will be showing. That is a testament to a careful, tapered splice. You can leave the ends raw or touch them with nail polish and squeeze everything together.

On the next practice splice, do not cut the loose strands as you go. This will result in a stronger, less decorative knot. The sailors might have gone either way,

Now the easy way.  Shred the end into the three strands. Cut one at 2/3. another at 1/3, and leave the third uncut. Shred each strand again, into fibers. Bush on nail polish and press the shredded strands into the main strands. Smooth and rotate with your fingertips, forcing the shredded strands into the main strand valleys.

Getting to the block, the block defines the loop, the spacer string holds the loop to the block, and the eye, when complete, holds the line to the block.

Drilled Blocks

Blocks in various stages of sanding, drilling, coating and strapping.


So, construct an eye around the block, cut off the spacer string and then give the whole assembly (block and eye but lot the long string) a coat of nail polish. Hang it up to dry and when it is dry, run the drill back through the holes in the block to clean out any polish.

Construct a second eye about 1 inch away from the block- this will fit over the davit.

(If you want to create what amounts to a hangman’s knot instead of another eye, consult any knot text, but be aware that this would have been an eye.)

The loop should fit over the head of the davit and the block should be hanging about 20mm below that point. More or less doesn’t matter, but too close or too long will not look right.

As you look at the hanging block it looks large- that is because the American sailing tradition favored very large sheaves (6-12 times the diameter of the line). This design won a few naval battles.

The block is more rectangular than round (clunky), because, unlike tye blocks, it carried a load that was not subject to sail or line abrasion. Also, unlike watch-tackle or handy-billies, the whole tackle assembly was not portable, so weight was not a factor. The ship’s master would have used the biggest, cheapest blocks he could scavenge or buy so as to maximize the crew’s ability to lift two men and a boat weighing 2,000 pounds or more.

Make another davit-block assembly. Using a round micro-file, cut two grooves into the upper edge of each davit and fit the splice or knot (to hold the line). Even unloaded these lines weren’t going anywhere, but you can add lashings or glue if you like.

For the blocks that attached to the boat there are a number of choices to be made. Instead of an eye or loop (like the davit block), a bowline (knot) could have adequately connected the end of a block strap to the boat. But with repeated launchings the line that formed this knot would have been weakened. An eye on the block could have been secured to the eye on the boat with a shackle, but at the time shackles would have been large and expensive.

A simple solution would have been a curved lifting hook on the block, secured at the open end by a line or by a rod that passed through the block. The rod would have been more common.

Drill a centered hole through block (top to bottom).  Pass a suitable wire (I’m still using .02 brass) through the hole, and form an eye (loop) on one end. At the other, bend a right angle in the wire so that the loop fits loosely on the other end and snip the wire, leaving a very short tail. The tail would have been flattened so that it did not go back through the hole.

                                                Rubbing Mat

The boat would have rested on a mat to protect the boat and crane. This might have been a discarded masthead knot, a length of hawser (large rope) or a woven mat. The mat can just as easily be constructed from strands of hemp tied in a woven series of clove hitches much like the ratlines would have been tied to the shrouds elsewhere on the ship.

To construct a rough woven mat, stick two rows of about four pins each in the work board or another board. These can be spaced at about ½ in apart. Anchor one end of a hemp or other thread with a pin, and loop it back and forth , creating the weft(woof). Thread the end of the string up, over, down and under the woof the create the warp. At each end place a loop in the string and repeat. Press each warp against each other. After the mat is roughly woven, coat it with nail polish. When it is dry, trim off all the loops and cut it roughly in half to form the mat. Glue or tie it to the top of the crane. (This sounds crude, and it was.)

Crude Mat Loom

There is no doubt that you can produce a more elegant loom than this one.


                                    Crane Support

Since our crane is not hinged it will require lashing or tying to the support (post). The simplest way to do that is to hold the crane and post together, and form a loop in heavier hemp string (36 pound). Hold the loop against the post with the bitter end up. Wrap the thread around the post and the top of the crane about four times, snug the thread so it holds both together nicely, and then pass the bitter end down and under the wrapped portion. Trim both ends of thread. There should be no need to apply nail polish.

                                    Gripes and Tackle

Most small boats that were carried on ships at the time would have been secured by hanging them from davits and securing them with straps (lines) that were criss crossed  (X-shape) to provide lateral support in all directions. A mat (boom) or other pad would have been placed between the boat and the ship to act much like the mat on our crane.

These straps were called gripes and the block assembly was the davit tackle.

The gripes and tackle would have been secured (belayed), using belaying pins, to a fife rail or the gunwale. Since we don’t have either one yet, I have chosen to add a mock rail to the posts and davits. Mine will be made of mahogany but basswood is just fine.

Using a piece of 1/8x1/4 strip, cut a length that spans the davits with a slight (1/8th) overhang on each end. Drill a hole for pegs (a peg hole) through the 1/8th face of that rail. Hold it against the rear of a davit, about 25mm from the edge of the base, and continue drilling about ½ way into the davit. Insert a dowel(pin). Repeat at the other davit so that the rail is parallel to the base. If your posts and davits were at all shaky, repeat at the posts, so the rail is pegged into the posts and davits. Glue and trim the pins.

You will need at least four belaying pins, each one about 16mm long. If you have access to a Dremel tool with various collets, select a collet that will hold a 1/16th dowel securely. If you are using a portable drill or a standard Dremel collet, wrap one end of the dowel with masking tape and chuck it into the tool. The dowels I am using are about 65mm long, and will wobble when they are rotated. To minimize this I will clip them so that about 30mm of the dowel is exposed.

Start the tool and touch the dowel with the razor saw about 10mm from the end to create a nick that will later become the top edge of a collar. Nick the dowel again, about 2mm below the first. Using a flat file held at an angle, mill a taper into the dowel so that it is about ½ the original diameter at the collar tapering out to zero(unmilled) at the end. Hold the file at an angle at the unmilled tip and round the tip. That is the belaying pin handle.

Hold the file straight, and mill the dowel as a straight pin to about ½ the original diameter from the lower nick in the collar to at least 20mm from the nick. This will be the pin. When you are done it will look like a belaying pin because that’s what it is. Make a total of four.

Select a drill bit that is about the same diameter as the belaying pin and drill four holes in the mock rail. These can be anywhere, but I have located mine about 5mm from the inside edge of each post and davit. Place a belaying pain in each- hopefully these won’t fit yet. Sand each pin until it slides snugly into its hole. Do not glue.

To secure the gripes, file notches into the rear corners of each post about 5mm from the top. I will be using rigging thread for the gripes, but the lightest hemp thread will probably work as well or better. Tie a double loop with two half hitches (a real knot) to attach the gripes to the posts. In a simplest form this is a knot where the line is looped twice around the post and two common knots (like tied in your shoes)are tied, one after another, around the line. You may want to practice with a larger line and post if you’re unsure about this. The upshot is that the loops and the hitches will tighten down on one another, and the line will come straight off one corner.

Once the gripes are secured to the posts, place the boat on the mats so that the lifting rings line up with the davits. If they are not exact it doesn’t matter much.

You may want to put a drop of white glue on the mats or keel where they touch. This can be removed later, and will make the rest of the davit tasks easier.

Loop a gripe around the boat, bring it back over the rail, and loop it around the (lower) belaying pin. Pull it snug. Form a loop in the line, turn the loop over, and hang the loop on the handle. The bitter end of the line should now lie between the line and the rail. That’s a belay, or half-hitch (it is not a knot). Loop the line down and around the pin and place another one on top of the first. Trim the line and that’s that. Repeat on the other post. Trim the gripes as you want and that’s that- the boat is not going anywhere. Do not glue the gripes- they work.

A short discussion of one knot comes later, but a sailing ship did not employ a single permanent knot. Zero.

The belaying pin served as a convenient support for ropes (lines), but more importantly it was a mechanism that allowed a quick release. As the running rigging (lines) were belayed, they would wear dents into each other, making them difficult to release. By grasping the handle and removing the pin, the hitches would fall away, to be reset (belayed again) at a different position or length. The hitch also provided a convenient way to make small adjustments to the rigging- on a ship this was a constant task. To perform it, pull out a pin and belay the gripe again. We will revisit the hitch in the rigging of a harpoon.

The gig tackle is next. At about 5mm from the top end of a davit, file or cut in notches at the rear (top) corners. Hang one of the eyed blocks on the davit.

Thread a length of the same line (or heavier) between the line and block made earlier. Tie two half-hitches or a bowline to secure the lifting line to the block line. Thread this line through the lower hole (hook end) of a loose block, then back through the upper hole on the eyed block, then back through a lower and back through an upper. This may be simpler if you pin the upper eye to the work board. In any case the lines should be free-running (not touching or crossed). The lines will cross each other at one and only one point: where the upper first hole feeds to the lower second hole.

Hook the lower block to the lifting eye on the boat, and tug on the bitter end until the gig tackle is slightly taut. This may require some tweezer work to tighten the lines through the holes. Friction at the holes will hold the line taut.

Belay the gig tackle lines by first running them over the rail and securing them to the pins again.

The boat is ready for its voyage around Cape Horn to the whaling grounds of the Pacific (about 12,000 nautical miles away). Over the next two months or so the crew will spend time fitting the rest of the boat and practicing their skills.

First Hanging

The false rail is in, with the belaying pins (inserted but never glued). The gripes are rigged and belayed, and the blocks rigged, hung and hooked. The cranes are served and the bitter ends tucked.


                                                               The Boat Under Sail

The boat may or may not have left the shop with a fitted rudder. If not, it might need one for sailing or just to make a point.

Since it was probably made of oak the rudder would not have floated well (if at all) and its weight would have kept the pintles (pins) in the gudgeons (holes) under most sailing conditions (but not all). It would have been pointed (steered) using a tiller (a long stick) that was easily removed or swung (as was the rudder) out of the way when the boat was under oars or steered using a steering oar. While the rudder is an aerodynamic marvel on modern racing yachts, some whaleboats would not have used a rudder at all. This boat will.

Look at the finished model, then draw and cut a basic rudder shape from 1/16th basswood. Cut two cheek pieces that will act to reinforce the weak (upper shaft) portion of the rudder and form a fitting for the tiller. These should extend from the area of the first curve to about 5mm on either side of the rudder’s top edge, Glue these in place and sand the entire assembly so that the edges and corners are rounded, and the cheeks and rudder are flat to one another. This whole assembly is now the rudder. Give it a white first coat and then paint the cheeks to match the hull and gunwale colors. If you gave your boat a stripe, paint a matching stripe on the rudder.

The rudder was hung from pintles (right-angle pins) that were fitted to the rudder and gudgeons (eyes) that were fitted to the stern (stem). In later boats these were made from brass plates, and you can make them that way by flattening and bending brass or copper wire so that it looks like what is shown in the texts.

In its earlier form, a gudgeon would have resembled an iron pot hook that was driven into the stem. The pintle would have been a bent iron rod that fitted into the gudgeon. If you have ever seen a farm gate you have seen this mechanism.

For the gudgeons I formed an eye on the end of a piece of brass wire, flattened the eye with a hammer and snipped the wire to a pigtail about 5mm long. I drilled holes in the stem, about 10mm from the top and about 10mm apart, inserted the pigtails and secured them in the holes using nail polish as glue. I marked their location on the rudder, drilled matching holes, and bent two pieces of wire so that they that fitted the holes in the rudder and rested the rudder on the gudgeons. In practice and on the model, the lower pintle would have been slightly longer, to simplify guiding the upper pintle into that gudgeon.

The cheek pieces would have been riveted to each other through the rudder, so I will add tiny nails at the top of the cheek pieces. This slot will hold the tiller in place on the model just as it would have on the boat.

For the tiller I used a scrap of 1/16x1/8 mahogany, but any wood will do. The length of the tiller was adjustable, so I cut that piece to extend slightly beyond the rudder as it hung on the stern, and to about the inboard edge of the cuddy board. After hanging the rudder at sea the boat steerer would have inserted the tiller to fit his preferences. As soon as the steering oar was deployed the tiller would have been pulled out and laid out of the way, and the rudder left free to swing.

When not in use the rudder would have been shipped to the port side, near the steering post, and held by a lanyard (short thin line) to a cleat or the collar of the loggerhead. A cleat performed and was secured like a horizontal belaying pin, but it was usually a one-piece assembly. To fashion a small one, cut a scrap of 1/16x1/16 basswood or mahogany to a length of about 5mm. File a slight, centered depression into the upper edge, and cut a piece of wire about 10mm long. Apply nail polish or super glue to the wire, lay it in the groove and let it dry. This is also a test of how well suited you might be to building a ship in a bottle.

Paint and glue the cleat somewhere on the lions tongue between the loggerhead and the stem. (I chose not to paint it and to put it in the center of the cuddy deck, for no particular reason other than I thought it looked better that way.)

You have probably noticed that as we have gotten further along my measurements have gone from precise to hazy. That is because much of what we are now doing was a function of the opinions of the captain, the officers, the men and the ship’s carpenter, not to mention what was available in terms of raw material and scavenged parts. The original digital calculator was the human hand and fingers, and these also functioned as rulers. 5mm is a recurring measurement on the model because it is analogous to ¼ inch and easier to type: the span of a man’s palm (roughly eight inches today) could very well have dictated a similar repeating pattern 200 years ago.

You will often read authors who complain about older ship models that were not built to scale- they were built to exact scale, but with varying rulers. So please forgive me if I seem to wander in and around precise points on an imprecise scale.

Having gotten that out of the way, the rudder would have been secured by a lanyard (any line that secures an object) to that cleat. A hole in the rudder would have been filled by a line ended in a stopper knot. At shipping length, when the rudder was held against the boat’s hull, a bowline (knot) might have been appropriate, as might a simple knotted loop. To secure the rudder in the likely event that it jumped its pintles at sea, it would have been belayed to the cleat, or held to the cleat with another loop of some sort. A stopper knot, by the way, is the same figure-eight as the belaying knot. A simple overhand knot may be OK as a stopper on the model, but never on the real thing. So it doesn’t hurt to tie a real stopper and bowline(s).

The rudder was used with the sailing rig, so that naturally follows. As the authors point out, there were a frustrating number of sailing rigs deployed on whaleboats- these were as varied as the number of boats. So while it is interesting to note that they all continue to exist today, it is historically correct to suggest that a mid-century whaleboat would not have carried a jib (small forward sail). Fitness would have required the rig to be light, easily stowed (or thrown overboard) while wrestling a whale, and easily repaired or replaced by items already on the ship (sailcloth, etc.). A steering oar and similar long pole (a gaff, for example), could have been fastened together and used as a mast and sprit. The spars did not have to be round, as long as they supported a sail. The sail did not have to be triangular so long as it caught and held the wind. The fact that the rig did its job was more important than its beauty.

First the mast. We already have a mast hole and hinged step, so a mast can be fashioned using any dowel that fits. Protect one end of a small (1/8th) dowel with a few wraps of masking tape and chuck a length (8 in) into a drill or into a rotary tool collet. Fold a piece of sandpaper, and holding the paper to support it, insert the dowel in the fold. Trigger the drill, and move the dowel up and down its length, tapering it toward its end. (Don’t worry if the end that rests on the sandpaper isn’t sanded- it will be cut off.) Once you have a pleasant taper, select a square piece of stock (1/16th) the same length and repeat. This is the sprit; this time you will have a square at both ends. Cut the mast and the sprit to about 60% of the boat’s length (180mm), including the un-sanded portions that were in the drill. The portion of the mast that will fit through the step and into the foot (remember that far back?) can be sanded or whittled square or left rounded. Paint the mast and sprit, or coat either or both with nail polish. Since the mast was also used a base for semaphore (signal) flags I’m going to paint it white with a natural sprit.

Since I don’t particularly like the look of sails on ship models I will not make a sail. If you wish to make one, Ansel provides guides.

Drill holes midway up the mast and in the sprit, about 30mm from the squared end. On the boat these would have been pinned or lashed together, so run a length of hemp thread through both holes and tie a square knot. The sprit should move easily. At the tip of the mast drill another hole, thread the hemp through that, knot it and leave enough thread at each end of the two ends (stays) so that they could be belayed to the cleats in the boat. Wrap the thread around the mast and sprit, from the mast knot downward, and slide the stay ends into the space between the sprit-end and mast. This is a crude jam cleat. Lay the mast assembly in the boat. The head end might have rested in a wooden brace on the cuddy, been belayed to the cleat or both. The mast foot would have been held in place by the hinged mast step. You can hinge the step and secure the mast, set the mast upright in the solid step, or simply rest the mast assembly in the boat, which is my choice. ( If I choose to spend a few hours on the mast step sometime this winter I may revisit that decision. If I go that far I will also add the mast ramp to the thwarts as shown in the Beetle drawings.)


                                                                     Oars and Paddles

The boat will now sail in light to moderate seas, but in heavy seas and for towing, the oars would have been necessary. The leverage points (the row lock pins) would have been at least mid-point from the load (water) and the power (arms and muscles of the crew): the longer the distance in each direction the greater the advantage of the lever. So the oars were very long.

They would have been constructed using strong (hard) but lightweight wood that derived its strength from a long grain. Ash was a first choice, followed by perhaps spruce. The wood would have been clear, so timber from a trunk would have been sawn lengthwise into rectangular blanks in roughly 2 in x4 in dimensions- still a standard size. The shaft (loom) was probably cut at the same time, to a 2x2 dimension, and the face(blade) left square. Using a spokeshave, or later, an abrasive belt, the square corners of the spool would have been beveled, resulting in an eight-faced spool. The blade would have been likewise been tapered (feathered) from its strongest point (its center) out to its edge and tip. A flatter blade produced more power than a tapered blade. The handle would have been rounded to avoid shredding the rower’s hands, and it would have been about four palms-widths in length. The oars would have been different lengths to reflect the beam(width) of the boat, thus the distance of the rower from the locks. My vote is for the oar, not the wheel, as the first high technology form of transportation.

For those who would argue that the paddle preceded the oar, it can be argued that in all cases strength precedes power, but power wins every time. Anyway, paddles were fashioned like oars from similar but smaller blanks. The main difference in shape is the handle- on the paddle it would have been squared to the face rather than round or rounded as displayed by Goode.  Since the shaft was gripped in the fulcrum hand it would have been more rounded than the oar, but the face would have been quite similar. It is my belief that Goode’s error with his rendering of paddles may be forgiven.

The paddle shape used by Aleutian native whalers is remarkably similar to that of Native Americans, and by the 19th century was well known. Even the kayak paddle was often used as a single-faced design. In all cases the paddle face was relatively thin and long, the shaft was thin and minimal in length and the handle was squared to the shaft. Any text (in this case Goode- who obviously misled a generation of whaleboat fanciers) that does not display a squared handle and long narrow face on a paddle is not based on homework. In Goode’s case two suppositions are possible. When called upon to draw a paddle, an unknown artist was given a baker’s paddle as a model. Or, just as likely, someone on the Smithsonian staff had a sense of humor when it came to confusing future generations of paddle scholars. In either case a correct paddle is just that.

Having survived that controversy, standard 1/8x1/4 and 1/16x1/8 basswood blanks can be cut and shaped as oars and paddles. (I will be using mahogany for the oars.)

The oars would have outlived the boat, and were most likely crafted from blanks delivered by the mill, since a pitman saw could rip the wider planks fairly easily and precisely. Due to the nature of wood grain a knife will wander along the shaft line, so given the support of its blade a wide razor saw will deliver a consistently straight cut, much like that of the pitman saw blade.

The blanks can be marked, but after the first one, that step is probably not necessary. Rip a blank (about 220 mm) so that a square (1/8x1/8) remains on the centerline, leaving about 60mm at one end for the blade. This will be slow, careful going,

When the blank is ripped, bevel each corner of the shaft with the wand. This will create the octagonal shaft.

Lightly score the handle with a knife or saw about 15mm from the end, and whittle a rounded handle, then rotate the handle between two ( folded ) surfaces of a medium sandpaper to complete the rounding.

Using the wand, taper the edges of the blade outward from the center, sanding each face equally. (Count the strokes you make with the wand if you want, but making three passes and then rotating and moving to the next will get you there just as quickly and probably more accurately.)

Slightly round the blade and the oar is ready for striping. The number of stripes will indicate the thwart (rower) location of that oar. Convention suggests stripes around the blade, but the oars could have been marked in a number of different ways, including burning.

The paddles will be constructed in the same manner but in order to create the flat handle the loom will have to be rough-cut (shaved) with a knife and rounded between folded pieces of sandpaper. The blank should be about 110mm long, with all paddles the same length. The purpose of the paddles was to maneuver and power the boat at the last minute when approaching a whale, so it is unlikely that the boat steerer or the harpooner would have needed a paddle. (They should have been very busy with other tasks.) But, make as many paddles as you wish.

The oars and paddles will take some time to construct. (If there was a carpenter on Purchase Street today who specialized in miniature oars I’d pay him a visit instead of making these. Any ready-made model oar will be round, so not acceptable.) To construct these at one time would probably take the better part of a day. I’m going to spend a lot of time on a steering oar, one other oar and one paddle and, based on my presentation plan, make one of each. (Or you can stick to the one-a-day rule and make one whenever you start work on the model. Sooner or later they will all be done.)

In terms of varying oar lengths, start with a steering oar (220mm), first and stroke oars (160mm), second and tub oars (180mm) and mid-oar (200mm).

Oar, Rudder and Tiller

Mast and sprit with shrouds. Steering oar. Rudder with tiller inserted between cheeks. Note that the lower pintle is longer than the upper, and the tiller is removable.

                                   Whaling Lines and Tubs

The equipment on the boats served four purposes, each quite different: attaching to the whale (harpooning), tiring it out (dragging the boat), killing it (as with lances) and towing it to the ship. These were each fulfilled with a caution that the men themselves were not killed in the process.

The boat was under the command of a coxswain (boat steerer). On final approach (navigating line) to the whale he would have traded places with the first oar and become the harpooner. Notes are clear that a single officer was in charge of the boat and these two men traded places. Since a share ( lay) of the voyage’s income was biased toward the sailor sighting the whale and again to the one who killed the whale, the men also changed places based on simple economics. Seniority at sea is still largely based on experience, risk and reward.

The harpoons might be an obvious place to start, but without the tubs and line they were worthless, so let’s start there instead.

The line tubs might have been coopered from the barrel parts stored in the hold of the ship, but they would have been more likely built for their own purpose. There would have been one or more tubs on the boat. The line would have been treated, three-strand Russian hemp (later Manila), slightly more than ½ inch in diameter, with a breaking strength of about 6,000 pounds. A whaleboat hunting right whales might have needed one or two, but sperm whales (who could dive to a depth of ½ mile or more) would have required more tubs (much more line). The primary tub would have held about 1200 feet (225 fathoms) of line and each secondary tub about 400 (75 fathoms); 75 fathoms being the standard delivery length from the rope walk (factory).

The line was never discarded. If it was no longer suitable for whaling it was brought back to port and reused as oakum (caulking) in many other applications.

Consult the Goode drawing. The large tub would have been biased toward the port side between the thwarts and the line reeled out over and twice around the loggerhead, which provided much-needed drag. If you have seen a modern spinning reel, the concept is the same, and any uncontrolled action of the line could have been catastrophic, much like a snag or loop in a fishing line. The tub probably had a slight outward taper, and perhaps a slight depression in its upper rim(lip) that led the line more or less directly straight to the loggerhead.

There are two ways to make the small and large tubs. I’ll make the large tub the hard way and the small tub the easy way.

The blanks for the tub sides are formed much like the ribs and thwart knees, except the wood will be shaped across the grain, rather than with the grain. Cut a length of 1/32 basswood plank (3 or 4 inches wide, across the grain). Steam it and wrap it around something that is nearly the same diameter as the tub (the red handle for the razor saw is close). An overlap will be helpful when the slices (sides) are cut.

Hold it in place by wrapping it with masking tape and let it sit for a few hours or overnight.

Without marking, unwrap enough tape and cut off one end of the formed cylinder. Sand the end and stand the cylinder on a flat surface. If it stands straight upright proceed, otherwise continue sanding until it does.

The remaining cylinder will yield all the sides needed for buckets, tubs, etc..

With that in mind, cut two identical circles from a piece of 1/16th basswood with diameters slightly less than the width of the deck between the last two thwarts.  Use a compass to mark the wood or otherwise carefully note the exact center. Rough-cut the circles with a saw, cutting well outside the marked line. Find a few pieces of flat scrap that will fit inside the marked circles- these will be used as washers to protect the circles.

Find a small bolt (screw) and nut (1/8th is what I am using) and a drill bit (5/32) that is slightly larger than the bolt. Drill holes in the center of each circle at the mark. Drill holes in the center of the scrap pieces and make a sandwich with the circles in the middle, scraps next and finally the nut and bolt head. Tighten the nut until it threatens to dent the scrap washers.

Tub Blank

The line tub blanks before turning. The target pieces are held securely between pieces of scrap and the bolt will be chucked into the drill for rounding, sanding and tapering.



Chuck the bolt into the drill. Fold a piece of loose sandpaper to form a curve in your palm, and trigger the drill. Press the circles into the sandpaper and sand the perimeters until you sand off the inside of the marked line. Using the wand or a flat piece of sandpaper, then sand a slight angle into the edges so that the tub sides will fit at a slight taper. Remove the circles and check for fit to the boat, with a slight allowance for the thickness of the tub sides staves).

(Once off the bolt the wheels will be very weak along the grain, so if they break, complete this entire step, placing the halves together.) Cut three short lengths of 1/8th sticks. The longest should be glued across the grain in the center of the top edge of the smaller circle. The next two should be parallel to the first, but shorter, so as not to interfere with the sides. Glue these in place on the smaller circle, and then glue the smaller (bottom) edge of the larger circle to the top edge of the sticks. This will create a strong frame for a tub with a false bottom that will just slide under a thwart,

If you look straight down at the circles there should be no point that is out-of-round, and the middle stick should cover the holes. Before the glue sets, rotate the tub between your fingers and line up the circles as best you can. Let the circles dry.

Unwrap some more tape and mark a few places on the circumference of the cylinder for the height of the tub. This should be about 10mm (the height of the thwarts from the deck). It can be sanded to fit later.

Slice (saw) off the tub side from the cylinder and glue it to the frame. Since the cylinder was bent across the grain, trimming the edges will be a simple task using the knife, but the end will need to be sanded to an exact fit. Glue and hold in place with masking tape or a rubber band.

Complete the small tub in the same manner, so that it fits between the centerboard box and the ceiling, and under the thwart.

( I don’t cheat often but I did on the small tub. Any woodworking supply or home store sells wooden plugs for flush-cutting and filling things like furniture and floors. These are hardwood and tapered right out of the package, and about the right height for making tubs. I happen to have some of these on hand, so I applied glue to one, wrapped a 10mm slice from the cylinder around the plug and it’s done. Equifinality.)

For buckets and other tub-like objects, slice or sand off sections from a similar plug or a dowel, and continue to saw sides off the cylinder.

The tubs have been sanded and painted black. So long as I understand the theory of the drogue and the small tub (below) I’m not going to worry about the implementation, but if you must drill into the sides of either tub, first apply a dot of clear nail polish at the drill site.

This will protect the wood from splitting along the grain, but not prevent it. If the wood does split, the tub’s staves were split also, so drill the holes, repaint the area and clean out any paint in the holes with the drill.

One of the first skills that an apprentice harpooner needed to master was the laying of the lines into the tubs. The line was by far the heaviest item on the boat and the most difficult to get right. Laying it was a two-man job involving the boat steerer and his apprentice.

To start the laying process the line was first fed through a block or blocks hung from the main spar (horizontal timber) on the mothership. These blocks would be used later in the voyage to hoist blubber. This hoisting, a vertical version of the rope walk, would allow the line to curl on its strands (think of a spinning wheel) as it was laid into the tub. A helper would have twisted the line as it was being laid, to keep out curls and snarls.

The men would have stopped the process as the line was coiled (flaked) to splice (weave) together lengths of rope. Ropewalks (rope factories) at the time could theoretically have delivered a much longer length of line than 75 fathoms. But while there might have been a way to weave, package and cart a 1,000 pound coil to the ship, there would have been no practical way to lift or stow it, either on shore or on the ship. Shorter and lighter coils would have been delivered.

The line would have been stranded using thirteen or fifteen yarns. Using a marlinspike the men would have woven each of the yarns and then strands from a second line into the first. Once two lengths were spliced the flaking (coiling) continued.

If a second tub was to be filled it probably also served as a drogue (dragged object), so at the end of the line (literally) it would have been tossed overboard in hopes of keeping track of the line and the whale. A salt water bucket or a separate drogue might have served the same purpose.

You can prepare the drogue (small tub) by drilling four opposing holes into the sides of the smaller tub. Cut two equal lengths of hemp thread and glue each end into opposing holes. The actual ropes would have been stopper-knotted, and very equal in length, so a bowline could be tied in the end of the main line, forming a four-rope dragging assembly. The ropes would have equalized automatically at the knot as the tub was dragged through the water.

If you have seen a trim (neat) yacht in a harbor, all of the short lengths of line will be flaked (coiled). This called a flemish flake, and results when the line is spun out and around the small inner coil. Some sailors consider it a courtesy to the boat. (You won’t find it on docks or permanent moorings because it collects dirt and the line stains everything it touches).

The whaleboat line would have been laid in reverse, in that it would have been started at the tub edge, coiled to the center, and fed up to the next layer where this was repeated until one tub was full. The line would then have been led over a thwart and the process repeated. (Any knots in the line could have ripped a man’s arm off or torn out chunks of the boat, so they were unheard of.) For this scale, the 20 pound hemp thread looks just about right.

To create line for the tubs it is easiest to reverse the reverse. First, drill a hole through a sturdy length of scrap (1/8x1/4,etc.) and continue drilling through the work table or other thin surface. Drill a second hole close to the first and carve out some of the material between the holes.

Insert a pin through the scrap wood and rub a release (beeswax) on the work area (table), the pin and the stick. Thread a long (150mm) length of hemp up through the second hole in the table. Insert the pin in the table, press the scrap piece onto the table, and begin to wind the hemp, pressing down on the scrap. The coil will be held by the scrap as you wind the hemp to an outside diameter about equal to (or slightly larger than) the diameter of the tub (you will peal off some length of thread to make an exact fit). When you have a coil, use a least-favorite paint brush to lightly brush on a coat of white glue to hold the coil. (Nail polish will create a slight sheen, so if you prefer that look use the nail polish.)

When each coil is dry, lift it off the peg and cut the thread, leaving a 10mm (4 in.) pigtail at each end. The last (top) coil for the large tub will need a bitter end that will reach from the center of the coil, to and around the loggerhead twice, up to the bow with enough line to be loosely coiled in the bow well. You can measure and estimate these distances and add 50% to that length for error.

Starting at the last (small tub), put some glue into the tub. Then place the bottom coil, leaving a pigtail from the outside of the coil to the deck (lay the pigtail on the deck). Cut the center pigtail to any length.  Next, spread (paint) glue on top of the bottom coil. Tuck a short pigtail from the outer edge of the top coil underneath that coil, and press the top coil in place. There will be a pigtail from the center of the top that will be run over the next thwart into the bottom of the next tub. Paint glue in the bottom of the next tub and press the pigtail in place. Trim it as needed. (You will be gluing down the bottom coil in that tub on top of the pigtail from the prior tub.)

In all cases the line now continuously feeds from the bottom coil centers up to the next, out of the tub, up and over a thwart and to the next tub or the harpoon. The tubs would have been in the boat during this process.

Ashley and others make a compelling argument for the placement of a knot joining the lines from the first to second tub and on to the drogue, etc.. If this backward-facing (or forward-facing for that matter) knot could successfully rotate twice around the loggerhead while under extreme strain, then it would also have to pass through the palms of the crew who are tightly gripping the line. This knot would be a further scientific curiosity in that it would not weaken the line, and slide over thwarts and through chocks without snagging. This would be a knot unlike any other.

It is much more likely that the second tub served as backup when hunting right whales- it was most likely used if a calf and mother were together. Sperm whales can dive to depths of 1300 feet, and if they were the target, the line would have been spliced and flaked accordingly, with a likely third tub in place on the port side.

Another accurate presentation would be an eye splice in the bitter end of the small tub’s line, with the standing end of the large tub’s line where it should be- on the tub’s bottom. The line on my boat will have no knots.

Lines In Tubs

The line tubs, flaked and ready. Note the line path from the small tub to the loggerhead.

Much can be forgiven in other details, but not with the line and the harpoons. Under the best of circumstances the fourth oar (oarsman) is seated in an awkward position. When he swivels on the thwart to face the bow, he will straddle the centerboard.


This might be the best point to deal with how I plan to equip (or not) the boat and present the model in its final form.

First, I have given the base a primer coat of black paint followed by a dark blue.

Next, I scanned both halves of the detailed Goode drawing into my computer, matched them up and created a single page that I reduced to fit a standard letter page. The text, as you might suspect, is now unreadable.

I have plenty of white cardstock, so I printed the drawing on a sheet of that, lightly outlined it using the large French curve, and, using the curve as a fence, tore all the paper around the boat, leaving the drawing in the center of a ragged oval.

I had some old combination polyurethane-oak stain on the shelf, and an old plastic cutting board in my workshop. So I sprayed the board with cooking oil as a release, and gave the torn-out picture a coat of the murky polyurethane.

The resultant plaque looks like what it is- a torn-out page from a worn-out book.

(I am certain that anyone with basic craft skills could decoupage or clear-coat the image more impressively. But that’s my story.)

The Real Base will be made from a 1x4x 16 in scrap of red oak. Once the ends were squared using a miter saw, I dressed the edges using a router table. (Since an ogee bit was in the table, that’s the bit of choice.) Since I have old cans of cherry and walnut stain on the shelf, I’ll use the cherry to add red and the walnut for brown, and keep rubbing the stains into the wood until I have a light gunstock shade. I have some old spar varnish, too, so one coat of that will seal the wood and complete the display stand.

With the basic boat and the presentation complete I can add display dressing where and how I wish, without cluttering the boat. An oar, for example, can be placed in the boat, glued to the drawing or set on the base by itself. (If a viewer wants to understand the legend on the drawing, or if I omit some details, I have the Ansel book nearby.)

Now that the plan is complete we can get on with the final details.

The Harpoon

A considerable historic nod must be given to Lewis Temple, an ex-slave who designed and built a toggle-head harpoon that became the standard in the mid-19th century. History suggests that, had he held a patent, he might have earned more money than the modest sums he actually made. He did get a statue out of the deal (in New Bedford), and recognition as the only recorded innovator in the 3,000 year history of the harpoon.

In the crucial test of a whaler’s skill, the criteria for a passing grade in harpoon was that the first two, once stabbed into the whale, stayed put until the whale was killed.

If you choose to fabricate a “Temple head” harpoon, Ansel offers a suggestion. Since I don’t particularly care to dwell on harpoon barbs I prefer a single-barb design.

The iron shaft of the harpoon was about four feet long and resembled a jousting lance, with its covered cone. It was forged and shaped at the sharpened end, and formed into a (sometimes slotted) cone at the other (pole) end. As we fashion a typical harpoon, the technology should begin to make sense. It obviously worked well for hundreds of years, but it should be noted that the best harpoon (iron) was bent, torn apart and otherwise ruined in the course of achieving success. And a recent news article has reported that a whalebone harpoon head was discovered in the blubber of a whale, dating both at about a century.

Using more of the 20 gauge brass wire, flatten one end with a hammer. This will create an oval, so file off one edge so that it is flat with the shaft. Using the nail clipper, score a barb into the other oval side, and file into a barb. Nip a sharp point slightly off-center, to look like a single face shown in Ansel. A double face (barb) can be formed the same way.

Using a 1/32 (.031) bit, drill a deep hole (30mm or so) in one end of a 1/8th dowel. Cut that end to a length of about 1 inch, and use a tool or drill to sharpen it to a point that is about 5mm long. Cut the now-barbed the wire to a length of about 70mm and insert it into the hole at the sharp point of the dowel- it should extend into the dowel past (deeper than) the pointed area. Trim the wire so that the barbed end extends about 40mm from the wooden tip. Pull the wire out, and then use it to push the end of a long length ( 6 inches or more)of thin (sewing) thread into the hole. Pull the wire out a bit, apply a dot of nail polish and press the wire and thread into the hole.

You may note in the photo that I am using a fly typing bobbin. That and hackle clamps are often useful in rigging large models.

Using the saw, cut (score) around the dowel at the edge of the sharpened area and then continue cutting around the wood until the saw reaches the wire. Using the knife, whittle away the unshaped wood, leaving the wire centered in the sharpened, or cone area. The harpoon will have its cone fixed to its shaft and a small length of wire ready for insertion into a wooden handle.

You can serve (wrap tightly) the cone with thread now or later. In my case later seems easier.

The wooden harpoon handle was usually made from the trunk of saplings. This made it strong, disposable, mostly round, and with the bark left in place, roughened. If searching in your back yard I would have chosen a thin trunk with at least one slightly-protruding branch stem to give more leverage at the grip. (If you go that way, also find a twig that looks like the double-forked harpoon rest shown in the texts. That’s also how those were usually made.)

For the model I’m simply going to rough-rip and whittle (bevel the corners) of a 70mm length of 1/8th basswood, drill a hole in the center of one stick, and insert (glue) the small length of wire (from the previous step) to complete the basic harpoon.

The cone can now be served (winding the thread tightly around the cone as you wind it up from the tip toward the handle.  Applying nail polish to the cone will help hold the threads as you wrap, and turning the handle as you go is easier than applying tension to the thread.

This is basically how many of the rigging lines on the ship itself would have been wrapped if they were subject to chafing or heavy loads.

Stain the handle if you wish, but don’t apply a shiny coat. Paint the metal before bending (connecting) the eye to the line. (This will make sense after a step or two.)

Make as many varied harpoons as you think are appropriate, but you will probably only need one pair.

To rig the harpoons, first fashion (glue) an eye splice like the ones used on the davit blocks, or weave one into one end of  20-pound hemp thread. The harpoon’s shaft (barbed end) would have gone through this eye, and the harpoon would have been secured to the line as the eye was forced onto the cone. An alternative could be presented by hold the harpoon shaft (iron) across the eye and run the standing end of the line through the opening.

In either case, tug the line until the eye is seated snugly around the cone. Run the line up to the bottom portion of the wood, loop it around the handle and back under itself, with the standing end free. Lightly pull the standing end. This is the first of two hitches on the handle.

On the ship, one end of the handle would have been rested (braced) on a winch or windlass. The open cone and the tub line or lanyard  would have been placed on the other end of a handle and the line would then have been tensioned by the windlass. The cone was forced onto the handle with such force that in some cases the iron cone failed (cracked). The wrapping (serving) would have helped hold the cone together, and this method of securing the handle was a reliable test of how well the harpoon, the cone and the eye splice in the tub line or the lanyard would hold up under the real force of a whale. Once these elements were tested and seated, the tub line would have been flaked back into its tub and the harpoon rested on its rack in the boat, along with the second harpoon on its lanyard.

The knots on the handle are half-hitches. These are similar to the hitch used on the belaying pins earlier. Their usefulness lies in the fact that once the handle or the belaying pin is removed, the hitch disappears. The harpoon probably had one hitch near the cone, and two more near the other end of the handle.

The objective was to create a sturdy appliance for darting the whale, and if the barb held fast, the weight of the whale pulling the line (boat) would bear on the handle, creating leverage. The lever (handle) would bend the iron shaft, making it almost impossible to pull loose, and once that was done, the handle should have pulled out from the cone, fallen away, and the hitches vanished. The importance of this sequence explains at least two patents that dealt with the release of the handle from the cone and shaft.

Whether connected or not, the barb, the cone, the winding on the cone, the eye splice on the cone and the half-hitches on the handle are details that are just as important as the line in the tubs. While a lot of other details varied, these did not. If any of these don’t look like the real thing, well- start them again.

We have fashioned a lanyard on the primary harpoon’s handle and a hitch on the cone because this is a model, but as a practical matter these did not exist. The hitches would have been formed first, the shaft run through the eye splice on the end of the tub line and then the hitches tightened as the eye was pulled snug to the cone.

The first knot so far in the model, a bowline, was probably the only true knot on the entire ship, and was formed at the end of the secondary harpoon’s lanyard as a secured loop around the tub line. This location is a good candidate for how it got its name. (I am acquainted with veteran Coast Guard volunteers who perspire over the tying of this knot and Cub Scouts who complete it perfectly in less than a couple of seconds.)

The whale was darted twice, if possible. If the first harpoon pulled loose and the second one held, the first shaft would have jammed into the bowline on the second harpoon’s lanyard. If only the primary harpoon was used, the second was thrown or yanked overboard and retrieved later. There was no time for tying knots at this stage of the process.

The Goode drawing shows whipping of the line between hitches. This implies that either the handle was to be retrieved after it had been torn from its socket, or light whipping kept the hitches tight to the handle. Since most documentation of the harpoon indicates that the handle was disposable, the latter seems the better choice: the former makes sense only if the harpoon pulled free. The whipping does not seem all that important, but add it if you disagree.

While this harpoon discussion sounds like a tidy working arrangement, it was far from it. And when you consider all of the loads, work steps and the basic uncertainties of men, whales and ocean that all came together in a matter of seconds, nobody was asking if they were there yet.

But we are there when it comes to completing the essentials of the model.  From the texts you know that there are a number of optional details that can be added, or not.

                                    Finishing Touches and Options

The killing lances were a major item, as was the boat spade and towing toggle. They were essential to the death and disposition of the whale. But up to this point the whale could very well have escaped, as many did.  I choose to leave it that way.

In terms of a compass, this might have been used in some areas of the Pacific where much longer approaches to a sperm whale might have occurred. As for knives, it is unlikely that any line would have been cut, but the master of the boat would have accomplished this from wherever he was located at the time: it would have been his rigging knife, worn in a sheath. I can’t envision an emergency cask on the boat- the men would have carried items like biscuits and tobacco in ditty bags that were worn belted. (Studying the history of the phosphorous match calls into question why tobacco would have been carried at all.) A fresh water cask makes sense, along with semaphore (signal) flags, a sea anchor (drogue) and a lantern keg. A bomb gun, hatchet and foghorn are listed by Ansel, but he and Goode must have relied on the same draftsman.

You have probably noticed that we have not added the oar chocks or the raised rowlock at the tub oar. I have a suspicion that the former would have been looped or eyed pieces of rope or lanyards, and the latter, if employed at all, would have been inserted into the gunwale. Please add them if your research is compelling.

As for my model it is semi-permanently sitting on a new shelf on the wall. My tools are stowed away where I can get at them as needed. Paints, glues and brushes are back in their carrying can and I have a nice supply of scraps for adding any and all of the details that I may add, or not.

Having set it on the wall amidst my little fleet one fact jumped out- the boat was, well, very white: at a distance it looked like a lifeguard boat. Good for a real whaleboat- not so good as part of a collection. So, it came off the cranes and davits, received a coat of grey, was re-rigged, and now fits in harmoniously with its neighbors.


Copyright 2010-2013 Dean A Beeman All Rights Reserved