The Fine Art Of Boat Building

Inside Pease Boat Works and Marine Railway, brothers/founders Brad and Mike Pease and their crew build wooden boats by hand with painstaking craftsmanship.

BY MARLISSA BRIGGETT | PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAY ELLIOTT

Eliphamets Road meanders past pretty little cottages as it makes its way to the water. As you turn into the driveway of number forty-three, what resembles a barn unexpectedly appears, humming with activity. Your senses are on full alert: the sweet smell of freshly cut wood, the feel of sawdust underfoot, the sounds of hammer and saws doing what they were simply made to do.

Marine tracks lead from the edge of Mill Pond to the railway shed on the building’s south side. Vaulting doors beckon you in to the main bay, where its dozens of glass panes reflect the pond outside. Within the building, even more glazed surfaces separate the rooms from one another. The builders work in this structure recycled from the old Naval Air Station in North Chatham where it housed blimps during World War I. In the 1930s, naval architect Spaulding Dunbar moved the building to its present location. It was destined to be a house where boats would be built, where antique tools would still be relevant and where an ancient tradition would remain alive.

‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats…Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular…” —Rat in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Even the occasional makeshift tinkering gives this place soul. Just take a look in the back of the building where a hole has been cut into the side of the wall to accommodate a mast that is too long for inside. “These old traditional boatyards that have been around for generations exist primarily to accommodate projects and boats. You can see boarded up holes which represent different projects.” says Mike Pease “We have a slight hesitation before putting the saw to the wall—but it’s only a slight hesitation,” adds his brother Brad.

Their laid back approach to the building’s façade also manifests itself in the daily “coffee communions” held each morning when the captain’s bell is rung at ten o’clock (give or take a few minutes). This is a time for the crew to gather together and enjoy each other’s company. They’re not supposed to talk about work during coffee communions but they often do. A couple of times a week, someone may run out after work and pick up a six pack for an informal happy hour. It’s not the typical TGIF happy hour where workers escape their office cubicles. Rather it’s a time to sit in the shadows of their projects and experience the camaraderie that comes from building magical vessels. Dust-covered bottles of Veuve Cliquot littering the workshop attest to the fact that their work is one that is ultimately celebratory. But the long journey to that initial launch—and the current project will take ten months of daily labor— inspires a positive spirit and high energy among the employees.

The crew work together on various projects: new designs, restoration, and some maintenance. Master carpenter Brendan Ahearn carefully pins down architectural drawings with weights. He is crafting the inner stem of their current main project, a 40’ auxiliary yawl designed in the tradition of the Concordia. Nine planks of old growth fir are curved together and will be clamped together overnight to cure. This stem will form the backbone of the boat whose frame rises like the skeleton of a whale in the main area of the workshop.

Each carpenter has his own tool box filled with old chisels, saws, rasps and low angle planes. They use old and new handsaws, and even some Japanese style handsaws. “Often, the tools are antiques because they aren’t made anymore,” Brad Pease explains. “The older guys come with their fine tools. You always use your own. It’s very personal.”

To wrap your thoughts around how much nurturing goes into building these boats, consider this: After they finish planking the hull of their current project, they will “fair” it so that it is smooth and free from imperfections. To do this, they will sand it completely— twice. The final level of fairing requires three carpenters feeling the entire hull carefully with their hands to discover bumps they may have missed. It takes two full days for them to complete the fairing process. And they must fair the hull more than a half dozen times, whenever a new layer is added.

Wood, unlike fiberglass, is a living, breathing material. As it dries, it creates closed air pockets. According to Mike Pease, these air cells number in the thousands per square inch of wood. Even if they close their eyes, Mike and Brad can stand on a boat in the water and tell you whether it’s made of natural wood or a synthetic material. The sound gives it away. The water slaps up against the fiberglass as if it’s hitting something rigid. But when it hits the wood, it’s quieter and more organic.

After building individually designed, custom boats (called “one off” boats) for nearly thirty years, Brad and Mike Pease decided last year to create a classic boat which would serve as a stock model for the boatyard and could be built in tandem with the larger projects. The resulting First Light is a 26-foot center-console recreation boat that combines speed and accessibility in a classic form. The Peases designed the First Light for ultimate versatility. “You can travel to Nantucket in an hour. You can fish the rips at Monomoy,” says Mike Pease. “You can use them as picnic boats, put ’em right up on the beach and step out.”

The Pease brothers have chosen their livelihood carefully, basing their decision not on such pedestrian matters as profit, retirement accounts or job security. Their decision was based on something far more elemental: a passion for boats. “We are real believers in the historical tradition of boating. It’s a belief system. It’s not the money. It’s the lifestyle,” they say, gesturing to the architectural drawings and pictures of boats that adorn the cluttered front office. “Where else are a couple of working guys going to get the chance to be around these boats?”

Seeing architectural drawings transformed into boats with beauty and utility is what keeps them going. “I think there’s magic in moving from two dimensional plans to three dimensional objects with form, function and beauty. Sculptors and artists really admire a well crafted boat. The magical thing is not only is it an amazing piece of sculpture but it has a tangible function. To watch it develop in 3-D, it’s magic. It still makes my heart happy,” Brad says. “I’m thrilled and blown away by the knowledge,” adds Mike, “that in sixty years, this boat is still going to be doing its thing.”

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