Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Why use hand tools?

Visitors to the Adirondack Museum’s boat shop often are puzzled by the overwhelming use of hand tools when building a guideboat. To the layman, hand tools are something from the past, something that is irrelevant now that we have all manner of power tools, even portable ones undreamed of only a few years ago. Then, when they view the boat shop video of Willard Hanmer building a guideboat in the 1950’s, they learn that he “mechanized all aspects of building a guideboat that he could”. So why isn’t the Museum’s boat builder doing the same?

I once met a cabinet maker who still uses hand tools for much of his work. Of course, he had access to any power tool that he wanted. He claimed that he could perform a wood working task as fast, if not faster, using hand tools than when he used power equipment. The difference, he said, was that there was no set up time when using hand tools.

But there is something else about using hand tools. It is superbly expressed in the excerpt below from the book The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. The book is the story of the University of Washington’s rowing team that won the 1936 Olympic Gold Medal despite the best efforts of Hitler’s Germany to stop them.

One of the characters in the book is George Yeoman Pocock, and English rowing shell builder and authority on rowing who was recruited by the University to build their rowing shells.

“Pocock didn’t just build racing shells. He sculpted them.

Looked at another way, a racing shell is a machine with a narrowly defined purpose; to enable a number of large men or women, and one small one to propel themselves over an expanse of water as quickly and efficiently as possible. Looked at another way, it is a work of art, an expression of human spirit, with its unbounded hunger for the ideal, for beauty, for purity, for grace. A large part of Pocock’s genius as a boatbuilder was that he managed to excel both as maker of machines and as an artist.

Growing up and learning his trade from his father at Eton, he had used simple hand tools-saws, hammers, chisels, wood planes and sanding blocks. For the most part he continued to use these same tools even as more modern, laborsaving power tools came to the market in the 1930’s. Partly it was because he believed the hand tools gave him more precise control over the fine details of the work. Partly, it was because he could not abide the noise the that power tools made. Craftsmanship required thought, and thought required a quiet environment. Mostly, though, it was because he wanted more intimacy with the wood-he wanted to feel the life in the wood with his hands, and in turn impart some of himself, his own life, his pride and his caring, into the shell.”

The parallels to guideboat building re uncanny. A guideboat is a machine designed to carry at least two men with their duffel, and perhaps a hound or two, and maybe a buck, across rough water far into the wilderness. It must be light enough for one man to carry yet sturdy enough to last for years. And every one who has built a traditional guideboat has been complimented on what a work of art it is. The reaction is usually instinctive when someone views a guideboat for the first time; for an instant one stops breathing and then “Wow! How beautiful!”

Who, having built a guideboat in the traditional fashion, hasn’t felt part of him or her taken up by the boat while making such and extraordinary craft.

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One Response to Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Why use hand tools?

  1. I just read the quote in “Boys in the Boat” about Pocock’s use of hand tools . . . and why . . . last night. Loved it, especially as I am seller of hand tools.
    Robert Larson

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