Beauty in the balance

I made my first canoe because I didn’t have money to buy a commercially-produced canoe. It is simply a way to get a canoe with less cash out of our family. I used a table saw to cut the strips and the table saw wasn’t new or in good shape. There was some variation. I didn’t have a planner to get the strips even. I didn’t have a router to mill the strips into bead and cove. I just shaped them and glued them together over the forms as best as I could. My goal was to have a boat to put in the water, not to create a work of art. As is true with every venture, there were mistakes. Some pieces didn’t fit perfectly. Sometimes I measured twice and cut once and still made the cut in the wrong place. I didn’t have a good technique for forming gunwales. My thwarts were generally too thick. But when all was said and done, I put the boat into the water and it paddled fairly well. We had a lot of fun with that boat. We did a little fishing. It was good for morning paddles. I’m not the world’s best varnisher, but I spread a few coats of varnish on the boat and it looked good, especially from a little distance.

I got a lot of compliments on that boat. People told me it looked pretty.

I was more careful on the next boat. I had obtained a router and a router table and was able to mill the strips more precisely. I was patient and scarfed a lot more strips so that I could cut out and discard imperfections in the wood. I sanded and fared the boat better. I bought better wood for the gunwales and thwarts. It is a pretty boat.

My boats, however, are not museum pieces. They are not works of art.

In the balance of utility verses beauty, they lean towards utility. All of my boats have been out in rivers and lakes. All of them have encountered rocks and gravel beaches. All of them have had nicks and scratches. That’s the way I use my boats.

A few years ago I made a rowboat and decided not to make the finish varnish. I painted the boat. It is built to what is known in the trade as “workboat standard.” It is still a pretty boat. The shape is nice. I don’t worry about the fact that there are a couple of runs in the finish. I like to row the boat.

I’ve seen boats where the builder cut strips and kept them in order so that they could be installed with mirrored grain patterns. I’ve seen boats that are fit together with precision that matches or exceeds fine furniture. I’ve seen boats that gleam with layer upon layer of flawless varnish. I’ve seen boats hanging in office buildings to add beauty to the room. I’ve seen boats in museums. I admire that level of workmanship. I probably am not capable of such fine work. I certainly am not patient enough to produce that level of work when it comes to a recreational canoe or kayak.

I was pondering the balance of beauty and utility yesterday. I have a kayak project in my garage that has been going on for more than three years. Part of the delay is my busy lifestyle. Part of the delay is that I chose a complex pattern for the strips of wood. The most recent delay is that the hull and deck don’t fit precisely. This is due, for the most part, to the fact that I had the two halves of the boat separated for too long. The hull was stored in very good circumstances and held it shape very well. The deck was stored upside down and I worked it pretty hard to get the inside sanded and ready to be sealed. In the process, I spread it slightly. Now it has to be gently pulled back into shape. I’m pondering just how to do that without causing any damage and without having the tension misshape the hull. The hull needs to be just right in order for the boat to paddle well. So, rather than force things, I’m pausing to ponder. I’ll come up with a solution, and have had some good ideas, but I’m not quite ready to get in there with the straps and such.

As I pondered, I was looking at the details of the grain in the wood. Wood grain is very beautiful. But its beauty doesn’t lie in symmetry. It doesn’t lie in absolute straight and parallel lines. I try to choose wood with straight grains, but even so, there are variations. And some of the most beautiful wood has swirls and variations in the grain patterns caused by branches and curves in the way the tree grew.

Natural wood is so beautiful that one who works with wood owes the world an item that has a bit of beauty. To take something as beautiful as a tree and cut it up to make another object, it seems to me, requires a certain amount of thought and care. One doesn’t want one’s life’s work to result in a less beautiful world. But the beauty of wood doesn’t lie in perfection. In a way, I think that the beauty of wood lies in the ability of trees to adapt to their circumstances. I’ve gone for walks in the woods and marveled at the way a tree can cling to a rock, or endure storms so violent that the tree is twisted. I’ve noticed how trees grow differently when they are very close to other trees. The location of a tree has a lot to do with its shape. Trees are able to adapt to all sorts of different environments. They have a perfect balance of beauty and utility.

My boats aren’t perfect. They are good enough. They are fun to paddle. And they look good enough to earn me compliments when I travel with them.

Still, I’d like the one in the shop to be really stunning. I can imagine a boat that is more beautiful than I have the skill to create. But if it stays in the shop forever, never finished, it doesn’t justify the work I’ve invested. It needs to be finished to become a boat. And the finishing will be less than perfect.

Life is a balance.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!