Art & Craft

This Tiny School Builds Boats the Old Way

Out on the Olympic Peninsula, the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding brings new life to seagoing tradition.

By Allison Williams May 29, 2019 Published in the June/July 2019 issue of Seattle Met

A student leans over a long, thin plank of wood and carefully shaves it with a block plane—a golden brown curl makes a delicate tumble to a pile of shavings at his feet. The workshop has a pure lumber smell; if a scented candle smelled this good, it would be an expensive one. But the doors are open to the Olympic Peninsula waterfront, so the occasional tickle of the saltwater flats–aroma drifts over the skeletons of half-built boats, belly up in construction. A ship built a century ago probably looked identical to these.

The Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding sits on the Port Hadlock waterfront, a hamlet just south of Port Townsend. The school offers associate degree programs in, yes, making wooden boats, in traditional (no glue or solvents) and contemporary methods. That traditional track means manipulating wood much the same way shipwrights have for centuries; after a plank has been properly shaved, a half-dozen students slip it into a long, narrow box filled with steam, “baking” it to make it pliable. After about a half hour, they bend the warmed wood delicately over the hull of their work in progress and clamp it into place.

Students start classes in Port Hadlock with every level of craftsmanship skill—including none—and leave with various goals; many work in the shipyards of the Peninsula, but others go on to careers in cabinet making or working for SpaceX.

This year, the school expands with a marine systems program, half as long as the boat building one but crucial for anyone who wants to fix or build an operating vessel. Classes cover seagoing electronics, plumbing, propulsion, hydraulics, and more. On day two of the six-month diploma program, a handful of students sit around an instructor who starts with the basics, explaining a diagram of a tipped craft with the words “Capsize” written underneath; even a total landlubber can follow lesson one. Behind them is a tangle of wires, pipes, and working diesel engines they’ll tinker with in the coming months.

The boats constructed here resemble works of art, but that doesn’t mean the craftsmen want them to stay that way. One team readies a pump-out boat that will perform state-funded septic services for local marinas; another is a racing wherry for a 70-mile human-powered race from Tacoma to Port Townsend. “We build them to use them,” says chief instructor Sean Koomen. “They’re supposed to be in the water.”

Perched over the south end of Port Townsend Bay, the school employs various traditional and modern tools, including some students make themselves.

Visitors are welcome to tour the in-progress workrooms the first Friday of each month, and the newly reopened Ajax Cafe brings an eclectic restaurant, dishing local oysters and buzzy nightlife, back to the waterfront. In 2017 the Port Hadlock community donated funds so the school could purchase the historic building where the eatery once sat shuttered among campus buildings.

For all the tradition on display at the school, it’s not particularly folksy or quaint; students do complex, concrete work at a swift pace. But Koomen can’t help but get philosophical when he sums up his craft. The day they first place a completed boat in the water is always a little tense, he notes. “There’s a lot of luck involved in boat building—either you’re lucky or you’re not.”

All In on Wooden Boats

The Northwest goes nuts for timber-made vessels. Here’s where to find them throughout Puget Sound.

The Center for Wooden Boats (Lake Union)

The maritime education center keeps historic craft in the water, from gillnetters to steam launches. At the Lake Union location next to MOHAI, rent a boat, take a public sail, enroll in classes, or just wander the docks and the new Olson Kundig–designed program center. Cama Beach on Camano Island is home to what’s essentially the summer camp spinoff; rent a rowboat, kayak, or crab pot on the beach.

Wooden Boat Festival

Port Townsend’s famed fest is a 43-year-old tradition, the largest gathering of wooden boats in the country. The weekend is dotted with public sails, sea chantey performances, and scavenger hunts. Sept 6–8,

Northwest Maritime Center

Parked at one end of Port Townsend’s historic Victorian main drag, the center is the launch point for the grueling no-motor Race to Alaska. The Wooden Boat Chandlery shop hawks outdoor gear, while on the second floor of the complex a nautical library assembles adventure narratives, maritime art, and a navigational chart collection.

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