Monday, December 10, 2012

Tools of the Trade: Making Sails

The sailmaker's art has always been just that: an art. Passengers aboard ships in the Great Age of Sail commented again and again on the precision of sailors making sails. This all important craft required an equally precise set of tools. Generally speaking, these were:

The sailmaker's bench
A bench hook to hold the sailcloth taut while sewing seams
Needles of different sizes, and a small case - usually of leather or cloth - to hold them
Stabbers and spikes used to make holes in the canvas for fitting eyelets, cringles and so on
Knives, scissors and sharpening stones for both
A seam rubber for smoothing seams, working the rope into the surface of the sail to reduce chafing when the sail was being hoisted up or taken in
Seam gauges and a tape measure
At least two sailmaker's palms; one for seaming and the other for roping. The former being more delicate and the latter having at least two layers of leather at the thumb to guard against the sailmaker being cut by the heavy rope or twine.
Wax for lubricating the ropes. This had the added benefit of waterproofing the rope or twine as well.

Here is an early 19th century recipe for sailmaker's wax from Peter H. Spectre's A Mariner's Miscellany:

4 pounds of beeswax
5 pounds "slush" or tallow from the galley
1 pound turpentine

All these ingredients should be melted together in a double boiler, and then turned out after the congealed for use in the form of small cubes or chunks.

As Robert Whyte wrote after his experiences at sea in the mid-19th century:

I was surprised at the expedition and neatness with which [the sailors] sewed with their coarse needles and long thread.

The art is still alive and well today and will hopefully be passed on to the next generation, and the next, and the next.

Header: Toy Ships by John Thomas Peele via American Gallery

7 comments:

Le Loup said...

Great post, thank you.
Regards, Keith.
http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com

Timmy! said...

This would take a lot of skill and practice, but I guess if you are out at sea, you'd have time to practice and you'd definitely want to get it right...

Pauline said...

Keith: As always, thank you so much. I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

Timmy!: I think you're exactly right. Sailors are expert at putting their long hours at sea to good use.

Prince of Pinkness said...

Hi, Pauline! Great to hear the sail making craft still survives today. To think of all the painstaking care that went into manufacturing sails is boggling enough, that's only one part of the ship! Very interesting read, as always. :)

Especially enjoyed the recipe for sailmaker's wax!

Pauline said...

Hey, Scott! Good to hear from you. I hope your holidays are bright.

There's no question that it's meticulous work, and something that I'd never try to master. I don't have the patience.

Sailors up until the mid-19th century were also excellent tailors sewing not only for themselves but for others, including ladies, who were in need of outfitting aboard ship.

Caroline said...

This is fascinating! I helped raise a sail once on a tall ship - not easy! But very cool to have done.

Pauline said...

Thank you so much, Caroline; I appreciate you taking the time to leave me a comment.

That is good, sturdy work, isn't it? No wonder sailors have broad shoulders.