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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Steel, Leather, Ropework, Pine Tar and Marlin Spikes

Since coming back from Cuba, I've had the opportunity to work with Amistad on two occasions. First, I met the ship in New London, CT, for the formal homecoming celebration, which involved a lot of events in conjunction with the Customs House Museum. This past Friday, I was back with the crew for the Wooden Boat Show at Mystic Seaport, where we had more than 700 people visit the schooner over the course of the day.

Aboard a tall ship, the general rule is that you don't go on deck, whether you're on duty or not, without your rig. At its barest minimum, a sailors rig consists of a knife and marlinspike. Mine started out as a Myerchin fixed blade rigging knife and spike, which came with a (rather crummy) nylon sheath.

Over the years, my rig has evolved to include a bit more. I quickly replaced the right-handed sheath with a leather sheath that I made for myself. A couple years ago, one of the blacksmiths at Mystic Seaport made me a marlin spike, which has replaced the glittering chrome one that came with my knife. That, of course, required a second generation sheath to accommodate the new spike. I've rounded out the rig with a leather and brass lanyard keeper, a leatherman supertool, a mini mag-lite (with red lens for night vision), and a matching red carabiner for securing the flashlight's lanyard or other general uses. All of it hangs on a US Army "Class A" belt, though I'd love to replace the belt with a leather one, when I come across a suitable one.


My leatherwork has had many people admire (and copy) it. I made my sheath out of heavy grade leather that I wet formed so that the knife and spike would both fit in it perfectly, locking in place instead of having to have a keeper strap to fiddle with -- a particular nuissance when working aloft. As a final step, I treated the sheath in the cuir bouili method, a technique I learned in college when I was part of the Society for Creative Anachronism and was interested in learning how to make leather scale armor. To do this, I immersed the completed sheath in melted paraffin. (See, folks, those old church candles DO still have some good use left in them!) The real benefit of the cuir bouili method is that the finished leather does not absorb moisture, so it never loses its form, even in the wet conditions that a sailor's rig is constantly exposed to. Finally, a matching lanyard keeper was a cinch to make. The lanyards are made of tarred seine twine, as old-style tarred marline is somewhat difficult to find.


This past Friday, I stopped in at the booth of knife-maker Capt. John Johnson at the Wooden Boat Show. His knives were fantastic and we got to talking about the sheaths that he included with them, which were only loosely fit to the knives. We discussed the wet-forming and wax-hardening techniques that I use on my rigging knife sheaths and I volunteered to bring my rig by later in the day so he could see the end result. Shortly after 5:00, I showed back up and we spent a good bit of time in show and tell.

As I was leaving, Capt. John, invited me to take one of the marlinspikes tht he had made -- out of the actual spikes of swordfish, with beautiful and functional knot work. (Go ahead and click on the picture so you can see a large version of his beautiful work, as well as the nice work that the Mystic Seaport blacksmith did.) Capt. John finished his knot work on this spike with pine tar, so it'll last forever and has a fantastic smell. As it doesn't have anywhere to attach a lanyard, I won't be wearing it as part of my rig, but it'll have a prominent spot in my ditty bag, right next to my ropeworking palm, sailmaking needles, whipping twine and cake of beeswax.


As it turns out, the marlin fish takes its name from the marlinspike, not the other way around. The fish, in fact, has only been referred to as a marlin since about 1917, whereas the name of the marlinspike (also "marlinespike") tool has been around since 1626. Marline, (also "marlin" or "marling") the two-stranded line, has been around since 1375 and owes its name to the Dutch "Marl," meaning "to twist" and "Lijn," meaning "line." Who knew???


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Perfect! I just picked up some leather peices to make sheaths for my rig and will definetely try out your method. Thank you for writing.