Traditional craftsmen I admire
Traditional craftsmen are like chicken’s teeth, but I have been fortunate to work on many types of decorating projects on both land and sea, and met tradesmen of the highest calibre. The very best all seem to share many traits, but the most outstanding, I think, is a generosity of spirit and willingness to offer help and advice.
While painting a classic wooden boat in San Fransisco, I came across some craftsmen who simply rock, dude. (I also met some original cowboys, who are living proof of the joke “painters wanted, boat owners need not apply.” but that is another story.)
Meet Jamie White
I learnt some good tips about painting boats from Jamie White. He is actually a traditional rigger par excellence, but having rebuilt his own Tahiti ketch, (probably 3 times at the last count?) he got to implement some useful olde worlde painting knowledge, which I have gladly consumed.
At some point during his 20-month project (originally scheduled to take 6 weeks) he was ready to seal the interior of his hull (refastened twice at great and unnecessary expense!). He chose traditional white lead paint to protect the timber. Unavailable in the green West coast of America, you just order it from the East coast and have it shipped.
Jamie’s traditional lead-painted hull will be good for decades, it won’t peel and block up his bilge with paint chips, and as he says, whenever making a decision on what to do with a wooden boat – if the product or technique was good enough for the old time sailors who rounded Cape Horn 30-odd times, it will probably be good enough for me.
Jamie is an expert, maybe even world-leading?, in hand-spliced galvanised steel rigging. As part of my contribution to the preservation of Jamie’s old school ways, I ended up dangling from a mast applying a thin coat of tar-linseed oil and turps mix to the stays using a painter’s mitten. If you follow that trapeze routine annually, he assures me the galvanised wire, bound with cord will last 40 years, before you have to even start worrying about their condition.
That is a brief glimpse of what I learnt from master craftsman, Jamie, who is not a master painter, but when it comes to rigging, he is your man. If he’s good enough to keep Johnny Depp afloat…
Jamie is a master rigger who impressed me because he was the only rigging expert among many who was open-minded enough to say that, whichever system of rig you use, modern, traditional, stainless, galvanised… if done properly, they all work as safely as the next one. Not so the majority of modern specialists who have left the past long behind, and pooh-pooh anything that isn’t blingy, shiny and expensive.
Jamie was also the only expert to point out that lo-tech rigging (bog standard galvanised cable wrapped in tarred cord) can work safely for up to 100 years. Compare that to the usual 7 years recommended replacement cycle of modern stainless steel systems. And how would he know about the extraordinary longevity of traditional rust-prone cable?
He is aging well, but not 100 years well. By day, Jamie was the youthful foreman of the team looking after the Balclutha square rigger in San Francisco docks, and he has taken apart (and put back) the original galvanised steel cabling first installed at the end of the 19th century.
A craftsman abroad
Jamie is an American with a passport, and he actually used it when he was seconded to Glasgow to run the rigging restoration project on the Glenlee, a mammoth 3-masted square rigger. The numbers he quoted for splices and cabling were mind-boggling. 271 splices and nearly inch and a half thick cables. Compare that to the handful of delicate splices on the 34 foot wooden ketch I worked on.
And as well as hundreds of fun stories about the vagaries of the Scots, (a colleague who promised him a trip to the Isle of Skye, actually took him on a Skye malt whiskey binge at his local Glasgow pub) it is quite the thing to hear his Hollywood sail tales too. He was a consultant on the Pirates of the Caribbean films, where I believe he worked as an understudy to his current understudy on the Balclutha, Courtney. (Hope that description of Jamie and Court’s work relationship makes sense.) Two less star struck folks you could ever hope to meet.
Rigger, craftsman, teacher man.
Even more strength to Jamie’s master craftsman elbow is his willingness to teach his skills to anyone with an interest and a pulse. Jamie supplied the traditional rigging on our ketch, and spent a day literally teaching us the ropes, splicing and dressing the cable. It was fiddly for someone like me with two left thumbs, but he made it look so easy, which isn’t surprising. He has been doing it for decades, often on the high seas with water in his ears. And when the mast went up, he showed me how to hold it all in place with a few cables tied off on temporary rings, before tensioning the stays by hand with a piece of string and a knot.
That is the sort of low tech high quality craftsmanship that I really appreciate, and when in the yard, I was all ears picking up on the traditional modus operandi for painting boats – turpentine-linseed oil-pine tar goop; cotton caulk…
Online master crafstmen
Trawling through the online misinformation about boat painting, there is one person I would recommend you listen to, every time. Jay Greer, who I only know from forums, is probably my ultimate resource for boat painting questions.
And getting back to lead paint, how cool to learn how to make your own. This is the recipe for red lead primer from another master craftsman Bob Smalser
Empty 1-gallon paint can
50-50 Boiled Linseed Oil -Turpentine mixture
1 cup Japan Drier
3lbs Lead Tetraoxide Powder
Mix cold and stir well before use
Lead Tetraoxide costs around 6 dollars a pound at vendors of fireworks components
I also follow a fair few masters of their craft on Twitter and highly recommend the facility to learn and banter and share with all sorts of gifted folks.
Craftsmen closer to home
I have a short list of UK associated tradesmen and woman who I highly recommend. We all seem to share the same passion and interest in our trade, and try to do the very best work for our clients at all times. Master painter, Mark Nash, is a 3rd generation craftsman, specialist in hand-painted kitchens. Every specialist on the list has a talent and a speciality that sets them apart from the rest of the crowd.
Old school suppliers whose owners have a strong footing in the trade are rare too. Broken Cross paints in Macclesfield, run by a former high end decorator, are without doubt the best stocked independent decorator merchant in the North West outside of London.
Paints and Interiors have a more youthful old school decorator at the helm still hand painting kitchens now and again, and always selling Scandinavian and European paints and accessories in Norfolk-Suffolk.
(Papers and Paints is the place to shop down in the smoke. It is owned and run by Patrick Baty, the country’s leading traditional paint expert and paint colour analyst. I can’t think of a more generous and helpful expert in the painting trade.)
Projectbook is a great source for finding businesses who have been vetted and confirmed as skilled specialists for work on pre 1920’s Period & Listed buildings in the South of England and increasingly further afield. It’s all about promoting some of the best kept secrets in the heritage construction trade.
Traits of true craftsmen
One thread I have noticed running through all the very best craftsmen, is their willingness to share their secrets. They are wise enough to know that the more information and “secrets” they distribute and share about their niche trade, the better for everyone concerned. I concur.
Whatever you want to know about any aspect of painting and decorating, I am happy to share my knowledge. If you find a term on my site that you want more info on, email me.
Good craftsmen are like chicken’s teeth, so if you find one, pay them lots of money, make them lots of cups of tea, and tell all your friends about them. Do whatever it takes to make sure they are kept up to their ears in work. And if you are a DIYer, and find that even with all the decorating information and tips gleaned from the internet, you can’t get the end result you were hoping for, then, just like Jamie, there are craftsmen nearby happy to step in and deliver a professional service! End of public information message.
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