Amish Oak
by Kenneth Robert Spring
Excerpted from Messing Around In Boats)

(click here for more information about MAIB)

I needed long lengths of white oak to replace the keel and keelson of my 1963 26' Mackenzie Cuttyhunk. The old keel was 5" wide amidships and the keelson was 6-1/2" wide. Both were only 1-1/4" thick. I decided to beef them up because when I took out the old pair, they snapped in half under their own weight at the shaft log. They were pretty wormy and rotten around the shaft through hole, but more strength seemed appropriate. I decided to move up to 1-1/2" thickness and increase the width of the keelson to 8". They were each about 23' long, so I needed two 25' lengths of 1-1/2" clear white oak as replacements. I also needed a couple of 3" x 6" x 8' pieces of white oak to replace the stem and stem apron.

I was working alone in a boatyard in Solomons, Maryland, but I had many visitors and "advisors." They usually showed up when the weather was nice, a fortunately infrequent occurrence during this last winter. They usually began by asking me whether I expected to finish the job. The absence of a stem, keel, several floors, frames and the bottom transom covering board enabled someone standing in front of the boat to actually see the boat behind mine by looking along the centerline. I finally developed an effective response: "Would you ask a surgeon who was operating on someone if he intended to finish the job or just leave the person wide open on the operating table?" A couple of my
visitors were experienced shipwrights and usually just looked without saying anything.

I needed more oak than I had expected because one chine stringer was bad from the bulkhead forward to the stem, a length of about 14' and there were a couple of punky bottom planks. There were few sources of quality oak in the lengths that I needed anywhere on the east coast. New England Naval Timbers in Cornwall, Connecticut had stock on hand, but the shipping charges and board foot price were intimidating. When I asked one of the local shipwrights where he thought that I might get white oak, he said. "You have to go to the Amish mills in St. Mary's

Southern Maryland has a substantial Amish population, mostly clustered in St. Mary's and Charles Counties. St. Mary's is the southernmost county in Maryland and Charles abuts it on the north. I had never really dealt with Amish mills before, and I had not really entertained the possibility that they could meet my needs. On a mild Monday in late January, I set off on a journey of exploration. I traveled over 140 mites that day, much of it on bumpy dirt and gravel roads, too narrow for two vehicles.

I visited a number of sawmills that day. Many were empty because of the cold weather and time of year, others were filled with diligently working men dressed alike in traditional Amish jackets, hats, dark pants and blue shirts. They all gave me the same answer, "We do not cut such long lengths, try elsewhere." As I worked my way north, I stopped at a mill in Charles County, and they said "Go to the Stolzfuss mill on Route 236. They cut long lengths for the railroad."

When I finally found the Stolzfuss mill, there was no sign of life. The ground was soft from a recent thaw and the mud just sucked at my shoes. I decided not to drive into this yard, when I realized the extent of the muck. My car, a Mercury Sable station wagon, was parked on some firm ground by the road, and I had trudged several hundred yards before I found anyone in the place. There were a couple of men working there, one of them, Melvin Stolzfuss, was the supervisor. "'We usually cut the logs to 22' lengths before we mill them," he said. "I am not sure that we have anything in the yard that is long enough."

We wandered around measuring logs in various piles: all were loo short. "We can cut a tree for you and have it by Friday," Melvin said. "If we cannot do it, I will call you." We
went to the office and he carefully noted my telephone number and wood needs in a notebook. I puzzled about this a little because the Amish do not have telephones. Later, I learned that they used a nearby pay phone and telephone calling cards to deal with customers like me.

Friday was a bitterly cold day, but I was working in the boatyard anyway. When I came home for lunch and to warm up, there was a phone message from Melvin that they
had not yet cut the wood because it was too cold and snowy. He said, "Monday would be the earliest." Well what do I do now? Do I go there on Monday or wait until Tuesday? I Finally decided to go there Monday afternoon. I brought an extra set of boots and lots of straps, flags and padding for the wood. When I got there around 1:00 PM, it was snowing and there was one man in the yard working
on the bandsaw. I asked him about the wood, but he knew nothing. "Where's Melvin?" I asked. "He's about a mile away at a house that they are rebuilding after a fire." "How do I get there?"

When I finally found the site. it was like a scene from Hollywood. There were about two dozen buggies tied up near a large barn and sheds, and the new house was well underway. There must have been ten men working on the exterior, putting on vinyl siding, metal soffits and trim. Melvin was on the second floor, hanging drywall.

"Did you cut my wood?"

"No, we have been busy with this house construction."

I looked out the window of the new home. It was a pastoral scene of rolling snow covered fields with cattle roaming about. "It is a beautiful view from up here. Melvin," I said.

"Yes," he agreed.

"Well, I did not come all this way for the view, I came for wood."

He looked at me very directly and said, "Let's go to the mill, maybe we can find something long enough."

I went back to my car, expecting a slow trip behind a horse drawn carriage, when a red Toyota pick up truck came out from behind the barn with Melvin at the wheel. In five minutes we were in the yard looking for long white oak logs. We found two at the bottom of an immense pile, one was 27' the other 28'. Melvin got the skidder and began to move the pile until he reached the candidates. They were straight and had only a few small branches. He loaded them up and drove over to the sawmill. By then three other men
had mysteriously appeared at the mill. One started the huge diesel engine that powered everything while the others took up strategic positions.

The sawmill operation was unexpectedly sophisticated and automated. The first log was transferred to rollers where a motorized grinder quickly removed the bark. The ground up bark went up a conveyor belt and was deposited into a huge mulch pile. Next the log rolled down to the saw. They rotated it hydraulically until the best surface faced the saw and adjusted everything for the first pass. Melvin was worried because the log was frozen solid. He and the sawyer decide that there was less likelihood of the blade wandering if they used a very high feed speed. The danger
was that the saw blade could jam and break. Since the saw was about 8' high and the blade at least 8" or 9" wide, I assumed that a broken blade was a costly failure.

They made the first pass and a 2" thick layer of wood was sliced cleanly away. Everyone breathed a little easier. The cut piece was diverted onto another conveyor belt by one of the helpers and went into a chipper. The output of the chipper led to a belt feeding a truck marked "wood chips." As each piece was sawn, Melvin diverted it to a circular saw table that cut the desired width, the scrap went to the chipper. Each length traveled down a series of rollers to a huge cut off saw with an unguarded 3' diameter blade.
Another helper cut off the split and cracked ends of each piece and they. in turn, went on another conveyor belt to a truck marked "fire wood."

My pieces were rolled along about 30 yards to the planer where Melvin and I carried them to the planer table and they were quickly planed to the desired thickness. The entire operation had taken less than one hour, from log to finished hardwood! "Where's your truck?" Melvin asked.

"I don't have a truck. I will put these on the roof of my car."

Melvin looked at me strangely. "That's insane," he said. "We take no responsibility for you after you leave lhe yard."

"Don't worry. I have had considerable experience moving long pieces of wood on the roof of cars" I replied. I drove my car carefully into the yard, trying to avoid the humiliation of getting stuck in the mud and having to be towed out. He helped me load lhe long lengths on the roof. I got the shorter pieces inside. A Mercury Sable is 16' long. The law allows you to extend items 5' in front of or behind the car. I had pieces lhat were just 26' so I was legal, although clearly "insane". We went to the office and I paid him $108, or about 1/6 what it would have cost me for the
same material from a major marine hardwood supplier. Off I went into the gloom of early evening with a light snow falling.

I had to drive 40 miles during rush hour on a major highway before I got to the boat yard. Other vehicles gave me ample room, warned away by the old red shirts that I had stapled to the ends of the long stock. Still I was uneasy, the road was filled with potholes because of the hard winter. Every time that I hit one, the wood overhanging the hood flexed so much that it almost touched the pavement. "Can you pitch pole a Sable?" I mused. By the time I got to the boatyard it was dark. snowing fairly hard and the wind
had picked up. Somehow, I got everything onto sawhorses and went home. My car needed to be power washed to remove the mud and my boots never fully recovered.

Over the next week or so, I milled the wood to size and fitted the parts to the boat. By the end of February, all of the major structural work was done and the planking went back on. The boat went back in the water on April 28th and has done very well since. I thought that my method of transporting the wood, while not insane was unusual, but I have since learned otherwise. One of the shipwrights told me that a 42' mast from some builders in Skunk Hollow, Vermont arrived in Solomons, Maryland strapped onto the roof of a little Toyota pickup truck. They had brought it all the way down through New York, New Jersey, Delaware to Maryland. So much for the 5' overhang rule.

This maneuver still pales in comparison with the legendary story of two intrepid boaters transporting a long mast from Miami to the Florida Keys with two cars, the mast bridging the gap between them. Purportedly, they stepped the mast onto the waiting boat by lowering it from one of the bridges. Now that is insane.