Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition


Sailing Into the New Year


Tis the season to sit down with good company over dinner and drinks…and then contemplate the coming year. That great pondering about what the future will bring.  For some of us it is a worrisome occasion, for others there is a sense of impending good fortune.  I suspect the perspective is all based upon your internal optimist or pessimist.  Nonetheless, there is a means of adding a brighter spin to everyone’s outlook.  

Walnut shell sailboats.

No, I have not lost my mind. As a woodworker, all mediums grown in the great outdoors provide an opportunity to exercise your imagination.  Some of those ideas result in homes, furniture and various sized containers.  Others are less consumptive of time and material.  The walnut shell sailboat is a case in point.

Before indulging in a brief—very brief—tutorial on same, please allow me to explain the logic behind this project.  According to my Scandinavian relatives, construction of these small craft was a symbolic gesture at demonstrating a will to press on into a new year.  The small boats we assembled would indeed float and at least pretend to sail, but the real intent for construction was to demonstrate one’s psychological desire to ride the “waters” and make positive progress in the months to come.

Recall this tradition comes from latitudes similar to those we inhabit here in the great “Northwet.”  In other words, the sun comes up late and goes to bed early.  Then there is the whole bit about snow or rain, both common elements encountered when living above 48 degrees north of the equator.  A little homegrown mental therapy is always a good thing come late December.

Best of all, this is a woodworking project that can be accomplished on the dining room table after indulging in a hearty meal and heavy conversation.  The guests will not flee at the thought of sawdust or sharp tools.  The most dangerous implements in this project are a nutcracker, a few old candles, scissors, thread and some paper.  Did I forget to mention toothpicks?  You need a collection of toothpicks.  Wood is preferable to the modern plastic stuff.  This is a woodworking school after all.

So here’s the quick and dirty…then I am fleeing for the warmer climes of Tucson and the company of my parents.  My dog is a great friend, but is a poor conversationalist and seemingly has no appreciation for the holiday season.

Step one. Assemble a collection of walnuts still in the shell.  Gather up the stubs of candles you burned at a dinner table.  Lay some newspaper over the tablecloth—Mom will not be happy with spilled wax on her best linen— and then bring forth the nutcracker, scissors, paper, toothpicks and sewing thread.  We are ready to proceed.

Best part of the job, split the walnuts in a neat half along the seam line and consume the contents.  Now we are on to cleaning out the remaining empty shell and filling interiors with melted wax.  (This is where the candle stubs come into play.  Kids will like this part the best…just keep in mind all that old newspaper spread over the table is flammable.)

Once the wax is in the shell, find appropriate toothpicks for a mast or two.  (I have seen three masts, but the inventor was a dentist—a lot better working in small spaces than I will ever achieve.)  Allow the wax to cool for a few minutes, then step your masts.  At this point we are hands off the nut shell hull and on to cutting sails.

Here’s where the scissors and more imagination come to play.  What shape sail and how adventurous is your rigging?  Keep in mind we do final adhesion with more hot wax.  Some people will go with a sloop, others are willing to take on a square rigging that includes stays—hence the thread.  For added color, occasionally I will bring out crayons, art pencils and watercolor paint.  

Step four—I know, I know, I forgot steps two and three—adhere sails onto masts and attach appropriate rigging.  And there, in about 45 minutes, is the boat that will bring you into the new year.  

Happy holidays everyone!

Eric Anderson.jpeg

Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard.  A new resident of Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.