Riding the Sails of Tradition

1. This picture shows the construction mold setup. The stem, keel and transom (out of sight) have been joined together and temporarily screwed to the mold. The dark vertical strips are the white-oak ribs bent in place.

Two winters ago Sterling Klinck stood in his workshop at East Hill Boat Shop in Middlesex restoring a Keuka Lake trout boat. He had been refurbishing wooden boats for almost 20 years, but this one, a creation of well-known boat builder Ben Reno, was rotted down to the planks and proving to be more difficult than most. As he stepped back to survey his work, Sterling was struck with an idea.

“I thought, ‘What a pain! I might as well build a boat from scratch. I practically did that with this project,’” he recalled.

Between the 1860s and middle 1900s, hundreds of wooden boat builders operated in the Finger Lakes area. That history has provided Sterling with many opportunities to restore beautiful wooden boats. “There are a lot of old boats still kicking around,” he said. “People love them.” It seemed that making a boat from scratch was the next logical step in developing his skill.

Although he had never built a boat, Sterling was confident that it was a project he could tackle. After all, for over 35 years he’s been making furniture and constructing buildings at East Hill Farm, also known as the Rochester Folk Art Guild.

But this would be an undertaking of a different type.

“When you restore you don’t need to know as much about putting the boat together as the guy who built it did,” he explained. “I wanted to know the whole process.”

Starting from scratch
Sterling acquired plans from Wooden Boat magazine and in October, 2003, began building the frame for a 12-foot-8-inch sailing dinghy. “I chose this type of boat because it is very accommodating,” he said. “It’s a nice fishing boat, it’s good for rowing and it is sailable.”

As he stands next to the completed boat, Sterling can’t begin to count the man hours spent on the project. His plans for the finished boat are simple. “I’ve made it, now I want to sell it,” he said with a laugh.

When asked what the most difficult part of the project was, he explained the steps of planking. “Planking” is the process of making and applying the boat’s planks to the ribs (frames) which have been steamed or boiled and bent in place over the building mold. Each piece of the white-cedar planking had to be cut so that it would fit at the bow (narrowest), the stern (second narrowest), and amidships (widest), and show a “fair” line between. Though each plank is actually more or less “s” shaped, when on the boat the upper ones will appear to follow the shear line (top edge and gunwale) and th lower ones the keel. When bending in the ribs, you have about one minute while it is hot enough to get in place without breaking.

Not an easy job for one person. Fortunately, a local retired man who had a shared interest in wooden boats, and some free time, volunteered his services.

As Sterling looks at the finished vessel, he says it is almost anticlimatic for him. After working with the individual parts for so long, it’s hard to see them together as a completed whole. “Some­times it takes a visitor’s point of view to help me see the big picture,” he said.

A lifelong love of boating
As a child, Sterling, a Rochester native, often visited a family cottage on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. “We spent glorious summers at the cottage, canoeing, sailing and fishing. It seemed like I was in the water all summer,” he recalled. “It was there that I experienced the joy of boating in a wooden vessel, which I took for granted at the time.”

A fishing trip years later led him to start restoring those boats. “I was in an aluminum canoe one day 16 or 18 years ago, and realized what a racket they make,” he explained. “They’re not very nice to be in, at least not after you’ve been in a wooden one.”

After hearing about his less-than-ideal experience, a friend gave him a 1915 canoe to restore. Sterling completed that project and still has the canoe. His collection also includes a 1943 16-foot Snipe racing sailboat and a 27-foot Quincy Adams keelboat, also built in the early 1940s. “I’ve been told the Quincy Adams is the most beautiful boat on Keuka Lake,” he says proudly. “And it’s fast.”

Lofty goals
Walking through the doors of the barn that is East Hill Boat Shop, visitors are met with the smell of fresh sawdust. Machinery large and small is arranged around the work area, and rows of tools are organized along the walls. Some instruments are expected – sanders, hammers, clamps, electric saws, scrapers, stain. Others, like Japanese hand saws, are more unusual. “They have a thinner blade than Western saws,” Sterling points out. “They also cut on the backstroke.”

He designed the barn, which was built four years ago by local Men­nonites, to allow him to work yearround. Sterling wants to add another 4 feet to the width of the structure, which would provide much needed extra space for maneuvering large boats.

Looking ahead, Sterling says he’d like to continue making boats, and is already planning to build a second. It will be the same model, because putting the frame together was too difficult and time consuming to use it only once. (He explained one of the challenges of frame building: “The floor isn’t level, but the boat has to be.”)

His goal is to eventually build a boat starting from the “lofting” stage, which is the link between the two-dimensional lines laid down by the designer and the three-dimensional forms created by the boat builder.

For Sterling, building wooden boats connects him to a larger tradition, one that he hopes to continue to learn about and be a part of.

“The type of boat that I built has been made over and over throughout the years,” he said. “I just put it together. I’m grateful that I was able to do it. There’s a feeling of appreciation and of being in the company of the whole tradition, but I’m really still on the outskirts of it.”
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“I Love Him Who Loves Work”
Louise March founded the Rochester Folk Art Guild in 1957 as a place for people who wanted to make a difference, but were frustrated trying to work within the current system. “In the 1950s and ’60s, she saw young people unable to find a direction to suit them,” explained guild member Sterling Klinck, who has been with the group since its inception. “If your forte was not your head, but instead your heart or body, or a combination of both, your options were limited.”

In the beginning, the guild was a loosely organized group of artists who would meet on weekends in one member’s basement. Its underlying purpose was to use craftwork as a means to achieve a greater understanding of oneself.

As membership grew, March began to look for a place where the group could perform a wider selection of activities. In 1967 the guild moved to a 350-acre farm in Middlesex, where it is now located and known as East Hill Farm.

March was a student of Greco-Armenian-Georgian mystic and philosopher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. His ideas about the importance of individuals focusing attention on each activity of daily life are the backbone of the guild’s philosophy. A mantra of East Hill can be summed up by a quote from Gurdjieff, “I love him who loves work.”

At one point, East Hill Farm counted over 40 members. Currently, about 16 people live there, sharing in community tasks, such as building maintenance and orchard and garden work.

The gallery is known for its finely crafted products, including handmade furniture, sewing, weaving, toys, and pottery. Two or three people may contribute to any one piece of art, a method popular in folk art traditions, which adds to each creation’s uniqueness.

“That approach allows people to find their strengths and weaknesses, and work on both,” Klinck said. “Looking deeper at our everyday actions is what our life is all about.”

East Hill holds an open house each year in the fall. Other events are occasionally held there. For more information, call 585-554-3539 or visit www.rfag.org.


by Heather Merrell
Heather Merrell grew up boating on the lakes, ponds and rivers of northeastern Pennsylvania. She now lives in Geneva with her husband.