David Congdon is so absorbed in carving that I have to lean over the workbench to get his attention. He straightens up to show me the sign he’s making for his brother’s boat, the “Gotsum” — a pun on “flotsam.” The three women at the other tables do not even glance up from their work.
It’s a Saturday afternoon at the Hudson River Maritime Museum’s Riverport Wooden Boat School in Kingston. The class in wood-carving is part of a smorgasbord of art, craft, and boat-building courses that transport students to a slower, older time. The schedule for this fall and winter will allow participants to learn square rule timber framing, paint maritime scenes, cast marine hardware in bronze, build a canoe, guitar, toboggan, or sea chest, and much more, thanks to local teachers who have honed their own talents for many years.
“In the old days, every ship had a professional wood-carver on board,” says master woodworker Andrew Willner, the school’s lead instructor, now teaching the four-weekend wood-carving class. Willner used to build and repair boats on Staten Island, in partnership with a captain of the Hudson River sloop Clearwater and a boat carpenter. He was the Baykeeper of New York Harbor for 20 years and taught carving at a boat-building school in Maine. His lengthy woodworking portfolio includes spiral stairways with fluid shapes, an elaborate stand for a Torah scroll, and a whimsical chair, with two puffins representing the arms and legs, made for puppet-master Jim Henson.
In the school’s workshop, located next to the Maritime Museum on the bank of the Rondout Creek, the air smells bracingly of wood, and the hush of concentrated work is interrupted only by our low voices. Most classes are limited to six to ten students, who get plenty of personal attention.
“It’s nice having talented, hard-working students,” says Willner as I look over Congdon’s first creation, a sign for his house, with the name “Tacet,” a musical term indicating a pause. A musical staff has been added as a background, and one letter has been darkened with a burning tool, which will later be applied to all the incised parts of the sign. The final step will be covering the sign with a weather-resistant stain.
Students lacking their own tools were able to purchase a discounted set of gouges, cutters, and carving knives, bought in bulk from Warren Kitchen and Cutlery in Rhinebeck. Willner’s own tools, such as mallets and clamps, are also available for the students’ use, and the workshop is furnished with an assortment of power tools for such tasks as pre-cutting blocks of wood. Willner teaches his students how to sharpen their tools with a succession of fine-grained stones and leathers. “You need a razor-sharp edge,” he says. “After working with a tool for an hour or so, you have to stop and sharpen it.”
The signs are made from basswood, a hardwood that is softer than oak but without the irregularities of pine. “Basswood doesn’t crush,” says Willner, “and it’s almost grainless. It’s traditionally used on ships and for outdoor signs.” Oak can be used for functional items on a boat but is too hard to carve easily. The ship’s wood-carver replaced both decorative and functional pieces that broke or were destroyed by cannon fire.
Master carver Georgette Kadgen came into the class as a substitute one weekend when Willner was not available. Now they are planning to teach a course together on four Saturdays next April. Kadgen carves in a classical style that is very different from Willner’s.
In her native city of Budapest, she apprenticed for two years at a woodworking cooperative that produced carved picture frames, panels, and furniture legs. Although the craft of woodworking was traditionally male, Socialist policies enabled Kadgen and one other woman to join 30 men in the shop.
However, once she had a fiancé and friends in foreign countries, she chafed under the lack of personal choice under the Socialist government. There were no apartments available in Budapest, and once married, she and her husband would have to live with her parents. “We were free to complain and crack jokes about Russia,” she recalls, “but otherwise, it was limited. We had free health care and free education but not freedom of choice.”
In 1965, the young couple obtained passports, eloped to Vienna, and never returned. Kadgen shows me the battered aluminum box in which she smuggled her chisels out of Hungary. She baked a cake and put the smaller chisels inside it, with the handles removed. Many of those tools, which she still uses, were made by her father, a locksmith who designed cylinder locks.
In New York City, Kadgen’s skills earned her such jobs as restoring a mantelpiece in an apartment at the Dakota. At Trinity Church, near Wall Street, she restored the pulpit after it was damaged by water during a fire. Now semi-retired, she continues to do occasional jobs in the city and is currently ghost-carving for an artist.
Visiting her workshop, on a mountainside in Shokan, we look at angel wings in relief, a project for an antique dealer in Beacon. Her house contains decorative picture frames and fine art figures she has created.
While carving, says Kadgen, “I disappear. My hands are channeled. If the piece doesn’t work, it goes in the stove.”
When I ask why she loves carving, she replies, “You get a hunk of wood and a bunch of chisels, and you come out with something beautiful.”
To the same question, Willner responds, “You can make almost any shape in wood that you can imagine. I like to push the materials to their limits.”
For more information on classes at the Hudson River Maritime Museum’s Riverport Wooden Boat School, visit www.hrmm.org or call 845-338-0071, ext. 16. Register early, as classes often fill up. Discounts are available for museum members. The museum and school are located at 50 Rondout Landing, Kingston.