Wood  In  Words
"Moby Dick"

      The novel Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, has two chapters in particular that each contain some wonderful passages related to woodworking or woodcraft.

      Chapter 107 is titled "The Carpenter".  On a whaling ship, the carpenter was a versatile and talented member of the crew.  The following passage provides a glimpse of the carpenter's many functions aboard the whaling ship, The Pequod.

      "Like all sea-going ship carpenters, and more especially those belonging to whaling vessels, he was, to a certain off-handed, practical extent, alike experienced in numerous trades and callings collateral to his own; the carpenter's pursuit being the ancient and outbranching trunk of all those numerous handicrafts which more or less have to do with wood as an auxiliary material.  But, besides the application to him of the generic remark above, this carpenter of the Pequod was singularly efficient in those thousand nameless mechanical emergencies continually recurring in a large ship, upon a three or four years' voyage, in uncivilized and far-distant seas.  For not to speak of his readiness in ordinary duties: -- repairing stove boats, sprung spars, reforming the shape of clumsy-bladed oars, inserting bull's eyes in the deck, or new tree-nails in the side planks, and other miscellaneous matters more directly pertaining to his special business; he was moreover unhesitatingly expert in all manner of conflicting aptitudes, both useful and capricious."

      For most woodworkers, one of the most essential pieces of equipment is a large, sturdy workbench.  The Pequod's carpenter was no different.  Melville described his carpenter's workbench in the following passage.

      "The one grand stage where he enacted all his various parts so manifold, was his vice bench; a long rude ponderous table furnished with several vices, of different sizes, and both of iron and of wood.  At all times except when whales were alongside, this bench was securely lashed athwartships against the rear of the Try-works."

      Melville, or rather, his protagonist, Ishmael, finds the ship's carpenter to be without much personality or intelligence.  One particular passage describes the carpenter as unintelligent, but also reveals another interesting aspect to his character.

      "You might almost say, that this strange uncompromisedness in him involved a sort of unintelligence; for in his numerous trades, he did not seem to work so much by reason or by instinct, or simply because he had been tutored to it, or by any intermixture of all these, even or uneven; but merely by a kind of deaf and dumb, spontaneous literal process.  He was a pure manipulator; his brain, if he had ever had one, must have early oozed along into the muscles of his fingers."

      I have read a commentary on this passage that states that Ishmael looked down on the carpenter for his unintelligence and that the preceding passage was one of near contempt.  But, with all due respect, I choose to interpret it differently.  I believe that the last sentence ("He was a pure manipulator...") may also be a testament to the carpenter's well-honed skills.  These words describe a man so well-versed in the use of his tools that the tools are now part of his body; they are simply extensions of his hands.  Thus, whenever he works with those tools, his hands become his intelligence, his brain.  I liken it to an extraordinary musician playing his instrument.  The first two examples that come to mind are Itzhak Perlman masterfully playing his violin and Eric Clapton coaxing the blues from his electric guitar.  They are one with their instruments, their tools.  The carpenter of the Pequod, like other master carpenters, has become one with his tools.  Many amateur woodworkers, myself included, strive for some degree of that oneness.

      Chapter 110 of Moby Dick is titled "Queequeg in his Coffin".  Queequeg, the pagan harpooner, becomes ill during the ship's voyage and fears that he is near death.  He does not want to receive the typical sailor's burial of simply being wrapped in your hammock and tossed into the sea.  Queequeg had learned that all whalemen who died in Nantucket were buried in little canoes of dark wood, and he requested that the carpenter build him such a coffin.

      "...while in Nantucket he had chanced to see certain little canoes of dark wood, like the rich war-wood of his native isle; and upon inquiry, he had learned that all whalemen who died in Nantucket, were laid in those same dark canoes, and that the fancy of being so laid had much pleased him; for it was not unlike the custom of his own race, who, after embalming a dead warrior, stretched him out in his canoe, and so left him to be floated away to the starry archipelagoes;"

      According to Queequeg's wishes, the ship's carpenter is summoned to prepare the canoe/coffin.  In this passage we see the carpenter in action.

      "There was some heathenish, coffin-colored old lumber aboard, which, upon a long previous voyage, had been cut from the aboriginal groves of the Lackaday islands, and from these dark planks the coffin was recommended to be made.  No sooner was the carpenter apprised of the order, than taking his rule, he forthwith with all the indifferent promptitude of his character, proceeded into the forecastle and took Queequeg's measure with great accuracy, regularly chalking Queequeg's person as he shifted the rule."
      "Going to his vice-bench, the carpenter for convenience sake and general reference, now transferringly measured on it the exact length the coffin was to be, and then made the transfer permanent by cutting two notches at its extremities.  This done, he marshalled the planks and his tools, and to work."
      "When the last nail was driven and the lid duly planed and fitted, he lightly shouldered the coffin and went forward with it, inquiring whether they were ready for it yet in that direction."

      Once the canoe/coffin is finished, Queequeg demands to be placed inside of it, along with his harpoon head and other personal items.  Queequeg soon recovers from his illness, however, and no longer needs his coffin.  So, he begins to use it as a sea-chest and spends hours carving designs and pictures into the wooden lid.

      "With a wild whimsiness, he now used his coffin for a sea-chest; and emptying into it his canvas bag of clothes, set them in order there.  Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body."

      At the end of the novel, Captain Ahab and the Pequod eventually find Moby Dick and engage him in battle.  The battle proves deadly for Ahab and many of the crew.  Though the Pequod sinks, Queequeg's canoe/coffin floats to the surface.  The coffin actually saves Ishmael's life, as he uses it to keep himself afloat until he can be rescued by another whaling ship.

      "... and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side.  Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main.  The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks.  On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last."

      These are just a few examples of some of the wonderful passages in Moby Dick that woodworkers might find particularly interesting.

Return to WoodCop Home Page
© 2003 WoodCop Creations