Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Knees from Trees

One might ask, what do knees and the Larix laricina have to do with ships and shipbuilding? It turns out they have a prominent place in the history of shipbuilding as well as modern wooden ships.

The Larix laricina or the tamarak tree has shallow roots that grow almost perpendicular to the tree trunk. Therefore, they make tremendously strong knees. Knees are the right-angle root of the Eastern larch, or tamarack tree--also known as a hackmatack. Which are one of only three deciduous trees that lose their needles. The tamarack is a bog tree, fast-growing with shallow roots, which became prized because of its strength and durability to create braces in wooden shipbuilding. The tree often grows in peat moss and when it does, the roots do not freeze. It also is decay resistant, which is a big plus on ships.

For centuries, knees have been used in wooden ships and boats to strengthen and support deck beams and keels. When used vertically, they are called "hanging" or "standing" knees. Lateral knees are referred to as "lodging" or "bosom" knees.

Often, each mast has 4 lodging knees to help hold the shape against the stress of the movement of the vessel and the mast. In addition to the lodging knees the space where the mast fits also has several hanging knees.

The knees are seasoned from one month to four years depending on the thickness of the wood.

Until recently, Maine had one of the few “knee farmers” in the country. Newman Gee of Newman’s Knees from St. Albans, Maine would dig up the roots by hand just as they did 100 years ago. He used a Wood-Mizer mill equipped with a special sled, which allowed him to saw the knees lengthwise, pivoting them as the saw blade advanced.

Historically, the tamarak not only provided knees from the roots but young stems were used for dog sled runners, boat ribs and fishtraps. Even the fine roots were used to sew birch bark and the wood was used for arrow shafts. The bark was used for medicine and the soft needles were used to stuff pillows and mattresses. These people really knew how to live “green”.


kmorash said...

Hackmatack knees are still harvested in Nova Scotia, Canada by Westergard Boatyard

Benny said...

Hackmatack knees are mentioned in Annie Proulx's new book, Barkskins. I found your post while I was trying to find out what they were. Thank you!

Unknown said...

I landed at this sight for the same reason as Benny and am glad hackmatack knees are still around and being used for the same purpose. Cheers Cass

William Johnson said...

Just a slight correction: they are not deciduous, rather, they are conifers.

Jane Coryell said...

They are conifers, but they lose their needles.

Ros O'Sullivan said...

I also found your site because of Barkskins, Annie Proulx's latest book. It's a great read. I have been inspired to look up a lot of things she refers to relating to lumbering, Canadian and American Indians on the east coast etc. Great history.

Jock said...

Tamarack (larix laricina) is deciduous conifers , Larch is another .

Here are some others ;


Larix (larches; 13 species)
Larix decidua (European Larch)​

Larix sibirica (Siberian Larch)​

Larix gmelinii (Dauhurian Larch)​

Larix kaempferi (Japanese Larch)​

Larix principis-rupprechtii (Prince Rupprecht's Larch)​

Larix himalaica (Langtang Larch)​

Larix griffithii (Himalayan Larch)​

Larix kongboensis (Kongbo Larch)​

Larix potaninii (Potanin's Larch)​

Larix mastersiana (Masters' Larch)​

Larix lyallii (Subalpine Larch)​

Larix occidentalis (Western Larch)​

Larix laricina (Tamarack Larch)​
Pseudolarix amabilis (Golden Larch)


Taxodium (baldcypresses; 2 species deciduous, a third evergreen)
Taxodium distichum (Bald Cypress)​

Taxodium ascendens (Pond Cypress)​
Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Dawn Redwood)

Glyptostrobus pensilis (Chinese Swamp Sypress)


Ginkgo biloba (Ginkgo; not really a conifer)

Unknown said...

Hi, Found your site today while looking for details on ship knees. Just found out from my cousin, Abe that our grandfather, Gordon A. Lewis of Calais, Maine used to be a "knee hunter' too back around 1918. He was a finish carpenter & liked to find his own trees to get the knees. Then he would install them in the ship in a boatyard in Whitneyville, near Eastport, Maine. One of the ships he worked on was the Lucy Evelyn, a four masted Schooner.

Really appreciated the explanation of knees. Also, I'm going to check out that book the others mentioned.

Mary Lewis