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”.

3 comments:

kmorash said...

Hackmatack knees are still harvested in Nova Scotia, Canada by Westergard Boatyard www.westergardboatyard.ca.

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