Harold A. Burnham

Master Shipwright
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Perry Ardelle Burnham


Master shipwright, designer, and mariner Harold Burnham is part of a shipbuilding tradition that dates back to the 1630s in the small town of Essex, Massachusetts, where the Burnhams have lived for 11 generations. Over the last 400 years the town of Essex has produced more than 4,000 ships, largely for the Gloucester fishing fleet. After World War II with the falling fish stocks and steel and fiberglass dominating the shipbuilding industry, heavily constructed wooden vessels (employing sawn frames and trunnel or tree-nail fastenings) became a thing of the past. This changed, however, in 1996 when Burnham, a Mass Maritime Academy graduate/merchant marine, skillfully revived the long-dormant Essex techniques and traditions to build the authentic 65-foot Gloucester schooner Thomas E Lannon. "Harold is part artist, part carpenter, part project manager, and part interpreter of historic photographs," said Molly Bolster, executive director of the Gundalow Company in her nomination letter. "The common wisdom is that he is the most intuitive of all living shipwrights today." Launched in 1997, the Lannon quickly became an iconic vessel -- built for cultural tourism -- and led to several other commissions for historic watercraft. Burnham Boat Building is currently the only shipyard in the country that regularly designs and builds sawn frame and trunnel fasten vessels. Burnham mills most of the wood he uses on-site from trees recycled from local arborists. With deep roots in his community, Burnham is passionate about sharing his extensive knowledge, including working with the United States Coast Guard to increase wooden passenger vessel safety. In 2001, he received a Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) grant in the traditional arts, and in 2003 received a MCC Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant. Harriet Webster, executive director of the Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center, praised Burnham’s community involvement, "When Harold undertakes a project, it inevitably becomes a community project. He involves both skilled craftsmen and enthusiastic community members in the work, demonstrating and teaching as he goes. In the process, not only does he build fine boats, but he nourishes a community of individuals that develops an appreciation for and understanding of this traditional art form -- and determination to help keep that tradition alive." In a 2011 interview with the Cape Ann Beacon, Burnham said, "Up into the last few years I considered building boats something that I wanted to do, and now I feel like it is something I want to preserve. Like an endangered species, once it’s gone it can’t be recreated. And so, I am happy to share what I have learned with anyone who takes an interest in the hopes that these skills will be carried on long after I am gone." Sailing ship at seaPhoto by Lewis G. Joslyn
Interview by Josephine Reed for the NEA September 10, 2012 Edited by J. Rachel Gustafson BECOMING A MASTER A master of any craft is someone who can do every part of that craft. And a master shipwright, in my estimation, is someone who has mastered every part of the design, construction, and operation of vessels. That includes someone who can visualize the finished product, meet the needs of the owner, produce it [the ship] out of readily available materials, and explain to anyone every aspect of the job. And when the whole thing is done, actually making it work. It's something I've worked at for a long time. I was hesitant to say, until a certain point, that I have actually mastered the craft. It's a very rewarding feeling to realize you've mastered anything. It doesn't mean there's no room for improvement or that you can't learn anything. But to be able to do it, whatever it is, and do it effectively is what makes somebody a master. The more you work and the more you build, the more you understand all of the pieces, how they come together. That is what it means to be a master shipwright. It is not someone who just builds or designs or mills wood or makes sails or rigs, but someone who will can make all of the components. Then that same person is not afraid to get on the finished product and sail it. I fit into that category. THE CRAFT AND HERITAGE OF SHIPBUILDING What is important is the fact that what I'm doing is carrying on a tradition that's almost 400 years old in a very small town. There is a limited gene pool, but as each generation improves on methods, materials, and workmanship, they're not only learning from the past. They develop standards of workmanship, and they develop pride in who they are and a sense of place. What makes shipbuilding important to me is not the fact that I'm part of the eleventh generation, but that I'm carrying on an ancient tradition. Many of my friends from various professions are just as closely tied to the shipbuilding tradition as I am. They feel a sense of pride in what I do and they feel a connection to it. When we launch a boat in this town, where it's happened for so many years, many people can feel connected to that launching and share in that experience. It's much more a part of the culture to me than it is a generational thing. IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO LAUNCH A BOAT Essex basically became known as a shipbuilding center in the middle of the 19th century as Gloucester became a center for fishing. Prior to the 1820s, Marblehead was actually a larger fishing port than Gloucester but when the rail came to Marblehead, rail came to Gloucester. Marblehead's fishermen were wiped out by the storm of 1851, resulting in Gloucester growing more and more as a fishing port. Essex's proficiency for building vessels supplied more and more of the vessels for the Gloucester fleet. It was not just Essex alone that made it a great shipbuilding town but also Gloucester's fishing industry, where the great majority of our vessels went. This helped to build the town's reputation for shipbuilding. The standard for American fishing schooners and American fishing vessel construction began to be set in Essex, and that's really what makes Essex unique. The standards for construction were set here. In the '40s, the shipbuilding industry in Essex didn't die, but went back into the cottage where you couldn't see it. It went away from the waterfront. If there's one thing that I did different, it was that I built the boats on the waterfront where they could be launched right into the river, where everybody could see them and watch the progress. I think that that helped connect the town to its roots in a way that you wouldn't have had otherwise. People who build barns and have barn raisings, all the neighbors come out to help raise the barn. It's a lot of fun and building boats is the same thing. To build a boat in this area, the fact that I'm an eleventh-generation [shipwright] doesn't mean anything. What matters is that everybody else is eleventh-generation or twelfth- or fifteenth- and they all feel connected to this. ON HAROLD'S FIRST BOAT Tom Ellis and I started the Thomas Lanham project. When he started, I wasn't going to be the builder; Brad [Storey] was going to be the builder. However, Brad opted to have me do it. I tried to refuse the job but Tom wasn't going to take no for an answer. He said he'd known me his whole life and knew that I always wanted to build a schooner. He added I could either take more than my shop rate to build him his schooner or watch somebody else take the money and do a worse job of it than me. I wasn't hired to design the boat; I was hired to build it. Tom had a set of drawings that were done by a mutual friend and I tried to make those drawings work as best I could. After a few weeks of thinking about it, I flat out refused to build the boat because of the design. Tom said, "You really think the design is that bad?" And I said, "Yes." He told me he talked to naval architects and captains and engineers and they all thought it was great. He said, "Well, I hired you to build the boat...build me anything you want." He left the office that day without firing me and promoted me to designer. Then I was slightly more terrified. In the end, the schooner was a little more than 50 tons. Not big for Essex standards but a good size boat. I'd only built one boat before and it was a 22-foot sloop. To say it was a leap of faith on Tom's part would be an understatement. VOLUNTEER POWER There are so many people that helped [on my boats] without charging. The Ardelle was all volunteers. The work was around 90 percent donated, which is remarkable and says a lot about the people in this area and what they think of this tradition and what they think of myself personally. It also shows what they think of what I was doing and how much it meant to them to be able to be part of it. I didn't realize quite how much the dedication of the people that worked with me would keep me going. I was 15 years younger when I built the Lanham and I could work a 19-hour or 20-hour day. At 45, you work differently than you did at 29. There were days when I was just physically exhausted and mentally exhausted. There was something about the job and the people that worked on it. I did not dare leave my part unfinished because I didn't want to disappoint the volunteers. It was definitely a life-changing experience to see so many people dedicated to something that was really just your lame-brain idea. There are different ways to give back, but if the Ardelle works out the way I hope, [operating the board] will be a career for me. THE BUSINESS OF BOATS Since we completed the Thomas Lanham it has provided the Ellis family with two college educations. It's a way of life for that family, and it's a sustainable way of life. I think one of the most rewarding parts of it is that the vessels I build, in some cases, have proved to be a sustainable way of life for their owners, their families, their friends, and the people that work for them. People talk about creating jobs and that's something those vessels have been able to do. With the Ardelle, it is my hope to make that vessel sustain me. Do I want to build more boats? Absolutely. Do I believe I'll build more boats? Absolutely. There are so many people who have retired from boat building and gone on in their retirement to build boats. And that's probably where I am at this point. As a shipbuilder, the best I could do was set up the yard to be ready to take the order and be able to produce something that would sustain somebody. Beyond that, I can't create a demand for wooden ships. You suffer with that. You want to produce these things. In the interim I had to find something that would occupy me and allow me to continue to build wooden ships. The Ardelle fills that void. TRADITIONAL TECHNIQUES FOR A LOCAL TRADITION We built the Ardelle for $65,000. How are you going to do that in fiberglass? You couldn't even buy the glue. You can't buy the fastenings if it was screw-fastened for that. [The Ardelle] was built with sawn frames and treenails in the old way. A treenail is a wooden peg like a wooden nail. The frames of the boats are tree nailed together out of about ten different pieces of wood to make up a frame that goes across a boat. And "frame up" is the cry usually boat builders would call out on the bigger boats. They were assembled on the keel on a platform and when they yelled, "frame up," everybody would drop what they were doing and go stand the frame up, and then the framing gang could start on the next frame. We often stand up the frames a few at a time. Often times when I'm framing out a boat, it's only one or two of us working on the frames and if we can, the two of us will slide it out the door of the barn. When a bunch of people happen to show up, we'll yell out, "frame up," and get them all to help us carry the frames over and stand them up. Steaming wood is an ancient technique of making it soft and pliable. A straight grain piece of white oak is heated up in a steam box to keep [the wood] moist. You can twist it and bend it and torture it into shapes that are seemingly impossible. I know about how far you can push it and there have been times when I designed things that I shouldn't have. Luckily the oak was forgiving enough to get me through it. When the boat is finished, we launch it. An Essex side launch is a way of launching the boats that we only do here. From what I understand, it's a technique of launching that's only practiced on Cape Ann in Essex and Gloucester. It is a technique of getting a boat into the water. Many places around the world will build a cradle under the ship and they'll grease the waves and grease the cradle and cut the cradle free and slide the boat into the water. In Essex we do it a little bit differently. We don't bother to build a cradle. When we build the boats now, we just take the staging down and throw it together in a pile on the one bilge and lean the boat slightly over on the stage and then drive grease wedges under the keel and when the gravity overtakes friction, she just skates into the water. It gets carried into the deeper water by the buoyancy of the quarters. It was a good thing we did that side launch, because the Ardelle hung up something wicked and we really tested that buoyancy. KEEPING THE LEGACY ALIVE There's a humongous amount of interest [in shipbuilding]. It's wonderful and I teach everybody I can. I encourage people as much as I can and as much as it makes sense to. A young person coming to me wanting to learn to make ships and to make a living making ships is going to get highly discouraged in the same way that I was discouraged. I'll give him everything I can, even the shirt off my back. I'll teach him everything I can teach him. But I would feel like I was doing them a disservice if I told them they could make a living at it. The reason I built the Ardelle is because I cannot make a living at it. On the other hand, a young kid who learns shipbuilding, learns to operate the equipment, learns to look at a tree and see inside of it, learns to cut a sail, how to handle a sail, how to handle a boat -- those skills are going to be invaluable to that person throughout their whole life. Those are the skills that I try to pass on: resourcefulness, ingenuity, doggedness. As my kids are getting older, my hope is to do the best I can to be useful...make something useful with my life with the great gifts that I've been given, including the Heritage Fellowship. A great deal of the award is also for the many, many, many people from all walks who have helped me work on different projects. It's for those who stop by in a pickup truck just to see what's going on and happen to have exactly what I need at that moment in the back of the truck. I mean, I've been very blessed to have had a lot of really great people help me out along the way, and so I feel like I'm sort of accepting it in behalf of all those people.

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