Harold Burnham

2012 National Heritage Fellow and Master Ship Builder
Harold Burnham
Photo by Perry Ardelle Burnham

Harold Burnham: What I'm doing is I'm carrying on a tradition that's almost 400 years old in a very small town. Each generation as they improve on methods and materials and workmanship and they're not only in many cases learned from the past, sometimes things are lost. But they develop standards of workmanship and they develop pride in who they are and a sense of place. And what makes shipbuilding important to me is not that the fact that I'm an 11th generation, but that I'm carrying on an ancient tradition in an area, in a place where it's happened for many generations. And many of my friends are just as closely tied to the shipbuilding tradition as I am. And they feel a sense of pride in what I do and they feel a connection to what I do and when we launch a boat here in this town where it's happened for so many years so many people can feel connected to that launching and come down and share in that experience and so it's much more a part of the culture to me.

Jo Reed: That was 2012 National Heritage Fellow and master ship builder, Harold Burnham.

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how Art Works. I'm your host Josephine Reed. We are gearing up for the NEA's National Heritage Awards which will be presented in Washington DC on Oct 3. The National Heritage Award is the highest honor the country gives to folk and traditional artists.

As Liz Auclair here at the NEA noted, "at its heart, the folk and traditional arts are rooted in the cultural practices of a particular community, whether it's Texas's Tejano music, the gospel music of Tidewater, Virginia, or the boatbuilding traditions of coastal Massachusetts.”

As we just heard Harold Burnham is deeply committed to the tradition of shipbuilding begun and refined in his hometown of Essex, Massachusetts. He has built six wooden sailing ships averaging 50 tons each. These aren't fancy yachts but work boats with sawn frames, heavy timber, and fastened together with wood. There are number of things that stand out about Harold: first, he works and lives on the land that had housed his family's shipyard for generations; second, Harold is involved in every aspect in the creation of his boats: he not only designs and builds it, he also mills the wood and sews the sails. Third, Harold invites the community in to help him build the boats. The response from the Essex community was so overwhelming that Harold managed to build a schooner for himself, the Ardelle, without any paid labor. Everyone who helped worked on that boat was a volunteer. And when the Ardelle was launched from Harold Burnham's boatyard on the Essex River, over 2,000 people were there to see it-this in a town that numbers 3500. I was lucky enough to go to Essex where I sailed on the Ardelle--an elegant boat and an amazing feat of design and craft. I then visited with Harold in his shipyard and workshop built on land that's supported 11 generations of Burnhams. Because we spoke in the open workshop and in the old farmhouse, you'll heard the noise of boats on the river, wind through the trees and the call of birds as they begin their flight south for the winter (as well as the more prosaic sound of the occasional truck).  Although Harold Burnham comes from a tradition of shipbuilding, it is still an unusual career choice to make 50-ton wooden boats in the 21st century. Most people would've settled for building a small sailboat over weekends in their backyard. So, over coffee and apple cider donuts, I asked Harold how he came to his decision to make a career out of boat building.

Harold Burnham: For whatever reason you don't know what's gonna take you into different places in your life. From the time that I was a very small boy I was fascinated by boats, boatbuilding, and boating. And probably some of the earliest books that I read were books that were on Gloucester and Gloucester fishing schooners. There's a lot of little short stories. I probably read "Fast and Able” by as soon as I could sit up by Gordon Thomas. I remember reading that and I don't know how old I was…maybe just after I started to read and even before that my father built boats out in the yard and I was always fascinated with boats. So I don't think I ever made a conscious decision to be a boat builder. The real trick has been in this day and age not making a decision to be a boat builder but you know trying to find someone who wants boats built and built in the traditional way. That's the real challenge. The real trick is that when the thing that you do doesn't exist anymore how is that you go about doing it anyway. And it's interesting cause I built six boats so far and when I was young I was hoping to someday build a boat. And  I got that over with pretty early. But really it's a miracle that I've been able to build six. And it says a lot for the people that trusted me to do that starting with Tom Ellis was the first one to hire me to build a boat but then Mike Rudstein and I feel very fortunate to have built any.

Jo Reed: Well, Essex is known historically for shipbuilding. Can you just talk a little bit about the history?

Harold Burnham: The history's really well documented by my friend Dana Storey and his many books on shipbuilding. But basically got known as a shipbuilding center earlier on in the middle of the 19th century as Gloucester became a center for fishing. Essex with it's proficiency for building vessels supplied more and more of the vessels for the Gloucester fleet. And by the middle of the 19th century as Gloucester's fleet was really growing Essex was providing a larger and larger percentage of the fleet. Over time it- it's pretty apparent that 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. There's not only that it build this huge number of ships, but that the standards for construction were set here. 

Jo Reed: The first boat you built you built in the public shipyard in Essex. Is that true?

Harold Burnham: The first boat I built from scratch was Sloop Kim, a 22 foot. When I built that boat I was just out of college. I think when I started it. I did it kind of between trips in the Merchant Marine. It was a lot of fun. It took two years to build it. I was growing a lot while I was building it and learning a lot. But I remember my friend Brad used to close his door and board up the inside so people couldn't get into his shop and bother him. People'd crawl through the windows and work their way around the barricades he put up. And when I was building the Kim I used to do the same thing. I used to barricade myself in so I could work in peace. After a while I realized rather than trying to keep everybody out I always had something for them to do. Even if they came down I'd get something out of them as well as having them talk to me while I tried to work. And I realized when people came down they got something out of helping me out, a little bit of chatting,  you know helping me work on the boat. I don't know how I came to realize that but I did realize that was the case. That has really been the interesting thing and I realize you have to examine what you're doing and why you're doing it. And the thing about allowing people to work on the boats with you and you build these things and you know people like it, you like it, other people like it, sharing that experience…really has been in the long run what allowed me to have the career I had. Of all the boats I built, Lanham and the Storey and the Fame, if you talk to the different owners it's the community spirit that finished those boats. It wasn't just myself or the owners or the boat, it was this whole spirit of community of people coming together to help you do what many people like look at as the impossible to pull this thing together and get it done. Having the right people show up at the right time with the right skills. So it was interesting with the Kim it was just a small boat, but the lessons were huge.

Jo Reed: Well, there are two boats in particular I really want to talk to you about and one is the first schooner that you built which is the Thomas Lanham. Take me through that process. How did that happen?

Harold Burnham: Tom Ellis is a wicked, you know, character and really just an interesting guy. Man of great character. We started that project as friends and finished it as very, very, very close friends and you know, when you look at what was at stake in that project and how hard we were working, the fact that we finished it as very, very close friends says a lot about both of us. But when I first got hired to build the Lanham I wasn't the designer there was another designer that was supposed to do the line but I wound up becoming the designer of the boat as well. Tom's kind of a bold guy and admittedly I was terrified. I just didn't know what kind of a mess Tom was going to throw me into. And I tried to refuse the job a little bit. And Tom just wasn't going to take no for an answer and he told me that he'd known me his whole life and knew that I always wanted to do that and to build a schooner and 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.

Jo Reed: Given that alternative.

Harold Burnham: That was the first time I tried to get fired. There were two other times but Tom basically wouldn't take no for an answer and…

Jo Reed: How big- how big was the schooner?  What size are we talking about?

Harold Burnham: a little more than 50 tons, pretty good size boat. To say it was a leap of faith on Tom's part would be a- an understatement.

Jo Reed: Had you ever designed a boat?

Harold Burnham: I wasn't hired to design the Lanham I was hired to build it and 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 and- and then after a few weeks of thinking about it I flat out refused to build the boat. And thought I'd get fired again and Tom said "You really think the design is that bad?"  And I said "Yeah."  And told me "Talk to naval architects and captains and engineers," and all these people and they all thought it was great and he said ask him again "You really don't like this."  And I said "No."  And he said "Well, I hired you to build the boat build me anything you want."  <laughs> And left the office that day not fired, but promoted to designer. And slightly more terrified, but …

Jo Reed: How did you design this boat Harold. You had never designed anything like it. Go through the process. Did you research schooners? How did you do it?

Harold Burnham: I crawled through every boat that I could look at from the time I was a kid and my father also had a real interest in how things were done in the old ways things were done. And when you read about schooner design they talk about the lines and the design and so if you read a lot of Essex history and you think about the lines being this important thing and the shape of the boat and as you build more stuff and as you think about things and you get a little more time and experience under your belt, you realize the lines are only a small part of it. The design of a fishing schooner was something that was worked out over extremely long period of time and things like how you build it and what the shapes of the frames are and how the wood fits together in the construction the way the pieces of wood fit and how its cut and how its fastened and the size of all the different pieces of wood. That's all important to the design. And then how the cabins built and how the bow works a plank and what the bow looks like and the rig and all of that when the designer designed the boat in the 19th century they just drew up the lines and sent it to the builder. The builder did all of that. And so even the boats in Essex that were designed by other people the reality is a great deal of the design fell on the shoulders of the builders who was responsible for making something that floated and carry everybody back. And I didn't even realize that that was part of the design. I had to figure out, that was my job as builder to figure out all those things. And so when I started doing the Lanham the first thing I was doing was figuring out all of those details and when it got down to do the lines and I didn't like the lines that we currently had to work with and didn't like the vessel itself … to take that extra step to do the actual, to draw the lines of the boat and come up with a shape of the hull was a really small process comparatively and an easy step. Once you figure out how you're gonna build something that's the key. And one of the things when I look at the Lanham sailing. I was looking at it this summer from the Ardelle, I said to a fellow that is a beautiful boat. And the fellow said "does that mean you're a bit conceited, you designed it and built it.” Well, if I can take credit for anything it's learning the old ways and learning the old techniques and the Essex methods. What makes the Lanham a beautiful boat isn't necessarily my input so much as the fact that I was able to use all the little details which had been worked out over many generations  and many years in the Essex yards.

Jo Reed: Because you not only design the boat; but you actually mill the wood.

Harold Burnham: Now, I do; yeah.

Jo Reed: And make the sails.

Harold Burnham: Yeah.

Jo Reed: You're involved in every aspect of it.

Harold Burnham: Yeah. Well, it's funny, because the more you work, and the more you build, and the more you understand, the more all of those pieces all come together. That's what it is to be a master shipwright: is not someone who just builds or designs or mills wood or makes sails, or rigs; but someone who will do all of those. And then is not afraid to get on the finished product and sail it

Jo Reed: There's one step in the process that I'm so entranced by, and that's curving the wood the way you do using a steam box. Can you just describe that?

Harold Burnham: Oh, yeah. Well, it's steaming the wood, and everyone loves to hear about bending the wood.

Jo Reed: I'm sorry <laughs>.

Harold Burnham: No, you don't have to be sorry; that's one of the things that we love, like that's the mock comment, usually, that uh.. all my friends say when they come down to the dock is, "How do you bend the wood?" <laughs>.

Jo Reed: It's terrible being predictable.

Harold Burnham: Steamin' wood is an ancient technique of makin' it soft and pliable. They do the same thing with chairs; you know, they'll bend the backs of chairs. But, with a straight-grained piece of white oak you basically heat it up in a steam box, and keep it moist, and it's surprising what you can do with it. You can twist it, and bend it, and torture it into shapes that are you seemingly impossible shapes. I know about how far you can push it, and there have been times when I've designed things that uh.. I shouldn't of <laughs>. And luckily, the oak was forgiving enough to get me through it. And but it is remarkable what you can do with a hot piece of oak. And the hotter you get it, the- the better she'll go around. I mean, when it's become really, really important, you know, I'll be feedin' that fire, myself, and- and it'll roar like a jet engine. And that's about the time that it's ready to come out of the box. 

Jo Reed: How many people worked with you on the Thomas Lanham?  Let's talk about paid staff and then volunteers. How many- how many people worked with you?

Harold Burnham: You know, it's interesting I don't really count paid versus nonpaid. Some people that you're paying a fortune aren't really helping out as much as they could and some people you don't pay anything will- will do the work of three men. So it's really kind of hard to say.

Jo Reed: But there were paid people for the Lanham which is for the Ardelle which is the most recent boat you built and that built it was all volunteered. It was just nobody who was paid. 

Harold Burnham: Yeah, it was all volunteered. If I was building the Ardelle again my guess is that that boat would be somewhere between $600,000 and $800,000 for somebody else. And the cost of it, to me, was about $65,000. So, it was around 90 percent donated or volunteer which is remarkable. Says a lot to the people around in this area what they think of this tradition and what they think of myself personally, but also what they think of, you know, what I was doing and how- how much it meant to them to be able to be part of it.  

Jo Reed: What led to the building of the Ardelle?

Harold Burnham: What led to the construction of the Ardelle was that I hadn't had an order for a new vessel in a new time. Even though I didn't have orders I kept cutting wood and collecting logs and stashing away gear and kept getting ready for my next project whatever that would be. And I figured if I could keep the door open and keep everything available then I was doing everything I could do in my power to keep building boats and the rest of it was not in my power. As that pile of gear amassed orders came in after a while I reached a point I had to do something different. You can either change or die I guess and so with everything there and all the tools and all the equipment at a certain point it was a matter of trying to find a little more sustainable way of life and the only sensible way out of the boat building business was to build a boat. If you can't sustain yourself building boats you've got to pick a boat to build that will sustain you. And that's what the Ardelle was all about was building a boat that would provide me with a sustainable way of life and future. Until we started cutting the wood the hope was that someone would walk in the door and save me from myself and hire me to build a boat and that just didn't happen. And with everything in place and plunging myself into it it was amazing and inspiring and also the amount of people that showed up to help out in so many different ways. Eventually the project took on a life of its own. Not only did I have to keep building it for my own reasons I couldn't let anybody down. So the crew that was showing up to build the boat was not only helpful in a sense that they were showing up to help me but they became a major source of motivation. I couldn't sleep in. I had to be up early before anyone got there and make sure they had something to do. It kind of fed upon itself. There's a lot of times where people say well how did you do this and my answer is I have no idea how I put that boat together but I know it was not without an incredible amount of suppport from a great number of people.

Jo Reed: And the thought was build the Ardelle and you would use it as a public charter boat and as a boat that does public sales in the Gloucester area but you go to Provincetown and sustain yourself that way?

Harold Burnham: The deal was to build a boat that could support me in many different ways. And certainly chartering out of Gloucester was a great way. And the other thing is build a boat--with the Lanham chartering out of Gloucester and successful and to have boats chartering out of Gloucester starts to say a lot about the people around Gloucester and what they're looking for and what they want. It had been a dream a long time before the Lanham from the time I started running my first, the Sloop Kim, built back in '92. I would look at the whale watch boats go by one after another and I knew that if you could develop an interest in indigenous traditional craft then with every whale watch boat with the same demographic you could have a traditional schooner working out of Gloucester and if you do that then you keep alive the skills in shipbuilding to keep building them and also and hand on to the people that sail on them the same traditions on how to handle these things, how to sail, how to maneuver them. When we sail the Ardelle we're not the standard turn the motor on back out of the slip and point into the wind, pull the sails up and turn the motor off and sail around and then point into the wind with the motor on and drop the sails. It's very important to me to sail it like it's a working vessel. And hauling lobster traps and sailing in and out of the dock and handling it under sail is very important to me. We'll turn the engine on before we crash, but usually just before we crash.

Jo Reed: We're in Massachusetts. Shipbuilding happens primarily fall, winter and into early spring. Ships are built outside. This is very cold. 

Harold Burnham: Yeah, people who work inside have a different expectation of the weather. When you work in a weather dependent industry you go and you try and if it gets so bad you can't make it you find something else to do.

Jo Reed: But the other thing working outside it means it's public and people can see you and members of the community know what you're doing.

Harold Burnham: Yup.

Jo Reed: And that really helped in some ways to reconnect a community to its history. 

Harold Burnham: Yeah. I like to say that in the '40s, the shipbuilding industry in Essex didn't die, but it sort of went back into the cottage where you couldn't see it. It went away from the waterfront. And if there's one thing that I did that was different than I built the boats on the waterfront where they could be launched right into the river, but also where everybody could see them and watch the progress. And I think that that helped connect the town to its, to its roots in a way that you wouldn't have had otherwise. I mean, they built a shed around the boats and built them inside a shed where nobody could see it and then undid the shed at the end of the job and let everybody look at the finished boat. It would have been different.

Jo Reed: You use traditional techniques, but not for some nostalgic reason of wanting to recreate but because, if I'm right, you find them actually really superior.

Harold Burnham: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, yeah. Well, we built the Ardelle for $65,000. How are you going to do that in fiberglass? You couldn't even buy the glue, you know. Cole Walden can't be done. You can't buy the fastenings if it was screw-fastened for that. You know, it was built with sawn frames and treenails in the old way. And the thing is rugged. You can bash it off rocks and stick it in the mud and do anything you want with it. You aren't going to get it to come apart. And to me, that's the, that's the meaning of, good. It's made out of readily available materials, made cheap, and, made to last, and the only thing we have to worry about in a wooden boat is keep 'em painted and keep the worms out of them. Yeah. Especially a wooden boat that's wooden-fastened.

Jo Reed: Are you seeing interest in the next generation in wooden ships?

Harold Burnham: There's a humongous amount of interest. And it's wonderful, and I teach everybody I can. And 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 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, 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, and I've been given everything I can imagine anyone being given. On the other hand, a, you know, 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, uhm.. Those skills are going to be invaluable to that person throughout their whole life, and those are the skills that I try to pass on.

Jo Reed: You have received a National Heritage Fellowship Award. How did you find out about this?

Harold Burnham: Barry Bergey called me up and let me know, and, uh.. I was shocked. I heard about the National Heritage Fellowship and, uhm.. asked a few friends to write letters, but it was sort of the Holy Grail that I didn't really expect to get.

Jo Reed: Well, especially at your age, in your mid-40s.

Harold Burnham: Yeah, I started really, really young, and uhm.. everything I've done in my career, uh.. has pointed towards wooden shipbuilding, with the exception I did a little bit of roofing and some awning work when I was in college, and, uh.. even those things were, you know, like the stars were in alignment.

Jo Reed: How are you getting to Washington, D.C.?

Harold Burnham: Well, the hope is to, uh.. sail down in the Ardelle. Uhm.. and, uh.. there's always that qualifier in anything I say. I've learned, I've learned, uh.. I've learned not to say too much. Who's that?

M1: Zack.

Harold Burnham: Hey, Zack. I'll be right out there.

M1: All right.

Harold Burnham: So I've learned not to, not to tell people too much of, uh.. of what I'm going to do. I will say what I hope to do, and, uhm.. and see what happens.

Jo Reed: And who do you hope to bring with you?

Harold Burnham: Well, it'd be nice to, uh.. The hope is to sail down in the Ardelle and bring a lot of the building crew that helped put the boat together with me and, uh.. and really celebrate this, uh.. award with them and with, uh.. You know, I accept the award, certainly, but, uh.. a great deal of the award I think of the many, many, many people, you know, my father and Brad Story and Micky Minn [ph?] and, uh, you know, all of the people from all walks who have really done everything from contribute a year or two of their lives helping me work on different projects, to 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.

Jo Reed: Many, many congratulations, Harold. It is so well-deserved. I'm very, very happy for you.

Harold Burnham: Well, it's a great honor.

Jo Reed: That was master shipwright and 2012 National Heritage Fellow, Harold Burnham. Harold is currently sailing from Essex Massachusetts to Washington, DC on the Ardelle.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.

Excerpt from "Out on the Ocean" and "Rolling Waves" by Jennifer Cutting and the Ocean Orchestra, used courtesy of Jennifer Cutting. 

You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. 

Next week, it's another celebration of traditional art of gospel music from the tidewater with 2012 National Heritage Fellows, the Paschall Brothers.

And don't forget on Thursday Oct 4 the 2012 National Heritage Fellows perform live at the NEA NATIONAL HERITAGE CONCERT. It's at 7:30 pm at the Lisner Auditorium in Washington DC. If you can't make it, don't worry, we're webcasting it live! For more information about this free concert and the live webcast.

Go to arts.gov and click on National Heritage Fellowships.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Harold Burnham keeps the Essex shipbuilding tradition alive and vibrant.