Photos and profile by Caryn B. Davis

Peter McKenna is preserving our maritime traditions, one project at a time. He has combined his love for teaching, woodworking, and seafaring to create the Nautical Arts Workshop in Deep River, Connecticut, now in its first season.

McKenna grew up in Setauket, New York and spent a lot of time boating on the waterways of Long Island Sound and building things with his father, a woodworking enthusiast. They had a blacksmith shop and wood shop in their basement where there was always an old boat about, requiring refurbishing. In between projects, McKenna’s father built the house where they resided.

McKenna parlayed his love for carpentry into a profession. He earned a B.S. in Industrial Arts Education and an M.A. in Liberal Studies and currently teaches wood shop at the Greenwich Country Day School in Greenwich, Connecticut. He has taught there for the past 23 years, although he has been an educator at public and private institutions for over thirty years. This includes teaching boat building workshops to families at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex and woodworking activities to the Boy Scouts.

Following in his father’s footsteps, he also built himself a 3,000 square foot colonial reproduction gambrel roof Cape Cod-style home over the course of eight years. During this period he and his wife Pamela occupied a small homestead on the property that had been constructed circa 1800 by Hosmer Buckingham. McKenna purchased it in 1995 and restored it.

Keeping in mind the idea of one day having a nautical arts school, he designed and built a two-story barn and turned it into a studio with enough workstations for ten students and a variety of power and hand tools, many that were once owned by his father. He also transformed the living room of the Buckingham House into a showroom to display the projects the students can make, such as large and small sea chests, ditty boxes, half-hull models, name boards, “scrimshaw” hat and coat racks, a Sheraton style side table, Nantucket baskets, an Adirondack Chair, whirligigs, and others. The kitchen of the house is now used for communal meals, and there is an outdoor patio for relaxing and conversing in between classes.

Every project McKenna offers is steeped in maritime history with origins that date back to whaling, shipping, and sailing heritage. He has spent much time visiting places like The Mystic Seaport and The New Bedford Whaling Museum, researching and reading books on nautical antiques to understand how these arts evolved and the stories and skills behind them.

For example, there are several different designs of bentwood ditty boxes students can make using thin hardwood strips that are steamed and bent around an oval or round mold and then inlaid with abalone, mother of pearl, or “applied” ivory derived from acrylic. These containers, similar to Shaker boxes, were “inspired by the sailor-made ditty boxes of the early nineteenth century” and originally used whalebone for the decorative touches.

“A ditty box is a small box every sailor made to accommodate their personal belongings. They were used to hold cherished possessions and practical items such as needles, thread, and soap. Ditty boxes are as varied as the men who made them. They can be round or square and often employed symbols such as diamond shapes, stars, initials, or names,” explains McKenna.

Other boxes are a 19th century reproduction of a rectangular shaped ditty box and a Christening Box, both made from mahogany, with dovetail joints and a solid brass lock. “Historically, the Christening Box, or as it is more commonly known, the Presentation Box, was used to house the bottle of wine or champagne that was used in the ship christening-launching ceremony. After the ship slid down the ways, a box such as this would be presented to the sponsor of the craft. It would contain the broken bottle of spirits, ribbons, and other keepsakes. Tradition also has it that boxes with wine or champagne intact would be presented to other members who were integral in the ships launching,” McKenna says.

The half-hull model classes McKenna offers include a Noank Sloop, once used for dredging oysters, lobstering, and line fishing; a Connecticut River Shad Boat, popular for catching shad on the river and shoreline; and a New Haven Sharpie, utilized in the oyster industry. McKenna intentionally selected vessels native to this area to replicate.

“From the time of the American Revolution until about 1850, the sailing ships of the United States were first designed entirely with half-hull models constructed by shipwrights as a means of planning the ship’s design and sheer. This model was an exact scale replica of the ship’s hull. From this model, the shipwright was able to enlarge the lines and build a full size symmetrical hull. Gradually it became the practice to draw ship plans first on paper, superseding the use of half-models except as a building aid. Today many boat owners will have a half-hull model carved after their boat has been built,” McKenna explains.

A variety of whimsical, folk art weathervanes and baskets originating from Nantucket are just some of the other objects interested students can craft. While whirligigs serve a practical purpose of betraying the wind’s direction and are a common figure aloft many Nantucket edifices, these carved figures were also beloved as sculpture; the kind McKenna makes are representations of Charles F. Ray and William H. Chase designs.

McKenna is committed to teaching his students to produce everything from scratch. So instead of buying a pre-made handle for the Nantucket baskets, they learn the art of steam bending to fabricate one.

“We make our own base, the staves, the rim, and handle. My goal is to teach the whole process,” he says.

The Nantucket Basket, also known as a “Lightship Basket,” finds its roots in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Native American and white settlers fashioned them from wood for storage and carrying goods. When whaling ships returned home from the Pacific with a cargo of rattan, the islanders incorporated it into their weaving techniques.

“As maritime traffic increased, the demand for safer navigation became louder. The government commissioned lightships to mark coastlines and noted dangers. The first Nantucket lightship was built in 1853. To occupy their free time and to make extra money, sailors took basket-making materials on board. For the next fifty years lightships anchored off Nantucket. The year 1905 saw the end of service. It is from this era that the basket received the “Lightship Basket” moniker,” McKenna notes.

McKenna offers weekend and weeklong classes from spring to early winter. The classes are open to people ages 18 and older, and all levels are welcome. In addition to the tangible objects students create using traditional hand tools, they also learn carving, furniture making, and steam bending – skills that can be applied to other pursuits such as building a toy chest for your children.

“I don’t think anyone around is doing what I am doing at a center like this. I am trying to fill a niche. Part of my mission is to preserve these arts because they are fading away. I want a place people can come to learn these crafts to help keep them alive and to learn about our maritime history,” says McKenna.

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