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Shipyard Restoration Woodcarving

Specialist shipyard restoration woodcarving on the Fife Ship “Elise” included carving the decoration, and this is  how is was achieved and how many difficult problems were overcome:


Elise is a ‘Fife’ built in 1912, designed by William Fife the Third.

Over three generations of this family built these fast and beautiful ships on the west coast of Scotland. We had a crude copy of the original drawings to work from, enabling us to see the exact line of the stem post and the original fiddle bow instead of the Dragon carving on later models.

Elise is an important ship and a focus for much interest because of the high standards of the yard, so the decoration had to be fitting and fully reflective of the superb quality of the restoration work.

Joe Irving, is the owner of the yard and the shipwright responsible for the complete restoration of Elise as close to the original specification as possible, employing modern materials and standards. Joe and I laid out the line for the replacement stem post to the original drawing using our experience and “eye”. The true line was lost over the years to various bumps, with damage being sanded-out, which was re-established according to the original design and she looks so much better for it.

The scroll decoration was carved into the extension for the stem post from English Oak on the studio bench. When it was added to the ship, the continuation of the decoration line was cut in to position it exactly so it was not lost during the planking process.

The Ornamentation

The difficulty with interpreting the design was the three different versions. The first and original from the designer himself shows reasonably clearly the shape of decoration he intended for the enhancement of his ship and he was very clear about the way the design flows, however the detail of the actual decoration is very sketchy indeed.

It was decided that we would be as true to this as possible, as this was how the designer saw it and that’s how the owner preferred it to look. Before the planking was stripped out I interpreted Fifes original design as a pattern which was very difficult indeed.  I drew full-size on tracing paper ready for transfer to the ship proper.

The pattern was then applied to the new planking but when in position and fully prepared, it was not as good as we hoped, since Fife had just approximated the, “scrambled egg ” decoration and the actual details were left to the carver’s interpretation. The original Carver had then worked it in using a rolling acanthus pattern, executed within the parameters of the design shown by Fife but done as you would expect, in his own distinctive style.

Re-thinking the Design

With this in mind I had to completely rethink the whole thing discarding the interpretation of Fifes original. New drawings had to be prepared which truly reflected the carver’s interpretation and Fifes thoughts, while discarding the disastrous previous dragon carving.

Having the foresight, before the planking was replaced I took comprehensive drawings and rubbings of the original carving. This however caused major problems in the interpretation of the actual design because at some time half of it had been sanded-out and a crude interpretation of a Dragons head had been married on to the original. Close analysis of this showed a real mishmash and fortunately I was able to see clearly how the tail end of the design was done originally and using Fifes own drawing, was able to recreate the front decoration in conjunction with his flow lines.

The middle section was then extrapolated from the original carver’s style and filled in accordance with Fifes idea and the carver’s original interpretation. The result is as accurate a representation as can be managed and because it replicates Fifes sweep and general rolling shape it is as near as possible to his original concept.


New Patterns were Drawn

The new patterns were then drawn up and applied to the ship after she was painted to give me a clear ground on which to work. The fiddle already on the ship gave a datum from which to start, together with the hawsers which are in existence along with the line scribed around the ship. This gave us 3 points of reference and the tracing was pinned and taped on in exactly the right position.

The design was then meticulously scribed through and the resulting imprint tidied and corrected for wobbles. A 3/16″ “V” tool was then used to cut in the design in a shallow form.

The Transition from Oak to Mahogany

This proved a problem due to the differing densities of the materials and was compounded by the fillets glued in between the planks. The carving process was not straight-forward at all, with great care needed for the final cut. From the existing original carving that had not been tampered with, we could see that the V scribed line was filled with red paint and from photos of the vessel showed that the acanthus leaves were picked out in gold.

Surprisingly, the gold was just laid on the surface between the red lines which makes the gilding vulnerable to rubbing damage and even more surprising because the fiddle at the peak, which adjoins this, is heavily relieved. To gild this as it is, will look very flat and I strongly recommend that some matching hollowing of these features be done, to bring depth and movement by reflecting the gold into itself and bring to life the decoration on this beautiful ship.


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