Magazine

The New Yankee Craftsmen

Against all odds, these Yankee Craftsmen are keeping New England’s traditional arts and trades alive. Learn more about these talented New Englanders.

By Bridget Samburg

Feb 11 2015

GrahamMcKay

since 1793.

Photo Credit : Jarrod McCabe
Graham McKay and his fellow boatbuilders work with many of the same materials that the Lowell family used more than a century ago.
Graham McKay and his fellow boatbuilders work with many of the same materials that the Lowell family used more than a century ago.
Photo Credit : Jarrod McCabe

“It’s somewhat inexplicable, the attraction we have to these sorts of things,” says Graham McKay, rubbing his hands together to warm up on a chilly winter morning. McKay is a wooden-boat builder and the manager of Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury, Massachusetts. And, like all the other people profiled in this story, he’s a craftsman devoted to preservation. But he’s not just interested in the conservation of objects—he’s trying to save an entire tradition. The following artisans are practitioners of lost arts, of trades mostly replaced by the usual forces of mass production. And yet, in this era of enlightened consumerism—from locavoreethics to Etsy shops to the DIY revival—these folks are finding it possible to make a living making things by hand. Some have even devoted themselves to traditional New England crafts, working with materials and techniques that date back centuries. Here, they share the passion that inspires them to forge connections across time.

Graham McKay loves to play with boats, and that passion shines through in the skiffs he builds at Lowell’s Boat Shop, a fixture in Amesbury, Massachusetts,
Graham McKay loves to play with boats, and that passion shines through in the skiffs he builds at Lowell’s Boat Shop, a fixture in Amesbury, Massachusetts.
Photo Credit : Jarrod McCabe

Graham McKay, Boatbuilder

Graham McKay grew up near Lowell’s Boat Shop and apprenticed there as a high-school student. Although he left for college and lived in England for a time, he was drawn back to Amesbury, Massachusetts, and the life of a builder. “I’m drawn to old-timey things,” he says. “This place has so much character. Plus, I love playing with boats.” And you can’t beat the view: Perched along the Merrimack River, the shop’s windows frame a perfect and uninterrupted view of the water.

The firm dates back to 1793, making it the oldest continuously operating boat shop in the United States. Simeon Lowell first began designing and building his signature dory skiffs, a popular fishing vessel of the time, in the late 18th century. For the next seven generations, Lowells built the boats here, right up through 1976, when Ralph Lowell finally sold the shop to Malcolm Odell. Today, McKay works with many of the same tools—giant chisels and hand planes—and techniques that his predecessors used more than a century ago.

Some of these vessels are bought by local boating enthusiasts, others by people just looking for a high-quality rowboat for their families. And one, beautifully painted in deep hues of blue-gray, is waiting for its ride down to New York City, where it will serve as the dinghy for a much larger boat. The shop produces eight to ten of these skiffs a year to sell (in 1911, its peak year, Lowell’s produced 2,029); four to six more are built by students in the classes offered at the shop. A traditional painted dory might run $8,000 to $9,000. McKay says the price keeps the dories competitive with many of the dinghies that boaters buy to trail behind their yachts.

There are always several boats propped up in various stages of completion at Lowell’s. Sawdust lightly coats the floor. McKay and the others who spend hours putting these boats together no longer smell the intense aroma of cut wood—once pine, now a mix of cedar plank, mahogany, cypress, and black locust—that permeates the building. The shop now runs as a nonprofit organization, school, and museum.

Visitors are welcome to come by year-round and watch the boatbuilding process. “There’s still a market for this,” McKay says. “As a nation, or a world, we’re losing little bits of history, and then we try like hell to get it back.”

Lowell’s Boat Shop,Amesbury, MA. 978-834-0050; lowellsboatshop.com

John Kristensen’s business, Firefly Press, is built around three antique letterpress printers that he calls his “dinosaurs.” The machines and the process may be old, but his products are timeless.
John Kristensen’s business, Firefly Press, is built around three antique letterpress printers that he calls his “dinosaurs.” The machines and the process may be old, but his products are timeless.
Photo Credit : Jarrod McCabe

John Kristensen, Letterpress Printer

In his modest workshop on the western reaches of Boston, John Kristensen introduces a visitor to a row of antique machines lining the wall. “These are my dinosaurs,” he says, gesturing at two Linotype and three Monotype machines adorned with metal arms and movable parts. They seem to have personalities even when lying dormant.

Kristensen runs Firefly Press, producing letterpress invitations, business cards, notecards, and other printed media. This is the three-dimensional, real-world version of desktop publishing. Kristensen chooses his fonts from among 300 different cases of type. He methodically places each metal letter in turn to form words, proclamations, invitations, and announcements. Then he threads paper into one of his machines, cranks a handle, and watches as the paper and letters meet, leaving behind a distinct impression. “The problem with letterpress is that it’s slow,” he says. He must continually load single sheets of paper one by one and crank the handle hundreds more times to complete just one order. But that’s one of the appeals for Kristensen: “I’m a traditionalist. I believe in the great tradition of letterpress.”

There’s something so simple and elegant about the pressing together of paper and type. The imprint revealed is tactile, the smell of ink is intoxicating. But for all its appeal, letterpress nearly disappeared. “This is the way practically all text was produced,” Kristensen explains. “And then it wasn’t fast enough anymore.” A few letterpress printers remain around the country. Several are in New England, all enthusiastic, working to keep the art alive. “The human spirit isn’t willing to let these things go,” Kristensen says. Thanks in part to relationships with Harvard University and some other Boston colleges, Kristensen has much business to keep him occupied. “There’s a very great visceral attraction,” he says. “It’s so much fun.”

Firefly Press,Boston, MA. 617-987-0599; fireflyletterpress.com

Pighills sees his stone walls as 3D jigsaw puzzles. On a good day, he can construct about six linear feet of a four-and-a-half-foot-high wall per day.
Pighills sees his stone walls as 3D jigsaw puzzles. On a good day, he can construct about six linear feet of a four-and-a-half-foot-high wall per day.
Photo Credit : Jarrod McCabe

Andrew Pighills,Stone Wall Builder

Andrew Pighills learned his craft out of pure necessity. His father was a farmer; the fields needed delineating. He was 11 when he first assisted with the building of walls on the family’s land in Yorkshire, England. “As a small child I loved jigsaws,” Pighills says. “Dry stone walling is nothing more than a three-dimensional jigsaw.”

In his craft, which he now practices from his home in Killingworth, Connecticut, Pighills seldom uses mortar. “The only two things holding a wall together are gravity and friction,” he says. Walls make up the majority of his commissions, but he also creates pillars and other landscape ornaments. (In a break from tradition, he’s also started building outdoor bake ovens, which do require some mortar.) Some of his customers have an understanding of dry stone walling as a craft, but Pighills says many come to him merely by reputation, drawn to the aesthetics but unaware of the method. He later convinces them that the mortar isn’t necessary, since it ultimately weakens the wall.

Traditionally, New England stone walls were built with rocks and pieces dug up from the land as it was cleared for farming—a great example of the waste-not Yankee ethos. “Some clients insist that the stone come from their property,” Pighills says, but he uses stone from quarries or stoneyards as well. Working steadily, he can build about six linear feet of a four-and-a-half-foot-high wall per day. He’s outside until late December or early January, when the cold temperatures and frozen ground make construction impossible. He spends the winter indoors, designing gardens and other projects with his wife, Michelle Becker, for their landscape business, English Gardens & Landscaping. He usually starts building walls again in mid-March.

“You get so focused on the work, you can let your mind wander,” Pighills says of his craft. “It’s a very rewarding feeling to step back and know that it’s lasting.” Ever aware of history, he has studied the evolution of stone-wall design, both here and in England, and keeps a collection of artifacts he’s unearthed during construction—such as cannonballs from the English Civil War in the 1640s, and antique glass.

“Here in New England [the walls are] such a wonderful, historical record,” he says. “I try to make that history a part of people’s lives.”

English Gardens & Landscaping,Killingworth, CT. 860-575-0526; englishgardensandlandscaping.com

Lisa Curry Mair, shown here in her studio in Perkinsville, Vermont, has painted more than 1,000 floorcloths during the two decades she has devoted to her craft.
Lisa Curry Mair, shown here in her studio in Perkinsville, Vermont, has painted more than 1,000 floorcloths during the two decades she has devoted to her craft.
Photo Credit : Jarrod McCabe

Lisa Curry Mair,Floorcloth Painter

Once made from the worn sails that graced New England’s boats, floorcloths nearly disappeared after the invention of linoleum in the mid- 1800s. But Lisa Curry Mair, who completed her 1,000th cloth last year, has seen somewhat of a resurgence in these decorative and colorful floor coverings. Relying on historical patterns as well as some of her own designs, Muir paints vivid floorcloths and wall murals, all on 100 percent cotton canvas. Her murals mimic those of Rufus Porter, the renowned 19th-century artist and inventor, who is also a distant ancestor. After more than 20 years, she has mastered Colonial, Early American, and country styles, and often does work for museums.

Canvasworks Floorcloths,Perkinsville, VT. 802-263-5410; canvasworksfloorcloths.com

Tinsmith David Claggett’s workshop is a testament to more than 30 years spent transforming flat pieces of metal into objects of beauty, for clients ranging from Colonial Williamsburg to the White House.
Tinsmith David Claggett’s workshop is a testament to more than 30 years spent transforming flat pieces of metal into objects of beauty, for clients ranging from Colonial Williamsburg to the White House.
Photo Credit : Jarrod McCabe

David Claggett,Tinsmith

David Claggett started working with tin as a hobby, but by 1985, he was running a renowned tinsmithing shop, selling his wares to Colonial Williamsburg and producing reproduction pieces for museums. He even made ornaments for the White House Christmas tree in the early 1980s. Today, his mainstays are sconces, lanterns, chandeliers, and light fixtures. He typically relies on patterns harking back to the late 1700s and early 1800s, and his clean-lined, Early American style exudes warmth. “It’s a nice feeling when you start with a flat piece of tin and end up with a beautiful object,” he says of his craft.

David Claggett Master Tinsmith,Weston, VT. 802-824-3194; vermonttinsmith.com

Garrett Hack,Furniture Maker

Using traditional hand tools and joinery, Garrett Hack has been makingfurniture for more than 35 years. Both modern elements and traditional designs blend gracefully in his eye-catching pieces. “I have the freedom to pick up a tool and do amazing things with it,” Hack says. “I love the creativity.” Much of his work involves tables of varying shapes (elliptical elements are his passion as of late), although he makes chests and chairs and other furniture as well. Hack sometimes finds native cherry, basswood, maple, and aspen in the woods around his house, and uses his Belgian workhorse, Jazz, to help haul the logs.

Garrett Hack,Thetford Center, VT. 802-785-4329; garretthack.com

Tremont Nail Company,Restoration Nail Manufacturer

Using machines from the mid- to late 1800s, Tremont produces the only full line of square-cut nails in the world, its signature product since 1819. The four-sided design adds character to old or new floors and backs up good looks with performance. “Because of the design of the shank, it has almost twice the holding power,” says Eric DeLong, Tremont’s president. These nails are a nod to an era when blacksmiths hand-forged every metal element in your home and farmers made their own during the cold winter months.

Tremont Nail Co.,Mansfield, MA. 508-339-4500; tremontnail.com

Bill Laurita,Blanket Weaver

Bill Laurita is an expert on natural plant dyes, creating colors—some from roots and insect shells—and dyeing wool for his handwoven Swans Island blankets. He learned every aspect of the business when he bought the company 10 years ago and has since overseen a tenfold growth in the Maine-based operation. With five weavers, one finisher, and two dyers, Swans Island produces some of the most exquisite blankets in New England. It’s a time-consuming process, from choosing the right sheep to getting the wool spun into yarn and weaving the products. “All that handwork, natural ingredients, and attention to detail—that’s what’s so appealing,” Laurita says. The blankets cost several hundred dollars each, but they last for generations, and the fine weave, subtle colors, and impeccable craftsmanship are unparalleled. “They’re for people who want meaning in the stuff that’s around them,” Laurita adds. “There’s a story behind them.”

Swans Island Co., Northport, ME. 207-338-9691; swansislandcompany.com

Jeff Pentland,Potter

“My pottery is very traditional,” says Jeff Pentland. “I don’t consider myself much of an artist.” Those who admire his work might argue—but still, Pentland’s English-style, terra-cotta pots aren’t embellished with whimsical additions or designs. Rather, they retain a simple elegance harking back to Pentland’s training in England. He then spent 15 years working at the Simon Pearce facility in Quechee, Vermont, before founding his own business. He built a wood-fired kiln and works much as farmers would have centuries ago, gardening and tending his pick-your-own blueberry patch during the warmer months and making pottery during the winter.

Pentland Pottery,Hartland, VT. 802-436-9122; pentlandpottery.tripod.com

Marietta Ellis,Soapmaker

“We go back to how it was done in the 19th century,” explains Marietta Ellis, owner of The Soap Factory, where she has been producing castile soap since 1985. Ellis makes her bars with sodium hydroxide (lye), which, combined with olive oil and cooking lard, were the primary ingredients in 19th-century New England soap. A chemistry major in college, Ellis spent years researching historic soapmaking traditions at libraries around New England and at Old Sturbridge Village. Scented with bay rum, lavender, rose mint, and jasmine, her castile bars are simple and practical. For those who want animal-free products, her liquid soap is made without the lard (and with potassium hydroxide, or potash, in place of the lye), and Ellis has also added a bar made of olive and palm oils.

The Soap Factory,Bedford, MA. 781-275-8363; alcasoft.com/soapfact