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The Lost Art of 'Lofting,' as Learned from the Master


In the late 1970’s I began my boatbuilding apprenticeship in Maine with one of the great American boat builders, Paul Luke. I earned my way into the boatbuilding crew after surviving their best attempt to drive me away by assigning me to drill and tap thousands of wing nuts in the machine shop, but that is another story.



My favorite part of the entire process took place at the beginning of a project, on the loft floor. In those days you began building a boat by converting the blueprints into a life size drawing of the boat. We were building sixty plus foot boats and that meant an area 12’ wide and 80’ long. Not just any area, but a white freshly painted floor known as the loft floor.

In an otherwise dingy shop, the loft floor had its unique charm. First, it was above the shop, separate, and dedicated to this one purpose. Drawing in pencil on this floor required light, and one entire wall had windows, with a view out into Linekin Bay. From this lofty view we could gaze out over the water, or look down into the shop below.

The loftsman, Earle Dodge, was a no nonsense set in his ways master, even dictating which pencils I should use (Venus Velvet, 2.5). In his lone concession to anything other than pure concentration on our work, Earle allowed himself one diversion. Each day when the whistle blew at four o’clock, Earle would take his Venus Velvet and make a mark on the wall where a window frame cast its shadow, and then the date. Sure enough, each day the mark moved slightly as the earth’s angle to the sun changed.

I found the lofting process fascinating. The process went something like this: layout a grid on the white painted floor, reproduce the lines on the blueprint at full size on the floor, find and correct any humps and bumps that were not visible at the blueprint scale, and then generate a set of patterns to be used to create the frames that would form the structure and shape of the boat. Sounds easy right?

The drawing process begins from a list of numbers known as a “table of offsets.” Hidden with the numbers are graceful sweeping lines that define the boat’s shape.

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Lofting can be a challenging mind-bender. The designer creates the shape of the boat with three different views. Imagine your coffee mug. If you sliced it horizontally into many pieces, the bottom of the cup would appear as a solid disk. The areas above it would appear as rings. Depending on the shape of the cup, the rings at the bottom might be larger than the rings at the top. Now imagine slicing it vertically. These slices would all look very similar, except for the handle. The designing process slices the boat in three different ways, and these slices are all reproduced full size. Adding to the fun, in the interest of efficiency, all of these pencil lines are superimposed on each other. It can be mind boggling.

The lofting process refines all of the numbers and lines and distills them down to a “body plan.” The right side of the drawing looks aft from the bow, while the left side views from the stern looking forward. The boat has been sliced across into sections. A pattern is made of each section and the patterns are used to create molds or frames which establish the shape of the hull.

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At the end of the process, the lines are all reconciled into what is known as a body plan, and from the body plan the patterns are made for the frames and construction begins. It all seemed rather magical to me and now, with the benefit of time, I have some understanding. Any time that we imagine something in our minds and then create it in the physical world, there is some magic (and hard work usually), to that process. The creative spark that flashes, seemingly on its own, leads to an idea, expands to a vision or plan, and then becomes a physical reality. I have found that to be true whether building a bird house, a boat, or a business, and when it happens the feeling is so gratifying.

Sadly, the lofting process has gone the way of penmanship and handwritten letters. Computer programs generate the dimensions, and five axis computer controlled routers carve out three-dimensional molds. I treasure my memories of days spent high above the shop drawing graceful pencil lines on the freshly painted white floor, with sunlight and a breeze coming in from water.

 At the pattern phase, we begin to see the boat shaping into something.

At the pattern phase, we begin to see the boat shaping into something.

Started in 1981, Zimmerman Marine specializes in all aspects of boat service, including “everything from minor repairs to major refits.” Zimmerman Marine has service facilities in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. The company also builds semi-custom cruising boats and offers its own line of downeast-style cruisers.