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Wooden Shipbuilding
and its Terms

By 3 de February, 2024April 29th, 2024No Comments

Wooden shipbuilding and its terms

There are wooden shipbuilding terms whose origins are lost in time. They are part of Vila do Conde’s intangible culture. We’ve culled a few from the vast and curious glossary associated with this ancient art, passed down from generation to generation. Who knows them?

This is a small selection of the many terms that are part of our naval and maritime culture. Preserving such a special vocabulary is one of CdAN’s aims. Where there is know-how, there are words and “sayings” that we don’t want to lose. Let’s try to explain uncommon Portuguese words in English…

Is there a scratch? Where?

A wooden boat doesn’t just appear. In order to design it properly, you have to scratch it out, in its own space. This has been the case for a long time, going back at least to the 18th century. Prior to this period, craftsmen used “graminho”, a geometric method described in the 16th century in the “Livro da Fábrica das Naus” by priest Fernando Oliveira.

Sala do Risco (scratch room) – name of the space where the geometric plan of the boat is drawn to scale, with a view to making all the formwork needed to cut the wooden pieces. The “risco” is the work carried out in this space, which could well be a “casa do risco” (scratch house), i.e. an area with the dimensions needed to draw the boat at full scale.

Workmanship with “gabarito” and “petipé”?

We already know that Vila do Conde’s wooden boats are of a high standard, but here the term “gabarito” (something with high-class) has another meaning. And behind one word comes another…

“Gabarito” or grid (or “fôrmas de galivar/”galivar” formwork – a kind of wooden grid into which all the squareness of the frame lines and other elements to draw the “cavername” (framing of the boat) are passed.

“Galivar” – to draw the framing structure of the boat with the formwork.

“Cavernas” or beacons – pieces of wood that form the whole of each transverse arch of the boat’s skeleton. The whole set is called a “cavername”.

Because this is a very old craft, we haven’t left out a delicately worded measuring and precision instrument that has been used since at least the 17th century:

“Petipé” – a graphic scale used in the execution and interpretation of shipbuilding drawings.

To kick water, there are donkeys, codfish and puppies… What?!

In current Portuguese dictionaries, “couce” is the same as “coice” (horse kicks), which has nothing to do with what we are talking about here – or the animals…

“Couce de proa” (bow kick) – set of all the compact pieces of wood at the connection between the keel and the bow wheel of the boat, at the end of the keel.

“Couce de popa” (stern kick) – set of all the compact parts of the stern, connecting the keel to the stern frame.

“Arre-burras” (something like an exclamation addressed to beasts of burden to make them move; “burras” means donkeys) – longitudinal planks that are added to the edge of small boats to give them more height and thus prevent the waves from crashing into the boat.

“Bacalhau” (codfish) or “lavassa” – a piece of wood used to replace part of a wooden plank that has rotted or split.

“Cachorros” (puppies) – wooden planks of 10 meters or more, about 30cm wide, which are placed on top of the boat’s launching line. The whole assembly is “wedged” against the bulge of the hull, with the hull resting on the “cachorros”.

All honor to the calafate (that is, the caulker)!

Without him, the boat would fill up with water. In wooden shipbuilding, the fame of these professionals from Vila do Conde goes back a long way. As important as carpenters, the region’s caulkers were already recognized by the Portuguese Kingdom in the 15th century. Who is he, what does he do and what does he use?

“Calafate” (caulker) – a specialist in the craft of caulking. On the building site, it is also the caulker who handles the pins that join larger pieces together.

“Calafeto” – cord made of cotton and tarred linen tow, used to seal board joints.

“Estopa de linho alcatroada” (tarred linen tow) – also used for caulking, it is made from linen and bathed in vegetable tar. It is spun by calafate.

“Desencalcador” (pitch remover) – hook-shaped iron used to remove pitch from joints.

“Macete de calafate” (caulking mallet) – a kind of wooden hammer used to work with caulking irons when inserting burlap.

“Ferros de calafetar” (caulking irons) – small irons used in caulking, which together with the caulking mallet are used to insert the tow into the joints of the wood planks.

After so many references to pitch (“breu” in Portuguese), it’s interesting to see how it finds its way into wooden shipbuilding

“Breu” – a bituminous substance obtained by distilling resins. When heated, it becomes liquid and is used to seal the boat. On small boats, it is applied to the inside of the seams. Adding a little oil to the melted pitch gives a soft substance that clings better and doesn’t break. Blond rosin makes a good craft varnish.

And when things don’t go well?

The work is “empachado” – difficulty in getting on with it for some reason.

We’re “enchapados” with work – having too much to do.

We’ve just killed a piece (“matar uma peça”) – we ruined the piece that was being worked on.