It’s difficult to get building materials such as siding and roofing out in the wilderness, so when my sister Megan visited recently with the desire to construct her first building on her island in Meyers Chuck, we looked around the beaches for something that would work.
Happily, my dad just happened to have squirreled away in one of his many log corrals a red cedar log perfect for cutting into shake bolts. All we had to do was apply elbow grease — well, and come up with the necessary tools for making shakes.
Our first problem erupted when my dad couldn’t find his trusty froe, a right-angled cutting tool that consisted of a long blade like a paper-cutter, and a wooden handle. I’d grown up watching him use this froe to produce cedar shakes for our home school and my first floathouse. He’d loaned it out and wasn’t sure if it had ever been returned.
Fortunately, my youngest brother Chris, who lives in Ketchikan, had a brand new one and he sent it out with my other two brothers, Jamie and Robin, on Jamie’s commercial fishing boat. We had a froe, so now we needed a splitting maul to hammer the blade into the shake bolts.
It needed to be made from a hardwood. “I found that out when I destroyed the back edge of my first froe with a sledgehammer,” my dad told my sister and me. He thought a moment and said, “I know what we can use — there’s a chunk of ironbark that drifted in that will work.” He described where it was.
Megan and I found it exactly where he said it would be, in a small clearing just above a beach covered in drift logs. The six foot long, four-by-four timber was weathered and rounded from long exposure to water and weather, probably battered on many shores before it reached our little bight.
I’ve always found ironbark fascinating. We’re always finding bits of it drifting in from faraway places, although it’s so dense and heavy that it barely floats. It’s part of the Eucalyptus family, native to the Southern Hemisphere. Its bark is fire and heat resistant, with the amazing ability to protect the living tissue within the trunk and branches from fire. It’s still common, in modern wooden shipbuilding, to use a length of ironbark as a “bug shoe” on the bottom of a ship’s keel to deter the depredations of shipworms and other bugs.
As mentioned, it’s an extremely dense and heavy wood, so dense that its grain is virtually invisible to the naked eye. It can be difficult to work — dressed surfaces take on a steely sheen from the tightness of the grain. It flourishes in Australia and I love that it was originally used by Aborigine hunters to make spear throwers. It’s a particularly hard, strong and durable timber and would be ideal as a maul for our shake-making purposes.
Megan packed the heavy timber over to my parents’ floathouse on her shoulder, laughingly calling it “cross training for my mountain bike racing” to keep herself in shape for when she returned to Florida.
My dad, with some effort, used a handsaw to cut off a one foot length of the tough wood and then sawed around it at the halfway spot. Next, he used an axe to rough out a handle. He smoothed it into shape with a rasp, first with the rough side and then with the fine side until he had a nicely weighted, comfortable handling ironbark splitting maul.
Megan and I carried the maul, the froe, a chainsaw, a wedge and a sledgehammer over to the beach where the shake bolt log sat high above the musky, seaweed tideline. My dad met us there a little while later.
He inspected both ends of the log before making his choice, and chainsawed off a 30-inch section of the log. To halve the round, he stuck a wedge in the end of the log and prepared to sledgehammer it into place, splitting it as it lay. Megan insisted she wanted to do every part in making her shakes, so he stepped back and directed operations.
It was an awkward angle with a six-pound sledgehammer, but nothing withstands Megan’s determination for long. We soon heard, above the ringing of steel on steel, the crack of the wood splitting. The large half of the shake bolt came free. I put my shoulder into lifting it into position for splitting.
My dad showed Megan how to line the froe up on the edge of the cedar bolt, making the prospective shakes about a half-inch thick, and then hammered on the froe with the ironbark maul. He frowned when the froe refused to sink into the soft cedar. He inspected the froe and shook his head, muttering, “Modern tool making.”
The froe, he said, didn’t have a tapered, sharp blade. It was made of extremely hard metal with a ground edge. My brother Robin later said that he thought the blade looked like a steel spring from a car. The blade on my dad’s old froe, by contrast, had been made from hammered steel.
It took more energy, beating with the maul, than it should have to produce just one shake. Considering how hard the modern froe blade’s steel was, my dad decided to switch out the maul for the sledgehammer. He quickly produced a shake with no damage to the back edge of the froe, other than to the yellow paint job.
Megan took over for him, and while I filmed her to the “Rocky” theme song “Eye of the Tiger” she managed to — between collapsing with laughter — produce a pile of shakes.
Robin showed up later and contributed to the pile, until we had a nice stack. Megan ran out of time in her vacation before she could finish her first building project and incorporate the shakes she’d made, but they’ll be waiting or her when she comes back in the spring to begin building in earnest on MAD Island.
Out of curiosity, I went online to find out how much cedar shakes would cost and found that western red cedar shingles regularly price out at $165 for a contractor pack (not the highest quality) that covers 20-25 square feet with a 7-inch exposure of shingle. They also don’t ship to Alaska — only to the “continental US.” Interestingly, there’s a shake mill just across the strait from us in Thorne Bay. They ship their shakes south, but Alaskans would not be able to have them shipped back up north.
Megan says that besides the money savings, “It’s much more rewarding — and fun — to produce your own materials from diftwood, family help, and your own sweat.”
• Tara Neilson grew up in a burned cannery in a remote area of Southeast Alaska. She still lives in the wilderness, in a floathouse near Meyers Chuck. She blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com and readers can reach her at email@example.com.