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The Big Screen

Grays Harbor Historical Seaport is known for its fine millwork, educational programs, the Lady Washington . . . and creating fabulous Hollywood sets

You may not have heard of the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport, a nonprofit organization, which sits on 214 acres outside Aberdeen, Wash. However, you're probably familiar with Pirates of the Caribbean (the blockbuster Disney movie).

It turns out that the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport had a prominent role in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies--they created a lot of the set dressing, including the masts for Jack Sparrow's (Johnny Depp's) infamous Black Pearl.

Captain Les Bolton, executive director of the nonprofit Historical Seaport, says that the Pirates of the Caribbean project encompasses many important aspects of the nonprofit organization -- specialized milling, historical shipbuilding, and vocational education.

Matt Bale operates the one-of-a-kind 1930s woodworking tracer lathe. The tracer lathe can handle poles 122' long and 44" in diameter.

Rush Job for Hollywood

In 2000, the Historical Seaport made a bid on the Pirates project. Bolton said they bid the job based on using their horizontal band saw. "You can make spars on a horizontal band saw--square it, set your taper, cut it, turn it, cut it, reset it -- but it's a long process and labor intensive. I never heard anything back and assumed they'd found someone else."

When the Seaport finally did hear back, it was a "good news" and "bad news" scenario. The good news was that they had the job. The bad news was that they didn't have enough time to do the sizable project on a horizontal band saw.

Bolton and his team knew that McFarland Cascade owned a giant woodworking tracer lathe from the 30s. It could handle poles up to 122' feet long and 40" in diameter. It had been used heavily for decades but was currently sitting idle in Tacoma.

"We got a hold of McFarland Cascade and worked out a deal with them," says Bolton. "We said, 'We'll buy this machine, but we have to use it in your yard--this week.' It was crazy," says Bolton.

Refurbishing the Lathe

After the set dressings were completed for the first Pirates movie, the tracer lathe gave out, and the Grays Harbor team decided to rebuild it from the ground up.

"It was in bad shape," says Site Manager Kent Wall. "We took every nut and bolt out of this thing, cleaned it up, and reassembled it." They also made a few improvements, like a safety shield and dial indicator.

Although the machine was originally built in the 1930s, the team found the original builder had used some
interesting components, like pieces from a WWI gun turret. Also, some of the railing that came with the tracer lathe dated back to 1881.

Built for Precision

The tracer is equipped with high-speed steel knives. Although the head (known as a beaver) is a 6-knife beaver, McFarland Cascade recommended 3 knives to avoid the machine cutter-head loading up.

"The cutter-head is guided by a 3" x 1" steel rail," says Bolton. "You can set that up to make the shape that you want. Then the machine just follows it."

The 1930s tracer has no computers, so it requires the special touch of operators Kent Wall and Matt Bale.

"The operator has to hear and feel the machine," says Kent. "When you run into knots, you have to know to slow down, and if you run into a large knot, it can actually take the cart off the tracks."

The operators also use the "steady rest" to ensure a great finish. "A real good log resonates," explains Bolton. "Even though the log will stay straight in the machine, those cutter knives, as they are hitting it, tap on it like a little drum. The log will start to tremor, and then you get chatter marks that screw up your finish. So we put steady rests on, and that kind of deadens the hum in that piece."

Site Manager Manager Kent Wall (pictured) says the Grays Harbor Seaport has spars all over the world. This 38' log came from Rochester, Wash., and will eventually become the mast on the Brigantine Fair Jeanne out of Ottawa.

Educational Experience

Once the work was completed for Pirates of the Caribbean I, the tracer was moved to its new home in Aberdeen, Wash., just in time to start on Pirates of the Caribbean II and III.

The Historical Seaport strives to help educate the area's youth, and local students played a big role in creating the complicated movie sets.

"We are an unusual organization in that most of our education is hands-on, vocational, and pre-vocational work," says Bolton. "So as we were building this project, we were working with local high school and junior high school kids. They'd be looking on the wall and seeing a blue print that says ‘Jerry Bruckheimer's Pirates of the Caribbean II and III' and were actually able to work on that project."

Kent adds, "I actually took kids out in the woods and we'd select some of the trees. So they'd get a little forestry school in there too." The logs were brought in, and Kent and the students used a Lucas Mill to remove the sapwood.

It turned out to be an ideal situation. The students not only got hands on experience, they also learned how to safely operate machines, get the most out of the log, and work as a team.

"They also learned to read prints, which is math in disguise," says Bolton. "And when we took them to the movie, you'd hear, 'I know that piece. I made it!'"

Lucas Mill Plays a Leading Role

A new 30 hp Lucas Mill, purchased in 2009, is a vital piece of equipment at the Historic Seaport, removing the sapwood before the log goes onto the tracer. That sapwood is used for a variety of projects -- benches, pens, belaying pins, etc. -- created by both students and volunteers.

"We bought the slabbing attachment, so we can mill trees up to 6' wide and deep," says Bolton. "And we've got a planer head so we can plane that whole surface. Having a mill to square the log [before it goes to the tracer] saves a lot time."

Wall adds, "If we're into a mast or a spar that has any squaring on it and faceting, this is the machine for it."

Even Rejects Have Life

Nothing goes to waste at this mill. Bolton puts it best, "We're like that saying, 'frugal farmers use everything out of the pig except the squeal.'"

Even the reject masts sitting in the parking lot will find a second life,

"We're waiting for Hollywood to buy them and blow them up," says Bolton shaking his head it disbelief.

The mill discovered the value of rejects when they broke some pieces while lifting them with a forklift. It was a frustrating setback for the mill, but Bolton says, "The Hollywood guy perked right up. He said, 'That's great. The art department can fix that. We'll hit it with cannon balls -- it will blow apart.'"

Because battle scenes are built from old, condemned materials, the Historic Seaport is holding on to its rejects. "Right now they're a parking barrier. Down the road--money in the bank."

Historic Future

The organization is looking to move to waterfront in Aberdeen. The 2.5-acre site is better situated, and its rich history, makes it an ideal location. At the turn of the century, it was the home of Lars, Christian Endressen and Treason, Spark and Pole and Company, which made the masts for Kaiser Wilhelm's yacht.

In the meantime, the little Historic Seaport will no doubt continue to grow in notoriety. Not only has Hollywood put them to work, but they've also been asked to mill columns for homes, mill private masts that can range from $3,000 to $30,000, and also to work with museums to create historically accurate maritime pieces.

The Grays Harbor Historical Seaport seems to have an unspoken motto... If it has to do with boats, we can do it!

 

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