Boat Builder Harold Burnham

History, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on October 1, 2006

When Harold Burnham, 39, lays the keel for a handcrafted wooden boat in his boatyard in Essex, Mass. (pop. 3,267), he’s carrying on a family tradition dating to 1819. He opened the business in 1995 on land where ancestor Oliver Burnham operated a boatyard five generations ago, until it closed during World War II. In fact, Harold is the 28th Burnham to make a career in the shipwright trade, operating the only full-time boatyard in Essex today.

Harold was born into a culture of sailing and boat building, where the craft is absorbed rather than learned.

“Essex set the standard for American fishing boat construction during the 18th and 19th centuries,” he says. At one time in the 19th century, one of every seven sailing boats in America was built in Essex. The Burnhams are very much a part of that legacy, being among the seven original families that settled the town in 1635.

Harold got his first taste of the trade watching his father, Charles, 71, a physicist and part-time boat builder. Neighbor and mentor Brad Story, a retired full-time boat builder, showed him how he could make a living at it.

Charles can remember his son’s first boat building experience. “He had to build a sailboat from walnut as part of a class project in the first grade, and Harold’s sunk,” Charles says. “We are extremely proud of him now. There aren’t too many who would take on the shipwright’s trade, but Harold is doing it, and doing it well.”

When Harold was 10, he began building dories, or rowboats, with his brother Theodore and sister Deborah under their father’s watchful eye, selling each to build the next. While in high school, Harold restored and built small sailboats, known as Beetle Cats, to support his love of sailing. Building and sailing formed a symbiotic relationship in his young life.

A degree in maritime transportation from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Bourne (pop. 18,721) was followed by five years at sea as a merchant marine. He returned home in 1994 to marry his wife, Kim, and open his boatyard. “A man who does what he loves never works a day in his life,” he says.

Harold’s dream always has been to build replications of traditional New England fishing vessels like those his ancestors built. In their original form, those schooners and sloops were workboats, pickup trucks of the sea, built because they were necessities, not luxuries.

During a boat’s construction, he uses everything from the traditional hand-held adze—an axe-like tool used for more than a thousand years to shape and dress lumber—to modern power tools. “I build boats from what I know,” he says. “It’s largely an eyeball thing.”

His first commission came when Tom Ellis, a contractor and antique store owner, decided to build a Gloucester schooner. Ellis recalls his 1996 meeting with Burnham, a then untried 29-year-old shipwright. “He held up a half model of what I had in mind and told me it stunk,” Ellis says. “He came back three days later with a model of a real Gloucester schooner and said, ‘This is what you want.’ That’s what he designed and built.”

Work began on the ship in October 1996 and, with a crew of up to eight men, Harold worked seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day, weathering the brutal winter to create a floating masterpiece. Dubbed the Thomas E. Lannon, the twin-masted schooner entered the water in June 1997, measuring 90 feet long and weighing 51 tons. It was built completely by hand, using lumber cut from local trees, and by shaping and fitting every piece from the keel to the masts and spars. It has mahogany above the water line, white oak below, with a 9-foot draft under 1,700 square feet of sail. Attention to tradition and detail is evident in the more than 2,000 black locust trunnels, or dowels, holding it all together.

In 1998, Harold built a 32-foot-long sloop for the Essex Historical Society and Ship Building Museum where he serves on the board of directors. His latest achievement was the launching in August of the 38-foot, two-masted schooner Isabella.

“He’s a genius,” Ellis says, “and he is going to go down as one of the greatest boat-builders of all time.”