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I first met Dave Ullin in 1976, or there abouts. At the time, he was living aboard his tugboat Spruce at the old Riverside Marina on the Duwamish River. I and my partner, Carolyn, had just had our 42' salmon troller, Osprey, newly purchased but built in 1918 and very rotten, towed from Fishermen's' Terminal to be hauled out for an extensive rebuild at Riverside. Dave was sort of the resident shipwright at the marina, lending a hand to any boat owner who happened to need help, sometimes for pay, often not. I arrived with what I thought was adequate woodworking experience to get Osprey back in sailing order. After all, I had "helped" my father build a boat when I was a kid, I had read a book or two, and I had some brand new tools. Several stories, from among many, help illustrate who Dave was and what he meant to me.
Anyone who knew Dave knows he had an almost messianic belief in the the virtue of hand tools and hand craft. He took one look at my new wooden German hand plane, ordered just a month earlier from Woodcraft in Massachusetts, and a faint smile spread over his face, no doubt because he realized that an experienced shipwright would not have such a plane, certainly not a plane showing no signs of use. So he took me under his wing. He suggested I buy a slick and build a work bench, in order to make up the many frame futtocks I would need, all got out of 2-1/2" air dried fir. So I lashed some timbers to the main hatch combing with a rope, clamped my wood to it and proceeded to push my slick against the wood, as if I was trying to pare off a thin shaving. I had read somewhere that the slick was a paring tool. Dave watched me for a while then asked if he could give it a try. Sure, why not. I wasn't getting anywhere fast. He took up my slick but rather than push the blade gingerly against the wood, as I had been doing, he grasped it firmly by both hands, one on the socket and the other cupped over the end of the handle, and proceeded to chop vigorously at my clamped piece of fir. To the line! I was astounded and dumbfounded. I had never thought a slick to be a chopping tool. I still don't, but in Dave's hands it was. As he chopped, my work bench began to show signs of movement. First a little, then a little bit more. Finally, in a rush, it fell apart under Dave's gentle ministrations. Dave just chuckled quietly, as if we were both sharing a joke, which I guess we were. I have built many work benches since and, believe me, they are all built "strong enough to hold the Queen Mary" with vivid memories of Dave behind every one of them.
As I said, Dave loved hand tools and was always examining unfamiliar ones, always trying to figure out how they might be improved. He delighted in telling me about the virtues of a particularly admired tool and one such was a bar of steel, along the lines of a wrecking bar, perhaps an inch in diameter and several feet long, forged with a peculiar cork screw sort of squiggle on one end. Dave explained that this little curl of steel was shaped just perfectly to slip under the head of a large forged staple, such as might be found securing a wire rope to a log, in order to lever it out. He talked for some time, and in great detail, about how perfect the shape of the squiggle was, how perfectly formed for the job at hand. You see, Dave loved to snag stray logs out of the river and buck them up into fire wood, which he then sold. All by hand, mind you, from rowing out to the log in his dory, to towing it in, to elevating it onto sleepers with railroad jacks, to bucking it up with a two man cross cut, to splitting and stacking. 3' diameter logs, 20' long, maybe. His staple remover was just one of the specialized hand tools he used for this work.
I had many hull planks to replace, some of them over 20 feet long, all out of 2" fir. After teaching me about spiling blocks and showing me how to lay out the plank, Dave naturally assumed I would rip them all out by hand. So I bought a Disston docking saw (28"? they were big) and Dave refiled the teeth from cross cut to rip. I removed the riveted aluminum handle and Dave fit an old Disston wooden handle to it, off of an old timber felling saw, the kind that takes two hands, so that I could really put some pressure on the teeth as I sawed. He talked enthusiastically about the design of this saw for some days. Well, I sawed my first plank out. Over 22 feet long, both edges. Took me hours. I have a photo somewhere. As soon as I finished, I hopped in my truck, drove to the nearest industrial supply house, and bought a worm drive Skillsaw. The next day, when I ran into Dave, I thought to tease him and announced that I had made an improvement to his saw. His face lit up and he excitedly pressed me for details. In response I pulled out my new worm drive. He took one look and his face fell. I honestly thought he might cry. Instead he said not a word, but turned on his heel and walked down to his boat. I felt terrible. Still do.
That was Dave. He helped me and Carolyn for over six years. At the end, he caulked Osprey and we launched her. It leaked not one drop. I moved the boat to La Conner to finish her and I never saw Dave again, although I'd hear reports of him now and then. Always planned to get over to Winslow to visit but never did. If you come across a large Record hand plane, a corrugated number seven if I remember correctly, while going through Spruce, that is the plane that Carolyn and I gave him as thanks for all the help he gave us. He was a big strong gentle man, who always liked a big plane. What I learned from him, about hand work, craft, and tools informs and guides my own work to this day. I am sorry to hear that he is gone, sorry I never took the time to visit him, sorry I never apologized for buying that Skillsaw. I like to think that he has found secure moorage, where he continues to darn socks and chop wood. To the line.
Thank you, Diana, for a beautiful piece. You captured much of why Dave was a light within our hearts.
The following picture-click to see his smile!-is from a project I encouraged Dave to share his expertise on. My neighbors, Symbiosis Farm-now gone, needed a pole barn. Dave came and showed the 3 young men how to put one up. They, in their 20's, were lucky to have him share his practical skill, from start to finish. We spent many hours across the street at my house, on New Sweden, marveling that they put anything up at all. The 'boys' skills were minimal. He wondered how anyone could come to be 20 something without knowing how to swing a hammer or hammer a nail.
I can only say that, my words pale compared to his. His oration, philosophy, determination, and authenticity regarding his personal lifestyle emanated through his action. He WAS purposeful work. I am collecting his stories, photos, audio, video or anything else. Please contact me if you are interested in this. email@example.com or 425 488 2723
Dave, you will be missed, but may we not forget your practical wisdom. With each passing day, your way is becoming more and more important. A man before your time, some say 'behind', I say, Before.
Dave was the Dalai Lama of Watermen and chose an intentional life of simplicity and uncompromising virtues. Living alone he found purpose thru learning, teaching, advocacy, volunteering, strength of mind and body, work and play.
He lived on an old wooden tug boat but could not reconcile using fossil fuels for propulsion and so removed the diesel engine and pretty much stayed put. He commuted by skiff.
He taught me how to row; and even though I was convinced I was an expert, I improved.
Without an engine in his boat made more room for his vast collection of tools. Early on he gave away all his electric tools, preferring the intimacy of hand tools and the extra thought and engineering they required. He loved to move huge rocks and stumps; the shovel being his favorite tool.
Story goes that as a young boy his parents gave him a shovel for Christmas which he immediately ran outside with to dig a hole in the backyard. He dug all day until bedtime when his parents insisted he stop; his head way below ground level.
He tried to teach me proper shovel uses, nuances and techniques. But after his long tutorial I assured him it was one tool I had no interest in learning.
Dave never ate a pizza; preferred apples to apple pie, never drove a car and almost always carried 1 or 2 large canvas bags filled with heavy tools. It was a sight to see him walk onto the ferry carrying a large cross-cut saw. Almost scary with his serious, purposeful expression, until you would smile at him and he would break out into the broadest world class smile.
I am stunned to admit I have no memory of the first time we met as his presence and physicality was remarkable. I only know that he was there in my life some time ago until he left us this week.
One day after knowing him for a few years, he did something that really made me mad. I was fit to be tied and bless my heart, I walked up to him, thumped him on his chest and stated my position in a way that he could hear me and understand why what he did had hurt me so much. And bless his heart, he stood there and listened, thought it through and then sincerely apologized for his behavior. Our friendship deepened that day into one where we always took much more care with each other to always be respectful.
He was my biggest fan.
He was a remarkable person to simply notice in the '80s when I lived on Bainbridge, and I'm glad to now have learned more about him. I didn't exchange a single a word with him, but often saw him trudging along the road or buying groceries with cash and nary a word. A couple of months ago I noticed his tug being hauled out at Seaview West by Shilshole marina in Seattle and introduced myself briefly. I kept an eye on the tug from over the yard fence but never saw him again. I am truly sorry to know he has died, but happy that he lived life well on his own terms and was not as much a recluse as I had thought.
I found Dave Ullin to be one of the most special people to have come into my life. As rightly designated, he was a treasure. He had integrity and stayed true to his values to leave a minimal footprint on this earth. I am grateful I knew him.
May God's loving kindness comfort each of you at this difficult time. Psalms 9:9
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