Updating Odysseus

Essential Tools for the Modern Mariner

Odysseus and the Sirens

Ulysses and the Sirens, by John William Waterhouse, 1891. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

In the greatest sea epic of Western literature, the mariner Odysseus is held captive for seven years on an island by the enchantress Calypso. Eventually, in a debate among the gods, it is decided (grudgingly, for Odysseus has offended Poseidon) that the hero should be freed to return home. Zeus dispatches Hermes, the Wayfinder, to impart the verdict to Calypso, and after a fit of pique, she relents.

Odysseus is permitted to build a raft, and Calypso supplies the tools: an axe, an adze, and a drill. Odysseus fells 20 trees and builds, over the course of a few days, a hollow-hulled craft that later proves sturdy enough to (almost) withstand the gales of Poseidon.

The enduring appeal of Odysseus’s tale derives, in part, from the tension between human endeavour and divine whim. The Odyssey is an epic of audacity in the face of unconquerable forces of nature — and this audacity is still, among the mariners of today, a compelling reason for taking to the sea. But if you’re going, if you’re following in the wake of Odysseus, it’s important to have tools that match the spirit of your journeying: light, simple hand tools with which, under the spell of the enchantress of the sea, you could build a ship.

In the age of Homer’s epic (more than three thousand years ago), metallurgy had not yet evolved far enough to make high-quality steel readily available. But today’s tool materials are diverse, immensely strong, and eminently adaptable. Here are the modern essentials:

Handsaw (Japanese style, three blades)

In the evolution of Western carpentry, somebody was thinking backwards. This becomes evident the first time you use a Japanese saw: it cuts on the pull stroke, not on the push stroke, as do Western saws. And because it’s much easier and more efficient to pull a string than to push it (as the woodworking adage goes), Japanese saws are smaller, more accurate, more powerful, and more fun to use. A good Japanese saw cuts through a two-by-four in about six strokes. Odysseus used an axe to cut down the trees on Calypso’s island, but he might have done better with a good saw. I have cut though 24-inch thick timbers using a Japanese saw. No waste, no force, just a clean, straight cut.

Because most Japanese saws have interchangeable blades, get at least three: one for aggressive cuts, one for smooth cuts, and one backup. In a pinch, the edge of the saw opposite to the blade makes an excellent scraper.

Block Plane

A saw cuts the wood; a plane smooths it. Countless varieties of planes are available, but consider using a small one for your boat: it will be easier to handle, stow, and sharpen. Besides, with a bit of practice,you can make the surface of a board dead flat with a block plane just as well as you can with heavier and longer tools.

I use either a home-made wooden plane or a Stanley block plane modified to accept a Hock blade; but any good quality plane will do. Models from Stanley, Record, Veritas, and Lie-Nielsen are all excellent. Japanese wood-bodied planes are also wonderful tools, but require a good deal of skill to use properly.

Four-Sided Rasp

Rasps get into places that saws and planes cannot: inside curves, rounded corners, irregular shapes. I have more than 30 rasps in my toolkit, but the one I reach for most is a cheap, hardware store variety that has four sides: two grades of rasp and two grades of file. It’s just a bar of hard metal (rasps are the hardest metal tools) without a handle. But with attention and care, it allows me to shape a wood surface smooth enough to accept a fine finish.

A new type of rasp made by Microplane employs a set of finely-honed teeth, each of which has a tiny hole for shavings to pass through. These rasps are wonderfully effective at removing large amounts of material from wood, plastics, and resins.They don’t leave the surface smooth, but they slice through wood at an amazing pace.


Scrapers are better for smoothing wood than sandpaper, which moistens in the marine environment and gets clogged in use. A set of scrapers in various sizes provides all you need to prepare any wood for final finishing. If you are very careful, and tape off everything but the cutting edge, broken glass makes an outstanding scraper.

Multi-tool (Leatherman Wave)

A good multi-purpose tool can be a lifesaver (literally). Though there are many on the market, the best I’ve found is the Leatherman Wave. It sports fully-functional pliers (with a wire-cutter), a serrated blade, a knife, a Japanese-style saw, two grades of file, a selection of screwdrivers (including one for sunglasses), scissors, and —naturally — a bottle opener.

The Wave doesn’t have a toothpick, like the Swiss Army knife you probably own, but the pliers on the Wave are so good you could pull out a tooth.


A good chisel is the samurai sword of any toolbox. And indeed, Japanese chisels are the best in the world. They’re fashioned in the same way as traditional samurai swords, with a high-carbon steel edge laminated to a backing of softer steel. The chisel I use most commonly in my shop is the three-quarter inch (18 mm), but choose a variety (four to six chisels in all) to suit your boat and your preferences as a craftsman. A one-sixteenth (1.5mm) chisel is surprisingly useful.

Hand Drill (with brad-point bits)

Hand drills are making a comeback — they don’t run out of juice, and you can carefully adjust the speed. The best accompaniment to a good drill is a set of brad-point bits. The 'brad' at the tip of the bit enables precise positioning, unlike conventional bits which tend to skate on the wood’s surface. It’s also a good idea to have one or two large Forstner-style drill bits, not spade bits, to make accurate holes in decking or in hulls.

Multi-head Screwdriver (with Robertson or Spax screws)

Because of the diversity of screws already on your boat, you will need a multi-head screwdriver. But screws you put in yourself should have Robertson heads (also called square drive heads). A Canadian invention, the Robertson style uses a recessed square that tapers slightly inward as the head deepens. The resulting friction holds the screw on the screwdriver, freeing up one hand.

Spax screws are a more recent innovation: either a Robertson or a Phillips driver may be used, and most screws can be driven without pre-drilling.

Sharpening Stone (two-sided water stone, with honing guide)

Most problems with craftsmanship derive from dull tools. A water stone, a honing guide,and much practice will keep your tools sharp. Learn to listen for the sound and look of dullness: an abrasive rattle and a gleam at the blade’s edge. The sharpest edge is invisible to the eye.

Measuring tape (plus bar gauge and story stick)

A tape measure is the one expendable tool in the kit. Sure, it’s useful to match numbers with locations on a board, and sometimes measuring is the best way to maintain accuracy. But usually, better results can be achieved by using a bar gauge, which extends to fit neatly into the space you’re measuring. Bar guages are made from straight hardwood stock and brass couplers available from tool shops. A third approach, or for outside measurements where a bar gauge does not excel, is to use a stick with markings on it, called a story stick. Lay the stick along the length of your measurement, mark the relevant points on the stick, and you’re done. Story sticks enable exact, repetitive measurements without the parallax, transcription, and mathematical errors that accompany the use of a tape.

Sliding Bevel

A boat is all about angles, and sliding bevels measure angles. Get one with a good locking screw and a durable body.

Two-part Epoxy with syringes

You’ll need glue, and filler, and something to get you of trouble when you mess up. Epoxy is good for all these (see my article on epoxy), and tiny syringes help you get it into tight spots where you’d otherwise make a goopy mess.

Duct Tape

Yes, duct tape. It’s good for holding pieces together while you saw, or for wrapping around a drill bit to mark the depth of a cut, or — you know, a thousand uses.

Safety Glasses and Gloves

When I was fifteen, I worked a summer in a paint factory where my job was to climb inside 500-gallon emptied paint tanks and clean the residue using xylene, lacquer thinner, and acetone. This was in the days before anyone thought too much about the toxicity or danger of such activities. Besides, I was fifteen, and immortal. But one afternoon I splashed lacquer thinner in my eyes. The shock and subsequent tremendous pain had me thrashing about, bellowing, crashing into equipment and people. You don’t want to be doing this kind of thing on your boat: at sea, possibly by yourself. Wear safety glasses. And gloves,too, if you’re working with epoxy.

Tools You Don’t Need: Clamps

No matter how many clamps I have in my shop, it’s never enough. But out on the water, the weight and inconvenient shape of clamps makes them difficult to stow. And, you can be sure that the clamps you’ve brought along will, at maximum extension, be slightly too small for the pieces you’re trying to clamp. Or the clamp won’t fit in the space you’re working, or the clamp body will have the wrong orientation for what you’re doing.

If you must take along one clamp, make it a record #132 speed clamp. These are easy to use, large enough and adaptable enough for most situations, and immensely strong. But be aware of one danger: on a large project, where the jaws are extended far apart, over-tightening can cause the bar to bend, exert lateral pressure away from the clamping area, slide free of the wood, and catapult into the air. It’s dramatic and dangerous; and, the last time I did it, very frightening.

Instead of clamps, use whatever forces are available: your own muscle power, wedges, bungee cord, duct tape, screws, epoxy, expansion with moisture, and so on. The basic solution to all clamping issues is to shape your wood properly, so that it fits with ease. Good craftsmanship means the pieces slide together with minimal pressure.

A Final Word

Depending on how you work, there will be other tools in your kit of essentials: perhaps a hammer, mallet, or T-square. But whatever you use, be sure to store your gear in a secure carrying case or toolbox. Also, tool steel and salt air are not friends. It is possible to protect tools with waxes and oils, but these are messy and require special attention. Instead, keep your tools dry, and take them home for the winter. Unless, like Odysseus, you’re trapped on an enchanted isle. In which case, a bit of metal corrosion is the least of your worries.

Ross Laird

Ross Laird, PhD RCC

Clinical Consultant, Author, Educator

My work focuses on the interconnected themes of mental health, trauma, addictions, and creativity. I provide clinical consulting, professional development services, and community education for a wide range of institutions and organizations.