Intermezzo – Sketchbook tour

Per chi se lo fosse perso, la scorsa settimana ho partecipato a una diretta Instagram con mia sorella Eva e il suo ragazzo Giacomo.

L’anno scorso sono riusciti a venirci a trovare a San Sebastián nella finestra estiva tra le due ondate di coronavirus. Si sono dovuti impegnare, perché al di là della pandemia sono venuti fin qua in macchina, ma ne è valsa la pena!

Come è loro abitudine, hanno dedicato alla loro vacanza un diario di viaggio disegnato, che abbiamo riletto insieme durante la diretta.

Vi consiglio di fare un salto sul sito di Giacomo ( se vi piace l’idea: ne hanno già pubblicati altri in passato.

A questo indirizzo trovate il post sulla diretta a cui ho partecipato:

Qui sotto invece vi metto il video montato da Giacomo, con tanto di disegni ad alta risoluzione: buona visione!

Questa è la scaletta, per farvi un’idea:

  • 00:00:00 Introduzione
  • 00:02:36 Viaggio in auto e arrivo a San Sebastián
  • 00:08:00 Pamplona
  • 00:14:00 San Sebastián e la Concha
  • 00:20:20 Pasai Donibane e barca a vela
  • 00:25:40 Bilbao
  • 00:31:30 Albaola e intervento di Saul
  • 00:51:43 Cena ad Hondarribia
  • 00:55:28 Zumaia, la spiaggia di Game of Thrones
  • 01:02:15 Attrezzatura per Urban Sketching
  • 01:10:20 Ultimo giorno a San Sebastián e una storia da James Bond
  • 01:16:35 Rientro in Italia con imprevisto
  • 01:22:06 Sfoglio dello sketchbook e saluti

Giacomo e Eva li trovate su Instagram rispettivamente come @drawnbyjack e @eva.onpaper.

Building a traditional Venetian boat in the Basque Country /3

Everything is going according to plan: after the forcole of last week, this week we made remi, the oars.

We couldn’t use Basque oars, of which we have aplenty obviously, because they are not the right shape and dimensions. After all, the Venetian rowing style is so inherently different: standing and facing forward, the rower needs a much lighter and slender oar.

Again, a precious source of information was Gilberto Penzo’s book on forcole, oars and voga veneta. In this pic you can also see Saverio Pastor’s book on forcole, that we used last week.

In Venice, the artisan making oars is the same one making the oarlocks. Actually, it is called remer, i.e. oar-maker.

Saverio Pastor in action with oars and oarlocks

Since 1500, Venice made the oars for its galleys out of beech, sourced in the Cansiglio forests, on the Alps (

“Oar woods of Saint Mark” gives a clear indication of what this forest was destined for.

Even though modern oars in Venice are made with a variety of different kinds of wood (with a preference for the exotic ramin for its straight and clear bole:, we decided to go for the traditional material, and started out with a single plank of kiln-dried beech (320x19x5cm).

Following step-by-step the process detailed in Gilberto’s book (which, by the way, is written in both Italian and English, and available here: we marked out and cut the two oars.

You obviously always want to leave some margins when you do your cutting.

After planing the sides to the wanted dimensions, we cut the notches on the sides of the blade at 45°, and glued on the off-cuts we saved from the initial cutting at the band saw.

These side-strips have different purposes: their different lenghts indicate if the oar is for port or starboard (the long strip always faces forward), and in the case of fir oars, they are still made of beech, helping protect the thin blade from accidental hits. This is a common occurrence, in a city with narrow canals surrounded by brick-and-stone walls.

After the epoxy had cured, the shaping begun. The blade is asymmetrical in many ways: first of all, the tip raises from the horizontal line of the loom, in order to move more water. This is much more evident on modern scoop-oars, but that’s basically the same principle.

Secondly, the blade is rounded on the bottom, and has a spine on the top. This reinforces the blade, as much as folding a sheet of paper in half and then holding it as an inverted V makes it possible to keep it horizontal, without collapsing under its own weight.

Lastly, this spine is itself not centered on the blade, but more towards aft. This makes the center of gravity of the oar move aft as well, helping the rower with the peculiar movement Venetian voga requires.

With the help of a spar gauge I had built my first year here in Albaola, we marked the looms and went from square, to octagonal, to 16-sided, to circular. Of course this involves a lot of planing, look at Ioanna loading a full wheelbarrow with a day’s worth of shavings!

In case you where wondering where I got them from, here are the plans for the spar gauge:

After some scraping and some more sanding with progressively higher grits (we went from 60 to 120, through 80 and 100), we marked the oars on the handle in the traditional way, in order to quickly distinguish which one goes forward and which aft.

The whole process took us only a few days. As per the forcole, it took us less time than expected. Here you can see me enjoying my first alzaremi with the new oars.

Alzaremi (literally “oar-lifting”) is the traditional salute at rowing events and regattas in Venice. I can’t wait to be able to properly do it on the boat!

But we all know that an oar is not ready until it’s got oh so many coats of varnish. At the moment of writing, we only have three coats on, so this will go on for a while also next week…

Next month there will be a press conference to present the s’ciopon, so Ioanna an I are working hard to get started as soon as possible. We have begun assembling the cantier, i.e. the strongback onto which the boat is built. More on that next week.


After a few coats of varnish, here they are in all their beauty!
Aaaaand the varnish’s ruined.
(note the “tolete”, the Basque oarlock, on this boat we borrowed for a sea-trial)

Building a traditional Venetian boat in the Basque Country /2

It’s officially started!

Well, not the boat herself actually. In fact, the workshop is so crammed with boats at the moment, that we cannot yet start installing the strongback for our sandolo.

This was the situation last week: you can see why we would like to wait for the patatxe (pictured on the left) to be launched…

But we started nonetheless, deciding to make a couple of forcolas, the typical Venetian oarlocks.

Piero Dri is one of the only four artisans professionally making forcolas in Venice (and therefore worldwide!)

The idea is to have them ready before the boat is, together with a pair of slender oars. This way, I will have the time to teach whoever of my colleagues might be interested in learning how to row the Venetian way. It’s not as easy as it might seem, more on that in a future post!

Usually, a forcola is made of walnut, or a similarly dense and hard wood, such as pear or cherry. But we are on a budget and we found a piece of chestnut lying around the workshop. We decided to “acquire” it and give it a go. We’ll see how it goes.

Here are the first steps of the process, but hey: wait a moment, that’s not chestnut…

In fact, Ioanna and I were a little afraid of trying out our sculpting skills on the one and only chestnut plank we have. Also, who has had some experience with forcolas knows how easily their tips break when rowed badly. Not a good idea to have rowing classes with the fancy ones!

At the end, we decided to make a “trial version” out of beech, to use as training forcolas. I love the color of beech, and the carving is so crisp!

We started from this image, taken from Gilberto Penzo’s book on forcole:

After having chosen a picture of a pair of forcole made by Saverio Pastor, we scanned and enlarged the image until it was to scale with the measurements we got from some Venetian friends (thanks Alice and Nicolò).

We then printed this out and used it to cut a couple of plywood patterns, much more durable than paper in the harsh workshop conditions. We are gonna use these again with the chestnut in due time.

After tracing the outline on our pieces of wood, we cut the outer profile with the bandsaw and then went on shaping the forcolas by hand.

As you could see in the video of Piero Dri above, this phase traditionally only involves the use of a drawknife. Not having one with the right dimensions though, we resorted to a mix of drawknife, spokeshave, chisel/gauge and mallet, blockplane, and even a rasp for a couple of hard-to-reach spots.

After some live help from Piero and others coming from Instagram and Telegram, we finally made it. They are certainly not perfect but I must say they don’t look too bad. And you should consider that Ioanna had never even seen one before making hers.

They lost their nice white color after a dip in Danish oil

Next week we will be looking at the oars. I have the feeling that it’s not gonna be easy either.

You can find some leaks from the work in progress on our Instagram profiles along the week, follow us in case you can’t wait!


Intermezzo – recensione

Chi lo conosce sa che a Gilberto Penzo piace passare per misantropo. Forse non lo è davvero, forse è solo il suo sangue da pescatore chioggiotto, poco abituato alla socialità. O forse è l’età, che finalmente gli permette di dire quello che pensa in faccia alla gente. Fatto sta che non è difficile sentirlo rispondere scocciato a qualcuno appena entrato nella sua bottega.

Ora che l’ho rimesso coi piedi per terra però, una cosa gliela dobbiamo riconoscere: banalmente, il suo lavoro.

Senza quarant’anni di rilievi di barche, studi, modelli e pubblicazioni, chissà quanta conoscenza sulle imbarcazioni tradizionali venete e adriatiche sarebbe andata persa. Mentre negli anni novanta tutti erano a guardare la vetroresina, lui era coi piedi a mollo a visitare barche derelitte, affondate o demolite. A fotografarle, misurarle e disegnarle appena prima che sparissero nel fango, o venissero tagliate a pezzi.

Se a qualcuno, negli anni a venire, dovesse venire in mente di costruire un trabaccolo, lo potrà fare quasi unicamente con l’aiuto della sua ultima fatica: il libro sul trabaccolo, come quello sulla gondola e sul bragosso già pubblicati, contiene tutto lo scibile su questa straordinaria imbarcazione, i cui esemplari rimanenti si contano ormai sulle dita di una o forse due mani.

In questo libro in particolare c’è anche un po’ del mio aiuto, come modesto rilettore di bozze. Tutti gli errori, come si dice, sono quindi imputabili a me (e già so che me ne sono sfuggiti due, mannaggia).

In ogni caso, se oggi posso mettermi a costruire un sandolo completo di remi e forcole nei Paesi Baschi, è anche e soprattutto grazie ai libri di Gilberto. Ben venga quindi la sua misantropia, se gli ha permesso di proseguire imperterrito in un’impresa così titanica, mentre tanti gli andavano contro.

In fondo, anche i libri -come le barche- si fanno con gli alberi

Building a traditional Venetian boat in the Basque Country /1

Having begun my third and last year of apprenticeship here at Albaola (, I was feeling confident enough to present a project for the construction of a Venetian boat.

Venetian boats are the reason why I started this formation in the first place, therefore it seemed like the right thing to do to build one while here. Also, it would be nice to share a piece of Italian maritime culture with the other apprentices and shipwrights working with me, and teach some Basques how to row the Venetian way (standing and facing forward).

What is a sandolo s’ciopon?

A s’ciopon as seen in 1992 during the Regata Storica, Venice

The tiniest member of the sandolo family, the s’ciopon is usually between 5 and 6 meters long, with a beam of a little over 1 meter, and only some thirty centimeter above the waterline. Having a flat bottom, just like any other boat of Venice, it draws a few centimeters of water. It is therefore perfectly adapted to its enviroment and purpose: duck hunting in the open lagoon, with its shallow waters.

Small and light, it is usually rowed as shown in the picture above, with crossed oars, i.e. alla vallesana. It might anyway as well carry two rowers, in which case one would row at the bow on port side, while the other aft, on starboard. A single-oared “gondolier” aft also would do.

When approaching the hunting ground, the rower would crouch on the floor and keep the boat moving thanks to the palina, a paddle with leaded end. The washboard would often be reduced right near the aft rowing area, specifically for this reason.

The oarlocks (forcole) have been removed as well

As can be easily noticed, the main feature of this boat, however, is the huge gun (s’ciopo), from which the boat itself takes the name. Up to three meters long, it would normally be a cal. 75 loaded with lead projectiles and aimed point-blank to duck flocks.

In this picture you can appreciate the sheer size of it

Duck hunting in the lagoon of Venice was banned in the ’70s, so that not many s’cioponi are built nowadays. Some, however, still are and others have been restored and converted to leisure skiffs, sometimes even mounting a small rudder and sail.

Why a sandolo s’ciopon?

Since I have never built a Venetian boat before, I decided to start humble and begin with the very simplest design available.

The construction method is the same for all small boats in Venice, such as for example the gondola or the topo, but this boat is stripped down of everything unnecessary and reduced to the bare minimum: it’s a simple boat that simply does its job. I will cover in depth the construction during the following weeks as we go along with the built (spoiler alert: we’ll start by making oarlocks and oars).

Building a small boat also means being able to do it faster and with fewer people involved: we plan to finish in a couple months, and by “we” I mean me and Ioanna, a fellow apprentice. You might follow her on Instagram here: (she’ll probably post some pictures of the work as well).

Last but not least, using less wood means the project will be cheap, and who doesn’t like cheap?