Thursday, November 29, 2007

Building the pontapie

In Venetian rowing there is often an inclined surface for the rower to push off of with the rear foot – especially in competitive or athletic rowing. In cases where an actual structure isn’t present, the rower can usually take advantage of the curvature of the boat to gain leverage. On the back of the gondola, as with several other Venetian boats, you’ll see a little wedge-shaped section of the deck. For the other rowers, the pontapie is as useful as it is portable. Often it is braced against one of the boat’s frames, or “ribs”.

When I was planning the Hudson River Expedition, I knew I would need to include a few new pieces of equipment. I’d used a pontapie on many occasions, and in several types of boats, but I’d never really examined one. They were always under the foot and out of my immediate view.

I got some basic dimensions from friends in Venice (Nereo and Vittorio) and set out to design my own pontapie. Early on I realized that all of the surfaces of these little wedges were small enough that they could be cut from pre-existing scrap. Imagine my excitement when I realized that all those pieces of plywood and lumber I’d been hanging on to in the hopes that I might need them some day, were actually going to be put to use. By nature, I’m somewhat of a pack-rat, it’s a constant process of asking myself “will I really ever need this?” In the workshop it’s the same scenario. So not only did I get the opportunity to build something out of wood, use saws, drills, sanders and other tools, and play loud music in the process, but I also got to do it all with scrap. Yowza!

I began the project by determining how many I wanted to build and what sizes they would be. I chose to build six individual pontapie and to make them of varying heights (for different floor-angles in the gondola), and sizes (for different foot sizes). In truth, I don’t know how authentic my design is, I just know that it worked. These little wedges took a beating, none came apart and nobody complained about them (at least not that I know of).

Getting down to business, I would start with the actual foot surface, cut it to size, and prop it up on one end to the desired degree of height. I clamped the piece to the workbench and used a belt sander with 36 grit paper to bring down the underside of the front edge so it would sit properly on the deck. Next I measured and cut the side pieces (the only triangles in the structure). The side pieces were mounted to the foot surface by a third and fourth piece – 2x3 pieces of pine or poplar (all other parts of the pontapied were plywood). The 2x3 sections allowed for near-perfect 90 degree angles and solid anchoring of plywood pieces using stainless screw fasteners. After the side pieces, 2x3 sections and foot surface were all securely fastened together to form a single unit, I measured and cut a rectangular piece to cover the back of the structure. To make the unit easier to pick up, I drilled a hole in the very center of the back piece with a 1” spade bit. Finally, the back piece was mounted with stainless screws to the ends of the 2x3 sections. In each place screws were used, pilot holes were drilled with a countersinking bit that had a tapered end. This was to make sure that no fastening hardware stood higher than the wood surface it was attached to.

With the pontapie structurally complete, I applied two treatments of Smith’s Penetrating Epoxy, and followed with two coats of Interlux Brightsides in every gondolier’s favorite color…black. By applying the first coat of paint about 12 hours after the last epoxy treatment, I ensured good adhesion because the epoxy product continues to cure well after that and as a result, will bond to whatever product is laid on top of it.

I allowed my new wedges to dry for another day. Then in the same Interlux paint, I mixed a sand-like compound called Intergrip (also made by Interlux) until I had the non-skid consistency I wanted. I then rolled black non-skid paint on the foot surface of each pontapie. After another day of drying, I took a stencil and a can of blue marine spray paint (blue to match the floor of the gondola), and gave the pontapie the finishing touch – the logo of the Gondola Society of America.

In using the pontapie, we found that they stayed in place the best when nestled into a corner between the hull and a frame. In cases where we needed to move everything forward, scrap wood, and a multitude of other things were used to block the pontapie forward the desired distance. I placed little rubber “feet” on the underside edges – the same type used to keep cabinets from “whacking” loudly when closed – these were effective for the first 10 minutes, after that they would fall off and end up stuck to other things. Nailing them in with brass nails only added another 10 minutes before they popped over the nail head and fell off. This has been a learning process, and I will try some other ideas next time.

I’ve attached some truly exciting photos I took of the pontapie doing what they do best…sitting on the ground. Not a lot of activity there. As you might expect, I never thought about taking photos of them while rowing – once again they were “under the foot and out of view”. As I mentioned earlier, six were built. You’ll see five in the photos because I gave the sixth one to John Kerschbaum after the expedition. This spring someone in Minnesota will probably use it to row on the St. Croix River.

Five pontapie from various angles

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