THE ARGUMENT can certainly be made that buyers - and builders - of hatchcover furniture are ecologically upstanding folk. They are, after all, recycling what would otherwise be nautical trash into useful tables, benches, bar tops, mantels or desks.
And they're helping to perpetuate the memory of at least one near-extinct species of marine life - the nearly 3,000 slow-but-sturdy Liberty Ships whipped together during World War II to carry commercial cargo, troops and oil across submarine-infested seas. Lots of the now homebound hatchcovers even carry small brass plates engraved with the namesof their mother ships, each of which carried up to 500 hatchcovers; history thus lives in the dining room.
All of this, however, is somewhat irrelevant.
This is relevant: The restored hatchcover makes for pleasingly rustic, properly heavy and extremely durable furniture that complements countless decors. And when compared to the mass-produced items of like cost and dubious personality available at the local furniture store, they can constitute your basic Bargain.
Genuine Liberty Ship hatchcovers - perhaps best described as three weathered boards about the size of railroad ties bound into a slab by steel bands at either end - are destined to appreciate in value because of their limited population. But fear not: A good hatchcover is still not hard to find, and for as little as $50 - if you can stand some elbow bending.
It's been about 12 years since Ross Lodato of United Housewrecking in Stamford, Conn., started selling Liberty Ship hatchcovers and hatchcover furniture, and Lodato says the demand hasn't decreased much since.
"About the only thing that's changed is that there are not as many around now," said Lodato, whose United Housewrecking was one of the first large-scale hatchcover dealers. "There're just a few of us still selling the real thing - a lot of reproductions are going around."
United Housewrecking, said Lodato, has about another year's supply of hatchcovers - which he sells unfinished for $50 ("Used to be $15 when we started . . .") and finished with legs for about $160, depending on size. As long as he can find more, he said, he'll keep selling them.
Conspicuously unlike the instructions that came with the box of bicycle parts you wrestled with last Christmas, the sanding and finishing instructions from The Ship's Hatch conclude with the following bit of friendliness: "Please feel free to call us if you have any questions."
The Ship's Hatch is really Tom and Mary Beth Cox of Burke, Va., and the validity of their typewritten instructions - included with every unfinished or semi-finished hatchcover they sell from their home-based, weekends-and-spare-time business - is borne out daily in their own basement.
The Coxes got into the hatchcover business about four years ago, primarily on the authority of fate and a loan from her parents, and since have sold some 500 rough hatchcovers ($50), sanded hatchcovers ($95), finished hatchcovers ($145), coffee tables ($200) and dining tables ($275). They hope to keep it up for another year or so, says Mary Beth, or until the hatchcovers run out.
The instructions for those who buy the unfinished slabs give you a good idea of what Tom, on weekdays a contract specialist with the federal government, does on weekends for customers who buy the finished pieces. Sanding must be done with disc, belt and vibrating sanders (available at tool rental shops or hardware stores), and will usually take six hours. The top and edges of the hatchcover should get about five or six coats of varnish (the Coxes use a polyurethane satin-finish varnish), with sanding between coats.
William Harlan of Sub-Sea Artifacts hopes not to run out of Liberty Ship hatchcovers for a couple of years (and even then the Annapolis-based nautical furniture and relics outlet plans to be dealing soon in a "new line of salvaged wood," Harlan says, from ships scrapped in the Great Lakes region). In the meantime, all of Sub-Sea's Liberty Ship hatchcovers not only come with a brass plate engraved with the name of its ship but also with a certificate documenting the ship's historical significance."At Sub-Sea, which has been selling hatchcover works for about seven years, the prices range from $198 for a bench made from a single hatchcover slat to $348 for a hatchcover coffee table, and $697 to a 6-foot-long hatchcover bar. Sub-Sea also specializes in complete nautical interiors, commercial and residential.
You know hatchcovers can't be that hard to find if Hechinger's is carrying them. Which they are.
"I looked for five years for someone who could sell me hatchcovers," says George Kelly, Hechinger's building materials buyer. Kelly says he's glad he kept his eyes open, because they led him last winter to two rail carloads full of Liberty Ship hatchcovers. And all Hechinger's outlets except in the District and Alexandria are now selling them - unfinished only for $49.95. A recent sale had them going for $10 less.
There's one place you shouldn't call if you're looking to buy a hatchcover, and that's the Navy.
"You're writing a story about hatchcovers?" asked John Reilly of the Ships' History Branch of the Washington Navy Yard. "Oh my . . ."
Reilly, who said he's had calls ranging from people who want to buy hatchcovers to people who already own a hatchcover and are counting on the Navy to tell them exactly which ship it came from, is largely unable to do either of those things. The office does keep a file on Liberty Ships, however, and the best information Reilly gave for those who want to know more about the seagoing sources of their furniture was the following list of books:
Liberty Ships: The Ugly Ducklings of WWII by John Bunker (1972: Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md.).
The Liberty Ships by Leonard Sawyer and W.H. Mitchell (1970: Cornell Maritime Press, Cambridge, Md.)
Ships for Victory; A History of Shipbuilding Under the U.S. Maritime Commission in WWII by Frederic C. Lane (1951: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore).
Hechinger stores (except D.C and Alexandria), building materials department.
The Ships Hatch , Tom and Mary Beth Cox, 6123 Covered Bridge Rd., Burke, Va. 22015 691-0733.
Sub-Sea Artifacts Inc., 16 Market Space, Annapolis, Md. 21404 301/268-5885.
United Housewrecking Inc., 328 Selleck St.; Stamford, Conn. 66902 203/348-5371.