"Magic Hour" quarterboard

White pine is the traditional wood. During the height of the maritime trade, most timber went into the building of ships, McCarthy says. What was left over was Eastern white pine—accessible, plentiful, and big—which was used for figureheads and other ornamentation. It’s still McCarthy’s favorite wood. “I use the grain to my advantage,” he says. “I can see it; I know what it’s doing.”

Another traditional material is gold leaf. In addition to increasing visibility, gold leaf was used for its durability, McCarthy says, pointing out that it’s the same metal used on the domes of churches and public buildings. “When you see a quarterboard with gold on it, you recognize it. It’s startling. It’s stunning.” Because of the high price of gold today, McCarthy has been using gold leaf more on ornamental ends than on individual letters.

Shells, whales and pineapples are among the most popular designs for the ornamental ends, which in McCarthy’s studio are carved into the board itself, not applied separately. Using pineapples as symbols of hospitality goes all the way back to Nantucket’s whaling days. When whaling ships visited the Hawaiian Islands, the sailors would gather pineapples and store them in the ship’s hold. When the ship returned, the captain would set a pineapple on an iron fence post in front of his home to let islanders know the ship and crew were back and everyone was invited to stop in to celebrate.

Prices depend on size and complexity, McCarthy says. A small, basic quarterboard runs around $600, while elaborate pieces can cost $3,000-$4,000.