How Long Does it Take to Build a Boat? Don’t Ask

May 26, 2009

America is a do-it-yourself nation. Major corporations—ranging from Home Depot to Martha Stewart–survive on our desire to express ourselves (and save a buck) by building, fixing, expanding and decorating our homes. But we also demand instant gratification. Bookstores are filled with “two hour” craft projects and lumberyards feature “weekend” renovations. Television shows demonstrate how entire rooms can be transformed while the hapless owners are away for the afternoon. The message is that with the right products and bit of moxie, we can have whatever we want, without pain and without delay.

Except for boat building. While I can assemble an Ikea dresser in an hour and lay a laminate floor in an afternoon, my boat defies all attempts at rapid progress. An entire morning can be devoted to a task so small that the result is entirely overlooked by a casual observer. I feel that I’m operating in geologic time.

I learned this lesson when I started attaching stringers to the bottom of the boat. I viewed this as a minor step, something to “get out of the way” so that I could move on to real work. But that was before I found myself immersed for an entire afternoon in the task of attaching a single strip of wood along to the starboard edge of the bottom panels.

Why did it take so long? A roughly equivalent task in carpentry is to nail molding around a baseboard. Even when working with care, this is a simple process—measure the length of the wall, transfer the measurement to the length of molding, cut each end at a 45 degree angle and nail it down with a handful of finishing nails. Total time? Maybe five or ten minutes.

Stringers as far as the eye can see.

Stringers as far as the eye can see.

The completed deck panels.

The completed deck panels.

One of the deck panel joiners. They're small, but they took nearly and hour to cut...

One of the deck panel joiners. They're small, but they took nearly and hour to cut...

But on my boat, attaching a stringer of similar size and length is a much longer and significantly more complex process, and here’s why:

First, I have to prepare the stringer by trimming the front end so that it will sit flush with the stem. No simple miter cuts here; I need to hold the stringer against the stem at the proper angle and carefully draw a parallel line. Next, I need to cut about three dozen kerfs down the stringer’s length (kerfs are shallow, regularly spaced cuts that help a board bend without cracking or splitting). To do this, I measure and mark lines every three inches, set the circular saw blade to a shallow three-eighths inch depth, test the cut on some scrap lumber, and then carefully cut each kerf.

The stringer is attached to the deck by screws placed every three inches, so the next step is to mark where the screws will go by scribing a line three-eights of an inch in from the edge of the bottom panels and then marking the location of each screw along this line—more than sixty marks for all the screws that will be driven.

Since the stringer is also glued to the bottom, I put on gloves and mask, measure out glue powder, add water, and stir the brown goop into a smooth syrup-like consistency. I still find the process of mixing plastic resin glue unnerving; I worry about getting the right consistency and I don’t like working with formaldehyde, so I move with care and avoid spilling the fine, flour-like power. Almost as an afterthought to this elaborate ritual, I paint the first two or three feet of stringer with glue and an equal length of plywood panel.

Getting the first screw in the right place is critical, but not easily accomplished since the boat is vertical and the stringer is sixteen feet long. I try holding the stringer with my left hand while driving a screw with my right, but the end of the stringer is up in the air, waving around like a live wire. After knocking over my cup of glue, swearing, and wiping the mess off the garage floor, I go inside, shanghai my wife, and show her how to hold the stringer while I drive the first screw.

Successful but already tired, I begin the long process of driving the remaining five dozen screws. It’s a tedious process since the stringer must be repositioned for each screw, usually by applying some downward pressure so that the outside edge of the stringer is flush with the edge of the bottom panel. Every few feet I need to stop and apply more glue, which runs, drips and coats my gloves. My hands are so sticky I have difficulty holding the screws and the trigger of my drill is gummy.

My clothes are spotted with glue and the garage temperature is rising to summer-like heat as I drive the last screw. I has been a long afternoon. I gotinside, announce that I really do deserve a beer, and dare anyone to disagree.


I should have learned my lesson, but when the next weekend approached, I quickly forgot the previous week’s trials. My plan was to cut the deck panels, glue them together, and then cut the transom (the boat’s back panel) for good measure. With a free day and warm weather, I was primed for real progress.

But, as before, a cursory glance at the instructions didn’t reveal all the work required. To cut the deck panels I had to set and then reset the angle of the circular saw several times; some cuts were at seventeen degrees, while others were at ninety degrees. The tight inside curves required use of jigsaw, which I had purchased for the occasion. Once the lofted portside boards were cut, I flipped the pieces over and traced the pattern to make the starboard side panels. The whole process of cutting was repeated.

It was now past noon and the sun was heading west.

Cutting the two small panel joiners that connect the fore and aft deck panels looked simple, but added more than an hour. Not only did these two short pine boards need to be cut at angles to accommodate the sweep of the deck, I also needed to chisel out a one-eighth inch deep channel to accommodate the different thicknesses of each panel (one piece is three-eighths inch, the other is cut from some left over half-inch boards.) Chiseling out the bottom half allowed both boards to sit flush on the top side.

Only after all this cutting and measuring (and recutting since I made a mistake with one of the panel joiners and had to start over), I was finally able to attach the boards with glue and screws. But it was now late afternoon and it was time to clean up. Once again, I ran out of time long before I completed my to-do list.

I assume that experienced builders work faster. Still, there is no escaping the fact that, pound for pound, boats are simply more labor intensive than other, more conventional structures. Multiple steps are needed to prepare even small and “unimportant” pieces of wood and the kind of repetitive assembly line work that allows houses to rise on their foundations in a matter of days is simply impossible. In boat building, patience is not only a virtue; it is a necessity.

The transom will have to wait for another day.


Lofting the Deck and Learning to Love Imperfection and Accept Uncertainty

May 19, 2009

When I first decided to build a boat, I promised myself that I would work with great care. Each cut would be exact, every measurement precise. I believed that if I simply read the instructions and followed each step to the letter I would avoid mistakes. Every seam would come together; every angle would meet and match. It would be an exercise in Zen-like deliberateness: Chop wood, carry water, build a boat.

It didn’t take long for fantasies of perfection to evaporate. Joints didn’t meet, angles were slightly off, and (as I have recounted) the plastic resin glue dripped and gapped despite my best efforts to understand its properties. So even as the boat grows and takes shape, I see these mistakes multiply and become a permanent part of the craft, masked, but not erased, by sanding, putty, fiberglass and paint.

I should have known better. All craftsmen and craftswomen know that perfection is an unobtainable goal. Like “goodness” or “enlightenment” it can never by fully achieved by mere mortals. Even the most skilled builders, I suspect, can point to mistakes. Indeed, as our skills grow, so do our expectations, assuring at least a few disappointments along the way. Raising the bar encourages mastery, but guarantees that we will never be fully satisfied.

In an imperfect world, then, it’s useful to have some coping strategies. My mother-in-law, for example, frequently applies what she calls the “trotting horse theory” to her sewing projects. She rationalizes that if someone trotting by on a horse can’t see a mistake, it’s nothing to worry about. I eagerly adopted her sound philosophy to my woodworking projects.

But I had higher aspirations for my boat, partly out of pride, but also because I was consumed by a fear that errors would produce an unsound craft. I wanted perfection not only for its own sake, but because I worried that a boat without completely tight seams or flawless lofted hulls might go down as fast as a torpedoed Lusitania. Every time I perceived an unevenly cut board, I wondered if I had made a fatal flaw.

Part of this fear reflects a novice boat builders disbelief that an assemblage of plywood boards will actually result in a seaworthy craft. Since I don’t know how it will turn out until it is actually finished, I must accept, on faith, that all the cutting, screwing and gluing will produce a watertight craft capable of staying upright and moving forward under sail. Part of me doubts that such a thing is possible. Every small error increases the already high odds of failure.

My anxiety became the butt of jokes. “It’s a great father-son project, drowning in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay,” my oldest son taunted after helping me attach some stringers and listening to me fret about a sixteenth inch gap between boards.

But something happened to set my mind at ease. As “mistakes” mounted it finally dawned on me that I was setting up a standard that no novice boat builder could ever meet. If small errors spelled disaster, then it logically followed that the bottom of the ocean should be crowed with plywood boats. Yet the Internet is filled with picture of Pocket Cruisers, built by people less skilled than I, happily sailing on lakes and bay from coast to coast. If they succeeded, then I probably will, too. Maybe, I decided, I just don’t need to worry so much.

I also started to realize that “perfection” in the boat building world is not achieved through careful measuring and a close reading of the instructions. These things matter, of course, especially for first time builders. But boats—even simple plywood boats–are more complex and organic than most conventional carpentry projects. They are not so much assembled as they are shaped.

Indeed, woodworkers are often amazed and vaguely freaked out when they watch boat builders at work. Skilled builders are more like sculptors than carpenters; they are searching for pleasing lines more than right angles. Boards are planed according to the needs of the moment; the eye more than the tape measure guides the process. The most experienced may forgo plans altogether.

In The Saga of Cimba, for example, Richard Maury recounted how a Nova Scotia builder constructed his schooner “without so much as drawing a line on paper, or even whittling a model for a pattern. He had merely tacked together eight moulds, or life-sized cross sections, gauging them by eye, before immediately starting to build.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but that is not how carpenters or woodworkers are trained. One does not cut the leg of table “by eye.” We live by the maxim, “measure twice, cut once.”

My boat is more rudimentary and plywood boats are constructed differently than traditional wooden crafts, but there is a lesson here for me. I began with the assumption that all I needed to do was make the right measurements, screw Board A into Gusset B and a boat would effortlessly emerge. But when discrepancies popped up despite my best efforts, I panicked. How can I build a boat if the numbers didn’t add up?

But once I realized that errors are inevitable, I also began to realize that small modifications were allowed, and even expected. It’s a point emphasized by Pete and Mike Stevenson in their introductory remarks about the boat building process:

“One thing we always tell beginner builders (that veterans learn the hard way) is that when you’re working from raw materials, things just don’t automatically fall together. Small variations sometimes add up on you rather than canceling each other out, and farther along in construction it’s getter to recheck the dimensions on the actual boat against those in the plans, sizing the later parts to the parts already assembled rather than just following the dimensions in the plans.”

In other words, accept discrepancies and work with what you have. Above all, don’t panic. “It’s almost impossible to keep small variances in size out of your lofting and cutting,” they wrote. “In the long run we have to ear in mind that the water usually doesn’t care or even know about small variations, and you’ll soon forget all those nagging little discrepancies once the boat is shooting through the waves.”

It’s a message I read before I began, but didn’t appreciate for fully believe until I actually started assembling the parts.

Lofting pattern for the deck boards. The centerline is drawn along the full length of the four by eight foot plywood board (indicated by the shaded rectangle) and onto the garage floor. A scrap piece of plywood, is used for the rear portion of the decking.

Lofting pattern for the deck boards. The centerline is drawn along the full length of the four by eight foot plywood board (indicated by the shaded rectangle) and onto the garage floor. A scrap piece of plywood, is used for the rear portion of the decking.

Am I doing this right? Plywood boards ready for lofting. The one by eight pine board marks the centerline.

Am I doing this right? Plywood boards ready for lofting. The one by eight pine board marks the centerline.

Checking the lofted curves with a batten.

Checking the lofted curves with a batten.

It was a liberating realization and allowed me to sleep better at night. But my new philosophy was quickly tested when I started to loft the boat’s deck. After lofting the bottom boards, I was familiar with the general procedure, but this was considerably more complicated. Although the deck is a relatively small part of the boat—a narrow strip around the bow and along the port and starboard sides—the lofting is more complex and there is more room for error.

The first step is to loft the port side, which is made from two sheets of plywood–a full three-eights inch sheet forward and a piece of half inch board left over from cutting the bottom. The problem is that the centerline is drawn on a diagonal across the first board, but also must extend another six feet or so onto the floor of the garage so that the perpendicular station lines can then be drawn on to the scrap half-inch board.

The instructions were uncharacteristically vague about how this should be accomplished but I solved the problem by using a sixteen-foot board to draw the centerline and I then kept the board in place so that I could then use it as a straight edge to draw the station lines with a large t-square. The resulting assemblage of plywood and boards, all positioned at odd angles, combined with magic marker lines on the garage floor, looked alarmingly chaotic.

If I had been required to figure all this out three months ago when I triple-checked measurements and made my first timid cuts, I probably would have given up the project, right then and there. But I did the best I could to make the measurements precise and while I knew that my station lines were not exactly perpendicular, I refused to worry. Once the offsets were marked and nails were driven, I was pleased to see that my batten revealed a reasonably smooth curve. I readjusted a couple of nails by small fractions of an inch to eliminate a couple of wobbles and then confidently drew the lines.

Once cut, I will then flip the port side pieces and use them as a template for cutting the starboard side. All four pieces will then be glued to create a single fourteen-foot long deck in the shape of a giant “V.” The success of my efforts won’t be clear until I finally attach the deck to the stem and bottom with an assortment of gussets, bulkheads and the transom. But I’m going to assume that I did everything right and I am not going to worry. Well, not much,anyway.

The Perils of Procrastination

May 12, 2009

Spring is the best time to build a boat in Pennsylvania. I can work comfortably in shirtsleeves any hour of the day and I don’t need to worry about the plastic resin glue failing to set when the temperature drops.

Unfortunately, spring is also the busiest time around our house. After the slow pace of winter, I am suddenly pulled in a dozen different directions—all urgent, all needing immediate attention. The vegetable garden needs to be planted, the lawn mowed, and the flower garden weeded.

And that’s just for starters. I also need to keep up with all the nettlesome items on my daily “to do” list—from washing dishes to (oh, yes) earning a living.

Even before I started the boat project in March, I was run ragged by the competing obligations of work, home, family and my many and various hobbies, from woodworking to home brewing. I didn’t have a free moment. I never wondered how I would fill my hours–ever.

And now I am trying to build a boat? What was I thinking?

A week passes without any progress. Is it my imagination that my boat is looking a bit dusty and forlorn? Every day I go into the garage for one reason or another (to get the lawnmower, grab a hoe, look through some boxes…) and I am confronted with fourteen feet of glued plywood. It’s too big to ignore and many, many months (years? decades?) away from completion. It sits there, accusatory, the proverbial elephant in the room. This is one problem I can’t sweep under the rug.

Suddenly I recall all those ads in boating magazines placed by builders trying to unload their beautiful, but unfinished hulls. “Must sell,” they say. But is there a whiff of desperation, too? Behind the tone of regret, are they also saying, “Please, for the love of God, just make it go away! I am so sick of this stupid boat!”

At three in the morning, I have a small wave of panic. Have I made a mistake? Am I over my head? Will it sit there, moldering for years to come? How do you get rid of an unfinished plywood boat, anyway?

Optimism returns with the sunrise and when I go out to the garage and look at my work, I am relieved to realize that I still feel a sense of excitement and pride. No, I’m not going to abandon the project and I did not make a mistake. This is something I want to do.

But I notice that a law of physics, “an object at rest tends to stay at rest,” applies to projects like this. When I devote myself fully to a task, whether it’s cleaning the car, digging a garden, writing book, or (in this case) building a boat, I feel a sense of momentum. I get caught up in the work, make it my top priority, and want to see the job done. This momentum also helps carry me past the inevitable frustrations and mistakes.

But when I leave the project, the momentum slows and, in time, disappears. Other tasks take priority and my boat can feel more like a burden than the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. If I wait too long, will my interest disappear forever? I pride myself on finishing what I start, but I’m not perfect. I can recall at least two books that faded for lack of interest and countless woodworking projects that never left the woodshop.

The trick, I decide, is to keep working, even if it’s just for a few hours a week. Don’t focus on all the work that remains; don’t become preoccupied by slow progress. Instead, I should try to simply look at the next step and do what I can, even if means that I do nothing more than cut one piece of wood or loft one curve.

In the spirit of this resolution, I head out to the garage to accomplish two small tasks.

No, it's not capsizing. I'm getting ready to screw braces and stringers.

No, it's not capsizing. I'm getting ready to screw braces and stringers.

First, I lift the boat off the floor and onto its side, resting the keel on two small workbenches. It’s an ignoble position for a boat (it produces uncomfortable associations with capsizing), but I need access to the underside for the next two or three steps. Lifting the unwieldy, tenuously attached assembly is “a bit tricky,” as the instructions acknowledge, but with good spirited help and advice from my oldest son, it is accomplished in a matter of seconds.

“Now we’re on a role!” I say.

With this step accomplished, I have the motivation needed to tackle the next little task, which is to cut, glue, and screw a single 1 x 3 piece of pine over a seam in the bottom boards. There was nothing especially interesting or important about this insignificant piece of pine, but by limiting my goals and finding satisfaction in this incremental step, I left the garage content.

This, I think, is how the whole project will have to proceed. With the excitement of the first cuts relegated to the past, satisfaction comes this sense of forward movement.