Lofting the Deck and Learning to Love Imperfection and Accept Uncertainty

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.

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