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

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.

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

  1. dave johnson says:

    Those who can build do and those who ask why you build wish they could . Keep at it you will finish. There is no better feeling watching her slide into the water and then her living up to all your exspectations WTG

  2. george says:

    Hi I read your missive on why one would build a boat. Its all there. The people who dont “get” it are the ones who borrow my tools and then need me to be there to use them properly. They cannot understand why I take three and a half minutes to put their flat pack bed or table together. Its because I have learnt to work with my hands like they do with a laptop keyboard. To sit afloat in a boat you have made yourself gives one the feeling of achievement that scoring the best looking girl in the class (and she goes and boasts about it to everyone that she was lucky) would do if it ever happened! haha. I have friends who look at the work I have to do to build or restore a boat but in february when Im in the work shop nailing or sanding Im actually sailing.

    sorry mid week ramblings. buzz me on email will send a pic or 2 from some of my stuff ( next one is a white water canoe suitable for my young kids and me to navigate some bad parts of our camping river)

    Just remember Ratty and dont stop messing about in boats

    Cheers george

  3. Vera Waitress says:

    Can anyone tell how many more man-hours it will take to finish constructing this boat based on these pictures? http://www.thesolarodyssey.com/category/blog/ How many more steps are there? The boat’s going to be driven by solar power.

    Any response is much appreciated.

    Vera

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