Staying Warm

December 18, 2009

Earlier this fall I promised myself (and declared to the world) that would keep working through the winter, no matter what. But my resolve is being tested. It’s easy to make promises on a sunny day in the 60’s (just like it’s easy to start a diet on a full stomach), but it’s hard to follow through when the sidewalk is covered with ice and daytime temperatures hover in the 30’s.

So I am taking the easy path by skipping ahead and working on the boat’s rudder, which I can build in an unheated but slightly warmer woodshop adjacent to the garage. In the interest of comfort and holiday conviviality, I even brought my lumber inside and marked lines by a warm fire. Our cat assisted.

Donning a warm coat, hat and gloves, I dashed outside to cut the pieces with my jigsaw. After a fast sanding job, the pieces are now ready to epoxy. I’m just waiting for a slightly warmer day to get the job done. If I get antsy, I might even spread newspaper on the dining room table, and glue the parts inside. My wife would love that.

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The Case for Small, Homemade Boats

December 11, 2009

In America’s “bigger is better” culture, there is always the temptation to purchase more than we need. Our houses have nearly doubled in size over the past twenty years even as families grow smaller and, until the recent rise in gas prices, cars were growing faster than body builders on steroids. Everything is supersized on the general assumption that good things are even better when they are larger.

Just the right size.

In a consumer culture, the central question is not “What do I need?” but “What can I afford?” Pressure is constantly felt to take the next step up in quality, size or “value”. It’s a tension we feel whenever we go to McDonalds (for twenty cents more I can get the large fries), the car dealership (leather seats would be nice…) or the Caldwell Banker agent (won’t my friends be impressed with the cathedral ceilings!). A dozen times a day we are given an opportunity to feel special and pursue the elusive goal of social status simply by spending more and trading up.

The danger, of course, is that we will become overextended. Debt mounts, bills come due, and the cost of fixing and maintaining our possessions sap time and more money. Twice the house means twice the amount of air to heat and cool—and twice the space to furnish. Large yards sound nice, but they must be landscaped and mowed, which means that the modest lawn mower must be replaced with a “lawn tractor.”

It’s consumerism run amuck and, Great Depressions notwithstanding, we seem powerless against its dynamic force.

Boats are no exception. Indeed, boating seems especially prone to this kind of pressure. In the status and style conscious world of sailing, there is always a boat that is a little bit bigger, a little bit nicer, a little bit sleeker. A 22-foot sailboat looks cramped next to a 24-foot boat. But wait! Both look like subsidized housing compared to the 40-foot sloop that just filled the berth next door.

For years, I resisted the lure of sailing precisely because I didn’t want to play these games and get sucked into the status-seeking culture of the “yachting class.” In a world where the world’s richest men compete to own the world’s largest yachts and corporate executives treat sailboats as fashion accessories, it is a game I would lose.

In the end, everyone loses. When possessions are simply expressions of our status we inevitably feel the restive pull of “more.” The internal compass the tells us that we have enough, that allows us to find satisfaction in what we have, is disrupted and we find ourselves heading off toward a receding horizon, forever in search of material happiness.

But there is another way. We can reject the disorientation of the consumer culture simply by taking control of the means of production (to quote Marx out of context). In other words, we can opt out of consumerism by choosing to make our own possessions.

Building, I believe, is not simply a slightly longer and harder way to get stuff (as some people assume). Instead, people who make things have a fundamentally different relationship with their possessions. Builders are not consumers. Instead, they are creators. Value is not expressed in the dollars spent, but in the labor given, the problems solved, and the ideas generated. Physical work—not cash or credit—brings the object to life. Pride of ownership comes from completing the task and bears little or no relationship the dollars spent. A quilt made from scraps can have greater value than a cashmere sweater; a plywood boat can inspire more pride than a teak-trimmed sloop.

Of course, I must purchase raw materials—plywood and glue, screws and bolts, among countless purchases large and small. But when I look at my boat, I don’t see the money spent (about $1,300 so far). Instead I only see time and effort—the hours spent learning to loft curves, to glue stringers, to mix epoxy, to solve countless small problems in my own way.

The result is a more reasoned and reflective relationship with possessions. When I build something useful, I’m not thinking about what is most fashionable or about how I can get the most for the money; instead I am thinking about what I actually need and what best reflects my personal tastes and values. And from this, comes a greater, more authentic sense of worth.

And the dividends continue after the boat is finished. A fifteen-foot boat fits easily in my garage, can be towed behind the family van, and (I’m told) is easily launched. In addition, maintenance costs are minimal; a boat that is simply built is also easily fixed. While large boats required countless ongoing fees—docking, hauling, repairing—I have all the space, supplies and experience needed to keep the boat in the water. I’m fully qualified to oversee maintenance since I’m the guy who built it in the first place. Nothing is a mystery; nothing is beyond my skills.

It might be too much to say that a boat is an expression of simplicity. After all, even a small boat requires time and money. The easiest way to save expenses is to not have a boat. But in a society that is always pushing us to buy our entertainment and purchase beyond our means, it is not too much to argue that amateur boatbuilding is an act of rebellion and the decision to make the most of a small boat is a statement of values.


What’s Taking You So Long?

December 3, 2009

Over Thanksgiving, I showed photos of my boat to one of my relatives. She was not impressed. “So you haven’t gotten very far,” she said after looking at the most up-to-date pictures.

Take a good look. When the seats are installed you won't see all the time spent installing the stringers.

I maintained my composure. After all, she’s a kind and loving person. But it was a very deflating comment.

I don’t blame her. In fact, I fully understand why the average person on the street fails to appreciate all the labor involved in boat building. To a casual observer, there is nothing complicated or even impressive about a rough, unfinished plywood hull. The uninitiated can legitimately ask: “What’s taking you so long?”

The problem is that the labor is hidden. A casual observer simply sees the curved box with the crude beginnings of a cabin and cockpit. But the real work is not represented by the boat’s size or even its overall shape. It’s found in the angles that must be measured and cut, the sanding and shaping required to make watertight joints, the tedious work of gluing each piece in place. And, of course, there is all the time spent staring at the plans and rereading the instructions, trying to avoid mistakes.

Even now, nearly nine months into my project, I am still learning that 90 percent of the labor in boat building is preparatory work. I go out to the garage determined to, say, install the seats. How hard can that be? I’ll be done before lunch.

But once there, I realize that I must first install roughly 30 stringers, and each stringer must but cut to length, angled, and trimmed. I must make countless measurement to assure myself that the stringers are properly located on the hull sides, and I must mark and predrill dozens of holes for dozens of screws.

So instead of finishing the seats, I spend an entire morning cutting half of the necessary stringers. A few days later I cut the rest of the stringers. The following weekend, I glue them in place. The day after that I decide to caulk seams that will be hard to reach when the seats are installed. Hours, days and, eventually, weeks pass before the “preliminary” steps are finally finished and I am, at last, ready put the plywood seat bottoms in place.

Of course, when the seats are installed, all of my time-consuming work will be hidden from view. Out of sight means out of mind and I alone will know what was required to make a simple and unadorned plywood bench. My niece will look at the seats and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Now that I am nearing that final step, I am already looking to the next task, which is to install the seat backs, which also serve as the boat’s coaming. That should be easy, I say. How hard can that be?

I will soon find out.