What’s Taking You So Long?

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.


5 Responses to What’s Taking You So Long?

  1. oldsalt1942 says:

    You might want to post this somewhere in your shop that might discourage people from making disparaging comments about the speed of your construction efforts. It’s by the author Arthur Ransome:

    Houses are but badly built boats so firmly aground that you can not think of moving them. They are definitely inferior things, belonging to the
    vegetable, not the animal world, rooted and stationary, incapable of gay
    transition…. The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat
    is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting

  2. Paul Boyer says:

    This is wonderful! It expresses everything I feel with elegance and economy. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. oldsalt1942 says:

    You might also like this:



  4. Bill E says:


    During the 7-8 years of building my parents’ house as a child, and several more subsequent years of trimming, finishing, painting, etc. that ensued, our family came up with the phrase, “covering up ugly.” What that means is that when things are not as they should be, you (or others) notice it. The casual onlooker just sees a bunch of things that are unfinished… a bunch of “ugly.” Hence, the “What’s taking you so long?” questions.

    However, when you finally get all the work done on any particular task, the results of that particular project become almost invisible. You’ve “covered up the ugly,” but the unfortunate side effect is that all the work you put in (e.g. stringers, beveling, sanding, filling, etc.) becomes hidden. The onlooker then turns his attention to the other unfinished parts, the other ugly.

    Your ultimate goal, then, is this: Cover up all the ugly! Now, I know that on any labor of love such as you’re undertaking, you’ll always be aware of a little ugly here, a little more there. But at some point in the project your threshold of ugly drops below the casual onlooker’s, and suddenly there’s beauty in the eye of the beholder. Would you shape this a little differently next time, or sand that a little more, or give that another coat of varnish? Sure. But you have created created a thing of beauty that others will stand in awe of. Hang in there, and keep plugging. We’re enjoying this process through your eyes (and words!).

    Atlanta, GA

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