My mood turned sour this weekend as I discovered the most unpleasant task in boat building.
Buoyant from my success with fiberglassing, I returned to the garage ready to prepare the bottom and keel for painting. All I needed to do was make a quick trip around the boat with a sander—or so I thought. But I learned that it takes a great deal of time to get even a moderately smooth surface that is fully prepped for painting. Furthermore, I learned that there are few things more unappealing than spending a Saturday hunched over a whining belt sander while fine epoxy dust forms a thick and (surely) unhealthy cloud around my head. Yes, I was wearing a respirator, but the whole experience was antithetical to everything I associate with woodworking, sailing, and healthy living. Instead of aromatic wood shavings and fresh breezes, I left the garage coated in powder, my ears ringing, certain that I had turned my workspace into a future Superfund site.
I’m not a perfectionist; I don’t mind a somewhat uneven surface, especially on the boat’s bottom, which will remain hidden to all but the fishes. Given the option, I wouldn’t sand the bottom at all. But all boat building books in my possession agree that it is important to sand epoxied surfaces before applying primers and paints. Only by roughing the surface with aggressive application of 80 grit paper will the glossy epoxy have the necessary tooth to hold primer in place. On some forums, builders are told that a quick once over isn’t good enough; it’s important to remove all the gloss.
Of course, I can’t verify the truth of these statements. They make sense intuitively, but I don’t really know the difference between sufficient and inadequate sanding, so, like many novices, I felt compelled to take the safest route, which meant that I spent a full morning grinding away a startling amount of epoxy and creating an atmosphere filled with more dust than oxygen.
I came in for lunch so disgusted and dissatisfied that I actually declared to my wife that I would never—ever—build a fiberglassed boat again. Instead, I might build traditional boats—the kind that use oak timbers shaped by hand planes and sealed with pine tar and oakum (whatever that is). Alternately, I could take the opposite path and simply build my plywood boats without fiberglassing the hulls. Lots of people take this fast and cheap route (including Jim Michalak, one of my favorite designers). Sure, the cheaper plywoods will eventually check, but the boats will still float. I’d rather repaint every year than spend whole days sanding two hundred square feet of epoxy.
In the end, I don’t really hate boat building. But I am frustrated that that this one part of the process—so integral to the construction of modern plywood boats—is also so unnerving. I have lots of boats I want to build, but I need to find a way to build them in a healthy and satisfying way.