What I Did On My Summer Vacation

August 19, 2009

Despite my grumblings and self-recriminations, I am making some progress during these hot mid-summer days. An hour here and two hours there added up and I suddenly realized that I am, in fact, ready to attach the side boards—which will complete the hull and mark another important milestone.

First, however, I decided to circle the boat with my camera a take a few photos of the interior before it is hidden behind the side panels. I want to remember why the boat is taking so long to finish and I also decided, with some humility, that future Pocket Cruiser builders would like to see how I solved some of the boat’s small, but nettlesome design problems.

These close-ups aren’t especially inspiring, I admit, which is why most builders like to post artfully composed photos that emphasize the grace and beauty of their craft. I liked looking at these pretty pictures before I started my boat, but right now I am more interested in the blood and guts of boat building. Whenever I hit a snag, I find myself combing the Internet (usually without success) looking for close-ups that help me see how other people constructed their bilge board boxes, attached the transom to the keel, or secured their mastbox—among the dozen or more technical dilemmas that I have encountered over the past few months.

So for posterity and the edification of those who will build the next batch of Stevenen boats, here are a few images, enhanced with commentary and cautionary tales:

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

Figure 3

Figure 5

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 7

Let’s start at the bow of the boat. Figure 1 shows the front, from the forward bulkhead to the tip of the stem. Once the sides are attached, the many hours of interior work will be almost fully hidden, so before we seal the vault, so the speak, take note of the mastbox, which is attached to

Figure 8

Figure 8

the inside edge of the bulkhead. Figure 2 shows how it is secured with plywood collars at both the top and the bottom. Stringers fill the remaining space.

The mastbox is sized to hold a 4 x 4 inch inch post (which is, of course, actually 3 ½ x 3 ½ inches). To assure an easy fit the box is about an 1/8 inch larger. To my inexperienced mind, this means that water will seep into the box, sit there and, since there is no draining mechanism, rot the wood. There is much discussion among Pocket Cruiser builders about this problem.

One faction advocates drilling small weep holes so that any accumulated water can drain away. Another group promotes encapsulating the inside of the box in epoxy. These are not mutually exclusive strategies, but for the moment, I followed the latter path and took the extra time needed to paint three coats of epoxy on all interior sides, including the boat bottom. For even more protection, I used epoxy when adhering the top and bottom collars. The rest of the boat will turn to oatmeal long before the mastbox will. Figure 3 shows the opening of the mastbox and the liberal use of epoxy.

Moving on to figure 4, please note the ten-inch eyebolt protruding through the stem. The bolt slides through a six-inch hole cut with an auger and secured on the inside of the hull. I fretted about drilling such a long hole, but old-fashioned augers allow for wonderfully precise drilling. The more serious concern was filling the hole after the eyebolt was inserted. I don’t like having a hole in the boat so close to the waterline and I spent a fair amount of time worrying that water would seep in, promote rot and make a puddle in the forward bulkhead. My simple solution was to line the inside of the hole with epoxy (using a small dowel to smear it around), then coat the bolt with as much thickened epoxy as it would hold and shove it in. Finally, I pushed in more thickened epoxy once the bolt was inserted and secured. I don’t know how well it will work, but it was the best I could do.

From here, let’s move toward the middle of the boat and pause at the bildge board boxes (figure 5). As I discussed in detail in an earlier post, I modified the size of the box slightly, making it both narrower and not quite a wide as the plans indicated. Also, I placed the box closer to the bottom edge of the boat. If I built and placed the box according to plans it would not fit underneath the deck. Pete Stevenson told me that I was the first to have this problem, but I suspect it’s more common than he knows. I know of at least two other builders who modified their boxes for one reason or another.

I made one other modification to the bilge board boxes: Based on the recommendation of builder Tom Christensen I angled the top of the box so that it would follow the upward curve of the bow. This allowed for a better fit and helped the deck maintain a graceful sweep from stem to stern.

The boxes were also encapsulated in epoxy and, as added precaution, secured to the boat bottom and deck with epoxy. Following the directions, I had little difficulty cutting out the slots in the top and bottom (see figure 6). Finally, I added two small partitions that attached to the sides of the boxes. They may or may not be necessary structurally, but they are part of the plans.

The tour is nearly complete, but I want to also show a close-up of the transom (figure 7), showing how the outside of the boat’s rear panel sits flush with the end of the keel and the keel’s capboard. The plans are bit vague on this point, but I looks like a flush surface is needed with attached the rudder mount later on, so it’s worth point out.

Finally, figure 8 offers the obligatory “pretty boat” view that shows how all the parts come together and remind me that I am making some progress after all.

I don’t pretend that I solved every problem or made the best decisions when I encountered a problem. But I am always grateful when other builders share their experiences and insights, even if I eventually blaze my own trail.


Bilge Board Boxes, Epoxy Resin, and the Value of Good Friends

July 4, 2009

Ever since my plans arrived, I knew I would need to construct something called “bilge board boxes.” The diagrams were clear enough, but I couldn’t fathom their purpose. For a while, I thought they were some kind of drainage mechanism—a way to get water off the deck. They remained a mystery to me even as I drew closer to the day when they would be built and installed.

Yes, but what are they for? A diagram showing the construction and placement of the Pocket Cruiser's bildge Board Boxes.

Yes, but what are they for? A diagram showing the construction and placement of the Pocket Cruiser's bildge board boxes.

A partially assembled bilge board box. I left one side off to show the shiny epoxy finish on the inside.

A partially assembled bilge board box. I left one side off to show the shiny epoxy finish on the inside.

I also built the mast box, which will, I hope, keep the mast upright even under stiff winds. It, too, is encased in epoxy since water can seep in from the deck. The box is finished, but not yet glued in place.

I also built the mast box, which will, I hope, keep the mast upright even under stiff winds. It, too, is encased in epoxy since water can seep in from the deck. The box is finished, but not yet glued in place.

Take two squirts from the big bottle, one squirt from the little bottle and, voila!, you have epoxy. Add some "wood flour" (on the left) to stiffen the mixture when you need to fill gaps or use the epoxy as an adhesive. Wear gloves and keep the room ventilated--it's messy and smelly.

Take two squirts from the big bottle, one squirt from the little bottle and, voila!, you have epoxy. Add some "wood flour" (on the left) to stiffen the mixture when you need to fill gaps or use the epoxy as an adhesive. Wear gloves and keep the room ventilated--it's messy and smelly.

Finally, at the last possible moment, I sat down with the plans and (with the help of some online research) made the simple discovery the bilge board boxes hold two retractable bilge boards, which are just like centerboards—expect they come in pairs and are located near the sides of the hull instead of the center. When the light went on, I threw my head back and laughed at my utter stupidity. The bilge board box is simply a watertight frame that encases the board as it passes through the cabin and enters the water.

Like centerboards, bilge boards help sailboats maintain a straight course by resisting a boat’s tendency to slip sideways. Even now, I recall my early experience with a Sunfish and remember what it felt like to sail without the centerboard inserted; the boat skidded like an inexperienced skater on ice, nearly powerless against the prevailing wind. Once the centerboard was pushed down through the hull, however, it felt like a train that had been put back on its track; the boat bit into the water and could be kept on course.

But why use bilge boards and not the more common centerboard? I don’t know enough about boat design to answer this question with authority, but one reason—a very good reason, in my opinion—is that centerboards take up a great deal of space in small sailboats. They sit in the very middle of the boat and the box housing the centerboard cuts the hull in two halves. In my boat, a centerboard would dominate the already small cabin and monopolize the limited living space. In contrast, bilge boards sit unobtrusively off center. You need two boxes, one for each side, but they don’t get in the way.

So I now know what I’m building and understand why they are necessary. That’s the first hurdle. But I immediately face another dilemma. Despite what the diagrams show, it becomes clear that the boxes won’t fit in the space indicated. My careful measurements show that the boxes will sit too far inside the hull and won’t connect with the underside of the deck. This is a serious problem, since the point of the project is to have the bilge boards slide through slots in the deck and exit out the boat’s bottom.

Once again, I head for the Backyard Yacht Builders Association’s online forum. This small but lively community helped me before when I struggled with the keel and patiently answered questions about plastic resin glue and the placement of the deck. Now they offered quick reassurance that my latest problem is solvable. “Hold on, help is coming,” responded Bud Wilson, a fellow Pocket Cruiser builder. He said it would be acceptable to narrow the box and move it an inch or two sideways. I rechecked the measurements and replied that his ideas would solve the problem. For the third time in as many months, my fellow builders save me.

I resist the urge to give advice, but after four months of experience, let me offer this one suggestion: When selecting plans for your first boat, seriously investigate how much support you will get from experienced builders. While books and Web sites provide a general and theoretical understanding of boat building, there will come a time—perhaps many times—when you just want a real person at your side to answer a simple question about the next step in the instructions. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I bought the plans from Pete Stevenson, I was also buying into a large community of Stevenson boat builders, who don’t charge a dime for their advice and don’t laugh (publicly, anyway) at my questions. I could build the boat without them, but it would be harder, lonelier, and considerably more stressful. Similar support, I assume, is available to those who build some of Phil Bolger’s more popular boats. Several other well-established designers maintain their own forums.


I am now ready to build the boxes, but I’m not out of the woods yet. One more problem remains. The inside of the box will sit in the water and, I decide, needs to be carefully waterproofed since it will be inaccessible after it is constructed. The Stevenson’s take a casual approach to the problem. They suggest painting the inside of the box before gluing. But won’t paint eventually peel? On a hull, this is not a serious problem; sailors simply repaint their boats. Some do it every year, like spring cleaning. But I won’t have an opportunity to repaint the boxes. I won’t even be able to see inside the boxes. I have no expertise on this issue, but for peace of mind I want a more durable coating.

The solution, several builders tell me, is to encapsulate the box’s interior with several coatings of marine epoxy—the very substance I have been avoiding for nearly four months. I had heard that epoxy was messy, toxic, and considerable more expensive than other glues and coatings. But beyond these practical concerns was a philosophical objection. I started my boat on a lark and wanted it be an informal first effort, one that could be completed quickly and economically. When people told me to use epoxy instead of plastic resin glue, for example, I decided that they didn’t share my “get it done” philosophy. I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of using “the best” when “good enough” was, well, good enough.

But as time passes, I find my attitude shifting in small but important ways. I still view my boat as a first time effort, not an heirloom. It is not a boat for the ages and I believe that it will be replaced by a better and more sophisticated effort. But…I also find myself taking pride in my work and wanting the boat to last—if not “forever,” then at least for more than a few years. From this new vantage point, I am willing to go the extra mile when it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg or put me behind schedule. The desire to build truly impregnable bilge board boxes tips the balance and I place my first order for a gallon and a half of epoxy.

But I still had lots of questions about epoxy, and the more I read, the more confused I became. One person talked about using epoxy as an adhesive, while another used it as a gap filler (when smeared along seams it’s called a fillet). It is used when fiberglassing the hull. Sometimes the epoxy is thick; sometimes it is thin and spreadable. Does the same product do all these things?

The short answer is “yes.” Used straight out of the bottle (two bottles, actually, since epoxy comes in two parts that are mixed just before using), it is relatively thin, spreadable goo. But when builders want to use it as an adhesive or as gap filler, they add a thickener. There are many kinds of thickeners, but one of the most common and economical is “wood flour,” which is simply very fine sawdust.

I learned all this from many hours of reading and Web surfing. Additional clarification came from my online informants. But it still seemed confusing and I yearned to see epoxy in action or, at least, chat with someone who has actually used epoxy. My shipment was going to arrive any day and I didn’t want to waste a single, expensive drop.

Just then I received a well-timed invitation to the home of a fellow Pocket Cruiser builder. David had stopped by my home a couple of weeks earlier and we shared a pleasant evening in my garage, poking and prodding the still loosely assembled parts. Now I would have a chance to see his boat. Not only that, the whole family was invited and dessert was promised.

David and his wife Cheryl live in the heart of Pennsylvania’s Amish country, a region of rolling hills, luxuriant fields, tidy home and manicured farms. Their house sat on a quiet country road, surrounded by knee-high corn. Ladies in cape dresses strolled by and boys scuttled up and down the road on scooters. It was very picturesque.

The house was equally tidy and tranquil. Cheryl teaches music, so we chatted in their music room about pianos and the musical tastes of Cheryl’s Amish students (hymns, of course, but Take Me Out to the Ball Game is the runaway favorite among the boys). But David and I were soon finding our way across the backyard to the boathouse –a neat as a pin shed, perhaps fifteen by twenty-five feet. The Pocket Cruiser just fit inside, although David had to shove his table saw to a corner and hasn’t been able to use it for three years.

I head to the boat like a fly to ointment. Forgetting all of the appropriate preliminary complements (“your making good progress;” “the boat looks great”), I immediately lean over the deck and start asking questions faster than David can respond. We are nearly at the same stage in the construction process, so I notice even the smallest variations. A more confident builder, David made several changes along the way and we discuss each in detail. It’s amazing how long two middle aged men can talk about the angle of a stringer or the wisdom of using pine boards for panel joiners. We stand over the boat like surgeons discussing a particularly difficult operation.

But epoxy is my special concern and I immediately notice that David made liberal use of the stuff. Although the boat is assembled with plastic resin glue, he used epoxy to fill gaps, attach his mast box, and encapsulate his bilge board boxes. His boxes are not yet fully assembled, so I could see inside and immediately appreciate the superiority of epoxy over paint. Two or three coats produced a thick, glasslike coating that completely isolates the plywood and pine boards from the water.

By the time I finished asking questions, the rest of the family is already sitting in the patio eating cake and ice cream. The sun is setting and the yard lights up with fireflies. Cheryl recalls feeding fireflies to small toads as a child and watching their bellies light up. Suddenly, as if on cue, a toad materializes on the patio. Cheryl puts it in a jar while the kids are instructed to catch a firefly. The toad dutifully eats the firefly and, thirty seconds later, his belly flashes like a luminescent bulb. The toad is released, happy for the snack, and we know that we have found some good friends.

We return home and the next day I start building my bilge board boxes—cutting the wood one day, painting a couple of coats of epoxy the next. The work is not hard or time consuming and I proceed with confidence since all the problems have already been solved. The final result will be two small, inconspicuous and unimpressive rectangular boxes. Passengers will not give them a second glance. But written in their construction is the help and good will of many people. Relations were formed and friendships built around these boxes. This, I think, is what the project is all about.

A Boatshed of One’s Own

June 27, 2009

I don’t have any experience building boats and very little experience sailing, but I do have one thing that many builders lack: an enormous workshop. Our house is tiny; the original portion was built in the late 1700’s and even with small additions in the 1920’s and 1970’s, it barely reaches one thousand square feet. But what our house lacks in living space, it more than makes up in outbuildings; we have several, the largest of which is a 1,225 square foot detached garage—what we grandly call the Carriage House.

My garage/boatshed. It seemed bigger when I started building the boat.

My garage/boatshed. It seemed bigger when I started building the boat.

When we bought the house, I added some shelves for storage, but most the floor space is empty. I considered the structure a bit of an albatross. It was a convenient dumping ground for boxes and objects that didn’t fit in our house. The children, who used it as an oversized playhouse, kept it in a state of chaos. In exasperation, I threatened to tear it down.

But when I decided to build a boat, the garage finally had a purpose. It was as if it had been waiting all these years for me to make up my mind and lay the keel. I had all the room I needed, and plenty of space to spare. Indeed, I calculated that I could build a boat twice as long. I could even build two boats simultaneously, if I so desired.

Not everyone is so lucky. For many, boat building ambitions are constrained by available workspace. Many builders first take the measurements of their garages, then decide what they can build. Still, I am intrigued by the determination of builders to work with what they have. I occasionally read about kayaks being built in walk-up apartments and Dynamite Payson’s book on Instant Boat Building includes a photo of a rowboat being eased out of a second story window in New York City. In Rascal, A delightful child’s memoir about a turn of the century boyhood in Minnesota, author Sterling North recalled building a canoe in his living room under the gaze of a pet raccoon and a very tolerant father.

Of course, boats can also be built outside. Captain Slocum built the Spray in the open air, as did Henry Pigeon when he claimed a short stretch of Los Angeles beach for the year-long construction of the Islander. Even today, boats are built from Haiti to Indonesia a few feet away from the water.

But it’s no longer possible to stake a claim on beachfront property (just try!) and in the east coast of the United States the weather rarely cooperates—it’s either too wet or too cold for at least half the year. Where there is good weather, there is rarely navigable water. It occurs to me that the high desert of New Mexico would be an ideal place for an open-air boatyard. But launching would be a challenge.

As a result, many people begin their boat building endeavors by first constructing a shelter. The easiest path, I suppose, is to purchase a ready-made Quonset hut-style carport. They’re not very pretty (in my opinion), but they don’t keep you waiting. Others put their carpentry and architectural skills to work and build permanent boatsheds. Fellow builder Tom Hoffman tells me that he’s planning to build another Stevenson design called the Vacationer, but for the moment he’s focusing on the construction of a 1,296 square foot poll barn—what Tom calls his “Dream Shop/Garage/Boat Shop.”

He’s making good progress, but the danger is that construction projects can overwhelm available time, money and emotional energy. The ultimate cautionary tale, I think, comes from architect Witold Rybczynski. In his 1989 book, The Most Beautiful House in the World, Rybczynski recounts his efforts to design a functional and attractive boatshed where he could build a dory ketch. A small living space was also planned so that Rybczynski and his wife could use the shed as a weekend home. He purchased land near his Montreal home and poured a foundation of suitable size.

So far, so good. But the rest of the book recounts the multi-year odyssey to design the perfect workshop-house, one that reflected his evolving philosophy of architecture. At first, he sketched a modest, highly functional workspace with a few rooms on the side. Later, it turned into a modernist structure with sharp angles, a cement block workshop and corrugated metal walls. Worrying that these designs were out of place amid the farms of rural Quebec, he softened the lines and drew inspiration from surrounding barns and farmhouses. He also decided to increase the living space but, since the footing was already poured, he stole space from the workshop—which became too small for a twenty-two foot dory. He decided to build a smaller catboat instead.

To make a long story short, the house grew larger, the workshop smaller. Eventually, it disappeared. The initial burst of boat building enthusiasm dissipated and all the creative energy shifted to the house. “My house had begun with the dream of a boat,” he concluded. “The dream had run aground—I was now rooted in place.” When finally built, his simple country home was christened “The Boathouse,” but it never did—and probably never will–see a boat within its walls.

These are not my dilemmas, but as the months pass, my garage seems to grow smaller. While the hull itself takes up one corner of the garage, nearly an equal amount of free space is needed to cut plywood panels and manipulate ungainly stringers. Of course, a workbench is nearly essential, and there must be space to maneuver around the assembled parts. I am suddenly grateful for every square foot.

Still, part of me misses the challenge of working in a less commodious structure. I like the idea of planing a board under the shade of tree when the weather is good, and there is a romance to assembling the parts in an oversized tent, the light dappling the canvas walls. It would be like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, but with a boat instead of a hut. This rough-and-ready approach is more in keeping with the humble nature of my boat and my outrageous fantasies of middle-aged escape.

On the other hand, the garage offers a convenient escape from what has been a very wet spring, and provides an ever-present excuse to work on the boat instead of completing less enticing household projects. When I wake up on Saturday morning to the sound of rain, I smile. It means I don’t have to mow the lawn or weed the garden. But the garage is dry and the boat is waiting.

Getting Ready to Glue the Deck and Bulkheads

June 15, 2009

Dry fitting the completed parts was fun—and easy. A few minutes work gave me a rough approximation of a boat and something to look at for a few days. But it’s not enough to have the pieces “sort of” fit; before gluing the boat together I need to have all the parts really fit—not an inch too long or a quarter inch too short but right on the money—everywhere, at every point. This meant that I had a long day’s work ahead of me, doing things that, for the most part, were not discussed in the plans. I was putting together a fourteen foot jigsaw puzzle and I was on my own.

The stem was cut an inch shorter to soften the upward curve of the deck. I'll trim off the notch at the tip after the deck is glued. The clamp is holding the stem vertical. The small piece of plywood screwed to the top is a temporary brace.

The stem was cut an inch shorter to soften the upward curve of the deck. I'll trim off the notch at the tip after the deck is glued. The clamp is holding the stem vertical. The small piece of plywood screwed to the top is a temporary brace.

Checking the angle of the cabin bulkhead. Why 71 degrees and not, say, 72?

Checking the angle of the cabin bulkhead. Why 71 degrees and not, say, 72?

A close-up of the forward bulkhead where it meet the deck. It needs to sit at 92 degrees, but a nudge forward or backward puts it out of alignment with the deck.

A close-up of the forward bulkhead where it meets the deck. It needs to sit at 92 degrees, but a nudge forward or backward puts it out of alignment with the deck.

The first order of business was trimming an inch off the stem. I noticed at the dry fitting stage that the deck rose too sharply at the bow. A rakish upward swoosh is nice, but my deck was practically pointing straight up. I double checked my measurements and knew I had lofted correctly. But I also know what looks right, so with a sudden burst of complete confidence I hacked the stem down to size. Once accomplished, I knew I did the right thing.

Of course, it took me half the morning to make the decision and get the measurements just right.

But that was just the first step. I also needed to mark the precise location of the cabin and forward bulkheads. Each is positioned at its own eccentric angle—the cabin leans forward at 71 degrees; the forward bulkhead at 92 degrees. How did the Stevenson’s decide on such odd numbers? I wonder as I set my angle marker and nudged the cabin bulkhead forward a few more degrees. I suspect they just built the boat, then took the measurements. My task is to faithfully recreate their gut feelings.

But it’s not that easy. Because the deck follows a curve, any change in the angle of the bulkhead affects its position along the outside edge of the boat. Tilting the forward bulkhead to the proscribed 92 degrees pushes the top of the bulkhead toward the boat’s interior and produces a quarter inch gap between the bulkhead and what will soon be the boat’s sides.

Well, that won’t do, so I have no choice but to cut a deeper notch in the bulkhead and move it forward half an inch. This also means the mast will sit a tiny bit closer to the bow, but I decide not to worry about that.

And so it goes. All afternoon I circle the boat, measuring, eying and, occasionally, cutting and planing an inch here, a sixteenth of an inch there. I spend six hours doing this and by dinnertime I’m exhausted.

By the end of the day, my visible work is a few notches and a few pencil lines, but it looks like the pieces line up and everything is square and ship shape. I’m now ready to take the next big step—one of the biggest so far—and glue the parts together. But that will have to wait for another day.

Deck Boards, Bulkheads and Daydreams

June 6, 2009

During a few stolen hours midweek, I finally cut the Pocket Cruiser’s transom and both the forward and cabin bulkheads. The transom serves as the back of the boat’s hull while the bulkheads define and divide the cabin space. These three panels also support the previously cut deck boards, so I took the opportunity to dry fit all the pieces together, on the excuse that I wanted to check the accuracy of my measurements, but really because I’m eager to see what the boat will look like.

When I first cut the bottom boards, I marveled at the Pocket Cruiser’s small size, but I also predicted that it would look larger in three dimensions. With all the pieces gingerly settled into place, and with a hefty dose of imagination, I am finally able to visualize its final size.

Dry fitting the deck and bulkheads. If you only see a pile of boards, your're not looking hard enough.

Dry fitting the deck and bulkheads. If you only see a pile of boards, you're not looking hard enough.

As I expected, it does seem more substantial. However, it’s still a small boat and the first thing I notice is that the cockpit is even smaller than I expected. To my eye, there will be room for four friendly sailors, but no more. On the other hand, the cabin looks somewhat larger than I anticipated. It’s not a stateroom, to be sure, and with a 33-inch ceiling, I won’t be doing any cartwheels, but there is plenty of room for supplies and sleeping. Squinting hard, I can see myself tucked in at night, rereading Joshua Slocum by the light of small lantern, a cup of tea cradled in my hands…

I shake myself from my reverie. It’s exciting to see the boat taking shape, and equally gratifying that the pieces seem to fit. But there’s a long way between where I am and the fantasy of settling down for the night in a protected inlet.

Still, these daydreams help me stay motivated. On good days, building is engaging in its own right, but I find that when enthusiasm wanes it helps to play make believe and imagine the journeys to come. Indeed, a rich fantasy life is, I believe, an important and underappreciated part of the building process. When people say it took “300 hours” or “500 hours” to build their craft, I firmly believe they should include all the hours they spent staring at their boat, their hands inactive, but their mind buzzing with images of clouds, waves, and salty air.

Helping me stay motivated are pictures of completed Pocket Cruisers and stories of their sailing adventures, both large and small. I often find myself on the Internet looking for images and narratives that fuel my imagination. I read every post that describes sailing adventure. I was especially delighted to find an account by a young couple that spent a year building a Pocket Cruiser and then completed a five-day honeymoon trip down the Mississippi. The builders were clearly experienced and added dozens of small modifications—from hardwood trim to a diminutive galley–that makes my own craft look especially humble. Their well-designed web site includes helpful images of the boat under construction, as well as many thrilling shots of it under sail. I had hit the inspiration jackpot.

The only thing missing was the opportunity to talk directly with other sailors. Pictures are nice and online discussions are helpful, but I was ready for a real conversation with a real person in real time.

I was therefore especially pleased when another Pocket Cruiser builder offered to stop by and bring some photos of his boat. Like many twenty-first century relationships, this one began online. On a forum developed for Stevenson builders and sailors, I mentioned my plan to sail the Chesapeake and then asked if there was anyone else in my part of Pennsylvania with a similar interest. If phrased as a personal ad, it would have read “NBB (novice boat builder) seeks same for a conversation about plywood, glue, gussets and other nautical subjects that bore my family.”

David quickly replied, explained that he, too, was working his own Pocket Cruiser and offered to drop by after work. I warned him that I would have a hundred questions, but that didn’t put him off.

Working methodically when time allows during the warmer months, he is now into his third year of construction and is several steps ahead of me in the instructions. His deck is already attached, the mast box is finished, and the bilgeboard boxes are assembled. As the senior builder, he arrived with a thick folder filled with articles and emails by other builders and a computer full of pictures—many of his boat, some of boats built by others living in the mid Atlantic region.

He spread his treasure trove of information across the dining room table and we settled down to a very satisfactory conversation. Hilary joined in for a while, but as the conversation turned to a detailed discussion of epoxy she quietly wandered off. My oldest son also stopped by, but disappeared as we speculated on the best approach to mast design. I barely noticed. For the first time I was having a conversation about boat building that lasted more than ten minutes.

Finally, we went out to my garage so I could show David my progress. Walking in, he said, “Well, that looks familiar,” and I realized what it must be like to see your boat in someone else’s garage. It’s not your work, yet you know it well—every curve, every cut, every stringer and drop of glue. I had a sudden image of hundreds—maybe thousands–of identical craft around the world, each tended and fussed over by men and women with similar dreams. For a moment I felt that we were part of a larger community of dreamers. I’m not much of a “joiner” but it felt nice.

Only it wasn’t precisely like his boat. All builders modify and adapt according to their needs, skills, and imagination, so as we circled my boat, pointing and poking, David explained how his cabin is higher than mine and observed that my transom is more angled than his. Several months ago, when I made my first cuts, I would have worried about these variations, assuming that I had made a mistake. But by now I have seen enough pictures and heard enough stories from other builders to know that there is more than one solution to any problem. So I tried to sound confident as I talked about a small dilemma I faced with the stem (it looks too tall) and my solution (I think I’ll cut off an inch or two). To my relief, David had confronted the same problem and had reached the same conclusion. We are both novice builders, but it was very nice to hear validation for decisions that I normally have to make alone and worry about in silence.

It was getting late and David finally admitted that he had to head home. He, too, plans to sail the upper edges of the Chesapeake, so I hope to see him again. In the meantime, I go back out to the garage, on the pretext of turning out the lights and shutting the door, but instead I stand and the boat’s bow and let my mind wander. I’m not looking at a pile of precariously assembled boards, but at the finished boat, anchored in a sheltered bay. As the sun sets, a warm light glows from the portholes. I’m inside, listening to the water lap at the sides…

How much time passes before I finally turn out the light and walk back to the house? I have no idea, but I notice that a mug of coffee, hot when I walked out, is now cold in my hands.

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

May 26, 2009

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.

Lofting the Deck and Learning to Love Imperfection and Accept Uncertainty

May 19, 2009

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.