The Perils of Procrastination

May 12, 2009

Spring is the best time to build a boat in Pennsylvania. I can work comfortably in shirtsleeves any hour of the day and I don’t need to worry about the plastic resin glue failing to set when the temperature drops.

Unfortunately, spring is also the busiest time around our house. After the slow pace of winter, I am suddenly pulled in a dozen different directions—all urgent, all needing immediate attention. The vegetable garden needs to be planted, the lawn mowed, and the flower garden weeded.

And that’s just for starters. I also need to keep up with all the nettlesome items on my daily “to do” list—from washing dishes to (oh, yes) earning a living.

Even before I started the boat project in March, I was run ragged by the competing obligations of work, home, family and my many and various hobbies, from woodworking to home brewing. I didn’t have a free moment. I never wondered how I would fill my hours–ever.

And now I am trying to build a boat? What was I thinking?

A week passes without any progress. Is it my imagination that my boat is looking a bit dusty and forlorn? Every day I go into the garage for one reason or another (to get the lawnmower, grab a hoe, look through some boxes…) and I am confronted with fourteen feet of glued plywood. It’s too big to ignore and many, many months (years? decades?) away from completion. It sits there, accusatory, the proverbial elephant in the room. This is one problem I can’t sweep under the rug.

Suddenly I recall all those ads in boating magazines placed by builders trying to unload their beautiful, but unfinished hulls. “Must sell,” they say. But is there a whiff of desperation, too? Behind the tone of regret, are they also saying, “Please, for the love of God, just make it go away! I am so sick of this stupid boat!”

At three in the morning, I have a small wave of panic. Have I made a mistake? Am I over my head? Will it sit there, moldering for years to come? How do you get rid of an unfinished plywood boat, anyway?

Optimism returns with the sunrise and when I go out to the garage and look at my work, I am relieved to realize that I still feel a sense of excitement and pride. No, I’m not going to abandon the project and I did not make a mistake. This is something I want to do.

But I notice that a law of physics, “an object at rest tends to stay at rest,” applies to projects like this. When I devote myself fully to a task, whether it’s cleaning the car, digging a garden, writing book, or (in this case) building a boat, I feel a sense of momentum. I get caught up in the work, make it my top priority, and want to see the job done. This momentum also helps carry me past the inevitable frustrations and mistakes.

But when I leave the project, the momentum slows and, in time, disappears. Other tasks take priority and my boat can feel more like a burden than the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. If I wait too long, will my interest disappear forever? I pride myself on finishing what I start, but I’m not perfect. I can recall at least two books that faded for lack of interest and countless woodworking projects that never left the woodshop.

The trick, I decide, is to keep working, even if it’s just for a few hours a week. Don’t focus on all the work that remains; don’t become preoccupied by slow progress. Instead, I should try to simply look at the next step and do what I can, even if means that I do nothing more than cut one piece of wood or loft one curve.

In the spirit of this resolution, I head out to the garage to accomplish two small tasks.

No, it's not capsizing. I'm getting ready to screw braces and stringers.

No, it's not capsizing. I'm getting ready to screw braces and stringers.

First, I lift the boat off the floor and onto its side, resting the keel on two small workbenches. It’s an ignoble position for a boat (it produces uncomfortable associations with capsizing), but I need access to the underside for the next two or three steps. Lifting the unwieldy, tenuously attached assembly is “a bit tricky,” as the instructions acknowledge, but with good spirited help and advice from my oldest son, it is accomplished in a matter of seconds.

“Now we’re on a role!” I say.

With this step accomplished, I have the motivation needed to tackle the next little task, which is to cut, glue, and screw a single 1 x 3 piece of pine over a seam in the bottom boards. There was nothing especially interesting or important about this insignificant piece of pine, but by limiting my goals and finding satisfaction in this incremental step, I left the garage content.

This, I think, is how the whole project will have to proceed. With the excitement of the first cuts relegated to the past, satisfaction comes this sense of forward movement.


My Boat, Now in 3D (No Glasses Required)

April 27, 2009

As the weather turns hot, I put away my travel stories and return to the garage. Temperatures rise to the high 80’s just in time to mix another batch of plastic resin glue, open another box of stainless steel screws, and attach the four bottom panels to the keel. I begin mid morning and, by the mid afternoon, I finally have a three dimensional assembly—and some growing confidence as a boat builder.

Here's how my day began: The keel and stem.

Here's how my day began: The keel and stem.


Next I add the capboard.

Now the bottom is inserted in the notch and attached to the keel.

Now the bottom is inserted in the notch and attached to the keel.

The process is best shown in photos. The goal, simply put, is to glue and screw a one by three “capboard” along the top edge of the keel, from stem to stern. On this, the four bottom panels are then attached—first the port side, then the starboard side. Again, liberal use of glue and screws assures a strong and watertight bond (or so I hope).

The work presented a few new challenges. Manipulating four large sheets of plywood onto the keel so that they fit together securely was a bit tricky; I spent a long time positioning the boards on the capboard and rummaging around the garage for paint cans and boxes to hold the outer edges of the panels level with the keel. Finally, I needed to cut a short notch in the stem, into which the front panels are secured. This was worrisome in anticipation, but fast and easy in practice; the plywood fit like a glove. As all woodworkers know, this is a very satisfying feeling.

Gluing Up–And Getting a Lesson in Humility

April 19, 2009
    The full keel after gluing. Admire the attractive lines, but try to ignore the worrisome gaps in the laminated keel boards.

The full keel after gluing. Admire the attractive lines, but try to ignore the worrisome gaps in the laminated keel boards.

As the crew of the Cimba arrives in the South Seas (after an uneventful nineteen-day passage from the Galapagos Islands), the temperature in eastern Pennsylvania finally warms up. The forecast predicts two days in the low 70’s. This is the minimum temperature needed to use plastic resin glue, which means I can get back to work.

The day starts cold, so I fill time by rereading the instructions about gluing and watching the instructional DVD that came with my plans. The video shows Pete Stevenson (the boat’s designer) and associates cheerfully scooping the dry glue powder into a can and casually pouring in some water and stirring. The consistency should be like “pancake batter,” they say, as the ingredients are combined with easy insouciance. The keel parts are brushed with the glue, slapped together like a sandwich, and quickly nailed together. In the DVD, this takes about five minutes.

It looks easy. It even looks fun.

I watch the thermometer and by early afternoon the temperature has risen to the upper sixties—not quite warm enough, but everything is ready and I am unwilling to cancel my plans. A couple of degree can’t hurt, right?

I confidently scoop some of the powder into a jar and begin adding water. I’m looking for pancake batter, but suddenly I realize just how subjective this consistency really is. Bisquick batter? Buttermilk pancake batter? Or homemade oatmeal pancake batter (my personal favorite)? Each has a different consistency. One is thick and sticky; the other is thin and almost watery. I add more water, then sprinkle in some more powder, trying to find a happy medium.

The final product might be a bit thick, but it’s still thinner than woodworking glue, so I decide it’s good enough. Next, I imitate the video and dip a cheap bristle brush into the goo and begin spreading it—thinly but not too thinly—on all four parts of the keel and stem. It’s sticky, kind of sloppy, and takes longer than I expected. I keep worrying that the glue will start to dry before I am finished, so I pick up the pace and slap the brush with effort, back and forth.

Finally, all the parts are covered and I quickly flip the top half on top of the bottom half and slide the pieces together, trying to line up the edges along all fourteen feet. This, too, takes time.

The next step is to secure the pieces with screws, one every four inches along both the top and bottom edges—more than 100 screws altogether. Still worrying about the glue setting, I work like a madman. I first use a countersink to predrill the holes, moving down the board with reckless speed– zing-zing-zing, over and over again. Now I replace the countersink bit with a phillips head screw bit, grab the bag of stainless steel screws I ordered online several weeks earlier, and drive all the screws within a matter a minutes.

The stem and part of the keel showing screws.

The stem and part of the keel showing screws.

I step back, ready to admire my work and relax, but instead I immediately notice several thin gaps along the top edge of the keel where the boards did not quite come together despite the screws. They aren’t wide, but I know they shouldn’t be there. Gaps let water seep in between the laminations and then…Well, I didn’t know what would happen, exactly. But it couldn’t be good. So I quickly grab my complete supply of clamps and tighten them around the widest gaps. This helps, but I run out of clamps before I run out of gaps, so I simply have to give up.

By now it’s late afternoon and the temperature, which never really hit an honest 70 degrees, is starting to drop and despite my overwrought concerns about premature setting it’s clear that the glue won’t be fully dry for a long time. Confronting this new crisis, I quickly make a tent over the keel with sawhorses, boards and several large tarps. I position a space heater inside and turn it on. Within a few minutes, it feels nice a warm inside the makeshift shelter and I congratulate myself for being able to solve one problem.

Still, I left the garage feeling that I still did everything wrong. I should have carefully measured the glue instead of following the “pancake batter” formula. I should have taken more time painting the glue; perhaps the gaps came from an unnecessarily thick application. Finally, I probably should have been more patient and waited for a warmer day when I wouldn’t have the added worry about glue setting–or not setting, as turned out to be the case.

The next morning dawned bright and warm. I pulled away the tarps, turned off the heater and inspected my work. The glue is dry and firm, but the gaps remain. I wonder if my mistakes—whatever they might have been–will have repercussions for years to come. This thought depresses me for a while, but I spend the rest of the day giving myself a pep talk. “This is your first boat, Paul. You knew this was going to be a learning experience. And, besides, you’ll still be able to get on the water and head down the Chesapeake Bay.” This helps. I have now moved past anger and self-recrimination and have achieved acceptance.

I Cut the Bottom Panels and Realize Just How Small This Boat Really Is

April 10, 2009

At this point, I should assemble the keel parts with glue and screws. But I’m thwarted by cold weather. My garage is unheated and the plastic resin glue needs temperatures above 70 to dry properly. Lower temperatures may compromise the bond, which is a risk I am not willing to take. It’s early April and we have some pleasant days in the low and mid 60’s but, the thermometer refuses to go higher, and the long range forecast gives me no encouragement.

While waiting, I decide to skip ahead and cut the hull bottom. I make use of my newly acquired lofting skills to draw the long gentle curve of the boat’s port side (notice my easy use of a nautical term here). The circular saw cuts easily through the half-inch boards and the prescribed 17 degrees. To cut the starboard side (there, I did it again!), I simply lay the port pieces on top and trace. Four individual pieces are now lying on the garage floor, offering an unmistakably boat-like shape.

Bottom panels. Not likely to be mistaken as the Queen Mary.

Bottom panels. Not likely to be mistaken for the Queen Mary.

But how small it suddenly seems. In the abstract, a fourteen-foot boat seems large, especially when I pace out the dimensions on the living room floor. My, it reaches all the way from the couch to the stairs! But laying flat on the garage floor, it looks tiny. I squat near the stern, imagining that I am sitting in the cockpit. Not much legroom, I think. Next, I lie down near the bow and imagine a cabin around me. Is there really room for two? Technically, yes. Hilary and I comfortably slept in smaller tents, but  fantasies of paneled staterooms and well stocked galleys are now revealed to be as silly as they sound. This cabin is built for a sleeping bag and—maybe—a few small shelves. It will offer shelter, nothing more.

I know from experience that structures are always smaller in two dimensions. At construction sites, even MacMansions are unimpressive before walls are erected and rooms framed. So I imagine that the boat will also become larger, more imposing, and more commodious when the sides and cabin are added. But I know why it’s called a pocket cruiser.

In Which I Learn to Loft

April 6, 2009
Keel, stem and bottom parts.

Keel, stem and bottom parts.

I would like to emulate Captain Joshua Slocum, who followed the tradition of ancient boat builders when he set about rebuilding Spray before his solo journey around the world in 1899. “My ax felled a stout oak-tree near by for a keel,” he wrote in the opening pages of his narrative, “and Farmer Howard, for a small sum of money, hauled in this and enough timbers for the frame of the new vessel.” But I don’t have a woodlot, or a farmer Howard, so my ax fell to the lumberyard and, for a $35 delivery charge, several sixteen foot long 1 x 12 boards were delivered the next day. In my more humble craft, the keel is not cut from a single piece of timber, as is tradition. Instead, it is assembled from four pieces of number two pine, laminated together with screws and glue to create a single 1 ½ inch thick keel. The illustration from the Pocket Cruiser’s plans illustrates the general principal.

Still, the work seems challenging enough. Indeed, I am about to get my first true lesson in the arcane art of boat building.

In carpentry, most lines are straight and measurements are easy. Tape measures and T-squares assure complete accuracy. The only degree that matters is 90 degrees. In boat building, however, nothing—absolutely nothing—is straight or 90 degrees. Every line is curved or angled. As I examined the plans for the keel, I began to fully appreciate this fundamental difference. The boat’s spine is like a snake that just ate a mouse; it not only follows a gentle curve, but also grows wider in the middle before narrowing again at the stem. Somehow, I have to accurately draw all of these curving lines onto my pine boards.

There are two ways to do this. The easy way employed by some boat designers is to print full size plans. Builders simply trace the pattern onto the boards, like a seamstress tracing a pattern for a shirt or dress on fabric. The traditional (and harder way) employs a skill unique to boat builders called “lofting.” Unfortunately, my project takes that harder way. It sends shivers of anxiety down my spine.

Like so many arcane nautical terms, “lofting” has an aura of Old World complexity. I was familiar with the term and vaguely understood that it was a necessary first step in the boat building process. But I viewed lofting as an art, something handed down from master to apprentice, a secret held by those within the guild. I don’t know where I got this idea. Maybe it was my insecurity as a boat builder; maybe I was responding to an attitude among a certain class of boat builders who do, in fact, try to shroud their work with an aura of magic and mystery. In either case, it was an enormous psychological barrier.

But it only took a few minutes of examination to realize that lofting the Pocket Cruiser is, in fact, a simple and straightforward process. “Lofting” simply means copying a pattern onto the wood. It takes time, but it’s not hard and, I discovered, it’s possible to do with a fair amount of precision.

The first step is to draw a centerline down the length of the wood. Next, a simple grid is created by drawing a series of evenly spaced lines perpendicular to the centerline. These are called “station lines.” To copy the keel’s shape onto the board, I simply drive two nails in each station line, one above and one below the centerline. These measurements are called “offsets.” The Pocket Cruiser’s plans tell me exactly how far above and below the centerline each offset is located.

For example, the first station line requires a nail 4 inches above and 5 inches below the centerline. This means that, at that station line, the keel in 9 inches wide. At the second station line, I place a nail 3 inches above and 5 ½ inches below the station line. This simple process is repeated along 14 station lines, each spaced 12 inches apart.

Here’s the fun part. After all nails are driven, I take a long, thin piece of wood—a batten—and push it against the line of nails. Instantly, the keel’s gentle inward curve is revealed as the batten pushes against each protruding nail. I look for mistakes in my measurements, which would be indicated by a bump or divot, but it looks pretty good. So with help from Matthew, my youngest son, I take a pencil and trace both the top and bottom curves of the keel. It’s like connect the dots, and just as fun.

Following the same process, I loft the boat’s stem from a shorter piece of wood. This will project upward at the boat’s bow.

Nails mark offsets in the stem (bottom left) and the keel (top right)

Nails mark offsets in the stem (bottom left) and the keel (top right)

These two pieces produce half of the keel. To create the full 1 ½ inch thick keel, I need to cut another keel bottom and stem. Now that I have a template, I don’t need to repeat the lofting process. I simply lay the pieces on top of pine boards and trace the pattern. The only variation is that the second keel half is cut a bit shorter in the front and the stem is cut a bit longer. This allows boards to overlap, creating a surface for gluing and fastening all four pieces.

The final step is cutting. I set my circular saw blade a fraction of an inch deeper that the boards I am cutting. Next, I lay the boards on pieces of scrap 2 x4 and, working with great care, slowly follow the curving lines of the keel. It’s a new experience purposely cutting curves with a circular saw; as a carptenter, I’m usually trying to keep my cuts straight. But I discover that it’s possible to cut gentle arcs without binding the blade if I move slowly. In short order, I have all four parts of the keel laying on the garage floor.

In Which I Finally Cut Some Wood

April 6, 2009

I’m procrastinating, which is out of character. I’m a man of action; once I settle on a project, I move methodically and get it done. But a week passes and I find myself busy with small distractions. I clean the garage—which is helpful, but not essential. I review the plans and spend too much time solving small problems. I build some sawhorses; I debate the merits of different kinds of screws. I page through my first issue of Wooden Boat magazine.

This could go on forever—and for some aspiring boat builders, it does. I sometimes observe them chatting on the various boat building forums, forever debating the merits of one plan over another, or spending countless hours making models and computer drawings. These can be useful activities, but I strongly suspect that they can become delaying tactics. In an email exchange, Pete Stevenson offered this sage advice: “I read the boating magazines as little as possible, because if you do, you’ll never leave the dock (which is why, maybe, so few boats do).” Eventually, you have to make a commitment, spend some money, and get sawdust in your hair.

Intuitively, I know that why I’m putting off the work of building. Once I start, a project three decades in the making will no longer be a fantasy; it will be fact. The boat, which is so flawless in my mind’s eye, will take real shape and will, inevitably, bring some measure of frustration and disappointment. “How’s the boat coming,” Brian asks me when I stop by the lumberyard. “Great,” I say. “I haven’t started yet, so I haven’t made a single mistake.” That got a big laugh, but I knew, the second I said it, that I was speaking truth.

About a week later I am sitting in my office (the little one pictured, where I work as a writer) doing whatever I needed to do at the moment—probably writing an email or paying some bills. I’m bored and, looking for a brief distraction, I pull a boat building book of the shelf—I have a growing collection—and randomly open pages.  It’s a warm spring day and the sun is just breaking through the clouds. Suddenly, without premeditation, I decide that I’ve waited long enough. It’s time to start. Now.

I put down the book, push back my office chair, and walk to the large detached garage just a few paces away, open up the plans, grab a long piece of pine and adjust the angle on my circular saw. It’s a small first step—and out of sequence—but I decide to break the ice by ripping eight 16 foot long stringers from a piece of pine. These will be used later when I join the bottom panels to the hull. It’s not hard—just a lot of noise and a lot of sawdust. A half hour later, my ears ringing from the saw’s whine (I should use earplugs, I remind myself) I step back knowing that I have, finally, taken the first step, and that, one way or another, I will get it done.