In Which I Try to Buy the Right Kind of Plywood and Admit to Real Guys that I Am Building a Boat

April 2, 2009
Incriminating evidence of eccentricity.

Incriminating evidence of eccentricity.

I take the Pocket Cruiser’s bill of materials to my local lumberyard—a friendly, old-fashioned kind of place where everybody knows everybody and it’s rude to leave without taking a few extra minutes to tell a few jokes at someone else’s expense.

The guys at the lumber desk know me well; I’m the eccentric homeowner who is always building something unexpected. My last project was a diminutive backyard office. Although it’s smaller than most prefabricated sheds—just six by eight feet–it has some high end detailing, including a tongue and grove pine ceiling, homemade casement windows and a homemade French door. It’s part French cottage, part tropical hideaway and I think it looks quite fetching. My buddies at the lumberyard were consulted at each step in the process, especially as I tried to figure out unconventional ways to make it look classy without spending a small fortune. That’s one advantage of living in a rural, working class community; nobody faults you for being a cheapskate.

On the other hand, few of my neighbors fully understand my lack of interest in traditional “guy” pass-times like televised sports, Harley Davidson’s, and NASCAR. I always feel a bit like an outsider and I try not to parade my eccentricities when I’m surrounded by men who believe that Budweiser is a good beer and that large pickup trucks are a worthwhile investment. Admitting to a group of guys that I am now planning to build a hoity-toity sailboat might permanently place me on another planet.

But as I unfold the plans at the lumber desk, they all gather around. Tom is intrigued. “Well, will you look at that? Hey, Jeff, come over here and take a look. Paul’s going to build a boat.”

Jeff leans over the plans, scowling, but politely interested.

“Looks nice,” he says. “Where you going to build it? In your basement?” Heh, heh.

But the bottom line is that they don’t sell exterior grade plywood—and they’re not sure where I can get it. This is a setback. I didn’t expect them to carry marine grade plywood (they don’t), but I assumed ACX plywood was standard lumberyard fare. Brian gets on the phone and calls around. Some places sell half inch plywood, which I need, but they don’t have thinner three-eighths or quarter inch boards, which I also need. Finally, he finds a distributor in New Jersey who has all three and can probably deliver it with enough advance notice. That’s slightly reassuring, but I go home determined to solve this puzzle before moving forward.

After the third call, I hit the jackpot. A distributor in the nearby city of Reading has everything I need and more. They can drop off my twelve sheets within a week. The price is reasonable and the delivery charge is minimal.

When the truck arrives I help the driver unload the sheets and place them in my garage. He’s a soft spoken but burly guy. “What you building, anyway?” he asks.

I pause half a second before answering. “A boat,” I admit.

“Oh, yeah? he says. “Hope it don’t sink.” Heh, heh.

When Good Boats Go Bad

April 1, 2009

According to a recent story in the New York Times, there is a sudden rash of boat-buyers regret. Expensive boats are being abandoned by owners who can’t afford to maintain them–left to rot in harbors and marshes all along the coast.

It’s a symptom of the deteriorating economy. “The owners cannot sell them, because the secondhand market is overwhelmed. They cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars a month mooring and maintaining them. And they do not have the thousands of dollars required to properly dispose of them.” They go unsold, even at bargin basement prices. Simply put, “they are expensive-to-maintain toys that have outlived their appeal.”

I worry that I might one day feel burdened by my boat. I don’t want my dream to become a ball and chain. But still: Unlike the large and expensive boats featured in the story, my boat is small, cheap and relatively easy to maintain. I don’t need to pay off a loan, carry insurance, or pay rent for storage. Suddenly, I’m feeling considerably smarter than the guy with the blue blazer and captain’s hat.

Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Gluepot

March 31, 2009

The battle over plywood looks like a minor skirmish compared to the great glue debate. “Of all the materials that go into a plywood boat,” acknowledged boat builder and author Dynamite Payson, “the choice of glue causes the most controversy.” And for understandable reasons. The glue must hold the boat together, even under extreme stress, and even when the boat is soaked to the bone. Obviously, I need something more than Elmer’s Glue-All. I don’t want to be in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay when my hull decides to separate into its constituent parts.

So I go back to the various woodworking forums and, once again, I am thrust into a vigorous debate. Predictably, it comes down to two sides: Dominating the debate are those who believe that “only the best will do.” For them, the only category of adhesive a responsible and farsighted boat builder would consider is marine epoxy. There are several brands, but all are sold in two parts (which is why they are often called “two part epoxy”) that are mixed together just before applying. They are expensive and messy, but they produce a very strong and completely waterproof bond.

The Stevenson boat, however, calls for something called plastic resin glue. It is sold as a powder, mixed with water, and applied with a paintbrush. It’s an old standby and cheaper than epoxy.

Without any preconceived opinions, I’m ready to follow the recommendations of the boat’s designers, but comments made by the online boat building community give me pause. Because plastic resin glue doesn’t fill gaps in wood, as epoxies do, water can seep in and weaken the bond, they say. Others point out that it is less waterproof than epoxies and is, in fact, no longer officially listed as a “waterproof” glue. It doesn’t hold up in boiling water tests, which mean that, if placed for an extended period of time in boiling water, the bond can fail.

Suddenly, I find myself second-guessing the boat’s designer. Why go with an inferior and possible risky product? The comments made by epoxy purists feed on my uncertainty.

Hunting for some clarity, I email the Stevenson’s and gently ask if they still feel confident in their glue recommendation. In a friendly reply the next day, Pete Stevenson confirms he faith in plastic resin glue, with a useful caveat: “We’ve never had problems with the plastic resin glue for small boats like ours that are dry-sailed (kept on a trailer)” In other words, the glue works for boats that don’t live in the water. Well, that’s fine, because that’s exactly what I am building—a boat that is dry sailed.

I feel even better when I read what Dynamite Payson had to say about glues in his book, Instant Boatbuilding with Dynamite Payson. “I was brought up on the old-fashioned Weldwood plastic resin, and I never had any glue failures,” he wrote. “The epoxy glues available today are better still, and I’m all for them, but how much strength do you need?”

Once I understand the practical strengths and limitations of the product, I feel reassured and confidently order a 4.5 pound can of glue from my local hardware store.

As a caveat, both Pete Stevenson and Dynamite Payson also endorse some of the latest “squeeze bottle” glues (as I call them), such as Gorilla Glue and Titebond III, which are both rated as waterproof. I briefly consider taking this more radical path, but decided to take the slightly more conservative route by using the more tried and true product.

In Which I Worry About Plywood

March 29, 2009

Most of my boat is built from plywood, so choosing the right kind was my first concern. Most of the plywood sold in lumberyards and home centers is not waterproof and not suitable for boats. That leaves boat builders with two choices. The first is exterior grade plywood, which, as the name implies, is intended for outside use. Basic, run of the mill “ACX” exterior plywood looks just like regular plywood found at any lumberyard or home center, but its redeeming virtue is that it is held together with waterproof glue. It’s more expensive than interior plywood, but not by much.

The second option is “marine grade” plywood. This kind of plywood, I learned, is fundamentally identical to exterior grade plywood, with one important difference: it is made without voids. Apparently, most plywood has small air pockets in the interior laminations. These gaps can allow water to seep in, weaken and eventually rot the hull no matter how conscientiously the boat builder paints or epoxies the exterior. Prices for the least expensive marine grade wood is roughly twice that of exterior plywood; the cost climbs rapidly for marine grade plywood made from exotic, imported woods, especially something called “okoume,” a tropical hardwood that seems to be much prized by the boat building community.

The concern about “voids” sounds worrisome (“Voids: The Hidden Killer”), but I resist spending more than necessary on a first time effort that is not meant to be an heirloom. I remind myself of my goal: build a boat that can gracefully sail down the Chesapeake Bay and maybe last for a few more years while I plot my next steps. Spending too much money on unnecessary quality is simply wasteful. More than that, it starts to take the fun out the whole enterprise. Where’s the sense of adventure when my small act of middle age rebellion starts to cost more than the family minivan?

But am I making a mistake? For insight, I start searching the many online boat building forums. I quickly learn that among professional boat builders and ambitious hobbyists,  ACX carries as much clout as Spam and Cheez Whiz. Again and again, I watched hapless novices ask, in some fashion, the following question:

Hey guys! I’m new to boat building, but can’t wait to get started. I want to build something with my son that won’t break the bank and will give us some fun on the local lake. I’m wondering if I can use exterior grade plywood. Marine grade plywood sounds nice, but, gosh, it sure is expensive! Let me know what you think.

Here’s a typical reply, posted on one forum by a builder with the moniker “Betelgeuserdude:”

“Quality of plywood has generally been falling into the abyss for decades. ACX will do the trick for a quick and dirty boat, upon which you will place little value or trust. The use of ACX is very poor economy, in my opinion. My labor is by far, the more expensive portion of the construction of any boat. If I have to burn the boat after a few years, or replace the poor initial materials with the materials which I should have used, my expensive labor is wasted.” (

Fair enough. But aren’t there times when less expensive materials make sense? When I was a novice woodworker, I developed my skills by cutting and shaping inexpensive pine boards, not oak or cherry. Only when I had confidence in my skills did I begin experimenting with more costly woods. So if I view this as an experiment, a way to test the water, as it were, isn’t ACX good enough? Betelgeuserdude offered grudging endorsement of this philosophy. “If all you wish to do is slap together a small boat, upon which you will endeavor to enjoy a few seasons of use, by all means use ACX.”

Not all boat builders have such a low opinion of exterior grade plywood. Among the “get it done and get sailing” crowd, there is a tolerance for mid-priced materials and shorter life spans. An article posted on Messing About captured the zeitgeist of this community. “I’m a cheapskate,” the author wrote, without sounding very apologetic, “and used what people commonly call “exterior” grade plywood from Home Depot. I’m not planning to leave my boat in the water, and if it lasts 5 – 10 years or so, that’s fine with me.” (

Five to ten years sounds fine to me, too–plenty of time to build my next (and better) boat.

By now my plans arrived and the Stevenson’s bill of materials helped settle the question. At the top of the page it called for twelve sheets of “ACX exterior grade plywood.” That tipped the balance, although I had—and still have—some reservations about my choice.

Finding the Boat of My Dreams, Part II

March 27, 2009
The Stevenson Pocket Cruiser

The Stevenson Pocket Cruiser

In the world of pocket cruisers, a designer named Phil Bolger figures prominently. Over his long and prolific career, he has designed all kinds of boats, including large and traditional craft. But he is probably best known for his small and aggressively unconventional plywood sailboats. Critics say they are ugly; with high flat sides and large, visually top-heavy cabins, they are the opposite of the curvy and aerodynamic boats over which most sailors swoon. His many supporters argue that his willingness to break the rules lets him design innovative and practical boats.

A typical Bolger design is a twenty-three foot cruiser he calls the “Birdwatcher,” which features a glass cabin extending from stem to stern—imagine a low greenhouse stretching over the entire deck. This lets the sailor and crew head out in all weather—including rain and cold—without inconvenience and enjoy panoramic views even when inside. The imagined owner is a nature lover who plies inland lakes and deltas. It’s an exciting concept, but visually strange. Bolger admits in his candid writing style that “the class has been slow to catch on, partly because of the principle is alien.” It doesn’t help that the boat’s auxiliary power is a set of oars, not the conventional outboard motor.

But the most widely built Bolger boat is called the Micro, and this is where I started to focus my interest. First designed for a retired clergyman for sailing on Tampa Bay it was, Bolger wrote, “one of my best efforts, and a fleet of the boat has been built from New Zealand to Finland.” Typical of his plywood designs, it has vertical sides and squat appearance. But it also has many attractive features. Its simple design means relatively simple construction and, while it is just over fifteen feet long, it has a relatively spacious cabin–nothing fancy, but certainly enough room for some supplies and a couple of sleeping bags. Out of the water, it looks like an overgrown bathtub, but in the water and under sail, it has a certain amount of style, even with its boxy hull and blunt bow.

Plans for the boat are sold through Common Sense Boats. I bookmarked the site and placed the Micro as the top contender.

Competing for my attention, however, were several boats designed by Peter and Mike Stevenson. The most widely built design is called the Weekender, which first appeared in a 1981 edition of Popular Science. Plans are now sold online by the Stevenson’s, along with several other boats similar to the Weekender, including a longer version called the Vacationer and a wider version called the Pocket Cruiser. Construction methods are much like the Micro—plywood and screws produce a watertight box with sails. But aesthetically, Stevenson designs are more traditional in appearance. Although it is about the same length as the Micro, the Weekender is low, narrow, sleek and obviously inspired, as the Stevenson’s write, by “the golden age of sail.” It has an elegant bowsprit and even makes use of a very salty looking wheel, instead of the usual tiller.

I thought the Weekender was prettier than the Micro—most people do. But I had my doubts. The Weekender sacrifices cabin space for looks and while the designers say it can sleep two, they acknowledge that space is tight. And for some reason I fretted about ballast; the Micro is ballasted, which helps it bounce back if knocked over. The Weekender is unballasted. Is flat bottom is relatively stable (according to the designer) but some saw the lack of lead weight in its keel to be a worrisome flaw.

My heart said Weekender, but by head said Micro. What to do? I decided to consult an expert.

Across the country I have an uncle, a retired mathematics professor and university administrator. He’s a talented builder and a skilled mechanic. He designed and built a beautiful house in the desert, working, as is his style, with infinite care and patience. He’s also a life-long sailor who for many years owned and lovingly maintained his own sailboat. His skills and knowledge are wide and deep; he can sail by the stars, rebuild an engine, and stay calm in a storm. He once sailed to Hawaii and made numerous trips down the California coast. He’s also the kindest man I know. I would believe whatever he told me.

I decide that I would let him make the decision. The Micro was the leading contender and, I felt, the more sensible choice. I wrote him a letter, outlining my plans and sent him a link to a Web site with photos and information about the Bolger design. I reminded him that I need a simple boat, but something that would safely take me around the Chesapeake Bay. Would the Micro satisfy my needs?

His response was not encouraging. “I have some reservations,” he began. He elaborated thusly:

“I don’t like the location of the sails. The main sail is too far forward. Stepping the mast, and raising, lowering and reefing the sail would not be convenient with the mast that far forward. Working on the bow is never pleasant, especially if the boat is rolling. And I see no mention of life lines. And the mizzen mast is too far back. It seems to me that tending that sail would be quite awkward because the sail is sticking out behind the boat.”

Ok, I couldn’t understand at least half of what he said, but it sounded serious. I went back to the Micro’s plans and, with a slightly more sophisticated eye, could see his concern about the sails. How do you get to the mast, anyway?

Worse still, my sensible uncle questioned my entire plan. As fair warning to all future boat builders, this is what he said:

“You say that you want to build a boat and if that is your primary goal, then I guess you’ll have to build a boat. But if your primary goal is sailing, then I do not recommend that you build a boat. I recommend that you buy a good used fiberglass boat that meets your needs. The lines of a home-made wood boat are never as sweet as those of a fiberglass boat either in appearance or for moving through the water.

“Building a boat is a big job. After the hull is built, you have to paint or polyurethane it. You have to install running and anchor lights and the other safety equipment required by law. You have to buy sails, which I noticed cost $1300.00 plus shipping for the Micro. You have to buy halyards and sheets as well as pulleys, cleats, and other hardware. You need to buy anchors and anchor rodes. You need to buy the ballast. You need to buy an outboard motor and fuel can. You need to buy some kind of a stove to prepare meals and you need to have fresh water on board. These are just the obvious things. I could probably come up with more if I thought about it. And then, after your boat is finished, you need to buy a trailer.”

These observations are not easily ignored. He was telling me that boat building is harder and more expensive than I thought. Worse still, he believed I would end up with an inferior craft.

I spend the next day or two rethinking everything. Why engage in the exercise of building the boat when, for a few thousand dollars (or less), I could be on the water long before I finished building the keel? That’s what normal sailors do. But even as I considered this more sensible path, I could almost feel my enthusiasm drain away. I didn’t want to take the path or least resistance or try to bond with a large piece of fiberglass. Ridiculous as it seemed, I still wanted to build a boat.

I wrote back to my uncle, thanking him for his sage advice. I then added, somewhat meekly: “I have to say that I was looking forward to the challenge of building a boat. I’ve had this romantic idea in my head for decades. It might be a midlife crisis, but I suddenly realized that I should get started or simply let go of the fantasy.

“Based on the many, many boat building forums on the web, I understand that even “simple” boats are time-consuming and relatively expensive to build. I am trying to pick the smallest and simplest boat possible (while keeping in mind the goal of sailing down part of the Chesapeake Bay). I am willing to think creatively about this adventure and I am open to suggestions for other kinds of boats.”

And then I sent him information about the Weekender. I didn’t expect a warm endorsement of the design, but it was all I had.

Within hours, he replied. “There is no doubt in my mind that you can build a boat. Your reasons for doing so make complete sense to me and you have a realistic understanding of what is involved. So I think you should go for it! The sooner the better.”

It got better: “I like the Weekender better than the Micro. It has a much more sensible rig. And $500 for sails versus $1300 is a significant consideration. If you think it is too small, you can go for the Vacationer or the Pocket Cruiser.” I greatly appreciated his gentle endorsement of my eccentricity—and a thumbs up on the boat I liked best. On impulse, I decided to build the Pocket Cruiser, which is a bit chubbier than the Weekender, but provides more cabin space. With that, I was ready to start building.

The next day I called Pete Stevenson and ordered the plans.

Finding the Boat Of My Dreams, Part I

March 25, 2009

Over the years, I spent a great deal of time visiting boat building Web sites and forums. Ignorant of just about everything related to the building process I didn’t get a lot out my wanderings. But I did, over time, gain some general insights about boat building culture and the various philosophies and factions that inevitably exist in this world.

I learned to divide boat builders into two camps. On one side are the purists. They are the folks who use traditional materials and traditional building techniques. They talk confidently about “lapstrake,” “steam bending,” and “carvel” construction. They are craftsmen who make boats that show up on the cover of Wooden Boat magazine. They do amazing things and I greatly admire their skills.

In the other side are a bunch of creative folks who also make some wonderful boats, but are willing to use modern materials and unconventional building techniques. Their conversations are sprinkled with references to “stitch and glue” construction and “instant” boat building. Some make boats inspired by traditional designs and along recognizable lines; others are willing to design outside the box and challenge our preconceived assumptions about boat designs. Many (although not all) of these builders like to use simple and inexpensive materials. Their owners clearly believe it is better to build something than nothing, even if the boat won’t last for a hundred years or lead to an invitation from the yachting club.

For a variety of reasons, I instinctively gravitated to the latter faction. I liked their philosophy of simplicity and economy. But at a more practical level I found their boats to be more novice-friendly. I didn’t need an engineering degree to read their plans, nor special equipment and experience to bend boards into complicated shapes. Instead, I only needed some plywood and my carpenter’s tools to build, if photos were honest representations of their work, some remarkably elegant craft.

But even within these parameters, the choices are nearly overwhelming. A quick search of “ plywood boat building plans,” for example, yields hundreds of possible designs, from sailing canoes to forty-foot cruisers, and from sloops to catamarans. For someone who did not yet know the difference between a catboat and a ketch, it was too much to absorb.

Knowing that I wanted a small cabin helped narrow my options considerably. I learned that some people cruise in open sailboats, erecting canvas shelters for the night, but my fantasy included an enclosed space for sleeping and protection from the weather. I also wanted a boat that could be trailered. This meant that I was looking for something under twenty-five or thirty feet in length; anything larger would be too heavy and unwieldy. The desire to build the boat as quickly and economically as possible reduced the size further. Ideally, I wanted a boat under twenty feet.

These requirements led me to a subcategory of sailing craft called pocket cruisers, which are also called microcruisers or pocket yachts. The general consensus is that a pocket cruiser is a small sailboat with a cabin, generally between fifteen and twenty feet. They can be quite seaworthy and some have sailed around the world, but most live close to shore and are used for short trips.

They sounded perfect, but more work remained. Which of the many pocket cruisers should I build?