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.

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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.