The Final Countdown

August 6, 2010

After turning the boat back over about a month ago, I set to work on a long list of small tasks. Every day or two I would check off an item and move on to the next. No single task seemed especially newsworthy. But I now realize that a great deal has changed and that—dare I say it?—the boat might be finished in as little as a month if I can keep up the current pace.

But before I start the final sprint, here is a quick overview of the progress to date, presented in no particular order of importance:

Bilge Boards Completed

One of two bilgeboards

Edge view

There are two bilge boards, which act as off-center centerboards. I had never heard of bilge boards before starting this project, but they are a very nice feature of the boat since they sit on either side of the hull and don’t break up cabin space.

My instructions told me to build the boards from ¾ inch pine or fir, but I chose instead to laminate two 3/8 inch pieces of plywood, which is the method recommended by most other builders. The laminated plywood is considerably stronger than a single pine board and less inclined to crack or break when it hits something.

I’m not an engineer so I don’t fully understand all of the technical aspects of their shape and performance, but I knew it is necessary to round the front edge of the boards and gently feather the back ends. My instructions were hazy on the details, but I found detailed instructions for the proper curvature from Jim Michalak’s book, Boat Building for Beginners and Beyond. His similarly shaped leeboards look somewhat like airplane wings and I followed his measurements. I started with my hand plane and finished up with a belt sander.

I then added a cherry cap to hold it in place on the deck and did a quick and dirty ‘glassing job. In this photo, the board is freshly glassed but not yet sanded. To finish this project, I will varnish the cherry and paint the boards.

Rubrails Fabricated and Installed

Front view. The blue painters tape is protecting the hull while I varnish the rails.

And here's a side view.

The rubrails were the next item on my list. Both are made from humble pine. I suppose cherry or oak would be more durable, but I am in a rush and don’t want to spend the money on hardwood. The instructions told me to use one inch half-round molding, but I ripped the pieces from boards in my shop and rounded the edges with my router. Both were attached with epoxy and screws, which seemed logical at the time, but I later read postings from builders who suggested using bedding compound (such as caulking) so that the rails could be more easily removed and replaced when they wear out. Apparently rubrails are meant to be replaced and are considered “consumable”. But I just followed directions and glued them down tight. Who knows, maybe I’ll be the world’s best sailor and will never hit a dock or piling.

I was going to paint the rails, but decided to varnish them instead. To protect the pine, I coated the rails with epoxy and three layers of marine varnish (I’m using a brand called Last n Last). In this picture, you can see the blue painter’s tape I’m using to keep varnish off the hull.

Portholes Assembled

One of four portholes, ready for installation.

A side view, showing the plexiglass and brass bolt.

Around this time I also assembled the boat’s four portholes. Many people buy ready made portholes, but I decided to fabricate mine from ¼ inch plywood and plexiglass, according to the Stevenson’s instructions. The oval porthole frame is protected with two coats of epoxy and three coats of varnish. I don’t know how well it will hold up over time, but new frames can be easily made later on. The plexiglass was easily cut with a fine-toothed blade on my jigsaw. The whole assembly will be held in place with four small brass bolts and made watertight with silicone caulking.

Cockpit Seats and Floor Fiberglassed

The floor and seat bottoms are fiberglassed.

I have grown wary of epoxy. Rashes and persistent respiratory problems suggest that I am developing a strong allergic reaction to the harsh chemicals (symptoms listed on the West Systems Web site describe my conditions perfectly). Fortunately, I was able to finish glassing the hull and decks before my condition worsened. But I still had to work on the cockpit. Taking a minimalist approach I decided to only ‘glass the cockpit floor and the seat bottoms, which are the most exposed and wettest parts of the cockpit. This means I am not ‘glassing the seatbacks or cabin bulkhead; they will simply be painted.

I also view this as an experiment. I repeatedly hear that exterior grade plywood will check if not fiberglassed. But I also hear about exterior grade plywood boats that have been sailing for years with nothing more than paint for protection. So I want to know how quickly and how badly plywood will check. If the answers are “not soon” and “not much” then I will take an even more casual attitude toward fiberglassing in future projects.

Sliding Hatch and Handrails Installed

I built the hatch cover nearly six months ago as a winter project, but it was time to get it installed. I added some edging around the opening in the cabin roof so that the hatch can slide back and forth like a train on a track. The edging, I assume, will also keep out water and rain.

The handrails double as a guide for the sliding hatch. I shaped them with a router and secured them to th roof with bolts.

A front view of the handrail and hatch, showing the sliding rails.

The handrails were especially fun to finish. I rough cut both from cherry some months ago, but I still needed to round the edges with a router. I also added quarter round molding (also made from my cherry) to hold the sliding hatch in place. Finally, I drilled three ¼inch holes down the top of each rail and inserted four inch stainless steel bolts, which go through the cabin roof and hold the rails in place. In this picture, the rails are temporarily bolted in place, but won’t be securely set until the cabin and sliding hatch are painted.

There are still many unchecked items on my to do list. I need to build the mast (probably within a week or two), make the sails, finish painting and…well, you get the idea. When it’s time to sail, you’ll be the first to know.

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Epoxy Reconsidered

July 17, 2010

My last post was, I admit, a bit negative and, frankly, not really in character. Any essay titled “Why I Hate Boatbuilding” requires further explanation.

This is sawdust, not epoxy, but you get the idea. I'm smiling here, but I wasn't so happy after sanding the epoxy.

You may recall that I was reacting to a day spent sanding (or “fairing” to use the appropriate terminology) the epoxy-coated hull. Grinding away the uneven surface with a belt sander exposed me to a nasty cloud of epoxy dust, which is both unpleasant and unhealthy. I kept reassuring myself that I was taking extra precaution by using a respirator, but I still developed a persistent cough that lasted for several days.

I was ready to swear off epoxy and fiberglass forever and even now I am aggressively investigating building techniques that limit the use of epoxy. Who knows, my next boat might be a traditionally planked cruiser. More likely, it will simply be another plywood boat, but one that is held together with non-toxic glue, such as Titebond III, and no more fiberglass than necessary to cover the seams.

But I still need to finish this boat, which means that I need to make at least temporary peace with epoxy. Happily, I discovered several strategies that significantly lessen the amount of dust in the air.

First, and most obviously, I needed to get the dust out of the garage. I moved the boat closer to the double garage doors and positioned a fan behind the boat so that, in theory, dust would blow out and disappear. This helped, at least psychologically, as did my decision to keep the respirator on even after I finished sanding. I didn’t want to breathe in particles that lingered in the air.

But what most helped were changes in how I applied epoxy and how I sanded it down. New to the process of fiberglassing, I applied thick and uneven coats to the underside, which simply ended up as dust when I ground it down with the belt sander. But as my skills improved, I learned to apply thin, even coats that require less sanding. That was a major step forward.

Finally, and most recently, I discovered the advantages of wet sanding. This is not really part of my repertoire as a woodworker (you don’t wet sand a cherry table, for example), but a passing reference to this technique by an online correspondent made me curious and I immediately went to the garage, dipped some 80 grit sandpaper in water and discovered that it’s possible to fair the hull without making any dust at all. The disadvantage is that I need to sand by hand (for god’s sake, don’t dunk your belt sander in a bucket), but that’s small price to pay for peace of mind and, besides, I don’t like belt sanders anyway.

So the end of the story is that I no longer worry so much about epoxy and I think I can finish the project without having a visit by the EPA. But I still feel that epoxy and fiberglass—which are treated as necessary and magical ingredients in boat building—deserve to be treated with caution and used sparingly. Time and time again, I see builders deride old or nontoxic techniques for assembling and waterproofing boats. “Don’t use [fill in the blank]; epoxy is better!” is the common refrain. And in some ways, they are right. It’s the strongest, most waterproof adhesive available, as far as I know. But there are always other factors worth considering when choosing glues and coverings—ranging from cost (epoxy is more expensive than other kinds of glues) to environmental considerations (why do I recycle plastic bags in the house, but build a plastic-covered boat in the garage?) to justifiable worries about health (people can develop allergic reactions to uncured epoxy and dust is bad for the lungs).

And, finally, there are aesthetic considerations. At the very least, it’s an unpleasant substance to work with—a material to be tolerated more than enjoyed as it fills the air with acrid fumes and sticks to the skin with irritating tenacity. And anything that takes joy away from a hobby deserves scrutiny.


Finally Fiberglassing

July 4, 2010

The day I dreaded for more than a year arrived earlier this week. After two weeks of sanding, I was finally ready to fiberglass.

Six ounce cloth, pinned into place. The fabic has a nice drape and wrinkles are not a problem.

A close-up of the fabric showing how it meets the edge of the keel.

Applying the first coat.

Now you see it, now you don't. The fabric on the left side turned transparent after the first coat of epoxy.

You might recall that I began preparing for this day nearly six months ago when I practiced fiberglassing the hatch cover and rudder. I quickly learned that fiberglassing, despite its reputation as an alchemist’s art, is relatively straightforward. It is simply the process of adhering a white cloth-like material to plywood with several coats marine epoxy. I am told that this step protects wood with a waterproof membrane, adds some strength, and prevents unsightly checking of douglas fir plywood.

Before beginning work on the hull, I reviewed a wonderfully helpful two minute instructional video produced by West Systems, one of the major epoxy manufacturers. The online video reminded me to place the fiberglass cloth over the bare wood, pour some unthickened epoxy in the center, the gently spread the syrup-like substance over the surface with a rubber paddle, pushing the epoxy toward the edges. The cloth turns nearly transparent as epoxy fills the weave.

In nearly every case, additional coats are recommended to fully fill the weave and leave a smooth surface. It’s possible to wait for the first coat to harden, and then apply a second coat after sanding. That was my strategy with the hatch cover. But the video told me that I could apply the second and third coats after each preceding coat turned about as tacky as masking tape. This produces a stronger bond and eliminates the need for sanding—a real advantage, in my opinion. I hate sanding epoxy. So I set aside the entire day and decided that, come sundown, I would have a fully ‘glassed boat bottom.

Boat builders are an ornery bunch and they can argue over anything and there is an ongoing battle over best weight of fiberglass. It’s possible to buy cloth as thin as fine silk (two or three oz by weight) or as thick as canvas (eight or ten oz). The thinner cloth is lighter and needs less epoxy. However, the heavier fiberglass produces a stronger, more rugged hull. So priorities must be established. Some of us want to build butterflies—spare and elemental; others want tanks—impenetrable and protecting. I can’t help but believe that deeper values and worldviews are being expressed by our choice of cloth.

My choice? In keeping with my personality, I looked for the middle ground and followed the advice of people I know and trust. Chuck Leinweber, editor of Duckworks magazine and merchant of economical boat building supplies, advised me in a series of emails to go as light as possible but add some strength where it counts. His recommendation was six ounce cloth for the bottom, and four ounce cloth for the sides, deck and cockpit. I dutifully complied.
On the appointed day, I began by unrolling fourteen feet of the six ounce fiberglass, laying it along the port side of the boat’s bottom and holding it in place with pushpins spaced every two or three feet. I then trimmed the fabric along the outside edge of the boat, letting it drape over the sides by a couple of inches. I mixed a double batch of epoxy (four squirts of the epoxy, two squirts of hardener) and began the methodical process of adhering the fabric, taking long, firm sweeps across the fabric with my paddle. The goal is to saturate the cloth and avoid bubbles. It sounds tricky, but it’s actually easy work.

When the first coat is finished—five batches in all—I repeated the process on the starboard side. An hour later, I returned to the port side and applied the second coat. This took even less less time and used about half the amount of epoxy. Once again I walked around the boat and did the same thing to the starboard half. Back and forth I went until, by mid afternoon, I had three full coats on both sides.

One part that is not fiberglassed is the boat’s keel. If there is any consensus within the Stevenson boat building community, it is this: Don’t fiberglass the keel, no matter how much you may want to! New builders like the idea of encasing the softwood keel. It makes sense to protect a part of the boat that takes the most abrasion. But experienced builders insist that this actually promotes rot. Water will seep in eventually, get trapped by the fiberglass and do its dirty work. I did paint a thin coat of epoxy over the wood (I couldn’t help myself), but I forced myself to follow the advice of fellow builders and fiberglassed up to, but not over, the keel board.

The only challenge to fiberglassing, as far as I can tell, is learning to apply even coats and avoid drips. In this regard, my skills are poor but improving. The trick, I am learning, is to apply thin coasts. It’s temping to pour on the epoxy in order to get a quick buildup, but this approach almost guarantees a lumpy, uneven finish. The port side was the most uneven; the starboard side was a little better, reflecting the slow evolution of my skills.

I had better luck with the hull sides, which I glassed a couple of days later. For these vertical sides, I couldn’t pour the epoxy over the fabric, so I decided to use a small paint roller. I found that the foam roller easily saturated the cloth, but prevented unnecessary buildup. Each coat went on quickly and, by the end of the day, I felt like an old pro. I hung around for and extra half hour, smoothing out a few drips and sags, but the end result was a surprisingly even finish.

So the step I most feared turned out to be not so bad after all.


Easy Over

June 21, 2010

I’m ahead of schedule and feeling motivated. After spending several more hours filling and sanding the cockpit and decks, I was ready to turn the boat over by midweek. But how do you flip a 500 pound plywood box without damaging or (gulp) destroying fifteen months of work? I could easily imagine scenarios leading to crashes and disaster.

Frankly, the boat looks boring upside down.

This is a little more interesting. Plus, you can see how the cabin is off the ground.

My plan was simple: lift the boat onto its side, then gently ease it over so that it was resting bottom up. But I didn’t want to lose control of the boat at a critical moment and I didn’t want the cabin roof and cockpit coaming to bear too much weight (and possibly crack) while being turned.

The key to maintaining control of the boat was to recruit as many willing volunteers as I could find, so I dragged my wife and three children to the garage promising that the work would “only take a minute” and that it would “even be fun.” Meanwhile, my insurance policy against cracking and breaking was to cover the garage floor with lots of padding. I had heard that some builders roll their boats onto tires, so I cut down an unused tire swing from our yard and rolled it into the garage. I also dragged over a bale of peat moss and about five rolled up sleeping bags.

Lifting was easy. The whole family pitched in, but it could have been accomplished by two people, or even one fit and determined builder. In a moment the boat was resting on its side—slightly tilted, of course, but in no immediate danger of falling. While my wife and the younger kids made sure it didn’t fall back down, my oldest son and I positioned ourselves on the opposite side of the boat and nudged it toward us. We had no difficulty controlling its decent and it gently rolled onto our carefully positioned cushions.

The job was accomplished and the boat was safe.

Our final step was to lift the boat off the ground so that it wouldn’t have to rest on the cabin roof. For this, I placed two paint cans at each corner of the transom and rested the bow on a short length of 2×4 set between two larger cans. Again, lifting the boat onto these supports was easily accomplished by the family. The boat now sits off the ground and neither the cabin nor coamings are pinched.

I am now looking at parts of the boat I haven’t seen for nearly a year. It brings back memories and emotions from the first days of building. Seeing the keel–the first thing I assembled–reminds me how anxious I was about the project during the first weeks of building and how determined I was to not make mistakes. I now see how meticulously I positioned each screw and how hard I worked to fit the laminated keel pieces together without any gaps. And I recall how stressed and frustrated I felt when I found small gaps in the lamination despite my best efforts. At the time, I had little understanding in my materials and no faith that my boat would float. Make one small mistake, I believed, and the whole thing would dissolve on contact with water.

Now, of course, I take a far more philosophical view of my work. I still don’t know how well my boat will sail or how well it will hold up after a season or two. But I’ve learned a great deal and overcome many barriers, so I no longer fret about small mistakes. That’s what epoxy’s for! I say.

I have already started filling and sanding the underside and, if I can open up a free day, I should be ready to begin fiberglassing within a week. More humbling lessons await as I tackle the next and—quite possible—final big hurdle.


First Lessons In Fiberglassing

April 19, 2010

From the moment I resolved to build a plywood sailboat, I dreaded the day when I would need to fiberglass the hull. I knew nothing—absolutely nothing–about the process, but I assumed that it would be hard and stressful. I would have paid money to avoid the whole problem.

The rudder, partially fiberglassed.

I’m not the only one. Over the past year, I have read many pleas on various boat building forums from guys who are eager to build a boat, but hesitate when they learn that fiberglassing is required. Is it really necessary? They ask. Can’t I just skip this step?

Eavesdropping on the conversations of experienced builders didn’t help much. They talked knowingly about “plywood saturation,” “faring compound,” and the superiority of epoxy resin over polyester, among a dozen obscure steps and specialized products. For a while I doubted my ability to ever crack the code.

But slowly, as I followed online discussions, read the most popular books about “instant” boat building, and hunted down instructional videos, the clouds slowly parted. I began to understand both the how’s and why’s of fiberglassing. And here’s what I learned in a nutshell: Fiberglassing is nothing more than covering the boat with a layer of fiberglass cloth and several coats of epoxy—the same two part epoxy I use to assemble the boat. This process encapsulates the wood, providing another layer of protection.

Well, that’s not so hard, I think. But I also learn from my readings that the process of applying epoxy over the cloth is fraught with many small hazards. The epoxy needs to saturate the cloth, for example, but not be applied too thickly and it’s important to work fast. If the builder works too slowly or tries to cover too much territory at one time the epoxy can begin to harden before it is evenly spread over the cloth. My anxieties returned when I read message from a guy who was trying to give away a partially completed boat after he botched (or felt that he botched) a fiberglassing job.

It should be noted that not all builders fiberglass the entire hull. Dynamite Payson’s popular books on “instant” boatbuilding tell builders to simply “tape” the seams, which means that narrow fiberglass tape is epoxied over the edges alone. The same approach is followed by designer Jim Michalak. Both men believe it makes sense to fiberglass a boat’s bottom for extra protection, but this is offered as an optional step in most cases. The rest of the boat is simply protected by paint.

This minimalist approach is appealing and, were I building a Payson or Michalak boat, I would unhesitantly follow their instructions. However, it is also widely agreed that exterior grade plywood will almost certainly start to check if not fiberglassed. Michalak uses exterior grade for all his boats, so I don’t know how he reconciles this problem; maybe “checking” is not a horrible thing. But many other builders argue that unless expensive marine-grade hardwood is used a plywood boat simply must be encapsulated with fabric and several layers of epoxy to prevent checking and forestall rot.

The Stevenson’s usually follow the most expedient route, but not this time. For whatever reason, the Pocket Cruiser’s instructions call for glassing the whole exterior of the boat with one layer of fiberglass and two coats of epoxy. The accompanying video shows designer Pete Stevenson covering the underside of the boat, then flipping it over and doing the topside and cockpit. It looks like he did the whole thing in a single day. But my hull wasn’t ready for the full treatment and, besides, it was still winter and the garage was too cold for epoxy, which prefers temperatures above 50 degrees to cure.

But it occurred to me that I could pass the time and gain some skills by fiberglassing my recently completed rudder and hatch cover. But pieces could be easily replaced if I made a mistake. Also, I could complete the work in my cellar, which was considerably warmer than the garage.

I reread all I could find about the actual process of fiberglassing and learned that there are several different ways to get the job done. Glen-L, a well established company that sells boat plans and boat building supplies, tells builders to first cover the wood with a coat of epoxy. After it dries, the fiberglass is laid on top and coated with a second layer of epoxy. On top of that are added two more layers. Their instructions advise builders to apply each coat as thinly as possible and sand between coats.

In contrast, Jim Michalak, in his book, Boatbuilding For Beginners (and Beyond), recommends spreading a thick coat of epoxy, then laying the fiberglass over top before the it dries. Once the initial layer hardens, a second thick coat goes on top. After sanding the rough spots, you’re all done.

But I decide to follow the recommendations of West System, a well respected epoxy manufacturer. Their strategy, described in a short online video, is to first lay the fabric on the bare wood and then pour a small amount of epoxy on top, which is then spread around with a flexible rubber spatula. Once dried, two or more coats are added, with light sanding between each step.

I’m sure experienced builders have strong opinions about each strategy, but I decided that West System’s approach made sense. It is also close to what the Stevenson’s recommend in their instructions. Plus, I was inclined to trust the recommendations of an epoxy manufacturer and I appreciated their clear presentation.

So taking a deep breathe I cut off a strip of fabric with my wife’s fabric scissors, making sure that was large enough to drape over the rudder’s edges. The three-ounce fabric looked a bit like fine cheesecloth and cut as easily as thin cotton fabric. I laid the cloth over the board, mixed a batch of epoxy and poured a small amount in the middle. With a rubber-like paddle (sold for just such a purpose), I started spreading the epoxy around and pushing it into the weaving. As I worked, the white fabric turned pale and then became nearly transparent, a sign that it was fully saturated. The work was easy and the fabric stayed in place. So far so good.

My trouble began at the edges. Using a small bristle brush I was able to stick the fabric to the sides, but the epoxy kept dripping and the corners didn’t want to stay down. I could tell that the work was flawed, but the full extent of my inexperience wasn’t revealed until the next day when I examined a rudder trimmed with hardened drips and multiple air pockets. It looked like a mess. I cut away excess fabric with my pocket knife, which helped tidy it up, and then smoothed everything down with my belt sander. Such a wonderful tool; it can remove a multitude of sins.

I flipped the rudder over and repeated the process, trying hard to keep everything drip-free. Again, the top was easy and the results flawless, but I had the same problems on sides. I wondered if bumpy and lumpy edges are to be expected. Or maybe it’s the cold weather, I mused. Since it takes hours for the epoxy to kick, it has more time to run. Once again, I felt like I did when I first started building the boat—plowing ahead but never certain that I was doing it right.

My confidence was somewhat restored as I applied additional coats. After the second layer, the fiberglass was almost completely invisible and the rudder took on a deep, glossy sheen. By the third coat, it looked nearly impregnable. I decided that while my work wasn’t perfect, it was certainly adequate.

I had just enough time to finish the hatch before the weather turned cold, and I’m glad I did. I was able sit through the winter storms knowing that, when spring finally arrived, I would be able to pick up where I left off and have one less thing to worry about.


Spring Thaw

April 17, 2010

My latest column in Duckworks, the online boatbuilding magazine, discusses my limited progress over the winter but promises a finished boat by mid summer. I also talk about my first experiments with fiberglassing. Here’s how it begins:

Now, where was I?

The (mostly) completed rudder

Two months ago I walked out of my garage, midway through the construction of the rudder and cockpit seating for my Stevenson Pocket Cruiser. I thought I would be away for a few days while a midwinter cold snap passed through. But three snow storms, four feet of snow, and endless days of grey skies ransacked my plans. I huddled in my house like a refugee.

I tried to be productive. I finally tackled a long-planned bathroom renovation and repainted the kitchen walls. But I only visited the garage when I needed to grab a tool. I offered silent apologies to my boat, which looked abandoned and forlorn in the cold air and dim florescent light.

These long breaks can be dangerous for amateur boat builders. Momentum is lost and, as attention shifts elsewhere, the sense of urgency and excitement can dissipate. Once or twice, I looked at my boat with detachment and wondered why I started building it in the first place. Was it a temporary midlife madness? And if so, what do I do now? Not for the first time, I wondered how I could get rid of an uncompleted hull.

But as February passed, the icy path to the garage melted, temperatures inched up a few degrees and the outside world looked less forbidding. Skunk cabbage—a reliable precursor of spring—poked green tips through the shallow waters of a nearby marsh and, like other warm blooded creatures, I started stirring from my den. My thoughts turned to the boat.

With a warm coat, gloves, and hat, I went back in the garage, ready to pick up where I left off, but after so many weeks of inactivity, I felt like I was staring at someone else’s project. I found the rudder in several parts, epoxied but not assembled. I know I had purchased the bolts needed to put it together, but where were they now? Before the interruption, I was also preparing to cut the cockpit seat backs—I could see some rough lines scrawled on a sheet of plywood–but they now looked as mysterious as ancient hieroglyphics. What, exactly, did I have in mind?

It all looked so daunting, but I forced myself to start work. I found the missing bolts (they were still in the bag from the hardware store) and attached the rudder blade to the stock. I had already rough-cut the tiller, so all I needed to do was sand it smooth, drill two holes and bolt it into the rudder. Two hours later, the whole assembly was finished and I slid it into place against the boat’s transom. With the addition of this simple but unmistakably “boaty” mechanism, my wooden box is now looking more like a real sailboat. More importantly, I have something to do while sitting in the cockpit; I can swing the tiller back and forth while squinting into the imaginary horizon.

You can read the rest of the column on Duckworks.