Cleaning up after the party

January 7, 2011

Do you know how you feel after eating a large meal when the sight of food—the very thought of food—becomes repellant?

That’s how I started feeling about boat building in November.

Let’s review 2010. Between March and October I spent nearly every free minute working on my Pocket Cruiser. In the process, I ignored important household repairs, watched weeds take over my garden, and—as the crowning touch–developed a serious and worrisome allergic reaction to marine epoxy. I coughed for weeks like a smoker with emphysema. Half of my wardrobe was spattered with glue or paint.

When autumn arrived and I realized that my boat would not be ready to launch before cold weather hit, I suddenly shifted tactics and in less than a month built a plywood canoe, just so that I could say that I had finished something. Working against the clock, I painted the hull in near freezing temperatures and raced to a nearby lake with a couple of crudely built paddles, hours ahead of a cold snap. I paddled around the lake a maniac, barely noticing how spritely the canoe handled.

The canoe hit the water in late October. It was a beautiful day and my twins had a great time trying not to capsize. It moved gracefully and didn't have a single leak, but I was so frazzled that I hardly paused to celebrate.

I am at last posting some pictures of the canoe on its launch day. The day was beautiful and the kids had a good time, but I was exhausted and the event felt like just another item to check off my to do list. I didn’t appreciate the beauty of the lake at the time.

I had worked all summer like a man possessed, and not in a good way. The boat had become more than a hobby. It was no longer my mid-life therapy. And amid the frustrations and self imposed deadlines my enthusiasm waned and my original motivations seemed, at best, distant and unclear. Why did I every think it would be fun to sail down the Chesapeake? Why did I think it was important to fulfill this particular fantasy? Standing in a garage that looked like a woodworker’s war zone—wood scraps, debris, and disorganized boxes filled every corner—I really wanted it all to just go away. I closed the door on the garage and ignored my blog.

And so December passed and the new year arrived.

A Christmas snowstorm provided cover for my ennui. I couldn’t work on the boat even if I wanted to. But a few days ago temperatures climbed into the high 40’s. I wandered outside to refill the bird feeders and started sweeping out our basement. That made me feel better about life, so the next day, I decided to confront some of the chaos in the garage. Not all of it; just one corner. A few hours later I had cleared out piles of old lumber and other junk, sorting it all into neat “donate” and “throw away” piles.

At first I ignored the boat. But as I swept the floor and created new vistas of open space, I finally paused to inspect the Pocket Cruiser. It still seemed dusty and forlorn; an unfinished homemade boat in a dirty garage can, under gloomy florescent lights on a grey winter day, look too much like a crudely assembled plywood box. But as my cleaning progressed, my mood improved, especially after the clouds parted and, for a few minutes, rays of sunlight streamed through the open doorway. For the first time in months, I walked around the boat and thought about what it would take to finish by spring. A bit of my old enthusiasm returned.

So maybe I’ll finish the boat after all and maybe I’ll get around to buying a trailer and—who knows—I might even fulfill my original plan and sail down the Chesapeake. I’m hopeful. But in the meantime, I still need to finish cleaning the garage.

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.

Putting Away the Hammer; Picking Up the Sander

June 14, 2010

Suddenly—unexpectedly—I finished the construction phase of my boat. I keep flipping through the directions, assuming that there must be another board to cut and glue but, no, it’s all done. I can put away the drill and circular saw.

Portholes cut.

Sanding and filling the cockpit. It's not fun--but it's not hard.

The official last step was to cut out the oval portholes. I don’t need to install the windows at this point, but when that time comes I will fabricate my own from some leftover Plexiglas gathering dust in my woodshop, which saves some money and feels pleasantly frugal. Other builders, I notice, opt for more expensive ready-made portholes, but these can cost $100 or more–$400 in all for a set. There is also a growing trend to use inexpensive “inspection hatches,” which are more typically used to provide access to watertight hatches. But it’s possible to also use them for portholes, even if they don’t look quite as fancy. They also cost much less—about $10 to $15 per window.

There will be more cutting later. Aside from the portholes, I still need to assemble the mast and there are two or three small decorative details that will be added at the last minute. But I don’t need to worry about any of that right now. For the moment, I am fully occupied by the long-dreaded task of filling holes with epoxy and sanding everything smooth.

It’s time consuming and, frankly, unpleasant work. The weather turned hot and muggy last week and I feel like my whole body is covered in a fuzz of sawdust after even a few minutes with the belt sander. For health reasons, I wear a respirator when sanding the epoxied surface, which is awkward and uncomfortable. It really is not possible to wax poetic about the ancient art of boat building after a half hour of this sort of work.

On the other hand, it’s not hard work. I just have to mix up a batch of epoxy, thicken it with wood flour, dab a bit in each screw hole, and smear a bit more along the seams and joints. I then smooth it down with a rubber paddle; it’s just like spreading joint compound on drywall. For the inside seams, I smooth a bead of epoxy with a popsicle stick or, in a pinch, my gloved fingers.

As my knowledge of epoxy grows, the quality and speed of my work improves. One important discovery was that I should use “slow” hardener in warm weather. Two part epoxies can be mixed with “fast,” “medium” or “slow” hardeners, which (obviously enough) regulates the speed of the hardening process. When I bought my first gallon of epoxy last year, I followed the recommendation of an online correspondent who said that “medium” hardener was a good all round choice. Which it is—as long as the temperature stays below, oh, about 75 degrees. In warmer weather, it wants to “kick” (begin the hardening process) almost immediately, which meant that I had to work at full speed every time I mixed up a batch. If I waited too long, the epoxy would generate so much heat that it would melt the plastic cups I use to mix the adhesive and quickly turn into a rock-hard mass.

In contrast, “slow” hardener allows me to work at my leisure and I’m able to fill holes with more care and in a more thoughtful way. If you are building a boat in the summer, the right hardener makes all the difference.

Everyone hates sanding and there are many jokes about the drudgery of the work. I think one builder even named his craft “50 Grit,” reflecting his feeling that all he did was sand. But I find that the work goes quickly. Since the wood will be covered by fiberglass, I don’t need to sand the wood a mirror-smooth surface, which means that I only need to grind down the rough spots. While epoxy is hard, it quickly yields to a sander and I can cover a great deal of territory quickly. By the end of the weekend, I had filled and sanded the entire cockpit, which is probably the hardest part to finish. I was even able to move on to the cabin roof.

I learned not to make predictions, but at this rate, I should be ready to turn the boat over (which is another source of anxiety) within a week so that I can sand the underside and, from there, begin the fiberglassing process.

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.

Autumn Resolutions

October 23, 2009

Autumn came suddenly; it was warm one day, cold the next. Leaves changed color overnight. I was caught by surprise and it left me feeling cheated. I had hoped to get so much more done this summer—in all aspects of my life, but especially with the boat. At the very least, I had hoped to finish the cabin, install the seating, and possibly even fiberglass the hull. From there I hoped to work in a smaller but warmer woodshop on fiddly bits like the rudder and mast.

Raising the roof: The cabin roof beams are arched to follow the curve of the cabin bulkhead and attach to the underside of pine panels. After taking this photo, I decided to add strenght to the rafters by doubling their thickness.

Raising the roof: The cabin roof beams are arched to follow the curve of the cabin bulkhead and attach to the underside of pine panels. After taking this photo, I decided to add strenght to the rafters by doubling their thickness.

Completed cabin.

Completed cabin.

Cozy or cramped? Only time will tell.

Cozy or cramped? Only time will tell.

Instead, I stood shivering in a large and unheated garage looking at a very forlorn looking hull wondering if I would ever get the boat in the water.

From spring to midsummer I was pleased with my progress and even nurtured the secret hope that I could be finished by fall. I held on to that fantasy into August, even when my initial enthusiasm faded and I was distracted by other household projects. Only with the arrival of morning frost did I admit the truth: Like so many other amateur boat builders, I’ll need a year (or more?) to get the job done.

My first reaction was to admit defeat and close the garage door and announce that the boat building season was over. I don’t like working in cold weather; it’s not fun running a sander when my nose is running and my hands are numb. Lack of comfort leads to sloppy work and shortcuts. Also, plastic resin glue, my glue of choice, requires temperatures above 70 degrees to dry properly.

But after feeling sorry for myself for a week or two, I changed tactics. I know from experience that I can lose interest in projects when they are neglected for too long. I didn’t want to open the garage doors in April and confront a dusty hull that I no longer wanted to finish. So I decided to view off-season boat building as a challenge and try to get as much done as possible. I was going to march on, even if I my progress was minimal.

My first strategy was to switch adhesives. While plastic resin glue needs warm weather, epoxy tolerates much lower temperatures. It takes longer to harden as the thermometer drops, but that’s more of a benefit than a disadvantage; I can work at a more leisurely pace knowing that the mixed adhesive won’t “kick” (to use some jargon) for an hour or more. And as for the problem of comfort: Well, nobody says I need to work in subzero temperatures. I admitted to myself that with warm clothes, it’s possible to work comfortably and carefully on the many winter days that rise to the 40’s and 50’s.

To prove my resolve, I took advantage of a recent warm day to attach the cabin roof, which I had cut several weeks ago but left lying on the garage floor. It now arches elegantly over the curved cabin roof beams, which I had completed in the even more distant past—early September, I think. It was my last major accomplishment and required some precision and experimentation. The first set of rafters were not sufficiently arched and needed to be redrawn and recut.

The result is a boat that finally has something close to its final shape—a finished hull and a nearly complete cabin that allows me to crawl inside and, for the first time, experience my long-held fantasy curling up in the cocoon-like space of my waterborne retreat. The cockpit still looks bare without the seats, but once they are assembled, the “plywood” phase of my project will at last be finished. Maybe I’m not such a slacker, after all.

Interestingly, the boat seems to be getting smaller, not larger, as I continue work. I assumed that it would appear more spacious as it gained volume, but the opposite appears to be happening. Instead, the completed cabin makes me realize just how small the interior space really is. I can sit up (just barely) and there is plenty of room to lie down. But it’s more like a low-slung tent than true living space. I can’t yet decide how I feel about this revelation, but I understand why some people opt for open hulled sailboats, or, alternately, look for boats that are unconventionally designed but offer much larger cabin space (such as Phil Bolger’s birdwatcher design). The simple truth is that it’s hard to provide true living space in a true pocket cruiser so I, like all boat builders and boat owners, must compromise space if we want the convenience and affordability of a small boat.

But in moments of doubt and self recrimination (I should have built a different boat), I remind myself of my guiding mantra (this is an experiment) and my ultimate goal (one successful journey down the Chesapeake). After that, new opportunities will appear, as they always do. But first things first: Keep working and get it done!

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

August 19, 2009

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

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

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

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

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

Figure 3

Figure 5

Figure 5

Figure 6

Figure 6

Figure 7

Figure 7

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

Figure 8

Figure 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 4, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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