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.


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.


Horsepower or Human Power?

June 7, 2010

I checked a large item off my “to do” list today by finishing my boat’s transom and motor mount. Over the past several weeks I incrementally built up the transom with multiple layers of pine boards and plywood—four layers in all—capable of supporting an outboard motor in a U-shaped cutout. A removable insert was also constructed, which fits like a glove and is very satisfying to slide in and take out.

The completed transom, showing the cutout with the insert removed.

The transom, as seen from the inside. The insert is now in place. If I don't use an outboard, the boat will look like this most of the time.

A sideview of the insert, showing all of the various layers used to build up the transom.

I completed this step feeling conflicted. The truth is, I don’t like outboards. In my very limited experience, outboards are large machines that fill space and, as a general rule, refuse to start. On the rare occasion when they do cooperate, the result is a great deal of noise and nasty smells.

But you have to have an outboard! people say. How will you get out of harbors? What happens when the wind dies? And they might be right. I don’t have enough experience to argue otherwise. My sailing experience is limited to Sunfish. But then again…Lots of sailboats, large and small, managed to get out of harbors and reach their destinations for millennia without power, so why do we think they are absolutely essential? Are they necessary, or simply convenient?

Again, I don’t yet know the answer, but I have noticed a tendency in modern culture to forget what we can do without gasoline. To often, we accept the belief that technology that is available is technology that must be used.

Twenty-five years ago a large branch broke off a tree in our front yard. We were newlyweds in a small California bungalow and my toolbox was small. As city dwellers, we had no need for a chainsaw. So I started cutting up the limb with my handsaw. A man walking down the street stopped to watch me work, then said, not in a friendly way, “Man, you are using entirely the wrong tool for the job!” and walked on.

But why was it the wrong tool? I mused. It’s not morally wrong to use a handsaw. I wasn’t breaking any municipal laws. It was just a slower way of cutting wood. And why is that wrong? A more compelling case could be made that a noisy and potentially lethal chainsaw is the less responsible tool. I, on the other hand, was enjoying a sunny day and getting real exercise.

A year or two later, I was cutting the grass. Our yard was small so it made sense, to me, to use an old-fashioned reel mower. It was the neighborhood novelty; everyone else had the most muscular self-propelled mowers their postage stamp-sized lots could justify. One day a small boy stopped, pointed at the mower, and asked, “Where’s the motor?” “I’m the motor!” I replied with a grin, hoping the youngster would say something like, “Gee, that’s really cool, mister! Can I try it out? ” But he stared at me blankly and eventually wandered off

One more story: For six years I completed most of my errands by driving ten miles round trip to our nearest town. For all those years, I wondered about running my errands on my bicycle instead. And for all those years, people gave me strange looks when I presented my idea. Why would you bicycle? was the immediate reaction. Aside from competitive cyclists in spandex and a handful of guys who look like they had one too many DWI convictions, no one rides a bike in my part of the country. We have roads; you have a car. Why are you talking about bikes?

But one day I put on my helmet, pumped up the tires on my bike and headed out. It felt liberating to zip down the country lanes under my own power, without ever having to fill up at a gas station. So now I make the trip several times a week, weather permitting, whenever I need to pick up some books at the library, go to the bank, or swim laps at the YMCA. It takes three times longer to reach my destinations but in an odd way  my sense of distance shrank. Five miles doesn’t seem so far on a bike. My town now feels closer.

So in this contrarian frame of mind, I started looking at alternatives to outboard motors. If my goal is to have auxiliary power in tight spots or when I want to rush back to port, maybe a small battery-powered trawling motor would do the trick, I thought. And while I’m at it, why not add some solar panels so I can recharge my battery and travel carbon-free? It was an intriguing idea, but I know very little about solar power and I quickly got lost in the unfamiliar language of deep cycle batteries and inverters. For the moment, I am defeated by this particular kind of technology.

So I next took a few steps farther down the technology ladder and wondered about simply rowing my boat. Again, lots of small sailboats are capable of being rowed and one of my favorite boat designers—Phil Bolger—purposefully incorporated rowing capability into some of his most innovative sailboats, including the Birdwatcher. He admitted that few builders were willing to embrace this form of propulsion, but it could be done.

Digging deeper, I decided that sculling might be the most appropriate method of human locomotion for my boat. The sailor stands at the stern, swinging a single long oar with a sweeping motion, somewhat like a Venetian gondolier. I was thrilled to discover a simple device that attaches the oar to the transom and allows even inexperienced scullers to wag the oar back and forth in the most efficient manner. (See the Duckworks catalog for short video of the “Scullmatix” in action)

As all this was going on in my mind, I continued to work on the motor mount, which seemed prudent because, in the end, I might want an outboard. Even contrarians need to make compromises and concede defeat from time to time. For now, I am filled with theories and philosophical convictions. But the wind and waves may have other opinions and, in the end, I’ll defer to their judgment.


Details, details…

May 29, 2010

The tenor of my work has shifted in recent weeks. Now that the overall structure of the boat is complete, I am moving on to small details that make the boat more functional and, I hope, more attractive.  The work is fiddly, but with each new piece, the boat looks less like a plywood box and more like a proud member of the maritime tradition.

What I was told to build. A simple plywood hatch is easy to build and would get the job done...

...I thought paneled doors would look nicer. Were they worth two weeks of work?

It occurs to me that this is where builders start expressing their own personalities–and also start going their separate ways. Up to this point, we are all more or less following the plans—measuring offsets, cutting stringers and working through the same mathematical problems. One pocket cruiser looks more or less like any other. But once the hull and cabin are in place, we can do what we want.

Inevitably, different priorities emerge.

Some builders have a single-minded determination to get into the water. They don’t sweat the details and don’t worry about adding anything unnecessary to their boats. They can practically feel the spray in their faces and do only what is necessary to wrap up their work so that they can test their mettle in the open water.

On the other extreme are those who seem to relish the opportunity to linger over the finishing touches. They want the hulls to shine and the brass to gleam. They look for new and novel places to install brightwork. They want to enter the water in style and are willing to wait weeks, months—maybe even years—for their day in the sun.

So, where do I stand in this continuum? A year ago, I thought I was a member of the hurry-up crowd. I wanted to build with care, but not waste time. My mantra was, Stick to the plans! But now that I am near the finish line, I find myself repeatedly detoured by small changes and improvements that keep me in the garage and delay the boat’s christening.

The most recent culprit is the hatchway door. In the plans, the Stevenson’s (who are unapologetically committed to fast and simple construction) direct builders to simply cut out a single panel from a quarter inch sheet of plywood. To secure the hatch, the panel is simply lifted in place. To gain access to the cabin, the panel is lifted away.

From the beginning, however, I found this to be an inelegant and inefficient solution. Where, I wondered, would the six square foot panel be stored? Beyond this logistical problem, a large plywood panel is simply a cumbersome and unattractive addition to the boat.

So I determined early on that I would, instead, build hinged doors. For the sake of simplicity, they, too, could be built out of plywood and that was, in fact, my original plan. But when it came time to construct my hatchway, I decided that I wanted to add a bit more style—nothing fancy, but something a little bit salty. So I decided to make paneled doors instead, and—just for fun—use some leftover cherry for the frame. I wasn’t looking for anything unnecessarily ornate—my tastes run toward Shaker and Craftsman styles—but a gently curving archway of sun-darkened cherry wood seemed just right. Varnished, it would look quite fetching against the otherwise painted hull.

But this suddenly turned a minor step into a moderately complex piece of cabinetwork. I was in familiar territory since my previous experience in woodworking (such as it is) is in furniture making. But I also prefer hand tools, so much of the work was accomplished with hand planes and a homemade bow saw. It’s how I like to work, and I’m not complaining, but it takes time and after a week at my workbench, I started wondering if I had made the right decision. If I had simply followed the plans, the hatch could have been banged together with a jigsaw and screws in an hour or two. Perhaps I could have moved on to more consequential steps like fiberglassing the hull.

Slowly, however, the doors came together and, while they are a bit rough and not yet sanded, I find them pleasing and I am glad that I took time to do something just slightly beyond what was necessary. Sailing is, in the end, an aesthetic experience, and it seems right and proper that our boats reflect our own tastes. If they didn’t, why bother building in the first place?