Just a Beginner
It is a fact-of-life that, unless a person has the opportunity to build a large number of boats in a lifetime, he or she will miss out on learning “tricks of the trade”. No matter how many books are read, there is just not the continuity of work which allows development of easier ways to do various jobs.
Mike Rowe had an arrangement whereby a friend was granted space in the workshop in exchange for administrative work, running of errands and carrying out various other helpful jobs. The system worked well – Perry Skope was able to help Mike keep his head above water in the office, and Mike provided Perry with encouragement on the shop floor.
On most days, Mike would carry out his building work while keeping half an eye on Perry’s earnest and steady progress on the small lapstrake dinghy he was building on one side of the workshop. There were telltale signs when Perry was stumped – standing motionless beside the boat being the most common. Others included extended study of plans, reading of instructions several times over, excessive use of spirit level, plumb bob, bevel gauge and tape measure.
In extreme cases, Mike would sense the presence of Perry standing in silence behind him, quietly waiting for the appropriate moment to say, “I don’t like to interrupt, Mike, but when you have a minute………”
In the early stages of the project, Mike would give Perry a briefing on the next stage of the job and keep a fairly close watch. The key to his teaching technique was to stand back, and resist the temptation to tell Perry how to perform every task. Although there were times when Perry would take two hours to perform a task which could have been done in fifteen minutes, the learning process was more efficient overall – sometimes the longest way around is the shortest way home.
By now, Mike was refusing to answer most of Perry’s questions – he knew that Perry had the ability to do just about anything required on this boat, and all that he lacked was confidence and knowledge of trade tricks. The answer Mike gave to the majority of Perry’s questions was, “What do you think?”
Now there are many, many ways to streamline building operations, and Mike was aware that he had only scratched the surface. The depth and richness of the boatbuilding process excited him, hijacking his thoughts night and day. Five lifetimes would not be enough to learn the subtle art form completely.
Do not attempt to sand off excess epoxy – instead, use a heat gun on a moderate setting and remove the epoxy with a hook scraper. As long as the epoxy is not taken beyond a critical temperature, it regains its physical properties upon cooling. The problems with sanding are that, apart from taking forever, it is inevitable that the softer timber surrounding the cured epoxy will get sanded into a depression. The scraper technique allows the softened epoxy to be planed down to the level of the surrounding work, and a light overall sanding gives a finish suitable for priming and painting. For large, flat surfaces, a sharp cabinet scraper used without heat gave a better result than sanding;
- Make templates for every component. Mike’s favourite templating material was 3mm MDF, but just about anything can do the job;
- Buy the best quality jigsaw that you can possibly afford. Then equip it with the best quality blades that are available. Mike’s favourite blades were Bosch TD101AO. Some power tools can be bought cheaply with no serious impact on the standard of work produced, but when it comes to jigsaws, only the best will do;
- Never, ever, use anything but MARINE plywood. It has nothing to do with the glue line – it is the standards which are applied to the quality, thickness and allowable species used in the veneers that matters. The relevant standards are BS1088 or AS/NZ2272. Nothing else should be considered.
- Use epoxy for your primary adhesive. The overriding advantage of epoxy is that it is gap filling in a truly structural sense. If you want to use resorcinol, urea formaldehyde, or polyurethane go ahead, but make sure that you thoroughly understand the product and its application. Resorcinol is considered to be a superior marine adhesive – but you really need to have joint accuracy of around 0.2mm and be able to apply 150psi of clamping pressure to achieve optimum results. High quality epoxy is the boatbuilder’s friend. Follow the instructions!
- Where using mechanical fastenings which stay in the boat, the metal to use is silicon bronze. Mike does utilise stainless steel screws and nails, but only where they will be removed from the job prior to launching. When he is asked the reason for using stainless steel for a fastening which will be removed anyway, he replies that screws and nails occasionally break, and he does not want mild steel remnants in any of his boats;
- Prime all glueing surfaces with neat resin/hardener before applying the thickened adhesive mixture. If glueing over cured epoxy, thoroughly abrade the mating surfaces to ensure a good mechanical bond. On oily timber such as teak, swab the mating surfaces with acetone or epoxy solvent in order to remove oil from the surface. After the solvent has evaporated, apply neat resin/hardener before oils migrate into the dried fibre;
- Treat all screw holes with neat epoxy prior to driving the screws;
- Whenever possible, cover end-grain with laminations of timber or fabric set in epoxy. At the very least, fill the end grain with repeated applications of neat epoxy;
- Always set fittings in a flexible bedding compound. Even 316 grade stainless steel fittings suffer from crevice corrosion in situations where a free flow of oxygen is absent. How many boats have you seen with red rust stains running from under shiny bright stainless chainplates? Bedding compounds such as Sikaflex 291 are the answer;
- Apply thickened epoxy to long glue lines and fillets using a zip-lock plastic bag with a corner cut off. The process is the same as cake icing. Mix only the minimum volume of epoxy at a time, as the compact mass in the plastic bag will increase in temperature rapidly during the initial cure – the surface area-to-volume ratio is too low to allow reasonable dissipation of heat to atmosphere;
- Build strong and accurate moulds and strongbacks. Any shortcut in the foundation of your project will have ramifications throughout the job;
- Painting the boat properly will usually mean at least seven coats. For example, two coats of primer and two coats of undercoat (or four coats of primer/undercoat), followed by at least three coats of topcoat. Each coat should be sanded before the subsequent coat. It sounds like an awful lot of work, but it is another example of the long way around being the shortest way home;
- If you absolutely have to use varnish, be prepared to apply between nine and eleven coats (each one sanded) if you want to get a durable finish. If it is going to be subjected to direct sunlight regularly, sand and re-coat with two or three coats at six-monthly intervals. Brightwork can be beautiful, but a little bit goes a long way;
- Learn to use a longboard for surface fairing;
- Time spent doing a full-sized lofting of the boat will consume time, but it will pay dividends which far outweigh the initial effort. Many plans are supplied with full-sized patterns, but most are on paper, and paper is not dimensionally stable in conditions of changing humidity (Mylar patterns are said to be very good). A lofting will cull any drafting errors within the plans, and allow one to calculate bevels and planking runs ahead of time. If a designer does not supply a table-of-offsets (which should be done) a lofting can still be carried out from supplied station shapes;
- Start simple, and start small (but to paraphrase Lin and Larry Pardy), start now!
A rambling story, I know, but worth thinking about. After thirty years of boatbuilding, Mike considered himself to be just a beginner. Ironically, Perry Skope had discovered that he himself was now being asked for advice. His experiences had lifted his point-of-view to a level where he could observe the vast sea of difficulties ahead, but he knew that he was on target for more learning – and part of that learning would come from helping others, and questioning his own methods.