It’s been a while since I made a post – here is what has being going on.
We launched the Peapod, for sea trials under oars. She proved a delight to row – quick and responsive. The weather was calm, light wind and small chop, so I haven’t had a chance to assess her in more weather. She rows nicely from the forward position, with a passenger in the stern sheets. I made a pair of oars for her, 7’ 6” long, spoon blade. Instead of the usual round shafts, they are ellipsoid – kind of egg shaped – in cross section. This makes them lighter and stiffer – the larger dimension of the cross section is in the plane of the greatest stress when you pull on them. They still fit in conventional oarlocks. I really like them – the light weight saves a lot of effort. I hope to be able to offer them for sale. They won’t exactly be cheap, but they should be competitive with anything comparable. You can see them in the bottom photo – I have varnished them and added leathers since this was taken
I hope to be able to try the Peapod under sail next weekend. I have her all rigged, but there was a glitch with the sheeting system, which needs a new set of blocks. The weather is a bit warmer now, so I will take the first opportunity – we need a nice day with a good breeze to get an idea of how she will handle, and some good photos at the same time. I have been working on the drawings and the building manual. Both are approaching done, but there is a huge amount of work in doing these, to include the kind of detail that I feel is due the unsuspecting amateur builder, so it will be a few weeks yet before they are available.
I have made a bit more progress on the Grace Eileen. The big news is that I have found a mast for her. It is carbon fiber, which should be a real plus for performance. With her light displacement and clean underbody, she should really show the benefit of the saving in weight aloft. The mast is not finished (which is why I can afford it), so there will be quite a lot of work to be done on it. I am very happy to have secured it.
Otherwise, time has been spent in cutting firewood, with house painting waiting when that is done. There as always something that needs doing when you would rather be working on something else!
Birds' Mouth Joints
I had a question the other day from someone who was building a Penobscot 14, and was having trouble with the birds’ mouth joints in the rail cap. “What did I use to cut the joints?” he asked. His bandsaw tended to wander, and he wasn’t satisfied with the results.
I asked him, was the blade sharp? Yes, he said, he had just replaced it, and adjusted the guides. He was thinking of buying a Japanese saw, hoping for a more accurate cut. It happened that I have made some of these joints recently, in the caps on the cockpit coamings of the Grace Eileen, so I had refreshed my memory of what it takes to make these tricky little joints. Here are a few things to watch.
One is accurate layout of the joint, of course. I use a No 4 pencil to draw them, very hard, and I keep it very sharp. I draw the joint as accurately as my aging eyesight allows. It used to be that I could see anything, close up. If a fine needle needed threading, or tiny print read, I was your man. No more – now I need glasses for close work, and even then I feel that I don’t see as well as I used to, unless the light is very good. Anyway, I take my time, and measure very carefully. If I have a number of joints to make, I may make a pattern for them, cut from cardboard. The same pattern does for both the male and female sides of the joint – using just one pattern ensures that the layout is exactly the same for both, of course.
I cut the joints on my band saw. I cut as close to the lines as I dare, without crossing them. My bandsaw does what I would call only a fair job (it’s a cheap Taiwanese knock-off of a Delta saw). I do keep my blades sharp – there is no point in imagining that you will get good results with a dull blade. With all the care in the world, the resulting joint will not make you jump for joy – some fine tuning is doing to be needed.
I do this with a chisel. I take the pieces to the workbench, and with a piece of hardwood underneath, carefully pare the faying surfaces with a chisel. I hold the chisel vertical, and try to take the merest sliver from the surface, only enough to remove the roughness left by the saw teeth. If my layout was good, and my cutting accurate, that will be all that is needed. However, a trial fit often reveals the need for some fine tuning, which means cutting just the thinnest wafer from one or two surfaces.
Making very fine cuts with a chisel like this is a bit challenging. Of course the chisel must be really sharp. It’s easier to do on hard woods, which may seem paradoxical. However a chisel cuts more smoothly and accurately across the grain on a hard wood, than on a soft wood, where the wood fibers tend to crush before cutting under the pressure of the edge of the chisel, let it be ever so sharp. A hard wood does not crush, and cuts more cleanly.
One trick is in starting the cut. I put the edge of the chisel on the top surface of the workpiece, just back from the edge, and bear down. Sometimes the chisel slips, and instead of cutting an even wafer from the surface, it merely bevels it, removing a wedge-shaped chip. Then you have to start again on the bevel, just below the top surface. This is actually not as difficult as you might imagine (as long as your chisel really is sharp)
The other trick is knowing when to stop. At some point you will look at the joint and say to yourself, “Not bad, but maybe I should take off just a hair on that side.” Maybe you should, and maybe you shouldn’t. Only experience and practice will let you decide when you should try for a better fit, and when you should let well enough along.
Having achieved what I consider to be a reasonable fit, I screw the pieces in place, without glue. Than I take a block of wood and a hammer, and drive one of the pieces into the other. This should result in an even, hairline appearance in the joint. I fit all the pieces like this, then take them off, finish the inside and outside edges as necessary, and re-fit them with glue, driving them together with hammer and wood block as I go.
The top photo shows a joint in the cap on the cockpit coaming of the Grace Eileen, done a few weeks ago. The cap hasn’t been varnished yet. The other two are of the sheer cap on the original Penobscot 14, done some 15 years ago. Can you see a difference? If there is, you can attribute it to failing eyesight, and the impatience of age, when you realize that you no longer have all the time in the world to get the job done. At least none of the joints have shown the slightest sign of movement.
Proud Builders Conley, Doug George, and Cameron Robinson
I have to admit that I don’t much enjoy the finishing part of boatbuilding – sanding, painting, and varnishing. Somehow I can’t quite get over the feeling that when the woodworking is done, the project is finished. Painting and varnishing are just unfortunate further steps, to be gotten over as quickly as possible, so that you can get the boat into the water, and try her out.
I know that this doesn’t make sense, but there you have it. I rationalize this attitude by taking the view that good looks in a boat come not from the shiny finish, but from the vessel’s lines. A boat with truly harmonious lines, which let you see how she flourishes in the environment of wind and waves, and with a structure that makes the most of the engineering properties of the materials of which she is built, is likely to be more satisfying to the eye, even if her paint is a bit scuffed, than another with glossy surfaces, but whose lines betray a lack of esthetic sense in her designer. There are plenty of the latter. An example of the former that always comes to my mind is a small wooden trawler that used to fish out of Auckland Harbor, in New Zealand, when I was young. She was about 55ft overall, I suppose, painted a uniform dull gray – a workboat if ever I say one. She always looked clean and scrubbed, even if the paint wasn’t new – plugging up the harbor into a brisk southwesterly, spray flicking over her rail, there was something about her that caught and held your eye.
I am proud to say that my own boats have won numerous awards at boat shows. These boats weren’t built by me, however, and I doubt that my own would win a prize. I just can’t bring myself to put enough time and trouble into sanding and varnishing to get the kind of finish that judges like. I took a Penobscot 14 to a boat show years ago. My neighbor there had a canoe on display, which did win an award. He was a cabinet maker, I believe, who had turned to canoe building, and he was obviously very good at finish work. His vessel had a flawless varnished deck, and the finish on the hull would have done credit to a Steinway. What I noticed, however, was something else. He had built the hull from a single sheet of plywood. To get it to conform to the shape, he had had to cut a series of v-shaped gores in the plywood. This left a series of ridges along the hull. To me, they stood out like tits on a bull. I congratulated the builder on his award, of which he was very proud, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it with much enthusiasm.
I use foam brushes for varnish. You can get a much more even coat than with a bristle brush (or at least, I can), and they don’t harbor dust from previous use, of course. I think I do a workmanlike job. It’s not perfect, I know. One of my limitations is having a small shop, in which I have to keep several jobs going at once. It’s dusty – I try avoid jobs that make a lot of dust when a coat of varnish is drying, but there’s always a certain amount of dust in the air. No special spray booths and water curtains for me, I’m afraid.
I will be varnishing the seats on the peapod next week. I will post some photos – you will be able to judge whether I’ve achieved my aim, which was no less that to draw the prettiest little boat of the type that you’ve ever seen. Maybe not, but I don’t think I’ve disgraced myself. I won’t include any close-ups that show off the varnish work, though!
Top to bottom: Coamings, Winch Pedestals, Peapod
During the last week I have been working on the cockpit coamings on the Grace Eileen. The top photo shows what they look like at the moment. I have made pedestals for the sheet winches, and caps that fit on the top edges.
Sheet winches are often mounted on bronze pedestals alongside the cockpit coamings. These have to be custom made, and are correspondingly expensive. Another method is to make box coamings – in effect there are two coamings, with a top. This has the advantages of making the coamings wide enough to sit on, which can be convenient, and providing for lockers inside, where you can put the winch handles, and other items that you want to keep handy.
The side decks outboard of the cockpit on the Grace Eileen are too narrow for box coamings. I could have made solid wooden pedestals for the winches, but I liked the idea of having some lockers in the cockpit, so I designed these hollow pedestals. They have to be quite rugged – the sheet winches are powerful, and put a lot of stress on them. I made the bottoms of the pedestals thicker outboard than inboard, so that the surface slopes inboard. Rain and spray will get into them; with the sloping bottoms and scuppers in the coamings, water will drain out. I thoroughly epoxied inside the pedestals before I put them together. I will have to paint the bottoms, as they will be exposed to a certain amount of sunlight, which would break down the epoxy if left unprotected.
The pedestals are glued to the coamings and to the deck, with screws through the coamings, and bolts through the deck. I don’t think they will come off.
The caps on the coamings are a bit narrow for comfortable sitting. I reinforced the top edges of the coamings with cleats, and the caps will be screwed and glued to them. I will plug over the screws with wooden bungs. You can buy these, but it’s better to make your own, which allows you to match the color of the bungs to the wood you are using. You pretty much need a drill press to cut them. If you try to do it with a hand held drill, it will judder around, and make a mess. It can be done, but it’s not easy.
The bottom photo shows the peapod with seats fitted. I have taken them out, and given a coat of epoxy to the undersides. One more coat, and I will re-fit them, with the foam flotation underneath, epoxy and varnish the top surfaces, fit oarlock sockets, and the boat will be ready for the water. Of course I still have the sailing rig to make.
I don’t intend to glue the seats in place. Some time, far down the road I expect, someone will want to replace the blocks of foam flotation. I will cover the screws with bungs – left uncovered they collect dirt, and become unsightly. The bungs will have to be chipped out, and new ones installed when the foam is replaced, but that’s not too big a job.
I have been hoping to be able to offer the peapod, complete rowing version ready for the water, for $3,500.00. By far the biggest factor is my time. I have been keeping a log of my hours, but with all the time I spend making a DVD and taking photos, it’s hard to know just how long I will take to build one. Present indications are, however, that I should be able to do it for the above price. It won’t include oars or oarlocks. I expect a sailing rig – spars and rigging, sails, rudder and centerboard – to add about $1,500.00 to the price. I don’t have a price for oars yet. Anyway, I hope that these prices will seem attractive to anyone looking for a little boat like this. I don’t think that you can get anything comparable, even in glass, for anything like the money.
I will offer the prototype for $3,000.00, without the sailing rig, or $4,500 with it. Let me know if you’re interested. The catch will be that you will have to wait until I have finished with it. I will have to take photos and film it in the water, and that has to wait for warmer weather.
In my last post I promised more about Robb White, and cabinet scrapers.
Robb’s method was basically to build a boat with fastenings, and then light the wood stove. One can only imagine what this was like in the summer in Georgia. When it was hot enough, he would let the fire go out, and turn on the air conditioner. The battle of the titans, he called it. Then he would coat the hull with epoxy. With the falling temperature, the epoxy would be drawn into all the joints. I guess he had to keep going around, adding epoxy along the joints, as it was sucked in.
Robb was quite brilliant, a very independent thinker, and very inventive. What I most appreciated was his writing in the little magazine, Messing about in Boats. He had a knack for telling a story that made him one of the very best writers on boats and boatbuilding. He was always interesting, even when writing about restoring small antique outboard motors (in which I otherwise have not the least interest). Many of his tales were just delightful. I remember one, about the latch on the cabin door of one of his boats. It was really just a trivial detail, but his story about how he found it among some wreckage, walking along the beach with his granddaughter, was a true gem.
I know that not everyone felt the same. It seemed that you either loved Robb, or had no time for him. I certainly didn’t agree with everything he said – he was completely wrong about plywood, for example. But he was nothing if not a character, and reading his work, I felt that here was a kindred spirit and a friend. I never had the pleasure of meeting him, or corresponding with him, but he was kind enough to make approving comments about my designs to one of my customers. I was deeply saddened by his untimely death in 2006.
You can read a collection of his writings in Flotsam and Jetsam: The Collected Adventures, Opinions, and Wisdom from a Life Spent Messing About in Boats, and How to Build a Tin Canoe. They are available from Amazon.
Sharpening a cabinet scraper
The cabinet scraper is a very simple, effective tool, usually just a rectangle of hardened steel (other shapes are possible, of course). As I mentioned last time, it works well to level uneven epoxy. It is mostly used to smooth hardwood surfaces. I use a plane first, on a surface such as a table top. The plane may chip the surface slightly, where the grain runs the wrong way, and the cabinet scraper is particularly effective in dealing with this. The trick is in sharpening the scraper.
Start with the scraper in a vise. Take a fine file, and dress the edge to make it square. I hold the file along the edge, to make sure that it stays straight. Then take a burnisher, and run it along the edge, to form a burr. I hold the burnisher square to the face of the scraper for four strokes, two each way. Then I tilt the burnisher a few degrees one way, for two more strokes, then make two final strokes with the burnisher tilted the other way. That’s all it takes. (I have exaggerated the burr in the drawing. It’s really very small). You need to press down hard with the burnisher, but too many strokes will turn the burr too far, and the scraper won’t cut properly. You need to lubricate the edge, so that the burnisher doesn’t drag. If you run your finger behind your ear, or alongside your nose, it will pick up oil from your skin. Run your finger along the edge of the scraper, and the burnisher will slide smoothly. Again, that’s all it takes. If you use a centerpunch to number each cutting edge of the scraper (there are four, of course), you can keep track of which edges you have used, and are becoming dull.
To use the scraper, hold it at an angle to the face you are scraping, bent slightly so that it cuts in the center. You can use it either pushing or pulling. If it’s properly sharp it will remove very fine shavings. If all you get it dust, it’s not sharp enough.
You can experiment with the sharpening process – filing the edge and tilting the burnisher more or less. The scraper can be used in either direction. It won’t cause chipping when used against the grain. It is a very useful tool with hard woods – it doesn’t work well on soft woods like pine or cedar.
Welcome to my blog!
I will be using this space as a journal, to keep you up to date on projects in hand, and for comments on building techniques, tools, materials, design considerations – just about anything that comes to mind in the course of a day’s work. I work alone, with plenty of time for musing, and I suspect that, like Cassius, I think too much. Perhaps this will be a good outlet for some of that excess cerebration. I hope you find it interesting.
If you have visited the news page of my web site, you will know that I have two projects under way at present. The photos show where they are now. The Grace Eileen, a 30 ft light displacement cruising sailboat, is well along, and I’ve been hoping for a launch next summer. However there is still a lot to do, most of it very expensive (spars, rigging, sails, hardware) – we’ll see. The 12 ft peapod awaits interior varnish and seats and a sailing rig – at least I can promise a spring launch for her.
12 ft Peapod
Some of my time over the past couple of weeks had gone into applying epoxy resin to the peapod, and sanding it. I use a product called ClearCoat, from System Three Resins, for sealing wood surfaces before finishing with paint or varnish. It’s a bit pricey, but I like it for two reasons. One is that it’s thin enough that you can apply it with a brush more easily than regular resin. Although it is quite thin, it’s still thicker than varnish, and you might think that you could put on quite a thick coat without it running. No way! It will run and sag like crazy on vertical or sloping surfaces, so you need to brush it out into as thin a coat as you can. (On a horizontal surface you can put on a thick coat, and it will self-level to give a smooth, glossy surface.) I use cheap 2” bristle brushes to apply it in situations where a roller won’t work. These brushes shed bristles, so that first time you use one you have to keep picking them out of the resin. However, they are easily cleaned in acetone or denatured alcohol, and after the first use there is always some epoxy left near the ferrule, which glues the bristles in, so that on subsequent usage, they no longer come out. You can re-use the brushes many times before they become completely gummed up. (You can reuse the acetone or alcohol, too. The solidified epoxy settles out, and you can decant the clean epoxy for several cycles of use before it too gets too thick to work properly.)
The other reason I like ClearCoat is that it sands more easily than regular resin. You probably know that sanding epoxy is a bear. Even ClearCoat needs time to completely cure before sanding, or it will gum up your sandpaper in no time. I like to give it at least three days – more, this time of year, when my shop gets cold overnight. You don’t need to sand the first coat if you recoat within two or three days – there is no amine blush to prevent good adhesion of the second coat. I sand the second coat with 80 or 120 grit sandpaper. A random orbital sander works well.
I also use a cabinet scraper as part of this process. Even with the epoxy brushed well out, there are always some sags, and other slight unevenness in the surface. It takes a lot of sanding to smooth these out, but a cabinet scraper takes off the high spots very quickly and easily. I also use a triangular scraper like the one in the photo, to get into corners and tight spots. It also works well on the interior of the hull, where the cabinet scraper is harder to use. These don’t seem to be easy to find – if you know of a source, I would like to be able to pass it on.
Incidentally, I have seen people make a mistake in sanding epoxy. They want a smooth surface, and to get it they sand too much, removing almost all the epoxy. The trick is to build up to a smooth surface, not sand down to one. Repeated coats of epoxy, then paint or varnish, with sanding between coats, will build up the coating on the low spots, until you have a smooth surface.
I am sure that you know that the first coat of epoxy should be applied with the temperature falling. Why? Because there is always some air entrapped in the wood fibers. If the temperature is rising, this air will expand, and bubble out through the curing epoxy. You can easily remove the bubbles with a scraper or sandpaper, but this leaves tiny holes in the coating, through which moisture can enter. A second coat covers them, of course, but it’s best to avoid them. If the temperature is falling, the epoxy is drawn into the wood. The late Robb White based his whole boatbuilding technique on using this effect to draw epoxy into joints and glue his boats together.
That’s all for now. Next time I will have more about cabinet scrapers, and how to sharpen them, and more about Robb.