From the Drawing Board
Occasional ramblings from
a Small Craft Designer

I watch, I listen, I roll my eyes, I bang my head against the wall! Internet Forums are interesting places. Some participants are practical and post good solid suggestions backed up by practical experience. Some post suggestions that indicate that they have read all the advertising, memorised every article in that august bi monthly publication that has a name very dear to our hearts, are informed to the 'nth degree but who have never actually "done it".

We have all heard stories about Theoretical Nuclear Physicists who have real trouble when it comes to boiling an egg, NASA Scientists who cannot work out the difference between metric and imperial measurements, and Architects who design wonderful houses that have to have the furniture swung in through the upstairs windows because it wont fit up the stairwell, we have a few of those out there preaching their gospel to people who don't know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

How do we separate the good stuff from the other? Don't know! In fact there will be some who view me as being on one side of this divide and few who see me as being not only on the other, but an insufferable and self opinionated bigot as well. I suspect that there is a fair amount of truth in both but have given up worrying about it.

So I thought I'd address some of what I see as popular misconceptions, and you, the reader, can believe me and act on it, or not as the case may be.

I have a copy of "The Gougeon Bros on Boatbuilding" on my shelf, in fact I have both editions of the book, and a while ago had to buy another copy of the second edition because the old one has been thumbed to death. It is a wonderful guide to technique and technology, a fairly up to date book among a publication list that is overfull ( here is the self opinionated bigot speaking) of books on how to build 1800s technology carvel planked and steamed framed 60 ft Schooners, books which are of no use except doorstops to most home boatbuilders looking to get themselves and the kids afloat for a few Sundays a year.

But it is an advertising medium, it preaches intensive use of a particular type of material, its Authors make their livelihood from convincing others to use this material (I drove for five hours each way to attend a 1 hour lecture by Meade Gougeon, and would have come back next day to hear the same lecture again if I could have). It is great stuff for a lot of uses but its NOT THE ONLY WAY TO DO IT.

What to do with the inside of your plywood boat is a very common question, in the case of a little boat, cheaply built and with an expected life span of perhaps 10 years if its lucky I see people advocating three coats of epoxy resin, the first one thinned for penetration, tack times recorded and recoating to be done after wiping down with expensive and dangerous solvents and so on.

One of the things that triggered this rant is that I have just pulled a plywood Kayak that I built some 15 years ago out of the long grass where the kids had put it a couple of years ago. She needed a new coaming where it had been buried in the dirt, and in cutting away the deck to do this I removed part of the deck covering the buoyancy tank up in the bow. Now this boat was built out of the cheapest 3/16 ply that the shop had, was built in two weekends, and I'd coated the inside of those tanks with two coats of cheap leftover and slightly lumpy oil based varnish .

With the plastic screw in ports out, there is fair ventilation in those tanks, but no sunlight or anything else that would degrade the varnish , so there is no reason that moisture would penetrate. I'm pleased to say that this old boat, knocked about and misused by all sorts over a period at least three times longer than I had intended her to survive, now has a new coaming, is solid enough to warrant a new paint job and looks as though she will survive another 10 years.

About the same time I had the pleasure of judging a Classic Boat parade on a local lake, 70 or so entries ranging in age from over a century to not quite finished. Quite a number of simple plywood boats of thirty and forty years old had come along both as entrants and spectators ( there were age group categories ranging from pre 1920 to post 1980 ) and I was very interested to see that there were a number of plywood boats built in the '60s protected with what would have been ordinary oil based enamel paints.

They looked fine, only where the boat had been left outside filled with fresh water and leaves was there a problem and that had been replaced with new ply, glued in with the same Urea Formaldehyde glue that Dad had used to build her in the first place. In fact the glue was from the same packet, still on the shelf under the house where the boat had been born forty years ago! She'd been repainted with more "housepaint" and was looking good for another decade or two.

No epoxy, no two pot Linear Polyurethanes, not a sign of fibreglass cloth, fancy wood preservatives, Admiralty bronze fittings or fancy low stretch ropes.

I watch the discussion about rope types: on one hand we have much agonising by one group about a certain manufacturer no longer making a natural manila lookalike and another worried that the sheave diameter required for the latest and even more expensive low stretch rope is too big and that the consequent windage at the top of the lofty rig is too high.

In most cases the boats are not Americas Cup or Around alone standard, most of them will never be raced beyond trying to beat "Fred" back to the beach and a tiny difference in performance is not going to invalidate the boats reason for being. Ropes need to be strong enough, appropriate to the use You need rope that is low stretch for halyards, high stretch but which sinks rather than floats for your anchor line, easy on the hands for the main and jib sheets, and uv resistant enough to be ok for a couple of seasons.

Apply this criteria when you go down to the shop to buy your bits of string, in fact I would find out where the local commercial fishing fleet outfits and go there. You'll end up with an armload of three strand laid Terylene ( Polyester) , some Nylon for the anchor rope, and perhaps some UV stabilised spun polyprop for the sheets. None of the fancy yacht braids and multiplait, none of the space age fabrics covered with licorice allsort coloured covers, no carbon fibre, no kevlar and enough change left in your pocket to have some choice of what you eat for the next week or two.

Paint is the same. I note a discussion on one of the forums recently where a gent who had almost completed a little boat intended by its designer to be a very simple, almost "disposable" boat was being advised by someone who must have been getting a commission on the bank loans that his advice was generating. He got started by suggesting two part primers, spray painted , needing to be applied in a temperature and humidity controlled environment by qualified and certificated operators and that was only the beginning! &%^%$$^&&*!!!!!!

Why not go get a paintbrush, have a look at the pots of paint on the shelves under the house and give her a careful and loving coat of house enamel? These boats don't live in the water, they live in a mix of sun and rain same as a house does, with luck they will be under a porch or in a garage somewhere and on a few choice days of they year they will get to be in the water for a few hours! Who needs "Marine" paints for that?

I do prefer Alkyd enamels from a reputable manufacturer, I use primer and high build undercoat from the same supplier, and I go to the trouble of using the recommended thinners . I wet sand the undercoat to take out the brush marks before applying the finish coats, and am pretty happy with the result. That kayak went 15 years before her first repaint!

I am though, wary of the plastic paints. They are more durable in terms of resistance to weathering and UV but are softer so are vulnerable to abrasion, and tend weld themselves to anything plastic that they are in contact with. I have a perfectly good waterproof jacket that was hung on a peg against a plastic painted wall, it took quite a pull to get it off there and now the red jacket has pale green stripes.

I've gone on about the prices of stuff in the "Yotshops " in previous editions of this chronicle, but will recap on the issue of small boat spars. I have used bamboo very successfully for masts for years, no worrying about esoteric and complex drying routines preservatives or even varnish , just gone over to the neighbours with a saw, picked out a stick that was mostly golden in colour and by next morning I'm off down the driveway heading for the beach with all the pulleys and blocks in place. The only failure I have had to date is when I sailed one under an overhanging tree trying to get away from the jetty on the wrong gybe!

If the boat is either bigger or to be more up market than that, Its off down to the local aluminium extrusion shop. Patrick there sells me my stainless steel bolts and screws so knows me well enough to let me roam the racks of drawn seam pipe looking for the right combination of diameter, length and wall thickness. The resulting piece will be about a quarter of the price of a suspiciously similar piece of metal from the Yacht Rigging shop up the road!

But wood is nice, a really well crafted wooden spar is evocative of old world craftsmanship, it connects with a history of the sailing vessel that goes back into the mists of pre history and besides, it doesn't go clang clang clang when a halyard comes loose in the night.

Again, the agony! What wood to use, where to get it, what to glue it with and how to clamp it. AAAARGH!!!

Get down to the demolition yard, buy a couple of old spruce or Douglas Fir scaffold planks, they are of the very best material as the manufacture of scaffold planks is to a pretty rigid standard, cut around the manky bits and get on with it.

You can use any of the usual water resistant or better boatbuilding glues, all of them are stronger than the wood anyway. ( I'm thinking of putting one together with No More Nails one day just to make a point) and build your mast. Have a look at the masts built by home handymen way back in the 60s most of them are still standing up and if you think you are still going to be worried about that particular mast in 40 years time, perhaps you can pull it to bits and redo it, but not until that 40 years has gone past.

The point of this diatribe is that I feel that we have gone far too far down a path of seeing as normal a standard of perfection that is unrealistic, and that has been unnecessary , or even unavailable in the past. Our little boats are often not improved in any practical way by a lot of the technology that is being promoted as "the right way" to do things by people who are making a living from the stuff, and often the theory is not backed up by what really happens in practice.

Before dashing off and committing the family to a life of penury to pay for three coats of epoxy ( and doing yourself an injury working head down trying to reach the far end of a narrow compartment with a brush while the over large mix of resin in its plastic container sets off in smoke and flames in your other hand), or some wonderfully colourful rope, the latest in unpronounceable paint or whatever the glossy magazine that you couldn't afford said you should use ( I read magazines on the shop shelves too, I can get through half of "Sail" magazine at one shop, and the other half at the shop two doors down the road plus eat my lunch, in one lunch hour), have a think about what the job really needs, think about how it would have been done before specialist boating products were developed, look for "appropriate technology".

On the Internet experts? Don't know, other than forums where a known person or group are providing the answers, I wonder if we could develop some software that intuitively divines how many boats the pundit has built and cuts him off if he has not the preset experience level?

We could not use the rate of verbal fertiliser production as a criteria though, I'd like to stay involved.

John Welsford