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By John Welsford - Hamilton - New Zealand

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The Miniature Shipyard
and teaching boatbuilding

Building a full sized boat may be the goal. For many this is a daunting prospect. The heart may desire the finished product, but the mind is jumping up and down in panic about all the unknown “how do I?”, where do I start? and “what if’s?” that run round inside the head when you don’t want them.

It also can take a little while to organise a building space, find and fund the tools and materials, and last but not least to get a good understanding of the building process itself. How can a beginner keep the inspiration and vision alive while organising al the mundane things that have to happen before building can begin?

click to enlargeIf it wasn’t for the background it would be easy to mistake this for a full sized project. The lap joints are all nicely done, the deckline fair and the boat is still sat up on the building jig just like a “real” one.
- Nigel Ryan photo

(click images to enlarge)

Building a boat is a learning process, and many will say at the end of the project “I wish I had known what I do now, when I begun.”. In other words, having built one boat, the next one will be far easier.

But not everybody is like me (22 boats ranging from tiny tenders and plywood kayaks to middle 20s ft yachts in 19 years, the aim is to stay ahead of one a year!) and building pretty much constantly, so how to gain the experience in a relatively painless way?

click to enlargeAnd looking at her from the stern it is apparent that there is a little sandpapering to do yet, just as would be the case with a full scale boat. This model will finish off very well and I am sure will help motivate the builder, as well as providing a conversation piece that will help to explain what the clutter in the garage is during that time before the boats shape emerges from the chaos. - Nigel Ryan photo


Most plans intended for home boatbuilders are to a largish scale, mine are mostly 1 /10, many are 1/12 and a few at 1/8th scale. All of these are workable, and building direct from the plans will give a scale model large enough to use the full sized construction method, and give a feel of how the real thing will go.

At 1/10 scale my Pathfinder design used to illustrate this article will come out at about 21 x 8 inches, large enough to work on without having to use a magnifying glass and robust enough to stick modelling pins in, but small enough to not require a huge investment in tools and materials.

click to enlarge

You can see here how using the scale method of building gives a real feel of the scope and nature of the building job, this is a shot showing the centercase, the center thwart and the framed up sleeping deck within Pathfinder.
- Nigel Ryan photo

The pics here are of Queenslander Nigel Ryan's Pathfinder. He’s built her directly off the plans at that 1/10 scale. He’s stuck faithfully to the building method and if you look at some of the close ups you’d think that she was the real thing. When he gets to build a “real” one he’s going to fly through the project having done it all before.

Note that it is simple to try different interior layouts and any other alterations that you might contemplate. A cardboard cutout model manikin with drawing pin pivots in hips, knees and arms can help, you can measure yourself and make up a stick figure, then allow the appropriate amount of roundedness and you can customise the boat to fit. As a designer I usually have to deal with average sizes and not everyone is the same so a model man in a model boat is a good way to check the fit before wearing the real thing.

A nice shot from above that gives a good impression of the shape and proportions of the finished item.
- Nigel Ryan photo

click to enlarge

What to build her from? I’ve seen cardboard models, plastic sheet models, paper, wood veneers and solid wood. But for this purpose I like the Balsa wood sheets that the model airplane shops sell, SIG™ balsa is nice consistent stuff in grade and finish, comes in a wide range of thicknesses, cuts, saws, glues and paints well, and can be tacked together very very quickly with the right adhesives.

Note that at these scales in balsa 1/16in thick works about right for 6mm (1/4in) ply, 3/32 for 9mm ( 3/8in) and 1/8in for 12mm ( 1/2 in) plywoods. You’ll find that you can massage it into shape in much the same way as plywood, and it is easy to do the final shaping with sandpaper contact glued to a piece of wood in the same way as a manicurists sanding tool.

click to enlarge

The real thing, this one Paul Groom's lovely Varuna being rigged up.
- John Welsford photo

Also available at these model airplane shops are thin wooden strips that make good stringers. Use a larger size than scale though as it is too hard to handle in the tiny tiny sizes. There is also very thin plywood, glues, fillers, paints and all of the tools needed to do the job. You can set up a miniature boatyard for a few dollars, one that will allow you to explore and learn about boatbuilding inside, in comfort in a few hours a week.

Set your boat factory up on a piece of flat panel, MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) is nice. The big box type hardwares sell it in smaller pieces, get one that overlaps the job by a bit all round. Keep it dry though when damped on one side it tends to curl.

You’ll need a modelling knife, looks like a scalpel, and a packet of spare blades as balsa is surprisingly hard on sharp tools (it’s a hardwood, even though it's soft). Some of your ladies sandpaper fingernail boards, a very fine saw, (about 25 teeth per inch or finer), some fine sandpaper and some modelling pins.

click to enlargePlenty of room in the real thing, but they have all watched the process as their boat gradually appeared out of an untidy pile of wood and fittings, a model could have shown them what was coming.
- Paul Groom Photo

On pins: standard ones hurt if you press hard on them, perhaps you can borrow grannys thimble but otherwise look for the tee headed ones that the model shop sells. Note that some of the plastic and glass headed ones have no “head” inside the glass or plastic and that, being brittle can split away and the pin can go right through the fingertip. I can tell you that it makes hitting your thumb with a hammer seem like a picnic!

Glues: if you read the model airplane magazines, you will be confronted by a bewildering list of adhesives, as with the full size boatbuilding scene this is an area of chemical development that is moving very quickly but you only need a couple of the old standard glues.

The cellulose and acetone “Balsa cement” is one essential, it sets off quickly, goes hard enough to sand smooth, is plenty strong, and is very easy to use. Its my standard, and will glue any of the wood products that get used in model building.

click to enlarge

The plans, this is where it all starts!

Cyanoacrylate, Elephant glue, Mother in law glue etc, that’s superglue to most, and it wonderful stuff. I carry a gel type, and a standard type. It’s not quite instant but I can pull two pieces together with my fingers and tack weld it in a few seconds with the standard superglue. There are times when clamping a joint with pins is a pain and this superfast glue is great. I do go over it and reinforce it with balsa cement but as a quick hold its wonderful. Mind you don’t stick the fingers to the job though.

Fillers, a tiny amount of handyman autobody filler will do, cheap artists brushes from Walmart, perhaps one sheet each of 100 grit and 180 grit sandpaper, some filler undercoat and cellulose based “coloured dope” from the model shop does the painting, and all that is left is making a nice mounting so you can perch it on the mantelpiece so you can admire the handywork and dream about the boat to come.

I like building models, it’s a great thing for wintertime and the result can be very inspiring. Have a look at the model and the finished result here, and lets see you get started.

John Welsford.

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