Harmonica Part 1  
By Bill Nolen - Oklahoma City, Oklahoma - USA

The Building of my Harmonica "Gypsy"

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7

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Construction in progress


I didn't start out with any intent to build Jim Michalak's designed Harmonica, a small 5-foot by 13-foot shanty style houseboat. To be honest, I'd never even heard about the Harmonica.

What I wanted to build was an even smaller 4-foot by 12-foot shanty style houseboat named the Ugly Duck. In the June 15, 2006 issue of Messing about in Boats, the builder, John Ulmer, wrote about Ugly Duck's 100-mile maiden-cruise down the Ohio River.

The Ugly Duck starting down the Ohio River. Photo by John Ulmer

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However, the simple design of the Ugly Duck calls for the two hull sides to be made from 2-inch by 12-inch by 12-foot boards. While I was searching high and low for good serviceable boards of the size, and having no luck at all, someone suggested that I take a look at the Jim Michatak designed Harmonica in the Duckworks Magazine.

I did, and I found the Harmonica had the most of the features that I was searching for in a small family size boat. The Harmonica's design was basically a simple plywood box that did not require hard to find lumber. The Harmonica could be built with off-the-shelf size lumber, which, based upon a person's budget, may be either fairly inexpensive external plywood, or the more expensive marine plywood.

In addition, the design of the forward deck of the Harmonica makes entering and exiting the Harmonica very easy. It is one of the few boats of its size where crewmembers can board the boat from a beach without getting their feet wet, as you can see by the photo of Chris Crandall's Harmonica "Occam".

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Chris Crandall's Harmonica

Another feature that makes the Harmonica great for family use is the open "bird-watching" top that allows children, as well as adults, to safely stand in the center of the boat while underway. The boat's design also makes it easy for a builder to select window placement, and the actual number of windows desired.

The roomy 5-foot by 6 1/2-foot cabin has two 6 1/2-foot bunks/seats that allows four adults to sit in comfort while heading out for a picnic, or a day of lake cruising. The 3-foot rear compartment area of the boat contains room for a seat for the boat operator, and even a second seat for a small child. Room for 5 or 6 adults in a boat of this size is quite amazing!

Two adults could easily spend several days, or longer, cruising sheltered waterways in comfort. Now, keep in mind that I'm not speaking about comfort that you would receive in a suite on the Queen Mary, but, never the less, a place that you could sleep, cook, and in general have a great time!

What finally convinced me to build a Harmonica was the information contained in the Internet Websites of three Harmonica owners and builders, Chris Crandall, who built the Harmonica prototype, Robb Allen, and Jon Rieley-Goddard. The Harmonica's build by these three gentlemen show great craftsmanship, and show the various window placements, and color designs that are possible with the Harmonica.

Photo by Robb Allen

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Photo by Jon Rieley-Goffard


I learned the hard way, many years ago; that the best investment I could make in building a boat was to order the boat plans. It's easy for a person to be lured into thinking that a boat looks so simple that detailed plans are not really necessary. However, without the boat plans, a person can easily end up using an excessive amount of expensive building materials. The Harmonica's plywood layout drawing, showing how to cut the plywood panels with the least waste of material, alone could save you the price of the plans.

So, having decided that the Harmonica would be a great boat to build, I ordered the plans from Duckworks Magazine. In a very few days the plans arrived from Jim Michalak. The Harmonica plans package consisted of two 24-inch by 36-inch size sheets of construction drawings, measurements, and a plywood sheet layout drawing. In addition the package contained two pages of detailed building instructions, and four pages of excellence comments and suggestions from Jim Michalak on boat building materials and tools. In addition, there was a single page listing the various boatbuilding supplies available from Duckworks Boat Builders Supply.

Harmonica Plans Package

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The only problem I had studying the documents was Jim Michalak's use of actual wood sizes. Having spent a lifetime buying wood stock by measurements that are not correct, such as a 2" x 4", it was somewhat confusing to read the correct dimensions as 1-1/2" x 3-1/2"! However, it was a simple task to make a material list of wood I would need.

After making a list of materials needed, I went to the two big home improvement stores in my area, Lowe's and Home Depot. There I bought ten sheets of plywood and the lumber that I would need to start building the Harmonica. Using the Internet I also ordered a 1-gallon epoxy kit that contained the hardener, and a pound each of 3/4-inch and 1-inch bronze ring nails. A complete list of materials used in my construction efforts will be listed later.


Since the major components of the Harmonica are build from plywood panels that are cut from 4' x 8' sheets of 1/4-inch and 3/8-inch plywood, I knew that I would be spending a lot of time on my knees on a hard concrete floor, unless I made a worktable large enough to hold a full 4' x 8' sheet of plywood.

I also wanted the boat, at some stage of construction, to be on a dolly of some sort so that it could be rolled from one side of my work area to the other. To accomplish both tasks I built a very simple dolly out of five 2" x 4" x 8' lumber and 3-inch deck screws. I then mounted six swiveling casters under the dolly.

When I set the dolly on a sawhorse and a small table it became my new worktable. With this worktable I could cut out the boat's panels without any fear of damaging a good saw blade by hitting a hard surface. Also, with a flat 4' by 8' work surface it would be easy to lay out the bulkhead's plywood and lumber stock to insure a square bulkhead. Which, in my opinion, is kind of important when you are building a square boat!

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Photo of dolly being used as a worktable

My overall construction plan was to first build the boat's four bulkheads, butt joint together the two 1/2-inch plywood panels that make each side, and then attach the bulkheads one by one to the side panels. Prior to attaching the bulkheads and sides together, I would attach the center log and top log to each side. Once the four bulkheads were attached to the sides, the bottom chine logs would be added to the sides. The boat would be built bottom side up, and turned over only after the bottom was completely finished and painted.

As I looking closely at the plan's plywood layout drawing it dawned on me that it would be best if the plywood for the boat's bottom were first cut from all four sheets of 3/8" plywood. The remaining 3/8" plywood stock would then used for the boat's four bulkheads. I determined the maximum amount of material I would need for the bulkhead pieces, and cut the four 3/8-inch plywood sheets across, leaving 63-inches by 48-inches panels for the bottom sheeting.

By measuring carefully, and following the plywood lay out drawings, I was then able to cut all the bulkhead plywood panels and lumber stock to form the bulkheads. I set these "bulkhead kits" aside to wait for the delivery of the epoxy and nails that I had ordered.

A Bulkhead Kit

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Since two of the 1/4-inch plywood sheets would not be used until later in the construction, I attached both plywood sheets to the top of my worktable with 1-inch deck screws to form my worktable top.

About this time the epoxy and bronze ring nails arrived, so I started epoxing and nailing the four bulkhead together, allowing about 24-hours for the epoxy to cure.

I'm afraid I'm one of those boat builders that boat designers hate! I always want to change some part of a boat's design to fit some preconceived idea that I have to "improve" the boat. With the Harmonica I thought the boat could be improved (at least for my use) by extending the bunk/seat area into the storage space at the bow of the boat. With the bunk so extended, it would be possible to use the freed up space in the center of the boat for a Porta-potty and a cooking area. Towards this goal I modified bulkhead #2 by cutting two side openings in the bulkhead in place of the one large center opening called for by the plans. Before you start yelling at me…be advised that I discussed this modification with Jim Michalak prior to making a single cut!

The other modification I made to the bulkheads was to reinforce the stern bulkhead to carry a 57-pound 4 HP Nissan outboard motor. The bulkhead as designed is very strong, but in the back of my mind was the thought that someday I might attach a Garelick fixed-motor mount, that I had on hand, to the transom. Thereby moving the outboard motor further away from the cabin area. Hopefully, this would reduce noise and fumes in the cabin area, but the remote motor mount would most likely increase the stresses on the transom.

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Modified Stern Bulkhead with epoxy curing