Yadda Yadda Yadda

I can’t pick up where I left off—installing the tanks in the fall of 2014—because it’s too overwhelming. The virtual cursor has been plaguing my dreams for 3 years since I wrote in this blog, and picking up where I left off seems profoundly unsatisfying. For the moment, therefore, I’ll channel episode 153 of Seinfeld, say yadda yadda yadda, and that now the boat sits — in the middle of Wyoming — with 3 coats of paint on the interior.

I’ll give you a little more than that, actually. In September 2014, I accepted a job at NOLS headquarters, in Lander, Wyoming. Between September and November, I bought a trailer, modified it for Ratty, hitched it up to a UHaul, and drove it to Wyoming. Then Ratty sat, totally neglected, in the snow for a winter until I bought a house. Then Ratty sat in a garage, more or less neglected, for a year and a half while I enjoyed Wyoming and did house projects. Then I realized I nneded to finish the boat if my life was ever to be happy. So I started working on it again. And on Saturday I put the first coat of paint on.

There are a few useful nuggets in there, and I hope to return to some of them soon! Stay tuned. And I have been posting on Instagram in the meantime. Follow me @benjaminlester.

| August 24th, 2017



For better or worse, all 5 bulkheads are installed. All things considered, things went pretty well. The lines seem fair. The bulkheads are vertical and evenly spread. Fillets have been applied. And if there are flaws, I believe subsequent operations will conceal them.

With the last bulkhead in place, the hull is noticeably stiffer. I read that Tad was surprised by how wobbly his hull was when first flipped. So was I. Now, even without the sheer strake supported, the distressing racking and bending is much reduced. I clamber into the boat with an easier mind.

Next up is what Tad calls the tanks. You might also term them the bench fronts. They are longitudinal plywood members, set vertically between bulkheads 1 and 5. Their purpose is two-fold: they support the side benches, and they work with the keel/keelson assembly to prevent the boat from bowing when it hits a wave.

The tanks are pieces that have long excited me. For whatever reason, they have always seemed a turning point in the construction process– the first piece of “interior” joinery. That’s rubbish, of course; the bulkheads were the first pieces. Then the case, and the case log. But I somehow got the tanks in my head as a turning point. And there they have remained. The other (and somewhat more logical) reason I’ve looked forward to the tanks is that they are the first piece of the boat that I knew in advance I would alter from Tad’s design. The first piece of creativity for me!!

In this photo, you can see that the openings in his benches are small, and all the same height. I’ve worked a fair bit in the NOLS Drascombe sailing program down in Baja California, and those boats have similar small bench-front openings. I’ve wrestled lines and sails and duffels in and out of them in a hurry many times, and I’ve been frustrated every time. I’ve also torn expensive bags in the process. I decided early on that I wanted big openings, and that I wanted the openings to follow the shape of the boat.

This turned out to be a dubious aesthetic decision, because I later decided to alter the floor shape from Tad’s design, too. But I didn’t know I would do so at the time. So we’ll proceed with similar naivete.

The tanks, then. Essentially another plank in many ways, but with the added complication that they are partially riven by three bulkheads along their length. I couldn’t figure out how I was going to fabricate them– build them in pieces, with butt glue joints at the bulkheads? Build them with scarfs joints, and glue up the pieces in place? or build the whole assembly outside the boat, and then somehow finagle it into place.

I had several beers while deciding. Then I left the whole question for a couple of weeks. Then I drank some more beers, and decided to pattern out the whole thing and see if I could remove it in one piece. I reasoned (sort of correctly, it turned out) that if I could get the whole pattern out without breaking it, I could maybe get the whole piece in without breaking it.


IMG_2644 (1)So I patterned out a side (the mother of all patterns. It was described by a friend as a horrible 5 year-old’s art project on steroids), and gingerly prised it out in one piece. At this point, I decided to construct the whole thing outside, and then put it in the boat as one. I decided against the butt-joint option because I couldn’t work out in my head how I was going to achieve fair joints at each bulkhead– seemed like whatever I did, I would end up with a sharp angle that would require lots of epoxy filler and lots of sanding. The scarf joint glue-up-in-place option I dismissed due to painful memories of planking.

I’ve come a long way in my comfort with epoxy since first I started this project. Most notably, I’ve come to appreciate its tremendous ability to fill gaps. I knew it could do so, of course, but I didn’t KNOW it. now I do. So as i decided on the all at once option, I was aware of — and comfortable with — the idea of trimming the tank around each bulkhead enough to get the thing in, and then filling the resulting gap with epoxy. And that’s what I ended up doing. Because I don’t plan to put any sort of hatches on the lockers, I also put a nice fat round over on all the edges, and cut limber holes along the bottom edge to allow drainage into the bilge.

I decided against trying to keep the tanks watertight because a shipwright I once worked for told me (in a charming Irish brogue), “No matter what you do, water WILL get into the boat. Don’t fight it– it’s just going to happen. Your job is to give it a place to go.” Smart man. He said that in reference to a 100-ft schooner. Doubly true for a daysailer. I’ll keep things secured in the cubbies with friction and bungee cords. Less to break, anyway.

After all the head scratching, things went together OK. I didn’t take enough measurements in the forward part of the tank footing, however, and had to dust off my trig to figure out how much bigger than my pattern to cut the inboard edge to get the angle I needed (which, of course, I realized once I had the gigantic and delicate pattern out of the boat, and didn’t want to put it back in).

IMG_2655There’s a lesson I’ll keep with me: with this sort of a project, it’s not about measuring twice and cutting once. It’s about measuring twice, and then taking the dog for a walk (or closing your eyes, or whatever helps you meditate) and visualizing each step of the cutting process, and how the piece will sit in the boat in relation to your pattern. Then go back to the boat, and measure the thing you didn’t even think about measuring before.

Then cut.

IMG_2906 IMG_2905 IMG_2656




| January 5th, 2015



This whole plywood boat building thing has a bunch of advantages. Clearly, the biggest is the ability to construct a hull out of four strakes, rather than 20, But there are others, and the biggest of those is the ease of creating bulkheads. Ratty, like most other boats, gains strength from a series of transverse bulkeads. These help maintain the proper shape of the hull, resist racking, and also (conveniently) serve as the basis for benches and other internal furniture. Ratty has 5 of them.

Numbers 1 and 5 are solid, at least for now, and will form the footing for the foredeck, and whatever the dinghy equivalent of a poopdeck is.  Later on, that after bulkhead will also serve as the mount for the engine.  Numbers 2, 3, and 4 have big holes in the middle, and will support  (and be stiffened by) the rowing thwarts. The big holes in the middle will eventually have floorboards running through them.

As I’ve written previously, I put bulkheads 1 & 2, and 4 & 5, in as soon as I could after I flipped the boat. Then I procrastinated putting  the center bulkhead in for months. It’s bifurcated by the centerboard trunk, and I figured fitting its 2 halves would be a pain in the butt. It was.

In order to fit that center bulkhead, I had first to fit the centerboard trunk. The trunk is actually mortised into the keelson, and then sandwiched between two bits of wood called case logs. The bulkhead pieces serve to keep the trunk plumb, and the whole structure is a bit complex. Stupidly, I decided to glue the whole structure – trunk, caselogs, and bulkhead – up at once. Next time I won’t. I used epoxy hardener that began to kick too quickly, and found myself racing the clock. In future, I’d register the bulkheads in place (I’ve been using hot glue to “chock” bits of plywood against the workpiece for this purpose, and it seems to work quite well), then saran wrap any surface I don’t want glue on, glue the trunk up, remove the bulkheads, and then glue them in place using the trunk as a guide.

Learning. Yay.


This photo shows the assembly dry fit. the “chocks” of plywood are visible on the hull. Getting things lined up just so was difficult in the extreme, and I didn’t end up getting it quite right. (It’ll work, and be invisible). That 2×4 over the top of the boat is my level stick– I took measurements  along the flat top of the bulkhead to make sure things were level from port to starboard.





Post glue-up (and beginning to lay out the “tanks”).  Impossible to see from his — or any– photo, but the bottoms of the 2 bulkhead halves did not end up quite in the same place fore-and-aft– one is a bit behin the other. A matter of a half-inch or so. But once the thwart is laid on top, it’ll be impossible to see. Also, the centerboard case assembly warps toward starboard a little at the front end. The case top and the thwart on #3 will fix that.

IMG_2644 (1)

| January 5th, 2015


Drinking beers and looking at things

If I’m honest, drinking beers and looking at things appears to be what boat builders do. Or at least what first-time boat builders do. Or at least what I have so far spent most of my time doing. In fact, between all the beer-swilling and the head-scratching, really it’s a bit surprising that there’s any boat at all sitting in the barn.

(Note please that, on any given evening, the beer comes after the power tools).

I’ve learned many skills in building Ratty. One that continues problematic for me is visualizing the way a given part should look before it has a physical existence. Boat parts are just weirdly-shaped. The transom, for example, is an angled and notched piece of plywood bordered by 9 compound miter joints. On the other hand, the forefoot of the garboard strake is a strongly curving 3-D lamination whose shape is defined by 4 lines – the stem, the keelson and stations 0 and 1.

When I dove into making each of those pieces, they seemed straightforward enough. I had lines on the plans, with angles and whatnot. Easy! No. It turns out that even with detailed plans (and Tad’s are excellent) there is a huge amount of brain-side 3D modeling that has to take place in order for the boat builder to make sense of what he or she sees on the plans.

These pieces gave me trouble because they had very few reference points defining their shapes, meaning there was a great deal of filling in the blanks. At the moment, though, I’m scratching my head and drinking my beers as I deal with the opposite issue: too many reference points.

Because of the way I began filling in the interior of the boat, the midships bulkhead/centerboard case area is the last big structural piece to be made. Thus it’s sort of the catchall (terminal moraine for my mountaineering friends) for any errors I introduced when placing the other bulkheads, and indeed in creating the hull itself. I’ve been unable to completely reconcile all the errors I’ve made (for example the starboard side of the boat appears to be 3/32” wider than the port side at station 5. Can’t figure out why). So I’m doing the best I can—shimming and trimming to get everything lined up, while keeping my eye on the really important reference: centerboard case straight up and down.

The centerboard case/center bulkhead is going to be one heck of a glue up.

| June 23rd, 2014


The Winter of My Content

I’ve written before about the role that dogs play in the boatbuilding process. Largely, the role consists of three parts: 1) distracting the boatbuilder by general cuteness, 2) stealing the piece of wood that the builder needs to complete the next task on The Boat, and 3) causing infinite joy.

Part three needs no explanation if one is a dog person, and I won’t waste time trying to explain it to those of a less canine persuasion. As for parts one and two? The wood chunks are generally located easily, and a bit of epoxy hides the toothmarks. The time lost to distraction, on the other hand, can generally not be recovered. So it was with me this winter. I’ve nabbed my parents’ gigantic chocolate labradoodle, and, as he’s not dumb, he prefers hanging out in heated rooms with leather couches and delectable food scraps to being curled up on a concrete floor in an unheated barn with a guy who is not really paying attention to him (except when he steals the workpiece).  The eyes with which he communicates this preference are large and brown and irresistible. So I watched a bunch of Netflix and scratched Kobe behind the ears this winter, and the boat sat somewhat neglected. And, as I’ve said, I couldn’t be happier.



Not entirely neglected, however. Since I flipped the boat at Thanksgiving, I’ve installed 4 of the 5 bulkheads, constructed the mizzen mast, and fabricated the centerboard case.

In order, then.

The bulkheads were relatively straightforward, though I went about building them in a non-straightforward way. Tad’s plans include a CD with the full section of each, but rather than print them out,I decided to loft them myself from the small representations on the paper plans. Two reasons. First, I don’t own a big roll printer, and didn’t feel like paying for the use of one. Second, I was (and am) pretty sure that my boat differs a small amount in most dimensions from the Ideal Ratty. This meant that I would have to use the full size plans to cut test pieces out of lauan before cutting the spendy plywood. This seemed pointless, and since I’m a fair hand with a hot glue gun, I used my favorite patterning method of gluing strips of lauan together in a skeleton of each frame. The cutouts I lofted straight onto each bulkhead. A good system.

As the photo show, I’ve not yet placed the fifth (midships) bulkhead. This is because that one is bifurcated by the centerboard truck, which is not yet ready. Seemed silly to guess on that bulkhead, since it’ll be infinitely easier to fit with the case in place. I started with the other in order to stiffen the boat. Like Tad, I was surprised by how flexible the shell was without them. Big fillets. Maybe too big? But they’ll be sturdy.


The mast:

Tad specs out square section spruce masts. But a friend of mine (who wishes to remain unnamed and to whom I’ll therefore refer to as Bob) convinced me to go with birdsmouth spars, instead, and my wallet convinced me to go with CVG fir instead of Sitka Spruce. Bob figured out the scantlings, and bought a Veritas birdsmouth bit. I toddled on over to Crosscut Hardwoods in Seattle, and bought some fir. We decided to mimic the ring pattern of a tree, and so bought 8/4 vertical grain fir for our staves. Ripped, these provided the correct dimensions with the grain running on their long faces. Flatsawn 4/4 fir would have been easier. But no one sells flatsawn clear fir. At least that I’ve been able to find. We scarfed 10 foot planks to make our 13 foot mast, cut mouths on one side, and tapered the other. We built a jig to keep everything straight during glue-up, slapped on a bunch of epoxy and hose clamps, and voila!

The most interesting part of the process for me was the plug for the bottom end. With a hollow spar, one must provide solid support at the partners and, of course, at the heel. In the mizzen on Ratty, the partners are super close to the heel, so we just built a one-piece plug to span both. However, a square end at the top end of the plug would create a stress point. So we cut a sort of multipronged swallowtail contraption, and I laid a piece of purple heart in as a tenon to fit in the step.

I’m a bit afraid of fairing the spar, and haven’t attempted it yet. Soon, I tell myself. My plane isn’t sharp. I don’t feel like it. and other excuses. Other than that, the main point still to determine is the masthead sheave. I’m inclined to drill an internal sheave for style and cleanliness. Bob thinks a thumb cleat and a rope-stropped block is more to the point. We’ll see. I’m a fan of the system we used, and will likely mimic it on the main mast, which is currently a pile of more 8/4 CVG gathering dust in the barn.  So it shall remain for a while yet.

Lastly, the centerboard:

Not much to report, here. The board itself is a 130 pound chunk of 5/8 steel that I had cut according to Tad’s CAD drawing by Carlson Steel in Bellingham. It’s now a coffee table in my house, and I made a plywood copy for using in constructing the trunk. At this point, the trunk is just two halves of a plywood box, fiberglassed on the inside. I built it over tall so that I can sneak up on the perfect fit once I set it in the keelson; I’ll trim the bottom with a skilsaw to get it just right.

IMG_2310Oh Yeah. One more thing. NOLS made a really nice video of the boat getting flipped. Check it out!


| April 28th, 2014


Lessons Learned (Part 1)

Seems to me that the value of this boat blog is two-fold: first, it’s a way to share progress with friends; second, it’s (hopefully) also a resource for other folks building, or considering building, a Ratty-like boat. This post is geared mostly toward this latter group.

With Ratty now upright, and my thoughts beginning to turn toward the interior, this seems like a reasonable place to call a time out and ask: what mistakes have I made thus far? Given that this is my first build, the answer is an unsurprising “many.” I’ll mention a few that seem most salient.

First, I did not make enough annotations on the bow molds (0 and 1) before I started planking. At all the other stations the hard chines make it so apparent where each plank ends, I overlooked how hard it would be to figure this out at the bow while planking. Here the chines are much more subtle—or in the case of station 0, essentially non-existent. Next time, as I’m battening, I’ll mark the heck out of everything.

Second, I would not join my scarfs in situ again. Instead, I think I’d cut the entire strake roughly to shape, glue it when flat on the bench, and then mark and cut it more precisely. THEN I’d glue it to the boat. Each and every one of the scarfs I made this go round required extensive fairing, and I think that gluing flat would avoid this. If I’d wanted to keep the boat bright, that would have been key, since as it stands there is a bunch of filler on the hull that wouldn’t look great.

Since we’re on that subject, I can’t think of anything I’d like less—perhaps other than a stab wound (though even that might depend on location)—than taking care of that much varnish. Laying the strakes whole at once would mean that a helper would be vital, but I found that to be the case anyway.

Third, I’d be more cognizant of which filler I used for which purpose. My wallet hurt at all the epoxy squeeze-out I had from various joints, so as planking progressed I increasingly used some of the squeeze-out to begin building up fillets. Never again. Sanding these fillets was absurdly difficult, and in the process I sanded away a fair amount of wood. Next time, I’d try to reduce squeeze out as much as possible, but I’d doggedly mix up new goop thickened only with fairing filler for the fillets.

Fourth and last, I’d at least think about glassing differently. Instead of just laying a big sheet down and going for it, I might be tempted to glass each strake individually, and then tape the chines. I might even do this on the bench before putting the strake on the boat; glassing flat is so much easier. But then again I might do the same thing I did this time.

| November 28th, 2013


Glassing and a flip

Two main things have occurred in the nascent life of Ratty since last I updated the blog; I fiberglassed the outside of the hull, which went reasonably well (with one gigantic exception), and I flipped the boat over, which was an unqualified success.

Fiberglassing was quite a drawn out process, mostly because it seemed like a rather scary commitment. I therefore procrastinated until nearly the end of September. With some help, though, it turned out to be not too bad. I improvised the following layup schedule mostly thinking about abrasion resistance:  one layer of 2 oz cloth over the second, third, and sheer strakes, one of 2 oz and then one of 6 oz over the garboard strake, two layers of 6 oz over the keel and stem, and three of 6 oz over the bottom of the keel. I put 3 or 4 coats of epoxy over all. I switched from System3’s general purpose system to their SilverTip laminating resin for glassing, and was quite pleased with the results.

Until, that is, I went to sand the sides. Much of the resin just began to chip off. I called System3 to discuss what had happened, and they were nice but not authoritative. I’m not really sure, either. Suspects include: a faulty mix (though I pulled out all my chemistry lab training and got the meniscus just so), temperature (though here too, all seemed well—nice and warm), or perhaps surface preparation between coats (this seems most likely to me; I did none, because online literature steered me away from it. The System3 gentleman recommended denatured alcohol in future).

I haven’t soured on SilverTip, and plan to use it for the rest of ‘glassing later.

At any rate, after so much time sanding, I was thoroughly sick of staring at the bottom of my boat, and unwilling to do the whole damn thing over just then. I’ll just re-sand and glass when I flip the boat back over to paint at the end.

With that decision made, I made plans to flip the boat. In late October, I was about to head into the field to teach a 2-week sailing section to a group of NOLS semester students. I decided it would a) be cool for them, and b) would provide me a great deal of muscle if I did the flip with them on our return to the branch.

Before I describe the process, I must first put a plug in for Moving Heavy Things, a wonderful book by Jan Adkins (he of Craft of Sail fame) it’s a marvelous examination of, well, moving heavy things, using simple systems to ease and control the process. I absorbed its lessons as well as I could.

The barn in which I’m building has nice beams on the ceiling, around two of which the school has hung block and tackles to assist moving kayaks around. I rigged up a couple of fairleads to position these at the bow and stern of the boat, and took advantage of the over-tall stem and transom to secure them (leaving these tall was a great decision) using a through-bolt at the bow and a strop secured to two holes aft.

My original vision for these attachments was to raise the boat by using teams of folks to haul on them, schooner-style. To keep the boat from rolling over too soon (and as a back-up in case bow or stern parted), I also rigged 2 “cradle lines” athwartships at stations 3 and 7—from rafter, down under the boat, then back up to rafter, and finally down to a belay station.

The actual flip went a bit differently than this. With help from some friends and some math, I ascertained that the boat wasn’t too heavy—maybe 300 or 400 pounds. Since I planned to have 10 students plus several members of the PNW in-town staff on hand to help, it seemed quite reasonable to simply raise the boat by means of hands arrayed along the gunwales, and then use the cradle lines and bow and stern lines to support it while I removed the molds from the strongback. To control the flip, I planned to keep the bow and stern lines tight while easing on the cradle lines, allowing the boat to pivot down. And to support the boat once I’d flipped it, I made two cradles to fit under stations three and seven.

And you know what? It all went as planned.















| November 23rd, 2013


Sanding and the Skeg. And Sanding… and Sanding.

A while back I got up on my expository horse and rode around for a while as I expressed the joys of planing old growth Douglas fir. It seems only fair, therefore, that I dismount now and do some good old inarticulate grousing about sanding. I loathe and detest sanding with a burning, fiery vengeance which is why I haven’t updated this blog in a while; I’ve been too depressed with the task in hand to take pictures and pretend to be excited about the process. But now I’m nearly at the end, and fiberglassing is in sight. before I drop the glass on the wood, I thought I’d document the (admittedly satisfying) outcome of that sanding, as well as a few of the other  fun details I’ve been working on.

Most conspicuous in the latter category are the skeg, the fillets, and the stem. In reverse order: the outside stem started life as a bent mass of laminated fir. I screwed and glued this blank to the bow a while back, but as I refined the shape of the planks, I went back and faired the stem into them. The top of the stem (the bottom at the moment) stays square, and will eventually receive some sort of an anchor roller. But most of the stem forms a (hopefully) invisible transition with the planks. I got to plane a bit more on this transition, which made me happy. As did carving the scallop at the bottom of the square section with a chisel.

The fillets are crescent-shaped masses of thickened epoxy at the chines between planks. Once all is smooth, I’ll lay a layer of 2 oz fiberglass cloth over the whole boat. A sharp corner would create air pockets between cloth and hull, and the fillets and rounded corners are there to prevent this. Check out the detail photo. Lots of epoxy and fairing filler happened this month.

The skeg is a big ole hunk of laminated fir that keeps the boat going straight, and makes the bottom of the keel a straight line– helpful for beaching and trailering. The back edge also serves as a mounting point for the rudder. I figured out the rough dimensions  from the plans, and then mocked up the final size using a string to represent the bottom edge. Then I cut slightly over-length pieces of fir, and clamped and glued. To create the curve of the keel on that upper edge, I just rested the skeg next to it on the boat, and transferred the keel shape to the skeg with a pencil. A little bandsaw, a little spokeshave, a plane, and viola!

After all this sanding, I laid on a thin base coat of epoxy to help the glass tick. This ran and dripped, so I’m in the middle of sanding everything. Again.

It will end.

It will end.



| July 3rd, 2013


The end of planking.

Wow. 2 months since I updated this blog. Much has happened. In late March I sprung the fourth and last strake to the boat. My mom came up in early April and helped me mill up stock for the keelson, and then Kaylyn helped me glue it and the outer stem to the boat. Then I went to the field for 3 weeks, and now I’m back sanding!



| May 30th, 2013


The Third Strake

Not much to write here, really. Third strake is much like the second. It went quicker, as I’m finally getting the hang of planking. I planked the starboard side on my own. Which went quicker than with Harvey, and was more boring. Kiren helped out with the port side (Holla’).


The other photo is of the sail loft! My sails are done!! I just have to go and pick them up.

photo 4-1photo 5-1photo 3-1



photo 2 (2)

photo 1-2

| March 28th, 2013


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