Some wonderful photos

I owe these photos to Ms. Kaylyn Messer ( They are lovely. 

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| March 28th, 2013


Mistakes have been fixed

Progress has been made. Planks have been joined to the boat. Puppies have added much to the gaiety of the process, if not to the speed.

All in all, things with Ratty are in a much happier state than when last I wrote. I left this blog having just re-laminated the forefoot of the starboard garboard strake. Somehow I didn’t take photos of that. Nor, apparently, did I take photos after I’d also re-laminated the port side. It seems I was so sick of those particular pieces of the boat that I plowed straight on into the second strake. No matter; the process was much the same as the first time, with 3 layers of 3mm Joubert Okoume ply, gooped to all get out with thickened epoxy and held together with drywall screw clamps. As promised, I made them oversize, and then had my solo plywood massaging evening with each of them.

Then I went skiing for a week with the family, returned refreshed, and cut the second strake. This was a much quicker operation– easy patterning off of the garboard, straightforward scarfing, and generally easy glue-up. Thanks again to Anne for helping with the glue-up.

I’ll talk in detail only about the clamping system, which is Iain Oughtred’s, and which is awesome. Instead of using fasteners along the length of the plank, which would have cost an arm and a leg in bronze, or of buying sufficient bar clamps to do the whole thing (which would have cost about the same as a house in Middle America), Iain suggests cutting the boat building equivalent of old-style clothespins. As can be seen in the photos, I cut about 25 of these, and they did a fabulous job of holding the garboard and second strake together while the glue set.

At the transom and stem I did fasten with bronze, and I sandwiched all the scarf joints between scrap plywood, through-screwing to tighten. It’ll mean a few holes to fill, but not many.

I worked on starboard side first, and Anne and I glued them up in about 1 hour. Then, on Saturday night, we glued up the port side, this time with the help of Harvey, a 3 month old setter/golden retriever mix. Dogs are a critical part of the boatbuilding process, and Harvey performed a valuable role: rather than 1 hour, the port side took 2 hours. However, we had infinitely more fun, and finished just in time for the roast chicken to come out of the oven. So everyone was happy.

Even Harvey, once we’d removed the epoxy from his butt.






| March 5th, 2013


Mistakes have been made

I was raised by pedants. Mom and dad, I mean that in the nicest possible way, with flights of angels bringing good connotations. But there it is. And as I re-drafted countless papers in middle school, I remember the underlined notes my dad would leave; “passive voice” was the most common. For my father, the verb “to be” is a horrible thing.

I’d imagine, therefore, that he’ll object to the title of this post, preferring instead that I acknowledge that I made the mistakes, rather than some formless third party. But I won’t. I’m an adult now, and can shirk responsibility if I choose.

The short of it is that I’ve spent the last 2 weeks wrestling with the bow section of the garboard strake. Tad said that this was the hardest part of the boat, but I brushed the warning aside, plunging into a strongly curving 3-layer lamination without a care in the world. And naturally, I screwed it up. One side I bent too strongly, and I ended up with a large pucker. The other side, overcompensating for the pucker, I didn’t curve strongly enough, and the piece ended up a full inch off the mold at station 1. Now I’ve cut out the starboard side and re-constructed it. I ended up with a very small pucker that a little fairing filler will take care of, and have learned (hopefully) how to do the other side perfectly. Next time I build a boat, stop me before I start.

The bow itself is quite a handsome looking thing with its strong curve. I didn’t cut the pieces exactly to size, since the lamination-wrestling-grudge-match-plywood-massaging-Battle-Royale left me unsure where the pieces would end up. I’ll cut them to size with the Multi-master.

| January 29th, 2013


Kind of a triumphal week

The last couple of days in my plastic-sheathed lair have been filled with satisfaction. Monday and Tuesday night I spent planing down the keelson– first with the power plane, and then by hand. Anyone who has ever seen me flitting about at a flea market will be aware that a well-tuned handplane has only beer as a rival for the title of my favorite thing on Earth. And using that handplane to shear off long shavings on the tight, smooth grain of the keelson? Utter bliss. Well, nearly. 2 things got in the way of nirvana: 1) before getting to the handplane, I had contrived to fill my hair, sweater, pockets, and underwear with shavings from the powerplane, and so was in some discomfort as I worked, and 2) because the keelson is curved, I only got to use 2 of my planes, there being no need for the longer-soled ones.

Once the keelson was fair and smooth, and the sawdust removed from its places of concealment, I set about planking. Because I’m a little scared of the forefoot, and because I don’t really want to start with the hardest plank on the boat, I patterned out the aft end of the garboard strake first. An unanticipated benefit of this whole plywood lapstrake thing is that I can lay a piece of pattern stock down on the boat directly– no building one up from off cuts, hot glue, and staples. I’ve never made full size plywood patterns before, and to be honest it seems a bit wasteful. But, on the other hand, it is very quick. After cutting out the pattern with a circular saw, I laid it down first on port side, and then on starboard. To my delight, it matches up almost erfectly on most molds, and about an 8th off on a couple. I guess that means the boat will sail the same on both tacks.

After checking the pattern, I grabbed a piece of planking stock (I’m using 9mm hydrotek), and cut out the real thing. Laying that down on the frame was triumphal indeed.

| January 11th, 2013


Spiling the hull and shaping the keelson

Last time I wrote, I had just put the keelson on the boat. For the last week or so, life and work have gotten in the way of working on the boat, and it’s only in the last couple of days that I’ve been able to strip off the clamps, clean up the keelson, and proceed to the next step.

The next step is spiling the boat. This consists of running long strips of clear doug fir down each of the chines– the corners of the hull where planks will intersect. By doing so with a fairly stiff batten, one gets a good sense of which corners, if any, are out of alignment. I found a few, and planed them into shape. I also finally got a few shots of myself working, taken by another person– thanks Anne! Adding the battens to the hull definitely gives a better idea of what the boat will actually look like. Be still my beating heart!!

Once the hull was spiled, I set about cutting the keelson to the correct angle. In laminating it, I simply made a big block of wood , but the finished product is sort of “V” shaped– wide at the top, and tapering at the bottom (reversed at the moment since the boat is upside down). The sides of the v are just continuations of the molds themselves– the planks will lie over both, and be bonded to the keelson. To make the v correct, I sawed a “witness line” at each mold, and then broke out the power planer and planed down to it.

I havent finished planing yet, and nor have I begun to tackle the hardest part–the bow. Here the hull alters curvature quite abruptly. Lots of battens and standing around with a beer, looking things over. As I write this, one thing I have not yet worked out is the so-called bearding line. This is the constantly varying angle described by the intersecting of the planks and the stem.

| January 8th, 2013


Making the keelson (noise)

My planer is very loud. This video proves it. IMG_0884

| January 2nd, 2013


The keelson

After the complex stem and transom, I was quite happy to have a somewhat easier task in hand with the keelson. The keelson, according to various dictionaries, is: a longitudinal strength-imparting member, which lies inside the hull and above the keel. In big boat construction, it is one of the later pieces put in, and its main function is to sandwich frames and floor timbers tight against the hull. But in small boats like Ratty, it links the transom and stem, and forms a resting place for the garboard strake (more on that later, I suspect).  In essence, it’s a piece of douglas fir 18 feet long, 5 1/2″ wide, and 1 1/4″ thick. I’m sure such a timber could be procured, but only at great cost. A much easier way to proceed is by building up the timber from several pieces– laminating layers as with the stem, but also linking them lengthwise using long sloped joints called scarfs. I decided to make Ratty’s keelson out of 2 laminations of 5/8″ fir. Because of the curve, I did the lamination on the jig. Good lesson: use plastic wrap in between things to prevent sticking.

I first read Bud MacIntosh’s “How to Build a Wooden Boat” when I was 18 or so. I loved the book from the start, with its wry outlook on the whole process, and its clear illustrations. One passage that I always remember — and repeat to anyone who’ll listen — is his belief that (roughly) “The main difference between an amateur boat builder and a professional lies not in the quality of the finished product, but rather in that a professional has been building boats long enough to have acquired nearly enough clamps.”

Laminating the keelson took many many clamps and I didn’t have nearly enough. I had to borrow some of the school’s. I did get to use a Spanish windlass to pull the keelson down to the transom. Check out the photos– it’s a wonderful trick.

Thanks to Anne for her help with this step!!

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| January 2nd, 2013


The transom

Until now, most of the steps I’ve undertaken in Ratty’s build have been more or less straightforward. The transom, however, was anything but. The transom, or the aftermost part of a boat, is, on Ratty, a piece of 1/2″ marine plywood inclined 30 degrees or so past vertical. All the boat’s planks end along its edge, and ever since I watched Rob Stevens making Irving Johnson’s transom years ago I’ve known that making one is no easy task. Luckily for me, Ratty’s transom has no camber or tuck like Irving’s does, and all the edges are straight. Even with that, however, each edge has a unique compound angle, and getting each one right took quite some effort, and caused my hairline to recede still farther.

Fortunately, my mom and dad came up for the week, and while my dad worked on his lectures (check out Drugs and the Brain on Coursera), my mom helped my poor overtaxed brain to figure out the transom. It took us 4 or 5 patterns–each closer than the last–to get there, and then, when I had just marked the shape indelibly on my $85 sheet of plywood, I realized that I had done so one the wrong side. Despairing of life in general, I prepared to give up. But mom showed me how to rescue the situation, and we mounted the transom on the frame 10 minutes before she had to leave for the airport. Moms are good like that.

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| January 2nd, 2013


Sculpting and mounting the stem

With the inner and outer stems made, and the outer stem tucked safely out of the way until I’m ready for it in several months, the next step is cutting the notch in the inner stem to accept the keelson, and then mounting the whole thing on the jig. Cutting the notch was nerve-wracking but easy. Mounting it on the frame was less so. This is a part of the boat building process with which I have no experience so there were many hours of standing there with a beer, trying to ensure that the stem, a complex curve, interacted with molds 0 and 1 at the proper places, and was also in the correct position vertically.

In this process I discovered some discrepancies between the plans and what I saw before me on the jig, and it took me a while to sort out all the issues–planing down the molds, rechecking the lines, and so on, before I was satisfied with the position. I immediately screwed it down.

In these photos, you’ll also be able to see the bracing system on the various molds, and the tent I’ve set up around the boat to keep things a little warmer for the sake of the glue. I grew up in LA, where, to paraphrase a former captain of mine, “We get live reports on the news when it drops to 50 degrees.” I’m now in Washington state, where that temperature decline does not warrant the same degree of attention. Indeed, it’s much colder than that at the moment. Epoxy really doesn’t like temperatures colder than 40 degrees. Nor do I, for that matter. So, using some plastic sheeting and old climbing ropes, I set up a cocoon for the boat. Now me, and the epoxy, are much happier.

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| January 1st, 2013


Making the Stem

Until now, everything I’ve made– the ladder frame, all the molds, and the bracing system– has been temporary. It’s all one elaborate jig (and what a jig!) to enable construction of the boat itself. As such, it’s been made of the cheapest wood I could find that would do the job. But now, finally, I get to the actual boat. One of the joys of boat building is that the marine environment, being a harsh and unforgiving mistress, puts great demands on anything one places in her. So boats must be made of very high quality materials. In the case of Ratty, Tad Roberts specifies clear vertical grain (CVG; read: old growth) Douglas fir for the stem, keel, keelson, and CVG western red-cedar for everything else not plywood.

Using old growth lumber does, of course, present some ethical challenges for some one whose livelihood consists of taking students into old growth forests. However, I consider it acceptable. In building a boat out of the best material available (and CVG fir is spectacularly good for this purpose) I’m ensuring a boat that will last for decades, rather than falling to pieces. Building things that last is more sustainable than building cheap things that require renewal…. and they are wonderful to work with.

All my lumber comes from Edensaw, out in Port Townsend (holla’). This is one of the best lumber yards on Earth, and sifting through the stacks of CVG fir in their warehouse was one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve had on this project thus far.

Anyway. The stem is the forward-most part of the boat–the bow. As you can see from the photos, it’s a curve– jutting forward about 20 degrees past vertical at the deck, and then sweeping to horizontal where it connects with the keelson. In fact there is an inner stem and an outer stem; the first is inside the planking, and the second outside it. To create the form for bending the stem, I laid out the full size plan of the curve on a board of plywood, and pricked through to the board. Then I sprung a thin batten to the required shape, and screwed down blocks of 2×4 along its length.

The stem is constructed of many layers of 3/16 fir. I made the layers by resawing my inch-thick slabs on the bandsaw, and then running them through the planer. I could have used thicker laminations and then steamed them to allow them to curve, but this method, while a little more wasteful of lumber due to all the saw kerfs, saved much time and cursing. This form is for the inner stem. The outer stem is molded from the inner, and I did not take photos of that process as it’s much the same.

After a dry run to ensure all would work well, I laid plastic wrap over the form to prevent the stem from sticking, gooped up the whole thing with thickened epoxy, and clamped the crap out of it.

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| January 1st, 2013


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