Posts Tagged ‘boatbuilding’

Progress on many fronts

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

The boat blog has awakened from a long winter’s snooze—oh, let’s be honest, a coma. But its author has had his hands full with teaching, working on a new book, and of course Nil Desperandum.

There’s progress to report on

Port toerail on foredeck

many fronts. The deck is painted, toerails in place, the homemade portlights and deadlights completed, bowsprit installed, and most of the annoying finish details in the cabin have either been taken care of or dispatched to the “hell with ‘em” list.

One of my great worries has been checked off: The spars are completed.

Sails are on order, and a bright idea to save $500 with a homemade jib furler reluctantly abandoned. One of my boatbuilding friends, Joel Bergen, looks at things with an engineer’s eye and pointed out that these relatively delicate homemade furlers only work if one doesn’t demand too much of them. My Devlin Winter Wren II depends on four shrouds and a forestay to hold up the mast, so the furler has to transfer the tension of the forestay to the bowsprit. You can’t take a chance with any less-than-robust link in this system.

Preposterously, I’m close to $15,000 in costs for materials and parts to date. Major expenses still remaining include the rigging, electricals, and trailer.

However, I’ve been saving by

Wiley ports from cabin interior

making a lot of components myself. In the last blog I detailed building the wood-and-acrylic portlights, which would have cost some $250 each if I had bought bronze or stainless steel commercial units. (Okay, less expensive aluminum and plastic counterparts exist, which in connection with wooden boats should be held in the same regard as wharf rats.)

For the deck, I bought a $5 jar of silica sand, masked off the areas that needed a nonskid walking surface, sprinkled the sand into wet paint, then after it dried rolled on a couple more coats of paint. I can’t predict how it will hold up in use, but at least for now it looks remarkably good and seems effective. Overall, the deck now wears six coats of Interlux Hatteras off-white.

The spars do not at first look like a bargain. I bought three 19-foot 2x4s of Sitka spruce from Edensaw Woods in Port Townsend, which came to a breathtaking $500. Sitka grows only in a narrow swath within 10 miles of the Northwest coast and is in worldwide demand for guitar tops and piano soundboards. But Sitka’s high strength-to-weight ratio makes it the absolute best wood for masts, and $500 is a fraction of what custom-fabricated aluminum (wharf rats) mast and boom would have cost.

I started by trimming the boards to rough size, including a bit of tapering, with the table saw. Because weight is so critical in the mast, I routed out a one-inch channel in the center of each of the two mast boards before gluing them together. This  subtracted two pounds, maybe not worth the trouble.

Now I had a great 4×4 stick tapering roughly to a 3×3, which did not yet resemble a mast.

The next step was to turn its square section into an octagon. A power planer would have done it quickly, but there’s no other tool that scares me as much. I took out the lovely Lie-Nielsen jack plane Patty gave me for Christmas and did it the hard way, by hand. Then I planed each of those eight corners to make it a hexadecagon. And then I massaged it into a more-or-less circular section with power and hand sanding.

This was the toughest physical work I’ve done since 2003, when I hiked the  Arizona Trail for a magazine story and had to lug my companion photographer’s gear a vertical mile out of the Grand Canyon because the bastard was a smoker and discovered he couldn’t breathe at 7,000 feet. (Surprise!) The planing took three days, and every fiber of my body, except maybe my eyelashes, ached.

Yet, the hand plane was a joy to use.

Lie-Nielsen No. 5 jack plane

Eighteen-foot-long shavings emerged from it, automatically curled themselves into Sitka Slinkys, and feathered to the floor. I could feel the mast’s correct shape emerging under my fingers, no need for a fancy laser sight. I would not want to try to building a boat entirely with hand tools—I’m a pragmatist, not a masochist—but using this plane here seemed to help my hands develop an intelligence they have not had before. Such work restores connections between human and nature that we’ve been in danger of losing. And finally, it’s a pleasure to use a tool that’s better than I am, rather than the inverse.

The next step drew a small crowd of neighbors, who could barely believe their eyes. Chris Cunningham, a skilled boatbuilder and editor of Sea Kayaker magazine, kindly loaned me a giant lathe that he’d built with a junkyard motor, old nylon wheels from a skate, and assorted bits of scrap wood and hardware. I clamped one end of the contraption to the firm foundation of my table saw and the other to my workbench nineteen feet away, and spun the mast in between.

OSHA would have had a cow, but Chris’s contraption worked very well. The forty-pound mast twirled at about 200 rpm while I rasped away at it with power sander and then sheets of sandpaper held by hand. It never became a perfect circle—it retains a slight oval shape, which is fine for a mast—but it emerged from the lathe smooth and ready for the varnish shop.

I wish I could report that the varnishing had gone as smoothly, but it didn’t. It never does. Varnishing is a sorcerer’s art, and the inevitable runs, drips, and sags are in full anarchy mode on a long, curving surface. It’s now six coats deep, and the best I can say is that it’s done.

So what’s left? The electrical wiring (which an engineer friend has graciously volunteered to oversee), the cabin top and its terrifying sliding hatch, and a constellation of nagging details in the cockpit and cabin. Then we put it on a trailer (more friendly engineers needed) and move it outside for the rigging, which I don’t know much about.

But as I related, often painfully, in The Year of the Boat, I knew how to do absolutely none of this stuff when I began building my first boat five years ago. Far From Perfect and Nil Desperandum have been a sweeping education in a whole array of manual skills as well as a postgraduate degree in patience, perseverance, resilience, adaptability, and accountability.

Nil Desperandum is registered for the Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend September 9-11, which means she needs to be in the water by early August for sea trials and the inevitable issues that will need fixing or rethinking. It’s an intimidating deadline. And it already feels like a pivot point of life.

Scintillating details

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

About this time last year I floated a new boatbuilding term, chingadero, whose etymology is naughty enough that I did not detail it in that blog, but its current meaning, in my boat shop, is “small, extremely annoying boat part.” Chingaderos are pedestrian pieces like braces under the cockpit seats that require little craft, give no great pleasure, and consume a bunch of time.

I haven’t finished the chingadero phase of Nil Desperandum—one never does—but I am in a concurrent new one, and the pieces I’m making now need a word. I propose scintilla. Originally Latin for “spark” or “glittering speck,” these are small, gratifying boat parts. Scintillas are even more trouble than chingaderos, but they are, or can be, interesting and beautiful. Unlike chingaderos, they’re prominent details and have much to do with shaping the boat’s character.

The most troublesome scintillas lately have been the mahogany bezels surrounding the cabin trunk portlights. A fine craftsman could whip one out in 20 minutes, but I averaged four hours for each one: making templates, bandsawing the pieces, throwing away many botched ones, sawing more, fitting and gluing, and then refining and cleaning up with bits of sandpaper.

This is one of the jobs that requires some adjustment of the vision of the boat. As my Canadian friend Peter Gron acutely observed, you begin building a boat with a vision of perfection in your mind. As you proceed, that vision becomes progressively compromised by the reality of your abilities, whatever level they are. We have to negotiate some kind of a peace with that compromise, or the dream shatters and we’re left with its demoralizing ruins.

As I worked on the bezels I realized there was no way they were going to look perfect. I had to make each one in four pieces so there would necessarily be visible joints, despite the miracle of filler epoxy. My oval openings were not machine-perfect to start with, and slight variations also appeared in the width of the bezels and the angles of their (hopefully) rain-shedding bevels.

After a lot of fiddling and sanding—the risk arose that I might sand the damn things into oblivion—the best grade I could give myself in honest appraisal was “not too bad.”  They look handmade, by an earnest but modestly skilled amateur craftsman. And I decided that indeed, that wasn’t too bad. Why should my scintillas pretend to be anything other than what they are? They’re an honest reflection of their builder’s skills and values, and that is enough.

Is this a rationalization of imperfection? Maybe. But it’s what I’ve done to make my peace, and I feel not too bad about it.

Wiley port in open position

Wiley port closed (no gasket yet)

The jury’s still out on the interior work on the ports. I long ago ruled out bronze or stainless portlights—too expensive ($250 each) and too heavy (12 pounds each). Aluminum and plastic parts on a wooden boat should be regarded with the same distaste as wharf rats. So for ventilation I’ve made a version of what are sometimes known as Wiley ports, which use wooden spring wedges to lock the clear panes

Spring wedge

in the closed position. For obvious reasons they’re not recommended for serious offshore cruising (although the highly regarded Cherubini yachts use them). Nil Desperandum, however, plans to stick to Puget Sound and run for cover when the wind rises upwards of 20 knots. I’m still uncertain about their intrusion into already-tight cabin space. Despite the considerable effort I’ve spent making them, I still might abandon them and figure out some other plan for cabin ventilation.

Incidentally, sharp-eyed enthusiasts of Sam Devlin’s designs will notice that my Winter Wren has two ports per side, like Sam’s larger (22’ 8”) Arctic Tern, instead of the specified single. I arrived at this after making several plywood mockups to try various window configurations, and even sent photos out for an e-vote among sailing and boatbuilding friends. The two-port array won 8-3, and I concurred.

One other configuration I mocked up used rectangular ports, which would have considerably simplified the construction. However, it radically changed the character of the boat. Not necessarily worse, but different. And I decided that Sam’s artistry should be honored. It just felt like the right thing to do, and worth the effort.

Compared with these cabin scintillas, making the bowsprit was easy. It’s a lamination of two pieces of mahogany sandwiching fir, and the corners were coved with a router. I was having a lot of trouble figuring out how to visually integrate the little cradles that hold the ‘sprit in place where they merge into the sheer. Sam’s plans don’t go into this level of detail. My neighbor Sharon happened to be walking by with her dog Rufus, and I asked her in for a consultation. She’s not a boat person, but she is an artist, and she immediately saw the solution that had eluded me. It took 30 seconds with pencil and bandsaw to execute, and it worked beautifully. Thanks, Sharon.

Like a child, raising a boat is best done with the collective talents of a village.

The rest of the year looks to be taken up with more painstaking work on the cabin interior and deck—scintillas and chingaderos without end. The only way to keep going is to keep going. As with any big, complicated, overwhelming job, momentum is critical. Sometimes it’s all you have.

Character and the companionway

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

April 2010

I’ve been thinking lately about craftsmanship—what it is, how we cultivate it, how we appraise it.

In the past month several people have complimented me on my “fine craftsmanship” on Nil Desperandum, and as usual, they made me squirm. As I wrote in The Year of the Boat, I’ve always felt that accepting an undeserved compliment is a moral lapse, like pocketing the benefit of a waiter’s mistake on a restaurant check. Still, I’ve finally trained myself not to swat away the compliment, insulting the bearer. I murmur a polite “thanks,” and try to change the subject.

Imperfect and fitful as it still is, though, my craftsmanship is getting better—even I can see that. And it’s not steadier hands at the bandsaw. It’s cultivation of the mental component of craft—thinking through a problem before plunging into it.

Ever since I started the winterwrenWinter Wren, I’d been planning to build the cabin 1” to 1½” higher than Sam Devlin‘s plans, just to scrape out a little more sitting headroom than Sam’s miserly 42 inches. I had made the forward cabin bulkhead taller when I installed it months ago, figuring I could shave it later if necessary.

When it came time for the aft bulkhead this month, though, I had to make a final decision. So I mocked up a cardboard cabin on the port side and studied it for a couple of days—inside and out, aesthetically and practically.

With cabin mockup

And in the end, I decided Sam’s design was right. Even one extra inch of cabin unbalanced the boat’s profile. It looked cartoonish, like a cow drawn with an oversized head. Sam’s sailboats are remarkably beautiful and based on traditional lines and proportions—you can barely believe they’re plywood. My proposed modification was a crime against nature.

So I sawed off the offending Sawing cabin1½” from the cabin front piece and made the aft bulkhead exactly to plan. And sitting bolt upright on a cushion in the mockup, I still had ½” of headroom. Good enough; I’m expecting no more growth spurts.

I then made several mockups of the companionway, studying different widths, shapes, and locations. What I finally decided on was a substantial departure from plan. My doorway is skinnier and offset to the port side, so a person stepping into the cabin won’t have to straddle the daggerboard. And I like the bold stroke of asymmetry—it creates a dynamic visual tension against the pure balance of the rest of the boat.


Uncharacteristically, I plopped onto my shop stool and for a good, long time contemplated making the drop boards and the tracks for them to slide in.

My lifelong nature is to plunge directly into a problem, acting on instinct/impulse. It looks like decisiveness, but really is just impatience, and it leads to good craftsmanship only occasionally, by accident. First impulse was to make the tracks with a router. I’m not very good with it, and this would be a character-building exercise. But it would also be a mahogany-wasting exercise. After considerable thought, I came up with an easier way: use the table saw to make the tracks out of two L-shaped pieces, to be glued to the edges of the companionway.

Now the only crafty skill Frame piece w sawwould be taking care to set the table saw for precise cuts. Not difficult; just requires patience.

It took me about three hours to make all six framing pieces for the companionway, but at the end they all fit almost perfectly and I had to make only one of them twice. With  minor touch-up sanding the boards slid smoothly into place.

Although I’m decidedly no Calvinist, I suppose I’ve always assumed that some souls are born predestined to be good craftsmen and others klutzes, and by lifelong

evidence I Detail of c'way trackwas one of the latter. But what I’m finally learning is that there’s more to craftsmanship than coordination, and that an innate deficit in eye-hand skill can be compensated elsewhere. A great part of craftsmanship is patience, and that can be learned. Another part is in what we can simply call “opening up”—contemplating the nature of the material, the job to be done, and the resources available to do it.

There’s great value in building a boat, and it’s not simply the big floaty thing you enjoy at the end. There are character-building lessons at every turn, and they all have application in the wider sphere of life.

Keeping it up

Monday, March 1st, 2010

March 2010


Nil Desperandum on March 1, 2010

When you’re building a boat, preserving momentum is vital. I mean personal momentum, the grit or gumption that keeps you going out to the boat shop every day to work on the beast. Novelist Annie Dillard says that

The Devlin Winter Wren — eventually

The Devlin Winter Wren — eventually

writing a book is like keeping a feral beast that must be visited daily if the writer is to preserve her mastery over it. “If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.” A boat is exactly like that.

After several months of slogging through mostly tedious projects on the boat I needed to make something pretty that would add a dramatic touch and pump up my enthusiasm. Decorative sheer strakes, or rails, seemed like the answer. And they’d be simple, just a couple of days’ interlude in the big project of finishing the inside of the hull.

What kind of wood? I did a small test with my stock of khaya mahogany and realized that I’d wipe out a $50 table saw blade slicing the necessary 40 feet of planks into the 1/8” thickness I needed. So I settled on vertical-grain fir, softer and with a resplendent sunlit-honey glow that contrasts nicely with the rich Interlux Lauderdale Blue color of the hull.

I’ll forego the excruciating details and just report that the two-day project stretched into three weeks. I ruined several pieces of VG fir before I got the hang of resawing it into the thin planks. I botched half a dozen strips of the same precious wood while making the moldings with the router. Somewhere in the middle of varnishing, which I decided to do before installation so as not to dribble varnish on the nice paint, I knocked one of the strakes over and put a three-foot-long rupture in it. (Rather than lose momentum making a new piece I closed the wound with epoxy.)

Even after all that effort, the finished pieces were far from perfect. I was half tempted to throw them out and start over when supportive neighbor Brian Kansky delicately reminded me that once Nil Desperandum visits a marina, these pieces are going to take a beating anyway. He’s right, of course, and it was a relief to abandon the prospect of building the damn things again.

Another kind neighbor, Ken Leisher, came over on a Sunday morning

The port strake with clamps

The port strake with clamps

and helped me epoxy the strakes in place. It wasn’t difficult, but it’s one of those jobs that unquestionably demands four hands. And a mountain of clamps. After the requisite amount of fussing and jiggling we had 35 on the port side alone, and had to delay the starboard installation a day.

Sheer strake at bow, before trimming

Sheer strake at bow, before trimming

Almost nothing else got done on the boat in February, but the varnished strakes have made a difference in my mood. It’s rewarding just to stand in the shop and stare at the boat now. The craftsmanship may be questionable, but it represents personal progress—three years ago I wouldn’t have attempted anything like this.

That’s a component of momentum, too.

I have about 1,020 hours in the boat so far, with at least that many more to go. Any time you take on a 2,000-hour project you’re going to have to devise ways to trick yourself into keeping enthusiasm and effort alive—the normal human brain just isn’t programmed for that kind of sustained momentum. Rewards must be woven into the grind.

That’s one more lesson that could transfer seamlessly from boatbuilding to life.

Reflections on the art of the possible

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

February 2010

I’m a fan of non-glossy varnish. Call it ignorance, call it chicken, call it the path of least resistance, but it’s working for me. I’m brushing all of Nil Desperandum’s brightwork with Epifanes Woodfinish Matte. You can assess the results from a couple of photos.


Here’s the mast tabernacle, which turned out to be January’s main project—a really strong, heavy chingadero made of khaya mahogany. (It’ll bolt to a reinforced cabin front and 3-inch-thick laminated deck beam with six 6-inch stainless steel carriage bolts).

ceiling planks

And here are some of the cabin hull ceiling planks, ¼-inch vertical-grain fir, removed for their varnishing:

Why a matte finish? It’s vastly more forgiving than glossy varnish. Doesn’t show bubbles, waves, ridges, dips, chicken pox, or any other embarrassing surface geography. Yes, it’s much less showy than a flawlessly reflective varnish job. But we nonprofessionals have so little hope of pulling off the latter. My philosophy is to cultivate the art of the possible—and to let the natural beauty of the wood’s grain and color make its own statement, unadorned.

Or, as a Charles Schulz Peanuts cartoon from ‘way back in the ‘60s said (through a sick-grinning Charlie Brown): “I feel much better now that I’ve given up all hope.”

I didn’t make great progress on the boat in January due to heavy teaching duties. But I did complete the tabernacle, the hull ceiling, and passed an important milestone: the boat is now guaranteed to float. By that I mean I’ve now completed more than enough watertight flotation compartments and foam installations to counter Nil Desperandum’s 700 pounds of lead ballast and batteries.

I’ve made use of every possible minicell foamcranny. There was a ¾-inch space between the inside of the hull and the ceiling planks, so I bought a roll of minicell foam of the same thickness, cut pieces to fit, and installed them behind the ceiling. There’s about 2,500 cubic inches of the stuff, enough to counter 90 pounds of lead.

There are three or four more air or foam compartments to make, and by the time I’m  finished I’ll have flotation exceeding ballast by at least 20 percent—not counting the bouyancy of all the wood. That margin of safety is already making me feel very good about this boat.

There’s one small thing I didn’t feel very good about in January’s work.

Two of the ceiling planks turned out to have some natural discoloration in them—pale brown-green streaks several feet long. The flaw was barely noticeable on the unfinished wood, but the varnish upped the contrast.

Discolored planks

I debated it with myself for several days. Why not let the wood be what it is? (Knots never trouble me unless they’re going to weaken a structure.) Is this a resurgence of the old perfectionist impulse?

Finally I asked my wife Patty to come out to the shop and offer her opinion. She said, perceptively, “I think it’s going to bother you every time you go into the cabin and see it.” I knew she was right, and that was really all it took. I unscrewed the offending planks and made replacements. It took about an hour.

How good is good enough? That’s one of life’s central issues, and as with so many others, building a wooden boat is a remarkable instructor.

Ultimately, it comes down to how the issue in question makes you feel. It’s as simple as that. Pride or embarrassment? Pleasure or disgust? Play the movie forward, imagine yourself in the boat (or house, or job, or marriage) a year or two in the future. The emotion that stirs tells you what you should do.

Next month: I really, really need to complete the cabin area from sole to sheer. I’ve been messing with it for too long. Nil Desperandum’s projected launch date is June 2011. Feels like a deadline—and a needed motivational force.

WW from bow

January 2010

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010
Nil Desperandum at the dawn of 2010.

Nil Desperandum at the dawn of 2010.

Wasn’t that long ago in human history that hardware had to be handmade. Nails, door hinges, coathooks—every metal component of every building, buggy, or boat was the product of someone’s individual craftsmanship.

Nobody in right mind craves to go back to the crepuscular days before machine production. Yet, occasionally when we do, by choice, it’s a revelation.

I was having no luck finding chainplates for Nil Desperandum. Chainplates are the bronze or stainless steel straps that bolt to the hull as attachment points for the shrouds, or guy wires, that support the mast. The big Seattle chandlery, Fisheries Supply, had a few, but the version that came closest to the specs for my Devlin Winter Wren were heavy and ugly and $92 apiece. The 21st century’s most dazzling technology—a Google foray in search of used chainplates—failed, for once.

But we have an amazing concentration of  oddball artisans here on Whidbey Island, and this past year a small sign for a business called Renaissance Metal Shop had gone up on a rural road a mile from my house. I made a scale drawing of the chainplates I envisioned and dropped in. “No problem,” said metal artist John Moritz, and later in the week I brought him a scrap of silicon bronze I had picked up in Seattle.

2 chainplates

Nil Desperandum decked out in her new jewelry

Two days later my chainplates were ready. They were, in a word, beautiful. “I hope it’s all right that they look handmade.” Moritz said, a tint of worry in his voice. “Of course,” I said. “The whole boat is handmade.”

In a provocative little book chainplate closeuptitled The Nature and Art of Workmanship published 40 years ago, British industrial designer David Pye laid out a distinction between what he called the “workmanship of  risk” and the “workmanship of certainty.” While not damning mass production, Pye said it is so important to keep the workmanship of risk alive—the crafting of things by hand, where the quality of the production depends on the artisan’s experience, skill, and values—that it goes right to the heart of civilization itself.

I polished and drilled Moritz’s chainplates and installed them on the hull—with bronze bolts, of course, and on the outside, instead of hidden inside like the chainplates on modern production sailboats.

A whole convergence of fine things have happened here. I saved money myself, while contributing to our island economy. Nil Desperandum acquired a bit of functional jewelry that’s entirely in keeping with her character. The structural necessity of chainplates will be outside, in plain view, and it’ll be like seeing physics tangibly at work on the boat, the loads on the mast flowing down into the structure of the hull.

In other December work, I decided that instead of painting the inside of the hull I would finish it with a plank ceiling—which in boatspeak is the hull’s interior walls, not the cabin roof.

It’s painstaking work. I have to resaw vertical-grain fir into ¼-inch-thick planks and fit each one individually, then screw it onto vertical strips I’ve glued inside the hull. All these planks will be removable, of course, in case work on the hull ever becomes necessary (tightening the chainplate bolts, for example).

The starboard fir ceiling with mahogany book rack

The starboard fir ceiling with mahogany book rack

The photo here shows the ceiling in place from the deck beam to the aft cabin bulkhead. It’s not finished yet. In January I’ll remove the planks piece by piece for improved fitting, beveling the edges, and varnishing. And then I’ll plank from the deck beam forward to the anchor locker bulkhead.

Is the extra cost and labor worth it? I think so. When I sit in what will become the cabin, there’s a tangible sensation of warmth and welcome from the natural wood grain that just wouldn’t be there in a painted enclosure.

It’s just like the slight randomness of the metal artist’s handmade chainplates. I think that in certain contexts—a Boeing 737 at 35,000 feet, for example—we’re reassured by the precision of perfect, machine-made environments. But in others, we have an intrinsic craving for connections to the natural world, which is something we’ve almost lost. Varnished wood, with the infinite variety of grain patterns, establishes one connection. A handmade sailboat, if it works right, is a connection to the full spectrum of nature’s cycles.

In January: Work will alternate between finishing the ceiling and building the mast tabernacle—like the chainplates, a beefy bit of structure. A lesson I’ve learned in boatbuilding is to alternate repetitive tasks like planking the ceiling with something entirely different. When work on one project threatens to stall because it’s tedious work, there’s an alternative that preserves forward progress.

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

If it were all fun, all the time, everybody’d be doing it.

But a lot of the work of building a boat is slow, painstaking, rife with potential for ugly mistakes, and likely to keep you awake at 3 a.m.

Nil Desperandum on Nov. 1, 2009

Nil Desperandum on Nov. 1, 2009

Most of October’s work falls into that lumpy category. I built the berth flat, flotation compartments, and battery hold in the bilge. I perched on my shop stool for hours staring at the blue beast, trying to figure out a (a) cheap (b) strong (c) decent-looking, and (d) buildable compression post. I spent another Big Gulp of cash on goop, literally: another gallon of epoxy and several tubes of 3M’s 5200 adhesive/sealant, the modern boatbuilder’s salvation unguent.

The Devlin Winter Wren plans Whole berth flatcall for a raised, ½-inch plywood floor from the anchor locker to the daggerboard case. Eventually outfitted with a custom-made, form-fitted foam cushion (whir of money taking wing), this will form the berth flat, or bed.

I complicated the matter by turning the various spaces under the flat into several of the watertight compartments that will keep Nil Desperandum* afloat despite her 700 pounds of ballast if the worst happens, a capsize and total swamping.

Designer Sam Devlin heard about my idea and strongly suggested I not permanently seal the compartments, but preserve access through watertight screw-in deck plates. Open deck plateI bitched and moaned about the extra cost and work, but seeing as how Sam has built about 350 more boats than I have, I figured I should follow his advice.

Now that I’ve done it, I’m glad. The deck plates, recessed into the plywood with router and chisel and sealed with 5200, actually look cool. And besides providing a way to peer in and check for water penetration, they turn the chambers into storage crannies for items like spare rope and tools.

The biggest chamber won’t be sealed. It’s to hold 240 pounds of lead ballast plus two beefy 100 amp-hour deep-cycle batteries (each weighing another 65 pounds).

Bilge with battery compartment and 200 lb. ballast (not yet locked in).

Bilge with battery compartment and 200 lb. ballast (not yet locked in).

Why so much juice for a small boat? I detest gasoline outboards—honestly, not as much for environmental reasons as for their noise, vibration and general crankiness—so I’m planning a Torqueedo electric motor for auxiliary drive. Clean, quiet, and more insane extra expense. But one of the few defensible reasons for building your own boat is to be able to build exactly what you want.

The compression post literally led to several October mornings awake at 3 a.m., staring at the predawn ceiling and gnawing at the problem. Devlin’s plans are not rich in detail and do not explain what the compression post is supposed to look like or how it’s to be built, only that there must be one. The post obviously has to be strong, since it has to carry some of the mast’s load off the deck beam and into the bottom of the hull. Since the post bursts up through the middle of the berth to the deck, it should be compact and nicely finished, a piece of the cabin furniture.

A friend helpfully donated a beefy piece of stainless steel pipe. But it was an unusual size and I couldn’t find fittings that would help attach it to the berth flat and beam.

I talked to a bronze supply company in Colorado. They had beautiful bronze pipe, of which they would sell me a six-foot length for $240. But I needed only two feet.

A neighbor was walking his dogs past my garage—a Boeing engineer neighbor—and I invited him in for a consultation. Very helpfully and adeptly, he studied the plans, then  picked up a spare wooden stick and demonstrated how the loads would act on the post. For the first time, it made complete sense. A big thanks, Ian.

The solution I’m now making is one of the two he recommended, and it’s the simplest, cheapest and prettiest: A $7.95 galvanized steel pipe from the neighborhood hardware store, to be cocooned in epoxy inside a mahogany post. Here’s a section

Mockup section of compression post

Mockup section of compression post

I cobbled up from scraps as a trial, then the complete post ready for bonding together. It’s fairly easy to make and appears as though it will work perfectly.

As I related in my book The Year of the Boat, there

compression post ready for bonding

compression post ready for bonding

are endless lessons with wider life   applications to be learned in building a small sailboat. Here was one: So often we burden our lives with systems of excessive cost and complexity. Sometimes we can’t help it—the burdens are forced onto us—but when we have a choice, the simplest solution is also likely to be the most elegant.

And the most conducive to a good night’s sleep.

* Not to Worry

October 2009

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

Sam Devlin nailed it with eerie prescience. He wrote Devlin’s Boat Building, the bible of modern stitch-and-glue construction, almost fifteen years ago, and in it he predicted exactly where I would be on October 3, 2009:


The Winter Wren, post-turnover

The Winter Wren, post-turnover

“Guard against post-rollover stall-out,” he warns (p. 141). “Don’t be overwhelmed by the number of projects yet to be completed, and resist making a list of them. Just pick them off one by one …”

September had seemed like a good month in the boat shop.

The Winter Wren's bottom

The Winter Wren's bottom

I gave the bottom three coats of antifouling, cut a heart-stopping two-inch hole in the hull and installed the depth sounder, cobbled up a waterline-simulator with a sawhorse and a bunch of clamps and painted a hole for depth sounderstripe, and finally rolled on three base coats of topside paint.

Usually topside paint waits till near the end of construction. A lot could happen to the sides of the boat over the next year or two, including spills, scrapes and unanticipated holes to be drilled. But it looked easier to put at least the base coats on while the boat was still inverted, so I did. I also craved the selfish pleasure, frankly, of seeing my boat try on her party dress. Nothing makes as big a difference in appearance as quickly as paint.

And pleasure it is. The color is Interlux “Lauderdale blue.” I stirred in a 50 percent mix of flattening agent to leave a satin finish instead of high gloss, which helps mask the many surface imperfections. More credit to Interlux than to me, but it looks stunning.

On the last weekend in September, three neighbors and I rolled her upright again. No mishaps, no 911 calls—and the engineer among us noted that he heard no creaks or groans, aside from those emitted by the crew, and proclaimed that a good sign of  structural integrity.

But now, just as Devlin predicted, I’m suffering post-rollover blues. The work of finishing all the interior structures—cabin sole, cockpit sole, ballast, battery compartments, bilge pump, compression post, storage compartments, on and on and on—looks like it’s stretching into infinity. It’s daunting and discouraging.

Of course Devlin is right in advising to “just pick them off one by one.” But it’s an emotional hurdle I’m not over yet. It’s going to require a few more days of sitting on my shop stool, staring at the great blue thing that is not yet a boat.

The blue thing does Nil Desperandumnow have a name: Nil Desperandum.

I’ve bounced it off several friends, Not all of them have liked it. One cracked, “If you get in trouble out there, better hope the Roman Coast Guard is around.”

I like it very much. It’s a reminder I need constantly, even when sitting on the shop stool, staring and feeling overwhelmed. Advice from the Roman poet Horace, it translates: “Quit worrying, dummy.”

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The second weekend in September I went to the annual Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival, which grows more spectacular every year.

Peter Gron and I gave a joint talk on “Perfectionism and the Wooden Boat,” illustrating our differing approaches on how meticulous one should be in building a boat. Peter is vastly more skilled, methodical, and patient than I am, and his Devlin Arctic Tern, now approaching completion, sets standards that will send most other amateurs, and some professionals, into stark raving paroxysms of envy.

Even so, he’s been an inspiration (and a generous source of advice), and I’m a better boatbuilder because of him. Visit his blog here.

The festival is also

Jibsheet led through cam cleat—way cool.

Jibsheet led through cam cleat—way cool.

a fountain of practical ideas. As long as they’ve been around, sailboats are still floating galaxies of problems, and amateur and pro builders alike keep devising better ways to deal with them. One revolutionary

idea I may borrow for  Nil Desperandum is builder Barrett Faneuf’s cam cleats for the jibsheets. If the jib isn’t big enough to demand winches, why not use the quickest, easiest way to secure them?

Exquisitely homemade Wiley ports—an inexpensive, lightweight alternative to stainless steel portlights

Exquisitely homemade Wiley ports—an inexpensive, lightweight alternative to stainless steel portlights

Finally, the festival is a minefield of lethal boat lust.

In The Year of the Boat I wrote how my normally wise, prudent, and rational wife Patty fell for a colossal wooden boat years ago before we even knew how to sail and was hatching a plan to convert our home equity into it. And also moving aboard. I intervened. In September she did it again—or

"Ripple," a 26' Atkin gaff cutter

"Ripple," a 26' Atkin gaff cutter

more accurately, a festival boat for sale did it to her. It was a 26’ Atkin gaff cutter, beautiful condition, good price. Once again I exercised my veto, but this time it was hard: I had no trouble imagining us sailing the whee off this beauty, and lavishing the care on her that she would demand.

But there’s only so much time and energy in a human life, and dividing it among five wooden boats—two kayaks, one completed daysailer, one cruiser-in-the-making, the Atkin cutter, and, yes, our day jobs—is asking the impossible. That doesn’t always stop wooden boat enthusiasts, but it made us pause. At least till next year’s festival.

Here’s a photographic sprinkling of boats and details from Port Townsend 2009.

A 16'6" Devlin Eider, predecessor to the 18'8" Winter Wren

A 16'6" Devlin Eider, predecessor to the 18'8" Winter Wren

The shapely rump of Pax, festival director Kaci Cronkhite's lovely 1936 spidsgatter

The shapely rump of Pax, festival director Kaci Cronkhite's lovely 1936 spidsgatter


"Martha," a 102-year-old schooner designed by B.B. Crowninshield, the most beautiful boat on the planet.

September 2009

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

One crucial difference between pro and amateur boatbuilders:

The Winter Wren's skeg with helpful boulder

The Winter Wren's skeg with helpful boulder

A pro would not wander out and harvest a handy boulder to weight down a glued piece where a clamp wouldn’t fit. Or if he did, he wouldn’t post a picture of it on his website.

An amateur will improvise recklessly, even proudly, and admit to it all. In lieu of clamps I’ve deployed bungee cords, rubber bands, springy sticks propped against walls and ceilings, Zip-loc baggies of lead shot, and of course, boulders.

My operational philosophy,

A pro-built Winter Wren by designer/builder Sam Devlin

A pro-built Winter Wren by designer/builder Sam Devlin

in life and in boatbuilding: Whatever works is good.

This last month the big job was attaching the shoe keel and external stem, which together form an impact-absorbing strip along the centerline of the boat. The keel grows into a finlike skeg near the stern, which assists tracking. The boulder and clamps in the photo secured a quarter-inch-thick oak strip intended to be replaceable after it gets scraped and battered.

The stem is also decorative, as it defines the cut of the bow above the stem 9.1waterline. Since it had to be laminated in order to follow the bow’s curvature, I slipped in a couple of layers of pinkish khala mahogany among the white oak. It turned out nicely, although I’m a little worried about the fragility of the skinny part at the top end of the bow. It will eventually plug into a bowsprit, which may protect it from crunches.

The terrible problem was cutting and trimming the pieces to adjust to the continually changing curvature of the hull. I’ll spare the intimate details, but it required many cardboard templates, router, chisel, and three kinds of sanders.

I made it more, not less, difficult with what turned out to be a dumb idea. To increase the lever arm of the ballast, I wanted to get as much of the specified 685 pounds of lead ballast outside the hull, hanging below like in a full-keel sailboat. I drilled 30 one-inch holes in the 1.75-inch-deep shoe keel and poured them full of lead shot and epoxy. The holes accommodated a total of 7.5 pounds of lead—1.1% of the ballast. Very impressive effort.

Professional boatbuilders, of course, execute dumb ideas, too, and they charge real money for them. Twice this summer I sailed a $200,000 French yacht that had the engine controls—throttle and shift—way down on the cockpit floor. You’re nervously guiding this costly monster into a crowded slip, and you have to keep looking away from where it’s going while you bend down to adjust the power.

During August I also finished fairing the outside of the hull—smoothing the surface in preparation for painting—and engaged another bout against that old latent demon, perfectionism.

The Winter Wren, ready to have her bottom painted

The Winter Wren, ready to have her bottom painted

Professional boatbuilders need to finish every visible square inch of a boat to a high standard; it’s evidence of a deeper attention to detail. And they know how to do it efficiently.

I know some amateurs who, though less efficient, hold themselves to the same standard. A mediocre square inch, even in a place that won’t ever be seen by anyone except mussels and salmon—the bottom of the hull—is a testament to their failed dedication. It’s practically a moral issue.

I was working long and hard, grinding away with sandpaper on the Winter Wren’s bottom, carefully surveying each section with fingertips, and despairing of ever finishing the damn boat, when I suddenly straightened up and said (almost out loud) “Hey! Do I want a usable sailboat or a bloody moral testament?”

At that, I gave myself permission to sand the bottom to a lousier level of imperfection than the topsides.

I explored this issue in The Year of the Boat, where among other reflections on perfectionism I quoted designer/builder Sam Devlin: “As you’ve learned, you can work on these things forever. There’s no end to how far you can take it. The place where we stop is the place where it’s better than what we did on the boat just before.”

This makes perfect sense for pro or amateur. And yes, this boat is—so far—better than the daysailer that came before it (named, affectionately, Far From Perfect).

For an amateur, whose time and boatbuilding chops are necessarily limited, a boat should not be seen as an avatar of one’s moral character, but simply a chart of personal growth in skill and values. For me, at least, that seems more realistic and manageable.

And it sure as hell relieves the pressure.

March 2009

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2009

Yesterday I gave a luncheon talk for a Seattle yacht club on “Imperfectionism and the Wooden Boat,” a topic I know a great deal about.

I wrestled with it throughout The Year of the Boat, but the issue doesn’t go away when you embark on a second boat. If anything, it gets worse because the second boat is always more complicated and you are now more demanding of yourself. When the demands outpace the boatbuilding skills, you feel dumb and inept.

 And they always do.

 Throughout February I worked on taping my hull and bulkhead seams.

Taped seams at the forward bulkhead

Taped seams at the forward bulkhead

This means laying down three overlapping layers of glass cloth and wetting them out with epoxy. There are about 110 feet of seams and junctions in this boat, so it’s not a minor job.


My glasswork will not be confused with Dale Chihuly sculpture. It’s wavy, uneven, ragged at the edges. It has a pre-industrial appearance, like a weekend project by Fred Flintstone. All through the month I kept thinking I ought to be doing better, but I don’t seem to have the chops.

Morale improved slightly when I referred to Peter Gron’s website, where he described his seam-taping woes in 2005. Even meticulous craftsmen like Peter struggle with this step.

I’ve now devised two solutions.

Microballooned epoxy after sanding

 The first is to lather the taped seams that are going to show with a microballoon/epoxy mix and sand, sand, sand until the surfaces are finally smooth or the universe explodes, whichever comes first. Microballoons, which are phenolic grains filled with air, at least are easier to sand than pure epoxy.

The second is to let go of those considerable stretches where seams will be under the cockpit sole etc, and quit caring whether they look good. In fact, I’ve decided to build watertight flotation compartments in several crannies of the hull so the boat will float even if capsized. Wouldn’t it take a sick mind to sweat over finely finishing a seam that’ll be locked away in eternal darkness?

A South African friend, Davout Van Zyl, is building the same boat I am (the Winter Wren II by Sam Devlin), and he recently sent photos of wooden boatbuilding he encountered on a beach in Zanzibar.

Ribs and planking of Zanzibar boat

Ribs and planking of Zanzibar boat

By the standards of a shop equipped with modern machine tools the workmanship seems crude, but what these craftsmen accomplish honors human intelligence and culture. They create boats that fit their needs, and do it well.


 If those needs don’t include building monuments to their egos, then they may be more enlightened as to the spirit of true craftsmanship than those of us who still struggle with perfectionism.

 A German artist named Samuel Buettner said: “The perfectionist gives his best out of fear. Those who strive for excellence do it out of love.”


Completing the boat

Completing the boat

And in response to my admission at yesterday’s yacht club talk that my Winter Wren hull is about ¾ of an inch out of symmetry, an old sailor snorted, “So what? You see any people who are exactly the same on port and starboard?”