Posts Tagged ‘spars’

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.