Monday, February 27, 2012

Keel Assembly

At some point during the blazing summer, the main keel timber twisted so much that if you looked aft down the timber, the left edge was about an inch off the cradle. I was in a sorry state of affairs for a couple of days after coming back from vacation and noticing this, but then just planed down the top surface of the timber so it was level again and proceeded with life as normal. This was the first in what I imagine will be a long line of oy vey occurrences in which I will need to remember that this is a boat, not a rocket ship.

After epoxying some of the deadwood and a fore knee to the main timber, I started looking around for ballast and floor bolts. I got really excited when I found a company selling galvanized timber bolts for cheap in Virginia and ordered a bunch from them. As an afterthought, I called back five minutes later and asked if the threads were cut or rolled. This is kind of a big deal because rolled threads would mean that I'd have to drill a hole larger than the shaft of the bolt to get the thing through which means I would have little springs of water gurgling up through the keel into the hull. The very nice man who answered said that indeed they were rolled and cancelled my order for me. I ended up getting the bolts custom made by a company in Houston called Madden Bolt, and they did a fantastic job.

Here some of the keel chunks are glued together and I have the keel laid on its side to plane it down. I don't think I'd drilled for the ballast and floor bolts yet. Note the curved thing in the foreground with all the clamps-- that's the deck beam mold.

Here the keel has been painted with copper naphthenate as a preservative, the ballast and floor bolts have been driven in, and some rebar is being zip-tied/wired to the ballast bolts to support the scrap metal that will be suspended in the concrete ballast.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Laminating the Keel

Once I had all the patterns I needed for the keel chunks, I assembled a cradle from 4x6s fastened with lag bolts and started laminating the pieces of keel from thinner stock. Several hundred board feet of Southern Yellow Pine 2x8s, 7 gallons of epoxy and 15 gallons of fumed silica later, I had my keel chunks laminated.

There were big lessons learned in the process:

1) I will need about 500 clamps to build this boat.

2) It would have been ideal to buy the construction grade lumber I used at the exact moment I needed it and no sooner. Even when stacked properly in a rather consistent climate (the desert), it tended to warp and twist and required all manner of cursing, cajoling, and sweet-talking to get it to laminate up into a straight chunk of wood. I guess it's good to make do with what you have. If I waited for the perfect tools, the perfect materials, the perfect budget, and the perfect place to build, I'd probably never get started.

3) Epoxy is not fun to work with. Laminating the keel with epoxy made the decision to plank the boat rather than use plywood easy.

As I laminated a piece, I traced the shape of the pattern on each face and cut them a little outside the lines with my Skillsaw. Then I took a chainsaw and cut down until I met the Skillsaw cuts on each side and then whacked off the chunks with a hatchet and chisel. A power planer was my best friend in getting the pieces true to shape.


Boat building in hindsight: For the next boat (a 50 ft. cargo junk schooner, perhaps?), I will definitely buy the timbers I'll need rather than laminate them from thinner stock-- it should be much cheaper and easier.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Lofting began in March 2011. Just in case you are new to boat building-- lofting is where the builder takes the "lines plan" from her blue prints and draws it out life-size. This way, the builder can be sure that the sheer and the chine are fair (not lumpy). It is then possible to take more accurate measurements from this big drawing.

I approached the lofting step with a bit of apprehension- it seemed that it was something that people were afraid of, as evidenced by boat designers advertising, "NO LOFTING NEEDED! Full size patterns included!" I figured that if those designers were selling full-sized patterns, then there must be some sort of demand for them from boat building folk. I also figured that all boat building folk are more experienced than I am. It then follows that if those people preferred full size patterns, what was I doing thinking I could loft-- much less build a boat?
But I tried anyway. I ordered some Tyvek housewrap on eBay to use as my lofting paper. The more traditional approach is to draw the boat directly on the floor, or use builder's paper-- but the Tyvek ended up working out really well. The morning dew didn't do any damage, and the sand that inevitably gets into everything here (even my bed) didn't grind its surface away. Plus, I'll be able to re-use this tough stuff later to make ultra-light duffel bags and a sail for the dinghy. 

Maybe I could even plate the hull with it like this guy.

In any case, the process ended up being really simple:
1. Draw a bunch of straight lines.
2. Draw five curved lines and make sure they aren't lumpy.
3. Measure everything.

The only materials I really needed were an 8 x 32 ft. piece of Tyvek, duct tape, a long piece of pine trim from Home Depot to use as a batten, several different colors of marking pens, a tape measure, some 8D nails, some 1/4" staples to staple the Tyvek to the lofting floor, and a straight edge (ripped from a piece of 1/4" 4 x 8 ply).

I was about halfway done when I came to the shop one afternoon to find that a little over a quarter of my lofting had been eaten. I found the culprits in the mechanic's garage next door, but they were just too cute to scold. I cut out the chewed-up parts, made a big patch out of builder's paper, fortified the lofting floor, and finished up a few days later.

The puppy perps

I made patterns of the keel pieces using strips of quarter inch ply and staples. This made the chunks of keel easy to cut out accurately later. Note the jugs of water-- Mrs. Alvarez took pity on me when the dogs ate my lofting and brought me the jugs saying it would keep the dogs away. I'm not too superstitious, but it was a nice gesture.

Ramon measuring angles to use later in beveling the frames.

Honestly, it was pretty easy. Granted, I won't know if I did it right until the frames are up, but hopefully my sheer and chine don't look hilly.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Setting up Shop

Things got rolling in December 2010 when I asked Mr. and Mrs. Alvarez, the ranch owners, if I might rent a space from them to build a boat. Mrs. Alvarez yelled out to Mr. Alvarez in the truck, "Daniel! Ms. Keenan wants to build a boat to take us on a cruise!" Mr. Alvarez came in and simply asked, "Do you think it'll float?" I said "yes" and that was that. I had a place. 

I returned to the ranch in early January 2011 with my brother after spending Christmas in Iowa and ordered lumber for the lofting floor and keel from a local building supply company. When it arrived I built a crude bench and tool cabinet. The bench and tool cabinet were really the first things I'd ever built (aside from Sputnik-- my weekend dinghy now infested with termites) and I had a hell of a time driving those screws. I also bought most of the tools I’d need from Harbor Freight (go ahead and cringe, wooden boat purists), and moved them into my workshop.

The ground in the shed was as hard as rock and not at all level, so I spent some time leveling a 10 ft. by 32 ft. section for the lofting floor and subsequent boat cradle. I built the lofting floor from 8 sheets of ¾” plywood subfloor screwed into 1 x 6's laid out on the ground every 2 feet. This produced a level, stable lofting floor from materials I’ll be re-using later in the building process. The 1x6's will be used again to brace the frames before they are installed and then probably as part of the cradle. I’ll use a couple of sheets of the subfloor for frame gussets. The faces of the subfloor aren’t pretty, but paneled with some beadboard they might make some acceptable bulkheads. The subfloor is made with exterior glue, but I’ll do a boil test on a sample just to be sure. 
I also read in George Buehler’s book that it might be okay to use subfloor as material for the house walls. I intend to fiberglass the house anyway, so if the subfloor holds up well in the boil test, I’ll have some inexpensive house walls. I cut into some of the sheets and didn’t see any voids. This stuff appears to be pretty okay.

Ground leveled and lofting floor complete.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Construction philosophy

The more I read about fine boat building the more I realized it really wasn't for me. I just don't have the skills. I'm still going to think my boat's beautiful--even if it doesn't have a lot of fancy joinery or bright work. I would be deliriously happy with a strong, stout boat that appears clean and neat, so I'm aiming for that.

I do hope my boat has some character. I once lived in an old carriage house in Iowa nestled in a rather eccentric community of artists and writers (Kurt Vonnegut once lived one house to the West and Gene Wilder one house to the East). Though there were downsides, like when my housemate had seven pot-smoking youths living in the tiny bedroom next to mine during midterms (I wish I would  have recorded the sounds coming out of that room), the place had character. You wouldn't say it was well-crafted by any stretch, but it was kept up decently and the space was very pleasant and warm.

Here you see about 85% of the old place.
I was looking at this photograph the other day when trying to decide what made this place special to my eye. I realized the main elements were the warm, unvarnished wood planking, the old furnishings made during a time when design and durability mattered, and the way the unique shape of the windows allowed light into the room. Hopefully, I can incorporate these elements into the finished boat.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Decision to Build a Boat

"The desire to build a boat is one of those that cannot be resisted. It begins as a little cloud on a serene horizon. It ends by covering the whole sky, so that you can think of nothing else. You must build to regain your freedom." 
-Arthur Ransome, 1923

If your goal is to sail the world on a limited budget (in my case, very limited), it really makes no sense to build a boat yourself. The materials for the bare hull are often far more expensive than a turn-key secondhand boat. Most would-be backyard boat builders don't want believe this-- they think, "Well, those people must be using expensive, exotic hardwoods for their boat. I'm going to build mine to workboat standards." or "I can buy un-milled lumber and do the milling myself" or some variety of, "Well, I'm different." I know people think this because I thought it, and I've heard it from many armchair boat builders. I now know that it is not true-- I got some amazing deals on materials, found salvaged hardware on eBay, I'm using roofing tar as my bedding compound, galvanized iron fastenings, and white porch paint to finish her off. Luna is not just a workboat, she is a down home workboat. And I have still spent way more than I would have on a used boat. In fact, had I purchased a used boat, I might already be out on the water like these awesome folks. Sometimes in life you have to do what you want, even if it doesn't make sense.

I really just wanted to build a wooden boat. I knew it was impractical, nonsensical, and that I didn't have the skills or know-how, but I was taken by the romance and beauty of wooden boat building. Funny enough, I've found you don't need to know much about wooden boats to begin building one. Lucky for me, I came across George Buehler's designs and book. This guy is really extraordinary. He's pared down the beautifully complex combination of art and science of boat building for those of us who just want a safe boat to go to sea in. No treatises on hydrodynamic theory, no hand waving, no boat building mysticism. Just practical, lay instructions on how to build a boat. Simple. 

down home boat building fun
(17 bucks on Amazon)

Granted, due to my lack of experience, I will be churning out a vessel more akin to a swamp boat than a fine New England yacht, but I'd be willing to bet the Clampetts had a heckuva lot more fun than the Vanderbilts.
Lastly, this documentary perfectly captures the essence of wooden boat building (click below to watch it for free!):

"Building Charlotte"-- A beautiful documentary about the Gannon and Benjamin Marine Railway, an extraordinary boatyard located on Martha's Vineyard.