Correcting Mistakes I

Today, the chickens come home to roost.  Remember that pesky three degree error?  As we assembled each of the stringers, we could see that the pieces didn't come together quite right.  It would have been laborious but simple enough to cut new ones, but oh no. 

I figured I could just cheat the difference on either side.  But that left an irritating overhang on the ends of the stringers.  We knew that when we put sheeting on the ends, that little overhang was going to be a problem.

So I attacked the overhang with a handsaw. 

And then a sander.

It came out looking pretty sweet. 

Three degree error erased.  Like it never occurred.  Maybe we can just forget it ever happened.  (Well, except for the blog, I guess.)

So now we put the first thin coat of epoxy on all the frames.

This prepares the way for us to start sheeting the bottom and the ends.

Cross beams

This was an exciting day because for the first time, the boat was one piece.  Not just a pile of lumber.  Not just a bunch of stringers.  But one single solid piece that was even boat shaped.  More or less.

Earlier when we were making the pieces for the stringers we trimmed a bunch of edges off of 2x4s.  Now we got to use the table saw to make some really weird-shaped boards.

We cut an edge off here, and a corner here.  There was a beam on either side of the bottom, a beam on either side of the top (the one near the ground since the hull is being built upside down), and a porch beam  that supported the edge of each of the two porches, for a total of six beams that hold the boat together latitudinally.

We epoxied and screwed these beams into place, making the boat a single piece.  We were so stoked that we pretty much took a photo from every possible angle.

There is an additional bonus beam not pictured here that we totally forgot until later.  It is clearly indicated in the plans, has notches in the stringers and so on.  I just overlooked it when we were makin' stuff.  It is the motorwell mount.  It goes across the raked end of the bow, uh stern.  We realized it was missing after we finished the beams and so notched the stringers and installed it.  So imagine that in the photo below.

And then Kai took a nap.

Side Stringers

The side stringers are the sides of the boat.  So far everything we've been doing was stuff inside; here we finally tackle something that will ultimately keep water out.  Yikes!  And because of the complexity of the build and our boat-tardedness,  it took us about seven hours per side to assemble.

In our last build day, we finished assembling the keel stringer and the two skeg stringers.  We used the plywood  cut for the side stringers as a pattern to ensure that all of the stringers would be identical(ish). 

I'll spell a few things out here so you can appreciate the challenge of assembling the side stringers:
  • The plywood for the sides was in 3 big pieces; 
  • There were two long (and slightly warped) pieces for the top and bottom, and two end pieces cut at a slightly incorrect angle (remember that pesky 3 degrees?); 
  • Once the pieces are coated in thickened epoxy, everything is slipperier than a greased pig; 
  • And to top it all off, all screws holding it all together needed to go in from the outside (plywood side) with all the loosey goosey bits skittering around underneath as we try to put in screws from above.
Pretty much a recipe for disaster.

We hit on a helpful idea:  Temporary screws from the inside.  We could butter it up, put the pieces in place, and use temporary screws all the way through the two-by pieces and the plywood to hold everything together.  Then we can flip the whole thing over and put all the permanent screws in the plywood from the outside.  Later we remove the temporary screws.

Okay!  Sounds like a plan.  Or a sketch of a plan.  A lot of critical things needed to go right, so we made a step-by-step plan.  Later referred to in arguments during the day as "The Plan."  As in "Stick to The Plan!" or "Oh God, are we changing The Plan?"

The Plan was the thin dividing line between slightly stressful work and sheer madness.  The illustration on the corner of The Plan was what we didn't want to happen.

So we did the usual and put wax paper under everything, and coated everything with the first thin coat of epoxy.  This is more like painting, familiar, and not too hectic.

Then we tackled the butt blocks.  This is where the sheets of plywood that form the sides meet.  We put these in first, because we wanted to make sure that when we started attaching the two-by pieces the plywood wouldn't move or shift.  The butt blocks are six inches wide, buttered liberally with thickened epoxy (including between the two ends of the plywood) and secured with an assload of screws.

Then we got serious and epoxied all the two-by bit, including all of the ends where they would meet each other.  We secured them down temporarily with long deck screws to the plywood (and accidentally to the floor in a few places).

In a harrowing effort (would it stay together?!) we flipped the stringer over so the plywood side was facing up.  Now we could put in all of the stainless steel screws required by the plan.  A screw every two or three inches.  That's a lot.

At this point, we are tired, probably dehydrated, covered in sticky epoxy, tangled in extension cords, our hair is falling in our eyes as we bend down, and little flies have decided that now would be a good time to investigate our nose and ears.  Our latex gloves are torn and getting tangled in the drill bit as it turns, the screws are not very sharp and so are not going in very readily, and there is still a lot of work to be done before the epoxy completely sets.  Just wanted to set the scene here.

But naturally, we handled it with superhuman grace, no one got frustrated whatsoever, and we maintained our amazing good humor throughout.  Any stories you hear to the contrary are lies made up by our enemies to slander us.

Kai hit on the brilliant idea to start the screws in the proper location with a few knocks of the hammer.  So she went around, ahead of the drill, putting in screws at the requisite distance, staggering them as necessary.  Again, we'd discovered the razor edge of sanity and found the narrow path just this side of it.

So in the end, we had a side stringer.  And after another long day, we had two side stringers.  Woot. 

Here, all five stringers are in place.  The cross beams connecting them are a sneak preview of the next build day.  

Again, looking at our work at the end of the day, the boat is much more boaty.

Keel and Skeg Stringers

It most conventionally built wooden boats, the frames refer to what you might think of as the "ribs" of the boat running across ways (that's "athwartship," to you, matey!).  In the Glen-L Waterlodge, the framing members run longitudinally and are called stringers.

So building the boat frame means assembling the individual stringers and then tying them together with various cross beams. 

There were five stringers total.  Two side stringers, one keel stringer in the middle, and two "skeg stringers" between the keel and the side stringers. While the plans are relatively straightforward about building the stringers, there are lots of pesky details to consider, notches for cross beams, plywood reinforcement, butt blocks to make sure the plywood on the side stringers didn't leak, and a subtle curve to the deck that will sit on top of the stringers.

The keel stringer used big pieces of plywood to structurally reinforce the member and did not have overlapping two-by pieces.  The skeg stringers did have overlapping two-by pieces but no reinforcing plywood. The result will be two big storage bulkheads under the decks on either side of the boat.

The side stringers of course had plywood that covered the outside surface of the boat and no overlapping two-by pieces.  We'll talk about these and their butt blocks in the next build day entry.

The notches for the cross beams were easy, though we still forgot a few and had to cut them out of the already assembled stringers.  The porch deck beam notches were not really dimensioned properly on the plans and so we had to do a little improvisation later. 

We built the stringers on the asphalt floor of the barn.  It was flatish and shaded, so we didn't bake as we fretted over the details of our new stringers.

One challenge we faced was making sure that each member we built matched all the others. The plans suggested literally building them one on top of another.  This didn't seem that practical, so we hit on a solution:  Using the plywood already cut to shape for the side stringers as a pattern for our other stringers.  That way we'd know that all the angles would be correct and all the pieces of each member would be in the right place.

We used what we called temporary butt blocks just to hold the side plywood in place while we were using it as a pattern.

So in these photos, you can see the side plywood under our stringers as a pattern. 

From left to right: keel stringer, starboard skeg stringer, and port skeg stringer.
So for each stringer, the process was more or less:  Lay out the pieces for fit on our plywood pattern; put wax paper under anything we didn't want to be permanently adhered to anything below, temporarily screw down, as necessary; apply a thin coat of epoxy to both surfaces of every joint; apply a thickened coat of epoxy to one side of every joint; and finally fasten together all joints with stainless steel screws.

After the epoxy on the stringers sets, we could put the stringers on the building form. 

Exciting!  It is looking more boat-like every day. These incremental changes are probably pretty minor looking to other folks, and the progress may seem pretty slow.  But for us, it is crazy.  Look we had a pile of lumber!  Now we have this boat(ish) thing!  Amazing!

Epoxy is Stressful

You know the scene at the end of any action movie where the hero has minutes to disarm the bomb, cutting the wires in just the right sequence or he blows up the 747 full of schoolkids?  Working with epoxy is just like that.

In short, using epoxy involves mixing two dangerous chemicals together to make a viscous adhesive so powerful it permanently bonds anything it touches.  You have minutes before it reaches critical temperatures and kicks off like a bomb.  And if you do it wrong, at best, you completely ruin your work, and at worst it burst into a violent conflagration.

Okay, that's overstated, but isn't really too far from the truth.

Back in the day there were a few waterproof adhesives that were used for boat building.  I've never used them, so for me, they are largely mythical.  Some came in powder that you mixed with water.  Some had multiple parts you mixed together. But for the last several decades, epoxy is king.

Until I started researching boat building methods, I really didn't understand epoxy.  Epoxy was just something I squirted out of tiny twin tubes now and then to fix something that wouldn't stay together with a liberal coating of Elmer's.  Who would have thought I'd be brushing epoxy on to 2x4s and plywood with a paintbrush by the bucketful?

After wading through books on fiberglass boat building, I'm wise to its ways.  Epoxy is simply a hard plastic that comes in (generally) two parts that you mix together and apply as a viscous liquid.  The formulation contains a resin and a hardener -- and several other things including stabilizers, thinners, accelerators, decelerators, fillers, and sometimes waxes -- that together make a polymerized plastic goo.  When hardened, it is much stronger than the wood it is adhering together.  Two pieces of wood epoxied together are for all practical purposes one piece of wood.

Epoxy is commonly the stuff that is used with woven glass cloth to make fiberglass.  Together, the two make a super tough, resilient compound material.

The reaction of the resin and hardener is exothermic and sets up hard as the result of the heat generated by rapid oxidation.  What that means, is that from the moment you pour the hardener into your resin, the clock is ticking.

Chemicals in epoxy are varying degrees of poisonous.  It is recommended that you wear eye, skin, and respiratory protection.  In practice, we regularly only used skin protection in the form of a release cream for our hands and latex gloves.  Principally because the epoxy is uncomfortably sticky and once stuck to your skin, more or less permanent.

Kai had some experience with epoxy (she helped her dad fiberglass his submarine!), so that helped take the edge of terrible uncertainly that was epoxy for me.  Still, it is stressful.  Preparation, planning, and timing are everything.

We had the "slow" epoxy formulation that under ideal conditions (70-80 degrees Ferenheit, medium humidity) takes an hour to set.  What were ideal conditions for us, a sunny barnyard, were less than ideal conditions for epoxy.  We had about 20 to 40 minutes to work with the epoxy before it rapidly started turning hard as a rock.  Despite all of our planning, we had a few containers of epoxy kick off faster than we could use them, resulting in a few hard plastic hockey pucks.

Before any complicated assembly we carefully discussed our game plan before we committed with the epoxy hardener. A simple plan might look like this:
  1. Set up the epoxy station, level the surface (for volume measurements).
  2. Get the drill ready with the extension cord, correct star bit, and screws.
  3. Put wax paper under everything.
  4. Turn the pieces adhesive-side up, mark places to epoxy.
  5. Measure out single batch of  resin, do a final check.
  6. Add hardener and stir for at least one minute, scraping the sides.
  7. Apply first coat to all surfaces to be adhered.
  8. Measure out 2nd single batch of resin, final check.
  9. Add hardener and stir for one minute.
  10. Add filler (silica) to thicken.
  11. Apply 2nd coat of thickened goo to one surface.
  12. Assemble pieces, screwing as you go.
  13. Smooth out excess goo that may have squished out


As recommended on the Glen-L Waterlodge plans, we used epoxy to adhere every single joint and piece of plywood together.  We used it to "encapsulate" piece of wood, that is, seal them completely in epoxy so they are waterproof and rot-proof.  And later we will use it to cover the hull of the boat in fiberglass.

So when you see in future build days that we say something like "assembled side stringer," understand that this means cutting all the pieces, assembling them for fit, and epoxying and screwing every single joint.

Angles and Precision

I have experience in the housebuilding, construction world.  I used to joke with my workers when they'd talk about measurement in sixteenths.  "Sixteenths?  I didn't know they made fractions smaller than eighths."  And in homebuilding, unless you are a finish carpenter, there is seldom need to take such fine measurements.

Not so much in building a boat.  I realized early that a sixteenth here and a sixteenth there soon adds up to errors in real inches.  The tolerances are small because it all has to fit together and somehow like voodoo, keep water out.  My usual tolerances are not good enough because, it turns out, that recent science has shown that water molecules are smaller than an eighth inch.

The angles of the end cuts were not specified in the plans.  In fact, I had to resurrect my long dormant high school geometry knowledge in order to calculate the angles.  Working with the plans a bit, I got the length and the height of the triangle that would be the end of the boat.

Out comes the trigonometry reference.  Looking at it and with some research on the interwebs, I realized there was a magic word I remember being thrown about in high school trig that I never did decipher: SOHCAHTOA.  This time around it made sense.  Of course!  Sine, cosine, and tangent.  Opposite, adjacent, and hypotenuse. So I had the opposite and adjacent sides (TOA!), and so used tangent to calculate the angle.  Fucking magic!

The angle was so frustratingly close to 45 degrees that it made everything just a little bit more complicated.  43.5 degrees.  Looking at a particular angle drawn on a board, it wasn't easy to visualize whether the angle (or its complement) were correct for that cut.  Yet, the 3 degrees difference between the two was maddeningly significant.

In fact, after all that work, while I managed to cut the long lateral pieces at the right angle (43.5 degrees, FYI), I managed to cut every end piece with the wrong angle (it should have been the complement at 46.5 degrees).

As I predicted, this tiny 3 degree error would make our lives slightly crazy as every stringer came together with a frustrating little gap or overhang at the ends.  Grrr.

Making Sawdust

The whole process of building a boat involves cutting a lot of lumber, but at the beginning there were whole days of doing nothing but.

The plans called for kiln-dried or air-dried lumber of no more than 12% moisture.  I live in the hills of Northern California which at times is like living in a rain forest, so that seemed unlikely.  In terms of what species of lumber, what tree: there was a long list of species that would work and a long list of ones that would not.  Doug fir is the most commonly available light, strong construction lumber on the west coast and was on the okay list.  So this began with a treasure hunt to find just the right lumber to build the frame of the boat that would not be ridiculously expensive.

The reason for the specificity of tree and moisture content of the lumber had to do with the epoxy that would be used to bind it all together.  Every joint and every plywood seam and every place where plywood contacts a member gets epoxied. Epoxy won't bind well if the lumber is green, wet, or is of a species of wood that is high in natural oils.

After a little research, I found that our local lumber company, what used to be San Lorenzo Lumber (now ProBuilt), had in one of their yards kiln-dried Doug Fir that was not much more expensive than the green wood they normally sell for construction.  Sweet.  Three hundred dollars of wood later, my old work truck was loaded with boat lumber and headed up to E. Zayante where the boat was being built.

Generally, I had big long 16 and 20 foot 2x4 lengths.  The boat has a 20 foot long top deck, and because of the rake at the ends, is 16 foot along the bottom.  There are also 8 foot long beams across the boat ("athwartship" in boatbuilding-speak) and a bunch of little stuff that would be ends, posts, etcetera

But the plans called for ripping every piece to some new width, some 3 inches wide some 2-1/2.  A finish 2x4 from the lumberyard is actually 3-1/2 x 1-1/2 with smooth rounded corners.  Instead of taking a half inch off of a side to make a 3 inch thick piece, the plans called for taking off a 1/4 inch on either side.  The reason for this is sensible:  Cutting off the rounded edges of the lumber makes a better joint when it is epoxied.

So we spent a whole day feeding 16 and 20 foot long lengths of lumber into the tablesaw... twice. We made lots and lots of sawdust.

Then we cut a bunch of stuff to length, labeled it, and voila.  At the end of the day, we had a pile of lumber that we intended to turn into a boat.

Organization: How To Make Boatbuilding Not Suck

Boats are made of lots and lots of funny precision parts that all look more or less the same but are subtle different.  A bow skeg stringer end accidentally exchanged for a stern skeg stringer end and it's all over.

The previous build day, in my excitement I threw together the dead simple building form, and assembled it wrong.  The building form is just made of 2x4s nailed together, but the boat members will be screwed and epoxied.  There's no going back on wood parts epoxied together.  A serious error could mean having to start completely over on that member. 


So the previous build day was a lesson in the need for precision.  Before going further, I created labels for every piece of every member of the hull.  As I ripped pieces and then cut them to length, I stapled my sturdy cardboard labels directly on to the boards.

This way, when it came time to assemble, say, the starboard skeg stringer, I would only have to gather up all the pieces that said SKEG STRGR 1 (top, bottom, fore post, aft post, fore end, aft end) and bring them into the barn for assembly.

I also got a quad-ruled comp book and started taking detailed notes.  All the things you'd normally scribble down on scratch paper as you were calculating angles and measurements and offsets went into the notebook.  All my little sketches of what pieces should look like before I cut them, lists of procedures, materials I needed to get, and a detailed journal of each day of work went into the comp book.

Along with a place in the barnyard to build the boat, Lawrence let us use an unused horse stall in the barn.  This made a perfect build office, a place to layout the plans, organize all our tools, and most importantly keep snacks and beer.

Having the right tool at hand when you need it, is not only convenient but can be critical during the stressful build process, especially when you are dealing with epoxy.  We spent time making sure that every tool had its own place.  This also had the benefit of making daily clean up more fun.  It felt good to do a lot of hard work and then have everything all neat and tidy at the end of the day.

Here Kai, one of my co-builders, in a goofy moment, models the first photo for our Little Shantyboat Pinup Calendar.  This also helps make boatbuilding not suck.

First Build Day: Building Form

After months of hemming and hawing over plans and possibilities and uncertainties and even driving to the Middle of Nowhere to get a trailer, finally we start building the boat.  Or at least we build something that is essential for building the boat.

The Glen-L plans call for making a building form upon which to build the boat.  With the building form you get the boat at a height you can work on it, as well as have a level, plum, and square form upon which to assemble the individual pieces.

From these photos you also get an idea of just how beautiful a location we have to build the Shantyboat  Thanks to Lawrence and his family for their generosity, and perhaps their healthy curiosity as they watch the project slowly come together from a pile of lumber to a boat.

I actually found an error on Glen-L's otherwise flawless building plans.  The plans called for the cross spalls to be 97", which is one inch over 8' (a frustrating waste of conventional length lumber).  Another measurement in an end view gave half the measurement of the cross spall as 3'-11 1/2", or 95 inches. As usual after a little back and forth clarification, I got a message from Gayle:

I had Glen take a look at the plans and here's his

Seems to be an error. The cross palls should
extend 3' 11-1/2" each side of CL or 95" long. You
have thickness of side planking, plus FG plus rub
rail to obtain beam of 8' 2". This will make an 8'
width on the bottom to match the two 4' wide PW

Gayle Brantuk

This building form was mostly made of scrap lumber.  The stringers (the frames of the boat that run longitudinally) will sit on top of and perpendicular to these cross spalls on top of the building form. 

I actually built the form wrong, at least according to the plans (the side pieces are reversed inside out).  And though it didn't hurt anything, it set me off on a cascade of self-recrimination at my carelessness.  If I assembled the boat with as little attention to detail, I would be wasting material, causing undue frustration, and making an ugly boat.

This made me rethink ways I could balance my eagerness with my sense of precision.  The next week I switched gears from my cavalier construction of the building form to a slower more careful approach.

Jen and Kai both helped me make the building form.  And after Kai and I had a pretty pointless conflict, I realized one very important boatbuilding need that I hadn't taken into account for people working hard in the hot sun all day:  Snacks!