After a £6k quote to restore a 1950s Bembridge Scow John Rogers decides to take on the work himself and is delighted with the results
Few things can be more satisfying than saving an old wooden boat from the chainsaw and bringing her back to life; but this can be a very expensive exercise as I found out when I rescued my 1959 classic, Essex Melody, which featured in PBO June 2016. Though costly, this proved to be a very worthwhile restoration as I still regularly sail her, and researching her heritage was incredibly rewarding.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I agreed to restore the Bembridge Scow Tinkerbell, which was given to me by a family member.
Scow class dinghies were found around the Solent before World War One. They were originally built at Lymington and designed as sailing tenders for gentlemen’s yachts, the shape of their bow entry making them particularly easy to tow, but they sailed very well even in quite challenging conditions. This sailing and handling ability made them firm favourites among cadets learning to sail and after World War Two many clubs adopted Scows for dinghy racing.
All Scows were built to the same basic design – around 11ft 3in length and 4ft 8in beam but each builder made them a little different. Tinkerbell was built by A.A. Coombes of Bembridge, Isle of Wight, around 1955. The topsides are larch clinker planking, with more durable mahogany planking below the waterline as they were designed to remain afloat on moorings. It should also be mentioned that Scows were also built along the East Coast particularly at Burnham on Crouch.
The demise of the wooden Scow came in the 1960s when improvements in plywood and glues led to the development of the Mirror Dinghy which enabled amateur construction on a small budget. Mirrors were produced in their thousands making them preferable to the expensive Scow, which needed skilled shipwrights for their clinker construction. However, in 1985 there was a renewed interest in scows and a GRP version was made which is still in production today making up the fleets of GRP Scows which race in the Solent. However, A.A. Coombes will still build a beautiful wooden Scow for the purist.
When I took on Tinkerbell she had been stored under a tarpaulin for many years and most of the varnish and fittings were stripped off ready for a restoration. Amazingly every oak timber was intact and as she had been kept dry, there was little sign of rot except that the foredeck had completely delaminated. However, the dry storage had unwittingly put her restoration on hold as the subsequent shrinkage had caused massive splits to occur along the copper-nailed lands (the joints where the clinker planks overlap) and many of the planks. There were signs of repairs, which indicated this had been an earlier problem, but now the hull was in a such a seriously disheartening state she was ready to be scrapped.
Undaunted, I could not bear the thought of Tinkerbell being burnt and this was also the sentiment of her owners, so I trailed her home to Maldon and put her in the boatshed which I had built for Essex Melody.
A thorough survey
I gave Tinkerbell a thorough survey and was horrified to find the extent of the hull damage caused by her drying out over so many years. Frankly I didn’t know where to start so I enlisted the advice of my shipwright friends. All agreed that the hull was sound and fair but to repair the splits along the lands would need the removal and replacement of at least three planks along the entire length of the hull. I was advised that this would be a very time-consuming task costing in labour up to £6,000! Additionally, there was no guarantee that the splitting would not occur again as some of the lands had been epoxied many years ago in an effort to make her watertight and would not ‘give’ as the planks took up and then dried out!
I was certainly left with a dilemma as my boat restoration budget had already been exceeded with Essex Melody. After all, I only wanted to save Tinkerbell and use her locally for taking out the grandchildren and teaching them to sail, as I found sitting in an Optimist a contortionist act incompatible with my advancing years.
Kevin Finch, who specialises in the heavy shipwright work associated with Maldon’s Thames sailing barges, understood perfectly where I was coming from and suggested that an epoxy job would save the boat and that this was something I could do myself.
I certainly faced a bit of flak from the wooden boat purists who described me as ‘unsympathetic’ but decided to go ahead with this plan, taking a chance on its success as I had nothing to lose.
Exposing the sound wood
The first task was to remove all the inside stringers, gunwale covering and bilge strakes, then to burn off any remaining varnish to leave the sound wood exposed. This was quite a challenge with all the copper roves on the inside of the hull but burning off the outside of the hull was much easier.
The massive splits along the nail line of the lands had left several planks unsupported with some out of place, so the next task was to pull these back into position by using 4mm stainless bolts with butterfly nuts which could gradually be tightened. Once in place, the planks were copper nailed to the existing oak frames which fortunately were in very good condition. At least 100 copper nails were used in this incredibly satisfying shipwright task of using a ‘dolly’ (held by my wife Diana) to keep the nail head in position, whilst I riveted the ‘rove’ in place. Much less daylight could now be seen though the splits in the hull which became sturdier as a result.
Having completed the copper fastening, the hull was vacuumed out and gaffer tape was placed over the splits on the inside of the hull to hold back the epoxy filler as they were filled from the outside. This task was made more difficult by ensuring that tape was pushed between the planks and the frames to prevent epoxy filler sticking to the frames and causing problems.
Addressing the splits
The hull was then turned over and epoxy mixed with colloidal silica filler to give a consistency like peanut butter. This was then gently pushed with a filler knife into in every split, taking care not to displace the gaffer tape on the inside, and faired off as carefully as possible. This took a surprising amount of epoxy and after it had cured the filled seams were sanded make them flush with the planks.
50mm glassfibre tape was then epoxied over all the filled splits to stabilise them and add strength. Additionally, I decided to epoxy the 50mm glassfibre tape over each land to provide strength and ensure the hull was watertight. Making the tape look neat without too much kinking or folding was quite a challenge but with patience I achieved a satisfactory result.
Rubbing down the hull
The next stage of the restoration was to rub down the entire hull to fair off the epoxied glass tape as much as possible before the final overall coats of epoxy were applied. This proved to be a very dusty and frustrating part of finishing process, which was completed by hand and orbital sander.
Ideally the tape should be fared to make it blend invisibly with the planking, but this proved very difficult and I turned from a perfectionist to a realist. The problem was how much to sand off without compromising the integrity of the repair and then there were the kinks in the tape to deal with and the runs which I had tried so hard to avoid.
Finally, I settled for a result which, although not perfect, looked acceptable and was within budget. Most importantly, it met my brief of not employing professional help to make the boat useable once again.
Epoxying the hull
Once I was happy with the sanding it was time to give the hull three coats of epoxy which included epoxying the inside of the centreplate case.
One of the problems of coating with epoxy is the waxy ‘bloom’ which forms on its surface if it is allowed to cure and inhibits the adhesion of subsequent coats. Taking advice from my shipwright friends I applied three coats of epoxy in one day. The idea is to allow each coat to ‘go off’ and once tacky, apply the second coat then repeat the procedure for the third coat. Also, as it was still early in the year, I was told to keep the boat shed at a minimum of 15°C to ensure that the epoxy starts goes off.
After 24 hours Tinkerbell’s hull looked very smooth, strong and watertight so it was time to turn her over and start working on the inside of the hull.
Inside the hull
The first task was to remove all the gaffer which that had prevented the epoxy filler oozing through the cracks into the hull. This came off easily but I did use white spirit to remove some of the tape glue that had remained stuck to the planks. All woodwork repairs inside the hull were carried out at this point, the rowlock blocks were refitted along with the gunwale capping and the stringers were screwed back each side of the hull. The inside of the hull was certainly starting to take shape.
Replacing the foredeck
The next challenging woodwork job was to replace the foredeck. Fortunately, I had the old delaminated deck with marks as to where the fittings should be attached, but I found it much easier clamping the marine plywood to the deck beams and marking it off directly. Using a jigsaw, the deck was carefully cut out and epoxy screwed to the deck beams. Unfortunately, the ply was not quite long enough which entailed a fillet on the after end of the deck, but I was pleased with the way this blended in once I got the grain to match.
I was surprised by the amount of camber over the foredeck and it took a considerable effort using weights and clamps to hold it in place whilst it was epoxy screwed in position. Also, when the hardwood fillet was fitted between the deck and the wave deflector, steaming was needed to make it take up the correct angles before it was finally epoxied and nailed into place. Finally, the hardwood rubbing strake was epoxy glued along each side of the hull at this point to finish off the foredeck and gunwales.
Rejuvenating tired wood
Once I’d completed the woodwork I treated the entire inside of the hull with three coats of Owatrol to rejuvenate the tired wood. Two coats of Woodskin then gave a traditional, flexible and durable finish.
The rationale for not using epoxy inside the hull was to prevent water becoming trapped in the wood in the event of any external damage, which can cause problems with completely epoxy encapsulated hulls. By using the Owatrol oil and Woodskin system the wood can breathe should water ingress become a problem.
Once turned over, it was noticeable that the outside of the hull had developed a significant waxy bloom during the epoxy curing period and this had to be removed before painting. The hull was therefore thoroughly scrubbed with strong sugar soap, which effectively removed this followed by a final rub down with strong ammonia.
At this point the two bilge skegs were epoxy screwed back into place then covered with protective brass strips which were also added to the keel. After a final sanding and a wipe with white spirits, primer was applied and then a coat of undercoat followed by two topcoats of quality paint to disguise the outlines of the glassfibre tape, which could still be seen despite my best efforts. Losing the traditional varnished finish was a casualty of my decision to carry out an epoxy repair!
Floorboards and spars
Once the hull was completed the remaining woodworking tasks were to repair the floorboards and the spars. Of these it was the spars which really taxed my thoughts, for the long gaff and boom – which are each made from two pieces of spruce – had completely split into two where the glue had failed over the years.
Once each half of the spar was cleaned up, the task of clamping them together with epoxy seemed easy until I realised that it would be difficult to stop any surplus epoxy being squeezed out into the channel for the sail. Of necessity this channel must be smooth for the sail to slide along and any blobs of epoxy would compromise its efficiency and make the spars unusable.
At this point I sought advice from my friend James Byam-Shaw, a retired spar maker from Heybridge Basin. I have great respect for James ever since he made a beautiful hollow wooden mast for Essex Melody and inevitably, he had the solution!
James always has an academic yet pragmatic approach to any problem and he said to me: “You know how a bird pulls a worm out of the ground; well we can use the same technique!”
I really wondered what he was on about but when he fully explained it, the solution was obvious and easy.
I took the pieces of spar to his workshop and the first thing he did was to find a long piece of polythene pipe that exactly fitted the sail groove in the split spar. The two pieces of spar were then generously coated with epoxy but before they were clamped together, the polythene tube – which had been coated with releasing wax – was laid carefully in the sail groove.
The next day, once the epoxy had cured, I really wondered how we were going to pull the polythene tubing out of the spars, for – at 10ft long – they would create considerable resistance to the tubing even with releasing wax. However, this is where the bird technique fortunately came into play. With a firm consistent pull the polythene tubing shrinks in size (just like the worm does) and with a cracking sound I could hear it releasing itself from the cured epoxy. Gradually the tubing disappeared through the spar when pulled out from the other end leaving a smooth epoxy coated channel to accommodate the sail.
The slot for the sail had become slightly pinched by the clamping process, so in order to open it out, I ran a very shallowly set circular saw along it.
Once the floorboards were repaired, centreplate fitted and buoyancy bags fixed in position, it was time to rig Tinkerbell. I had most of the original fittings so sorting out the rig was relatively simple, although I decided to have new stainless rigging made by TS Rigging. The original orange sails looked pretty but Diana needed to re-sew many of the seams before we could set the sail.
At last it was time to take Tinkerbell to Blackwater Sailing Club lake for her sea trials. She entered the water for the first time in almost 30 years and was a delight to sail! She handles beautifully and gave the excited grandchildren an amazing introduction to dinghy sailing.
As for myself, I have always fancied a simple lugsail dinghy to sail in the upper reaches of the Blackwater and I have now enjoyed many singlehanded sails in Tinkerbell. I never expected this from an old wooden Scow, which I had restored from a wreck – an experience which only adds to my satisfaction when sailing her.
The whole project was incredibly cost effective. The epoxy and paint were around £150 each, the buoyancy bags were £90 and the new rigging £50. I had therefore rescued Tinkerbell for under £500 by breaking all the rules of the purist!
Tinkerbell should be good for the foreseeable future and virtually maintenance free, but as I sail her ‘dry’ I cannot comment on how she might fare if left afloat on a mooring.
My method has proved to be a rewarding way of saving an old wooden dinghy from the chainsaw, to make her useable and beautiful once again and give pleasure to all who sail in her.
About John Rogers
John Rogers (77) a retired science teacher organises Maldon Little Ship Club’s Christmas Charity Row for the RNLI. He and his wife Diana cruise the East Coast in Lyra a Southerly 100 and keep Essex Melody at Blackwater Sailing Club for day sailing and racing.
Originally published in PBO Aug2020