Stitch and glue, the bodger’s charter – PBO columnist Sam Llewellyn shares his top tips on avoiding the pitfalls of boatbuilding at home.
Here in the workshop all is in readiness for the next burst of astonishing creativity. Which is to say that the epoxy is standing on the epoxy bench, the sheets of 6mm WBP exterior ply are leaning against the wall where the ply leans. And the plans are out of the plans drawer, the whole ensemble waiting to be turned into a pram dinghy.
It has to be said that we are not exactly geniuses at stitch and glue construction. The more normal product of our high-level craftsmanship is one of those wooden frames on to which you wind a mackerel line. The mackerel frame process is to notch bits of timber, ideally lengths of roofing batten, together, and stick the whole works into the desired shape using lashings of epoxy, which is then allowed to cure. The epoxy fills the large gaps left by dodgy sawing and measurement, and any bulges of the hardened gunk are removed with an angle grinder. Wind line on. Attach feathers. Fish.
The above is not to deny that we have in the past perpetrated three boats on the stitch-and-glue principle. Two of them floated impeccably, were useful, and drifted unsunk out of our lives. The third did not reach completion, and currently stands festooned with artificial flowers and lit from within by a powerful bulb in the corner of the Big Shed, admired by all.
Building boats indoors is fraught with danger, the danger being that you are transforming a lot of two-dimensional plywood into a three-dimensional object whose size it is hard to imagine with any accuracy, and that you may have to knock a wall down to get the thing out of the shed and into the world.
Spud Rowsell, a boatbuilder of enormous skill, solved the problem by building a 40ft catamaran on the ground floor of a terraced house in Exmouth whose back gave straight on to the creek. He built the hulls, which were very fast and narrow, one at a time, feeding them out of the kitchen window when complete and assembling on the mud.
Anyway. Before commencing operations, it is important to get the workshop environment right.
First, sounds. Audiobooks, the craftsman’s friend, can be distracting in the early stages of construction.
Sawing is a noisy business, so it is important to have plenty of Metallica handy.
As for the complicated bits, it will be vital to play plenty of Mozart, whose work is held by many to increase the IQ by up to 10%, which may be nearly enough if you are lucky.
Then there are the plans. The kind printed on blue paper have a nasty habit of fading with age.
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Furthermore, if your workshop is anything like ours it will be inhabited by mice, who will chew the fiddly bits to shreds. It is possible, if your powers of concentration are exceptionally strong, to glean from the remains the dimensions of an adequate set of plywood planks, which can be sewn together with copper wire and filleted with thickened epoxy into the form of a hull.
For the final touches, though, knees and breasthooks of grown applewood and nameboards deeply carved, you will need advice from a master – like, for instance, the great Will Stirling. Stirling’s recent book Details of Dinghy Building (Lodestar, £35) comes with a spiral binding that will allow it to lie flat on the workbench, removing the necessity of pawing with epoxy-tainted hands at the pages and landing up with something more like a block of plastic than a book.
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This is a volume concerned with traditional dinghy building rather than the epoxy method, but it contains an enormous wealth of advice in the best possible taste. So. The planks are cut, the holes for copper wire or cable ties drilled, the transoms prepared, the epoxy standing ready, resin and hardener, each with its respective pump, beside the mixing vessel and the microballoons and the box of blue nitrile gloves… is that the time already? It seems to be getting dark, and the lighting in here is terrible. Hell. No time to get properly started today. Tell you what, though. Chop some bits out of a roofing batten. Gloves on, one, two. Mix up some epoxy, thicken, and assemble the whole works into the rough semblance of a mackerel line frame. It will cure overnight, and we can grind off the surplus tomorrow. Then there is this column to be written. The dinghy?
Next week. Maybe.
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This feature appeared in the March 2022 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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