A familiar face around Old House Depot belongs to Mo (short for Moselle) the tomcat. The green-eyed tabby has quite the local fan club.
Jim explains how Mo came to join his family in 2010. “I was down with a guy we know buying wood in Moselle, Mississippi. It was the middle of nowhere, with no houses around. This kitten came along, probably around 12 weeks old, and everybody carried him around. When I got into my truck to leave, I found him asleep in front of some beams in front of trailer, right at home.”
Ann says, “Jim calls me on his way home and says, ‘I’m bringing home a cat.’ Now Mo travels with us. In the morning, Mo walks into his carrier and goes to work with Jim. At 5, he gets back into the carrier to go home. He also plays fetch!”
The planking process is really where the boat becomes a boat! The planks are essentially the “skin” of the boat. There are several traditional ways to plank. We chose to use the clinker, or lapstrake, method. In this style of boatbuilding, the planks, also known as strakes, literally overlap one another. It is very similar to the overlapping siding you will find on older homes, except that our laps must be a precise fit in order for the boat to be watertight! This can be a tricky process, requiring the careful shaping and planing of each plank in order to accommodate the next one. The planks are held together with handmade copper rivets, placed every two inches. That adds up to about 300 rivets in this boat!
Surprisingly, there is no glue or caulking between the planks. The lapstrake method relies on the property of wood to swell when wet, making the lap extremely water tight!
In order to provide the strength and durability of a modern metal or fiberglass boat, the selection of lumber for a wooden boat is crucial. The wood must be strong, lightweight and rot resistant. It also must be pliable, with the ability to bend and form to the boat’s curves. Cypress is an excellent choice. The cypress must be relatively “green,” meaning recently cut down. This is because newer wood contains more moisture than older wood, allowing the wood fibers to be more flexible and bend to the boat’s form. Since most of the wood at Old House Depot is tremendously stable old growth stock, cut down over 100 years ago, we decided to go with newer stock from Cypress Depot. The folks there were extremely helpful and accommodating.
However, even the most pliable wood cannot make the extreme bends needed for our boat without a little help. To aid the wood, we employed the age-old boatbuilding tradition of steam bending. Wood, when steamed for the proper time, will bend and curve just like spaghetti! We chose a “low tech” method of steaming the wood, wrapping the planks in towels and adding boiling water. Once the towels were soaked, we wrapped the whole thing in plastic to keep the heat in. The plastic is then unwrapped and more boiling water is added every fifteen minutes until the proper “cooking” time is reached. Then the plastic and towels are rapidly removed, and the plank is quickly clamped to the boat’s form. Then the plank is left to cool overnight, and from then on it will forever after remain in its new shape!
Once the planking is complete, our boat will finally start to look sea-worthy…
With all the structural pieces complete, we are ready to assemble our boat’s backbone! The backbone of a boat is exactly what it sounds like: several structural elements, usually made from a hard wood, that help define the boat’s shape and provide strength. We selected Old House Depot’s antique heart pine for all of our backbone pieces. Heart Pine has a long tradition in boat building in the South and was shipped worldwide during the golden age of ocean sailing vessels. Old House Depot’s old growth wood is perfect for boatbuilding since it is lightweight and rot-resistant, and the incredibly tight grain provides unparalleled strength not found in today’s woods. Plus, it’s just plain good-looking!
We assembled all the structural pieces (the stems, bottom, frames and bulkheads) on our specially made building table called a strong-back. The strong-back provides a level, stable platform on which to build. Using tools such as squares, levels and plumb bobs, we were able to place each piece in its exact location. We then attached all the pieces together, taking extra care to make sure all joints are exact and watertight. With the backbone assembled and securely attached to the strong-back, we finally start to see our boat take shape!
In the upcoming weeks we will be adding the “skin” to this skeletal structure by attaching curved cypress planking.
One way that boat building differs from conventional carpentry is that instead of working with right angles, you are dealing with curves. A boat’s shape is all curves, many complex, and often intersecting. This is especially true at the front of a boat, where the curving planks join to a curved stem. A builder must chisel a precise groove in the stem (called a rabbet) that allows the planks to join at just the right angle. However, the plank’s angle changes through the stem, and the stem itself is constantly curving. And on top of all that, the connection between these two must be water tight!
As daunting as all this seems, one of the great joys of boat building is that there are always simple, elegant solutions to complex issues. Sometimes we have to improvise, solving construction problems by approaching them in different ways. Other times, we rely on the collective knowledge of boat-building communities, drawing from thousands of years of experience that have been passed down through the generations. Either way, boat building requires us to look at things differently, which I find to be applicable both in and outside the shop.
Working as a team, we were able to complete the stem rabbet. And with the stem completed, we are ready to assemble it with the other structural elements of our boat, such as the bottom and frames. Our boat is about to take shape!