A combination of wanting a new year challenge and a Christmas spent binge watching Tally Ho a wooden sailing yacht rebuild with some amazing craftsmanship and not a straight line in sight got me focussed on wanting to build something interesting. The weight of my plastic kayak and Brian extolling the lightness of a skin on frame kayak really tempted me, but were my woodworking skills up to it? I finally shamed myself into ordering the plans by informing everybody that I was building a kayak – no going back now.
With plans studied I confirmed I’d need the ability to cut long thin straight bits of timber. A table saw was ordered, something I’d wanted for ages, but never quite justified to myself. The saw was a revelation, with the ability to cut straight lines to a precise dimension the standard of my woodwork and the associated joy I could take from it increased significantly.
February – ordering timber
I spent a while researching timber. Being an engineer I’ve written and been on the receiving end of many specifications tightly defining an object. The organic nature of timber, coupled with the complexities of timber specification methods made this feel complicated. what’s a board foot? How many knots do you get in your board?
I wasn’t sure where I could buy decent Canadian red cedar, or a suitabe alternative locally so eventually plumped for buying on line at timbersource.co.uk. It seemed expensive but there website made it feel accessible, coupled with an email exchange confirming that they could supply 14 feet as a single length, with no need to fall back on their website discalimer “We may supply in more than one length to achieve your length requirement” .
A few weeks later a long thin parcel arrived at my front door, an unlikely looking kayak self build kit of the cedar, and some green oak! Careful unpacking and inspection suggested I could get most of the lengths almost knot free. The weight difference between the two types of timber was remarkable.
March – preparation
There seemed to be lots of prep before I could start on the build. I needed to complete, or atleast get to a usable state, the workbench I had started for my cabinet saw.
Having done this I obsessed over how I was going to rip my beautiful 14’ planks to the correct width. My solution, some home built rollers mounted on my saw horses, plus infeed/out feed extensions to the saw bench
The rollers were a little novel, but worked well, 32mm plastic pipe mounted on top of a length of broom handle
My daughters birthday intervened. She was wanting a tropical fish and liked the idea of me building her a custom cabinet to stand the newly aquired aquarium on. Several hours over a few weekends saw the cabinet finished with the tank of fish mounted on top.
2nd April – ripping the cedar
After all the distractons, finally it was time to start cutting the actual timber. With the motto, measure twice, cut once going through my head, my next little headache was the fractional inches used in the plans. My digital callipers could cope with decimal millimetres or inches but not the 8’ths and 16th’s of the plans. The solution I mostly adopted was to convert to millimeters. The additional benefit, for me, was a better understanding of the tolerance and accuracies I was actually achieving.
The next job was planing the timber to thickness. Whilst a thickness planer is on my wants list I certainly couldn’t justify another large tool to myself just yet. A trip to my work colleagues workshop with a roof rack of timber carefully attached to use his thicknesses solved the problem – thanks Paul!
Easter – cutting the mortices
The next step was marking out for the mortices in the gunwhales. I carefully marked them out following all the tips in Brian’s video, only to land a mortise in the worst imperfection in the timber right at the end. A few minutes thinking and the problem was solved by flipping around what I was calling the bow and stern in my timber, and remarking them.
Prior to actually cutting the mortices I spent a while building many of the forms and jigs. The risk of messing up my expensive carefully cut timber was high on my mind and put off for a while, plus I’d need the jigs anyway.
Although my router has a decent fence I’d often in the past had problems with it not quite sitting flat or moving out of line slightly whilst cutting the mortise messing up the mortise. The need to cut 50 plus mortises without screwing up felt daunting. I found the the suggested combination of a bigger base plus double fences minimised the chance of a wobble. The upcut router 1/4” bit advised by Brian made for very clean rib mortises cut in a couple of passes.
The wider deck mortises were the next challenge. I couldn’t justify the cost of another cutter and the router jig for the angled ones looked fiddly. With a bit of care, some offset passes with my 1/4 inch cutter solved the perpendicular ones needed for the curved deck beams and I drilled the angled ones for the straight deck beams using a drill guide block jig made from some hardwood. I got the idea of how to make sure the jig was exactly 65degrees from a YouTube video… these mortices weren’t quite as tidy, but with some careful cleaning out passable.
It was at the end of a long day carefully cutting mortices that I first took the step of bending the gunwhales into shape in the forms. Suddenly these two long straight pieces of timber with a load of mostly perpendicular cut mortices started to look, atleast to my imagination like a boat with its 3D curved sides and sheer. My boat kit was taking form!
Laminating the deck beams
The next weekend was eagerly anticipated. No Saturday morning lay-ins for me, it was out in my garage or as I now started to call it, my boat shed. The laminations were cut for the deck beams and glued and shaped around the former. I didn’t have enough clamps so needed to do one at a time. This approach also allowed for a slightly simpler two position former than the three position former included in the plans.
I hadn’t used Gorilla glue before and applied a little too much glue on the first one. watching the squeeze out expand out of the cracks was fun but took a little while to clean up. The gently curved result looked great.
Steam bending – take 1
The next day I also had my first go at steam bending the coaming from my green oak. I cut a couple of sets from the cleanest, knot free section I could see, and then shaped the tapered ends with my newly purchased power planer. All these tasks were made much doable with the video instructions. I got a bit fed up having to rewatch them multiple times to extract out all the key bits of info. For this type of ‘skimming’ I prefer written instructions with diagrams but the video instructons do go into a fantastic level of detail.
The timber wasn’t perfect and had it started to dry out too much? I spent a while setting up and rehearsing the assembly procedure. I could see that with the rapid cooling, Brian’s insistence on quick precision was important and a slower, more muddled approach wouldn’t work.
I had fun setting up the steamer I’d picked up from a community website. On the first attempt I hadn’t got a timber batten under the entire plastic drain piple and it soon started to deform. With a little extra timber I avoided any major sag.
Take one went pretty well to begin with. The belt stopped any major splintering around the tight bend but then l felt a slight snap and tear out as I formed the ends. I ignored it and carried on forming the ends. Before leaving it to cool I tried to correct the slight snap with some more glue and clamping
It looked a reasonable first attempt, nicely symmetrical but as well as the snap I realised I had put the tapered ends together the wrong way around. If that was the only flaw I might have been able to live with it but ideally I wanted to do better.
Steam bending – take 2
The next day saw the next attempt. My coamings stock was longer than needed which allowed me to place the slightly dodgy bit at a different point in the coamings. By placing it along the one straighter side perhaps I would have more luck?
Learning from my previous mistake I managed to shape and glue together the next one the correct way around with no nasty snapping sounds. However the dodgy bit caused a lack of symmetry – rather disturbing to my eye. I tried a little more clamping but it didn’t really help.
Oh well, two attempts, both slightly flawed but in two very different ways. I was getting closer to the knot on my stock causing the issue so a third attempt with this timber felt futile. I lamented that if I could choose the best half of each together it would be perfect, but that option wasn’t open to me.
I put the comings to one side – perhaps with time I would come up with a solution.
On the flip side I still had a sense of amazement that it’s possible to take a perfectly straight bit of timber and bend it into a complete 360 degree circle.
22nd April – Joining the gunwhales
The next step was shaping the gunwhale ends, kerfing them, lashing them and finally pegging them together. The lashings were fun. I first learnt how to lash things together as a young Scout. I remember spending days as a kid building a model of the Kon Ticki raft and winning a prize in the craft section of a local show. The techniques had been useful many times since, but only for temporary roughly assembled things, not for something ‘proper’.
Next step was cutting the tenons in the deck beams with my little Japanese saw. Taking it slowly, following Brian’s bit by bit instructions the whole process went well. The spacer block approach made dealing with the compound curves magically simple.
Overall I was pleased with how well the tennons fitted into the mortices. The curved beams fitted like a glove, the drilled mortices needed some trimming. The tension in the gunwales held them all together. A boat was starting to take shape
May day bank holiday weekend – pegging the beams and cutting the ribs
My father who had long dabbled in furniture making as a hobby visited for weekend, curious to see what I was up to. My efforts to date passed his inspection and he helped me peg the beams into the gunnels, make the rib steam box and cut the ribs to size and prepare them for bending. I got chance to demonstrate steam bending to him on a practice rib. This allowed me to get a feel for the cooking time needed – the rest would need to wait to the next weekend.
Coronation weekend – steam bending
I spent a while getting set up for the bending and going through dry runs of the process- their felt little room for error. I used an interval timer app to set the timings with a bong ever minute. Brian’s suggestion of taking a rib out every minute felt fast too me but his instructions had worked well so far so I went with it. With many things to remember I marked up the bending instructions for each rib on the gunwale / this was a great help during the process.
After lots of prep, steam box settled at the right temp I got started. Loading up the box one rib every minute there was no going back. After eight minutes the first one came out, tightly bend it into a V went in pretty cleanly. The next followed in rapid succession, not quite as cleanly, but okay. The fourth one snapped, trying to keep Brian’s cool calm approach in my head I didn’t panick, at least it gave me a few seconds to breath.
Twenty minutes later the first round of ribs were all fitted albeit with three snapped ribs. I cut to length and shaped the ends of the extras needed from my pre prepared rib stock ready for round two. I was conscious that ideally the keel and stringers needed to be fitted on the same day so felt some pressure to keep moving. By lunch time all were fitted and I excitedly messaged my Dad, ‘all ribs in … a bit wonky, but by time the keel and stringers go on they should be okay’
Fitting the bow, stern and keel took a while. I hadn’t rounded over the edges of the keel or prepared my pegs so that eat into the afternoon. Similarly I hadn’t wound my thread onto a stick ready for lashing as prescribed by Brian.
The slightly wonky ribs meant I needed to use a couple of spacer blocks to keep the keel and stringers gently curving with a fair curve. Perhaps I was putting too many wraps in my lashings but I used a lot more artificial sinew than suggested.
It was getting late by the time I could temporary fit the stringers. It looked very different to first thing in the morning, obviously now a boat in the making, but the wonkiness was concerning.
May 13th and 14th – fixing the wonky ribs
Reflecting on the steaming process during the week it did seem the minute spacings suggested were a little too fast. The rib is only pliable for a ten or possibly 20 seconds so in a way why do you need longer? However it leaves little time for a beginner to assess the overall form and make corrections as you go. Perhaps this contributed to my wonkiness, perhaps it’s my unpracticed eye at assessing this type of thing. This was compounded by the desire to get the keel and stringers on in the same day. I understand the need for it but it removes some of the opportunity to stand back and assess the bigger picture.
Dwelling on either of these wasn’t going to fix the problem. Unleashing the keel, and removing it from the bow and stern stems allowing me to remove the offending ribs didn’t feel appealing especially as the keel was pegged making getting it back on cleanly tricky.
I’d now finished watching all the back episodes of the Tally Ho build and had moved onto ‘From Acorn to Arrabella’. Unlike Tally Ho steam bending was used extensively on Arrabella, especially when problems wre encountered planking the hull. It was a moment of inspiration when I realised I could possibly use a samilar technique of in situ steaming on my boat, now called affectionately ‘das boat’ after the German submarine film.
With stringers removed and keel unlashed and kept clamped to some of the good stringers to help keep the desired shape I tried out my technique. According to Wikipedia, polythene melting point is 105 deg C. With steam at only 100, it meant I could loosely rap a piece of heavy duty bin bag around any offending rib and tape the ends together to form a tube. Placing the tube of my steam box right on the part of the rib I needed to correct allowed me to steam just the approrpriate bit. After two minutes of steaming, the oak softened up nicely and became pliable again. Wearing gloves it was fairly easy to manipulate the rib into a better shape and clamp it back to the keel, forcing it to mostly keep the the desired shape.
A few hours later and everything was looking not quite perfect, but much much better allowing me, with some relief, to relash the keel and fit the stringers without the need of spacer blocks.