In Her Element

Germaine In Boat HoistIt was a slow journey from the back of the IBTC boat shed to Lake Lothing. It took several days for Germaine to travel the 100 yards or so out of the shed and back into the water. She’d waited 16 years and at 11.00 last Tuesday morning she was back in the water. Awakened at last she made her way across the lake as we watched in admiration.

Germaine On the Move

The first stage of her journey started a couple of weeks ago. Her way was blocked by an accumulation of boats of various shapes, sizes and degrees of portability. When they had been lifted, pushed, pulled and rolled out of the way (see Henry’s brilliant shed shuffle), Germaine was ready to glide out of the shed on her wooden cradle. We felt like an Egyptian chain gang as she slid along on greased boards which had to be carried from back to front, but we had some some help from a digger and a for lift truck, which eased the load somewhat. She slid out of the shed and along the hard to the yard next door where she reclined in her cradle for a few days to wait for the big day.

She needed a few last minute adjustments of course, and we carried on working on her out in the yard despite the rain. My contribution was very minor, just attaching a couple of fairleads to her stern, but it was nice to be part of it.

Germaine RiggingAs Ron eased her into the water using the mobile boat hoist, the rigger and his team rigged up the very complicated looking gaff rig on her mast in an impressively short order. The was hoisted into place and suddenly she was ready for her first voyage across the lake to Haven Marina. We waved her off and cheered.

Germaine Stepping Mast

Germaine Afloat

Germaine’s next stop will be Douarnenez later this summer when her rigging and sails have been completed.


Gerald, Scarph

TernTern is a 12 foot rowing boat with larch planks. Her original planks are dry, brittle and rotten, but a new boat is slowly emerging. A bit like the Victory, but at a (slightly) faster pace; there won’t be much left of the original but she’ll look like the same boat. It’s a great example of what IBTC can do; rebuilding boats that wouldn’t have a chance anywhere else.

I’ve taken over the clinking planking exercise from Zac, who’s gone off to the real world to earn an honest living. My mission is to make a plank that will run from the stem and will join to one of the existing planks with a feathered scarph joint.

As Pete the tutor was enthusiastically explaining the fiendishly complicated process of making a new plank where there is currently just a gap, the main thought going through my head was “can you just do it and I’ll watch?”, but that’s not how you get to be a boat builder, so I decided to just get on with it one stage at a time and see what happened.

The first stage is to get some idea of the shape of the plank that you’re going to make. For that you need a spiling board, which consists of a few bits of old plywood stuck together in the approximate shape of the required plank, on to which you can mark any lines that might be useful. I drew along the top edge of the plank below to get started, and drew some projection lines to represent some measurements that Zac had taken of the missing plank above.

Then I got a chance at last to use the dummy sticks that we made on the last day in the joinery shop, and were assured at the time that they would be very useful. Dummy sticks are rectangles of plywood of various sizes which are used to transfer lines from one place to another, and now I had a line I could copy it onto the piece of larch selected for the new plank.

Once the plank section had been cut roughly to shape it was time to get out the steamer, which is still a bit magical. The new plank section is wrapped up in a bit of plastic tarpaulin and attached by a tube to a wallpaper steamer. After 30 minutes, the plank can be bent to your will (within reason) and held in place with G-cramps.

It’s amazing how a curved plank has a completely different shape from a flat piece. It’s lucky I allowed a bit spare along the edges as my original lines bore little relation to the shape of the boat once it was steamed.

Feathered scarph

Feathered scarph

Now that the plank section was curved I could join it to the aft end of the plank with a feathered scarph. It’s important to get your scarph the right way round, the forward plank should overlap the aft plank so that the water flows over it rather that scooping it up and  gradually opening up the joint.


Gerald at the stem

Now comes a long succession of clamping the plank on to the boat to check the fit and taking it off again to make appropriate adjustments. It has to be shaped along its length, it needs to sit flush on the brow of the plank below, and at the stem and transom, which are where another devilish joint comes in, known as a ‘gerald’. A gerald slopes in two directions: along the length of the plank and across it, but at any point along its length it has to be flat so that the plank above sits flat on it to ensure a watertight joint (rather important in a boat). In Boat Building Techniques Illustrated, Richard Birmingham says:

Because of the changing angles, this is not an easy joint to cut; it is achieved with a rebate plane, chisels and care. It also improves with practice.


I used to think this was a warning to take your time, but now I see it as an aspiration

I used to think this was a warning to take my time, but now I see it as an aspiration.

It’s the details that really take the time in boat building; I got the plank to shape quite quickly, but have spent days working on the contact points with the rest of the boat. It’s also got to be symmetrical with the plank that Alan is making for the other side before we get the sign off to nail and rove them in place. The final hurdle is Pete’s unfailing critical eye which homes in on every error and omission and makes you wonder how you ever missed them. Wishful thinking maybe.




Countdown to Launch

StemBandIf you hang around long enough in the IBTC boat shed at the moment you get a job on Germaine. She’ s a beautiful Camper and Nicholsons cruising yawl, built in 1882, and has been in the boat shed since 1997; but not for much longer. It’s all hands on deck to get her ready for the big day when she gets back in the water again. She’s taking shape rapidly, and I’ve been hoping that I would get the chance to do some work on her before she goes.

One afternoon when everything on Naiad was either being bonded with Arbokol or was covered with wet varnish, I went and volunteered my services. The first task was fitting a galvanised steel band to her stem. It went on with a bit of persuasion using a 10 foot bit of 6 x 4 wedged in a groove in the floor of the boat shed as a shore and plenty of Arbokol. I was concerned that I might start the launch early as I levered the band against Germaine’s stem, but she stayed firm.

AirVentInsertThe next job was to install an air vent in the coach roof, which required rather less brute force. Starting with a lump of mahogany, the first task was to make a cylindrical insert that would look tidy and fit in with the beautifully crafted internal fit out. The outside profile was quite straightforward to cut on the lathe after getting the block of wood roughly cylindrical. Cutting the hole out of the middle was a delicate operation, as it would leave the walls of the tube quite thin and therefore there was a risk of it collapsing. I secured it in the drill vice and held my breath as I cut into it with a hole saw on the pillar drill. When I got half way through, I turned it over and drilled from the other end. It held together without collapsing and joined in the middle; not quite as major an achievement as digging the Channel Tunnel, but not far off.

The next scary bit came when I had to use a hole saw to cut a hole in the teak deck on the coach roof to put the vent tube in; I must have measured it about 10 times before committing myself with the saw, but in the end I just had to get on with it. Cutting a big hole through the roof exposes end grain, so I sealed the inside of the hole with epoxy, and stuck the insert in with mastic. The rest of the job was straightforward and just involved screwing things together and sealing them with mastic.

AirVentTopI’m looking forwards to Germaine’s launch next month; it will be a major operation getting her out of the boat shed, with lots of rearrangement of boats required. She will leave a big hole as she’s been an imposing presence in the boat shed for a long time, but I’m glad I got to do a bit of work on her before she leaves.



Tea time at IBTC

Tea time at IBTC

There was a leaving do at IBTC this week; every few months the college lays on some beer, wine, bread and cheese to launch another new batch of boat builders into the real world, it’s a fine spread and usually timed to coincide with welcoming a new intake. Class 113 started this week and we got to meet them at the first tea break on Monday. They came in looking a bit quiet and nervous as I’m sure we all did when we started, they got their teas and … horror! sat at the table reserved by the old lags; this is the table where the senior students sit and pontificate on boat building and the world in general while we all sit in awe. Sitting at their table with them would surely be frowned upon at the very least? What would happen? Well … nothing;  because it soon became apparent that there aren’t any seniors any more, or that is to say, we are them. So what advice could I pass on to the new boys from this exulted position? Apart from having a good supply of plasters (my thumb is still sporting a tatty one as I type) and Ibuprofen for back pain (if you’ve come from an office job), the main thing you need for boat building is patience.


Naiad’s centreboard case

Michael and I have been working on Naiad for a couple of months now, every job seems to lead to lots of other jobs; there’s always something to snag, or varnish or prime before something else can be reassembled. Learning to do things in the right order helps, but even then it’s labour intensive and time consuming. Naiad is gradually rising again from the rotted planks and timbers which made her so fragile when we first got on board. She’s quite robust now with new timbers and reconstructed centreboard case. The thwarts are nearly ready to go back in permanently when we’ve successfully aligned and drilled all the nail and screw holes through the knees, thwarts and risers to hold them all together. There’s plenty more to do, but it has become what we do all day; there doesn’t seem to be much progress day by day, but it all adds up, and we love it.

One of the jobs I particularly enjoyed was rebuilding the thwart knees which had broken at each end. This was partly due to a fault with the original manufacture, in that they had short grain at the extremities, so were prone to snapping. But to be fair, they have been on the boat for a long time doing their job of supporting the thwarts. I made replacement ends from oak and bonded them on with epoxy. The top end has a tenon inside to support it, and the bottom end has a scarph joint. It’s still short grained at the thick end, but the grain runs along the bottom end. I wonder how long they’ll last before they need patching up again.

Wounded knee: spot the surgery

Wounded knee: spot the surgery

Messing About in Boats

Annie on test

Annie on test

“There is nothing, absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats” says Rat in the Wind in the Willows. I guess that many of us at IBTC must share this sentiment as we spend every day messing about in boats. At the moment we generally do so in a freezing cold boat shed, rather than sculling along the river with a wicker luncheon basket full of cold chicken, ginger beer and other goodies.

The boat that Michael and I spend all day in is Naiad, but she’s laden with tools and bits of wood that have either been taken off or are being put on. In the past few weeks we have replaced 17 of her timbers with copies that we fashioned out of 2 slices of an oak tree, we’ve roved in over 200 copper nails to hold the timbers to Naiaid’s planks and we’ve started reassembling the centreboard case.

The Artful Dodger

The Artful Dodger

Messing about in boats took on a more Wind in the Willows turn this week when we went out to Lake Lothing on a sunny afternoon for the test launch of two recently completed boats: ‘Annie’, a river Cam skiff from around 1908 that has been restored after her bottom almost rotted away and a newly built Herreshoff Columbia dinghy

The lifeboat wasn't required this time

The lifeboat wasn’t required this time

called ‘Artful Dodger’. It was a tense moment as they were carefully lifted into the lake, but both were pronounced dry and we took them out for a spin to see how they performed. They are both great little boats for a day out on the river, light to row, and look great with their highly varnished finishes. It was a brief foretaste of summer in the middle of winter. We went back to the boat shed with a spring in our step (or was it the sea weed that was helpfully stuffed into the boots left on shore during our brief river excursion).

When I’m Steaming Timbers

Careful with that angle grinder

Thwarts off, timbers next

“It says here ‘conservation importance HIGH’ ” shouted Michael, reading from the folder of notes on Naiad’s restoration. “What?” I replied above the din of the angle grinder I was using to remove a rove from one of the nails that holds Naiad’s clinker planks together; suddenly the super-heated copper rove flew off and landed on the back of my hand. Michael shook his head; “Just be careful”. The first proper project that Michael and I have been given in the boat shed seemed to involve taking a boat to bits, rather that building it.

We had removed the thwarts and were now removing the old, damaged timbers from Naiad; one of few remaining Aldeburgh One Design dinghies built by Everson of Woodbridge. After removing the roves (carefully), one of us drove the nail through from the inside of the boat using a nail punch, while the other supported the plank from the outside and helped the nail out. Sounds easy, but we’re starting to expect complications with old boats, and of course many of the nails were bent, or inaccessible etc. so there was plenty to keep us occupied.

When we had pushed, pulled, coaxed and dug out enough nails that we could remove a few alternate timbers from one side of the boat (it’s important to keep enough in place to keep the shape of the boat intact), it was time for the exciting bit. I had previously imagined that a fair proportion of my time at IBTC would involve steaming wood into various interesting shapes, but it now seems apparent to me that steaming is very like painting, in that 90% of the time is spent in preparation and the main event is over in a flash.

Steaming steam box

Timbers cooking

We fired up the steam box (a wallpaper steamer attached to a metal tube), and when it was hot enough, put our green oak timbers into the tube. Thirty minutes later, oven gloves at the ready, and Rob the tutor in attendance to make sure we didn’t mess it up, we pulled out our first hot timber. Michael bent it round his knee like an oversized piece of spaghetti and pressed it into shape inside Naiad’s hull while I screwed it into place from the outside; a temporary measure to allow it to take shape (the timbers will be nailed and clenched with roves later). We whizzed through our supply of timbers in the steam box and then stood back to admire our work. Now the process starts again; knocking out nails and scraping off old varnish and tar. There are plenty more timbers to replace, but at least we’ve put some of the boat back together.

Michael and timbers

Michael and timbers

Sex in Wood


Leila – you’ve got me on my knees

It has to be said that Leila looks her age; she’s over 100 years old. The rot has set in; she’s lost her sheen and has undergone some unflattering surgery in the past. But there’s something about Leila; ‘sex in wood’, as Pete the tutor described her in our tour of the boat yard this week. After quietly thanking Pete and the patron saint of blogs for the title of this post, I took some time to stand back and properly appreciate her. When you look beyond her ageing and damaged planks, she looks fast, deft and sleek. She has an elliptical counter, lots of overhang, a bit of tumblehome, a curvaceous turn of the bilge, very little crop and a wineglass transverse section. I know this because this week we had naming of parts (or boat terminology) and there’s lots of it, so I’ve started writing a glossary to keep track of it all; but let’s concentrate on the boats for now.

Leila is a six metre class yacht designed by William Fife III, generally considered to be one of the greatest boat designers of all time, and built in 1912 at Fairlie on the Clyde; it seems incredible that she’s so old. She was found by her current owner rotting away in a timber yard. One of the most elegant features, her counter stern, had been cut away (probably because of rot); but this will be rebuilt as part of the restoration.

Leila is not the only beautiful boat at IBTC. There’s Cloud, a new build of an Albert Strange design that won a Yachting Monthly design competition in 1908. She has carvel planking in iroko wood, a spoon bow, a canoe stern and a wineglass hull section.


Then there’s Germaine, a restoration project who appears in scantlings’ masthead picture sometimes. She’s a carvel pilot cutter built by Camper & Nicholsons in 1882, she has a nice forefoot and a counter stern (in common with Leila).

That’s enough boats for now; there are plenty more in the boat shed to talk about when I get to know them a bit better (probably by taking them to bits). Now I think I’ll go and have another look at Leila.

From the Depths

My new bench

My new bench in the boat shed

I’ve been working on a real boat at last. I moved over to the boat shed this week and started at the bottom. I spent Friday morning lying underneath the hull of Profundis doing ‘snagging’ work, which involves knocking the ends off wooden plugs with a chisel and filling holes with a combination of epoxy and microballoon filler. Once the snagging is done she’ll be ready for her first coat of primer.

Back from the depths

Back from the depths

Profundis is thought to be an ex-Admiralty steam powered tender from around 1900 and is being converted into a weekend river cruiser. The name Profundis has some breadth as well as depth; it refers to the fact that she was rescued from the depths of the Thames at some point in her history; it comes originally from a Psalm (‘De Profundis’); which has inspired lots of works including several poems, album titles, the name of an extreme metal band and was the name given to a letter written by Oscar Wilde from Reading prison which contains plenty to reflect on from the floor of the boat shed.

On the shore of Lake Lothing

One of the pleasures of learning boat building at IBTC is seeing, and sometimes participating in, the comings and goings in the local boat yards along the shore of Lake Lothing .

Tarring Albion’s hull

This week, Jonny arranged for us to go and have a look at Albion; a Norfolk wherry currently in a boat yard a short walk along the shore. Albion was built in 1898 on this same shore in Oulton Broad, and carried sugar beet up until the 1950s when it was no longer economic to transport goods around the broads by boat. Nowadays she earns her keep as a charter boat; she’s been fitted out with accommodation for 12 and is available for charter from the Norfolk Wherry Trust. Some sections of her planking have been replaced and she is being given a new coating of coal-tar, about half an inch thick which looks very robust. She’s also having her massive rudder replaced with a new built copy; a serious bit of joinery. It was great to see her out of the water in order to admire the shallow, wide hull and transverse profile like a wineglass which is reminiscent of a Viking longboat. It seems that things don’t change quickly in boat building on the east coast. Seeing the guys working on her outside in the cold October rain was a reminder of how many comfort levels I’ve still got to drop in the world of boat building. I’ve gone from my desk in a warm office in West London to standing all day at a work bench in a slightly less warm joinery shop; to paraphrase the Four Yorkshiremen: “that’s luxury”.

Hobbit in the joinery shed …

The regular shunting of boats in various states of repair around the IBTC yard on a selection of trolleys and trailers (also in various states of repair) seems like a sliding block puzzle on a large scale. We’re occasionally called upon to help push/pull boats from somewhere to somewhere else. One of them has joined us in the joinery shed to have her keel reseated; she’s a beautiful little 20ft clinker mahogany sloop called

… proving to be a bit of a distraction from joinery

Hobbit‘. She was built in 1968 to a Laurent Giles design based on ‘Sopranino‘, which was sailed across the Atlantic by Patrick Ellam and Colin Mudie in the early 1950s and inspired the development of the Junior Offshore Group (JOG), which was set up to allow small yachts to compete offshore. An ocean crossing seems an incredible feat when you see Hobbit, she’s the size of a day boat with barely room for one pair of legs in the cockpit but somehow they found room for 2 berths in her tiny saloon.

Standing around

As well as shunting boats, us joinery students have many other uses. One of the commercial boat yards called on us recently to act as ballast, we formed an orderly line and were moved around the boat as a stability test. It’s good to know where we stand (or where to stand).

Pushing, pulling, standing; what’s left? Oh yes, carrying things. Three sliced trees arrived on the back of a lorry this week, and we all mucked in to get them under cover to dry out (well, most of us …).

Anyone seen Dave?