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

Bring a knife

TurksHeadIt’s not the kind of invitation that I get every day, but the note was quite clear on this singular requirement. We duly assembled in the GRP workshop on the appointed day last week with our blades, but it was for nothing more sinister than knots and splices training with a bit of whipping thrown in for good measure. As a lot of the elements of a wooden sailing boat that aren’t held together by nails are attached by bits of string, this is an important thing to know about. We warmed up with some splicing; a good way of finding out to find out how ropes are made by taking them to bits and putting them back together. We used 3 strand manila, which is a simple rope to work with when learning to splice. We made an eye splice, a back splice and an end-to-end splice.  An eye splice is a way of making a strong and permanent loop in the end of a rope; it’s much stronger than a bowline: an eye splice has 80% of the strength of the rope whereas a bowline only has 45%. A back splice is a good way to tidy up the end of a rope and stop it from unlaying. An end-to-end splice is used to join ropes together. We also learned to make a deck quoit (properly known as a grommet, prompting a brief rendition of the class 111 theme tune).

Whipping is a way to bind the components of a rope together to stop it from fraying or unravelling by wrapping them with thread. We looked a bit like a rather scruffy Mother’s Union sewing circle as we sat there with our needles and palms threading whipping twine and chatting about rope lore and philosophy. The pros and cons (mainly cons) of the effectiveness of the thief knot in preventing maritime crime was considered, and the alternatives to being skilled at knots: ‘if you can’t tie knots tie lots’. Knot literature was also discussed; Des Pawson’s seminal work on the subject was highly recommended, giving instruction on making everything from a Portuguese sennit to a cat-o’-nine tails. Des also has the distinction of looking as if he’s made of string.

ZacHangingAboutThe next day we got to test out our knot tying skills to the limit. After a warm up on various bends (knots that join ropes together) and hitches (temporary knots), in true IBTC style we put our skills to immediate practical use by using rolling hitches to climb the boat gantry on the hard at the back of the boat shed and not killing ourselves.

Braid-on-braid is a 100% polyester rope that is the most popular type of rope for halyards (used to pull things up and down on boats) and sheets (used to trim and set sails). It’s a bit more complicated to work with than 3 strand, but having survived the gantry climb, we were up for the challenge. We put an eye in braid-on-braid, which was a bit like performing an intestine operation and splicing braid-on-braid to wire, which is just plain fiendish.

Another thoroughly enjoyable and informative course presented by Rob; it’s becoming a habit.

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).

Tooling Up

A tool box in kit form

Boat building at IBTC is nothing if not thorough. We’ve built the tools, now we’re building a tool box to put them in. The boats will come in time.

Having been issued with a 3m plank of mahogany, I’ve been converting it into the sides of a tool box. I’ve cut it to size, squared it up, smoothed out the ripples and put some dovetail joints on it. Now it’s ready to be glued together. There are some pictures of the work in progress below. Talking of work in progress; speed and accuracy still fall very much into that category.

In other news, our tutor Ian has gone for a long awaited knee operation. He’s taught us a great deal in the past few weeks; although we’ve only scratched the surface of his knowledge and experience. I’ll certainly miss his catch phrase “We’ll go with that” when we show him the product of our latest efforts. It’s always a relief to hear it; however I’m not sure how often it’s said in exasperation. I hope you’re back up and about soon Ian.

Thanks to Michael for letting me take a picture of his planks nailed together. I was so shocked when I was told to nail them together that I forgot to take one of mine. It’s an effective way of keeping them together while marking up and cutting out the tails, and there’s no lasting damage (from the nails anyway).

Cut to size with a panel saw

Planed and scraped until smooth

Marking up the dovetails with a pick-up stick and handmade dovetail gauge

Nailed together for cutting tails

Tails cut out with tenon and coping saws

Cleaning up the shoulders

Marking up the pins

Cutting out the pins

More shoulder cleaning

All fitted together

Cutting a rebate for the lid with a tool made for the job some time in the last century

The first inch

Mallet head and handle

Put these together to make a mallet

In ‘A Walk in the Woods’, Bill Bryson describes his adventures walking the Appalachian Trail. After slogging along the trail for a week or so, he sees a map of the entire route hung on the wall of an outdoors supplier’s shop. The map is several feet long. He looks closer to see how far he has walked and gets a shock when he realises that he has walked about an inch of it. He can see for the first time how far he really has to go.

I haven’t had to wade through waist deep snow or sleep in an open shelter in freezing conditions during my first week at IBTC, but I know how he felt. I now have my first inkling of what it will take to turn me into a boat builder.

Where do I start? My tools need to become like extensions of my body, my use of them confident. I need to understand the construction materials, how the grain lays, how to work with different kinds of wood. Accurate marking up and precise cutting with well honed tools. I need this all to become instinctive so that I can produce high quality work quickly. Then I can start learning to build boats. It’s quite a trek.

I won’t give away how Bill got on with the rest of the Appalachian Trail, but suffice to say that I hope I won’t be drawing on ‘A Walk in the Woods’ for many future posts.

Why Scantlings?

I’ve got a new language to learn; it’s the language of boat building. Reading around the subject, I’ve been using the glossary in John Leather’s ‘Clinker Boatbuilding’ as a guide. The first pass through was a little bit confusing, some of the definitions seem to be almost self-referential; take the definition of ‘sheer’ for example: ‘the sweeping curve of a boat’s sheerstrake upper profile.’ I felt that I needed to know what sheer meant before sheerstrake made sense; surely it shouldn’t be part of the definition without itself being defined? Digging deeper into the book, I discovered that the sheerstrake is the uppermost plank of the hull, and the meaning became clear; the sheer is the shape of the top of the hull. I clearly have work to do before I’m fluent in this new language.

I found ‘scantlings’ in the glossary as well; I liked it because it has a satisfying ring of conciseness which is a guiding principle for this blog. John Leather tells me that the definition of scantlings is ‘A ship and boatbuilding term for the dimensions of the members of construction’. So I will know I’m a boatbuilder when I can build a boat from its scantlings.

Plans and laying off

Stanley Plane

Sharp enough?

Three weeks to go. From Monday 10th September there will be no daily bike ride through London traffic to get to the office. No sitting at a desk. No computer. No weekly visit to the gym. No monthly salary. Regular mugs of tea will be my only link with my previous way of life. I’m going to learn to be a boat builder at the International Boatbuilding Training College in Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft.

Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis; in fact that’s what it is. It feels like the right time to assess what I do, what I’ve done and what (I hope) I will do. I love making things and I love boats, so it seems to make sense. I want to do something useful for as long as I can, I want to get to the end of the day, the week, the year and know what I’ve done (rather that not being able to quite put my finger on it).

As the autumn comes along and the days get colder and shorter, i’ll stoop and build ’em up not with worn-out tools, but with well honed tools. Honing will be the theme of the autumn and winter this year. I’ll be honing my tools and honing my woodworking skills. Preparing to be a boat builder. But now I’m preparing to prepare to be a boat builder.

John Leather’s ‘Clinker Boatbuilding’ has given me some useful insights already and I’m sure will be a useful companion; he tells us in Chapter 1 that ‘sharpening tools is the first thing that a boat builder must know or learn by practice’.

No doubt that’s where we’ll start in September. I just hope I’ve got the tools to sharpen.