Thermomixed Up, Part 5: Cabinet Scrapers
My friend Bob Wise is somewhat of a celebrity in the world of self-built boats.
He’s a celebrity because he and his wife commissioned, then built, then cruised a 38 foot sharpie designed by Phil Bolger, the Loose Moose II. The Loose Moose II had a number of somewhat radical, some even say heretical design features.
For example, the Moose flew a single 400 ft sq. gaff-rigged main on an unstayed, tabernacled mast, in the style of the Norfolk wherries that Phil much admired. This arrangement also featured a free-flooding transomed bow (that means open to the sea), probably unprecedented in an ocean-going yacht.
Although 38 feet long and capacious enough to serve as a full-time home for a married couple, two cats, a dozen electric guitars (Bob’s) and basses (Sheila’s), a bunch of cine cameras, and all the tools needed to build her, the boat was only 8 feet wide (one sheet of plywood) and only drew 18 inches with her boards up. (Yes, she was a bilge-boarder; again, not a typical arrangement for an ocean-going boat.)
But perhaps the most provocative aspect of the LMII was that the boat was designed to be built quickly and inexpensively; and in fact, the Moose was built in about a year; Bob working on it full-time and Sheila pitching in when her job allowed; at a cost in the low five-figure range.
Because Bob did this, actually did it; built the Loose Moose II quickly and inexpensively, and then cruised it throughout the Mediterranean, down the coast of Africa, and over to the Caribbean, Bob gets a lot of inquiries from people who have read Phil Bolger’s books, and are wondering, “Is it really that easy?” and in fact, that’s how Bob and I met.
Perhaps a year or so after I first started quizzing Bob about the realities of building a big sharpie, it happened that one of my clients said they wanted to send me to Afghanistan on a film project, and since I knew Bob had been there with the Northern Alliance in 2002, I asked him if he had any advice. His answer:
- Start growing a beard
- Get the best kevlar you can buy
- Get the warmest long underwear you can find
- Can I come?
Bob and I never made it to Afghanistan, but our friendship now spans a decade, and in that time, Bob’s given me three profound gifts, in the form of introduction to three life-altering tools.
The first was the Krasnogorsk K3 Russian 16mm camera, which Bob pitched to me as the cheapest, best way for an ultra-low-budget filmmaker to shoot HD.
The K-3 is a Russian version of a spring-powered Bolex that you can buy new on eBay for about $125. (At the time a used Bolex would cost about 10 times the amount, even today, a quick look shows Bolexes going for $600-$1000.)
The standard Meteor 17~69mm zoom lens wasn’t bad, but because the K-3 had a M42 mount, you could also mount a variety of East German Ziess lenses, and the ridiculously wide-angle Russian-made Pelang 8mm. (A Pelang might cost you $60-$200, a similar Nikor somewhere around $3000.)
This meant that for about $500 or less, you could put a nifty little 16mm package together and start shooting Fuji 50D (a super sweet, saturated, fine-grained daylight stock) and then transfer to HD.
By contrast, a Sony 900 rents for about $900/day (more back then) and that doesn’t even include your first cassette or the many needful accessories to shoot HD reliably and effectively.
Now if it had been anyone else telling me this, I would have been inclined to dismiss Bob’s argument as sour grapes, as in “Oh those idiots shooting HD. They’d be a whole lot better off shooting a clock-spring camera”.
But Bob had built and the cruised the Loose Moose II, demonstrating a remarkable capacity for out of the box thinking (even if it did lead him to a box-shaped boat.)
Bob was also a working steadicam owner/op, and had flown just about every kind of professional camera imaginable on his sled; and he was also a working director of photography, work that included very good looking HD work for ESPN and others.
So despite the fact that K-3’s have a reputation for not loading reliably (untrue, K-3s are cheap, and because they are cheap they are used by a lot of people who do not know what they are doing, because they are used by a lot of people who do not know what they are doing they get blamed for a lot of mechanical problems that are actually operator error);
And despite the fact that the Consumer Electronic Industrial Complex was pouring millions of dollars into promoting HD video;
And despite the fact that looking at a camera listing on eBay wasn’t as enticing as a slick catalog of this year’s latest and greatest video camera;
And despite the fact that it was downright terrifying to pin my hopes of becoming a more robust filmmaker on doing the exact opposite of what I was reading about in every media outlet (i.e. instead of shooting on the cheap on video, and then transferring to film, we were going to spend all our money up front on filmstock, and then transfer to video.)
Despite all of these fears and misgivings, I bought a K-3; and I bought a few rolls of film; and everything about my filmmaking changed.
The switch from video to film had such a powerful, positive impact on my filmmaking that by the Fall of 2008 I found myself in the market for a 36’~42′ sailboat.
As with my cine gear purchase, I was leaning hard on Bob’s expertise to guide me through the various considerations, and we had a short list of boats that were in my price range and met my criteria for capability and capacity. Bob’s advice throughout the exercise had been two-fold:
- No matter what, it’s all the same water.
- When you find the right boat for you, you’ll know it.
By the end of September I was this close to committing to a one-owner Hallberg-Rassy in Staten Island.
And then somehow, I don’t remember how, but somehow I ended up on a self-listed Catalina 38 for sale in down East Georgia. I sent a note to Bob:
“I know that Catalinas are just weekend racer cruisers, but there’s something about this boat that feels right.”
Bob’s reply was unequivocal:
“That boat will take you anywhere you want to go.”
But that’s not why I was able to “go anywhere I wanted to go” in our Catalina 38 (From Georgia to FL to the Bahamas then back to Georgia, then back to Montauk, and then from Montauk to Bermuda to St Martin to the USVI and back to Montauk again.)
The reason I was able to go all those places was because after Bob encouraged me to buy the Catalina 38 (which we named INTEMPERANCE) Bob virtually insisted we buy and mount a windvane on her transom.
Cruising boats mount all kinds of crap on their sterns: davits & dinghies, all manner of antennas, radar dishes, solar panels, boarding ladders, fishing rods to name a few. But for some reason windvanes get singled out as unsightly.
My theory is that people rarely see glamourous full-bleed advertising photos of boats equipped with windvanes, because windvanes are made by little companies that can’t afford full-bleed ads. Because people don’t see glamourous photos of windvanes, but do see full-bleed photos of electro-hydraulic systems, which are produced by the same companies that make cruise missiles and whatnot.
The snake eats its own tail.
Very few people have boats with windvanes, very few people ever get to try out a windvane, windvanes have a reputation for being difficult to learn and finicky to use. This reputation scares away even the moderately curious, which keeps the demand small, and the companies who make them small, which in turn keeps the ads for windvanes small.
I am not immune to this. Even with Bob’s advice, I had misgivings about spending $1500 for a used windvane, let alone $4,500 for a new one.
Fortunately for me, fate intervened.
While walking a dock in Georgia I noticed wheel drum (a part that connects the windvane’s activation lines to a boat’s wheel) mounted on a ketch that was undergoing major, possibly endless refit.
I asked the boat’s master, “Is that a drum for a windvane?”
“It is,” he replied. “Wanna buy it?”
“Maybe. How much?”
“How about $500 dollars?”
Since the drum itself cost $600 new, I said yes.
A long walk to get to cabinet scrapers, no? Still with me? Good. Read on!
“When you get your materials on site, give me a call. I have a process for building that’s a little different than most people’s, and I think it might be helpful,” That’s what Bob’s email said about a month ago. To understand why Bob’s process is different, first let’s look at the ‘normal’ way people build plywood and epoxy boats:
You get all the plywood, lumber and epoxy on site.
As needed, you cut the lumber to shape.
As needed you glue and screw the various pieces together.
Once assembled you sheath the outside with glass fabric and epoxy, and coat the inside with multiple layers of epoxy.
Because you are working at odd angles and upside down, this process generally involves a deal of sloppiness with the epoxy, so achieving a clean finish involves a lot of sanding after the face, upside down and/or at odd angles. This is laborious and produces copious dust, which must be cleaned up.
Because cured epoxy is very hard, powertool sanders are generally employed, so there’s the ever present risk of removing too much epoxy, and having to re-coat (and then re-sand.)
Because of this, large boat projects turn into odysseys of finish work. Sure, the hulls are assembled (satisfying!) but that’s when the real work begins (discouraging!) Projects bog down. They go over time, and over budget. Large self-built boat projects are notorious for stalling out altogether.
Now the Bob way.
Loft (draw) all the parts you can on as many pieces as you can on your plywood.
With the plywood laid out flat, roll on just enough epoxy to change the color of the wood.
When this first coat has cured to the consistency of hard wax, take a cabinet scraper and gently scrape the raised grain off the panel.
Roll on a second coat. When this cures to hard wax, gently scape off any imperfections.
Now roll on a third coat. Again, when this cures to hard wax, gently scape off any imperfections.
Now turn the sheet over and repeat.
This is done for all sheets that go to making interior parts (bulkheads, bunks, cabinetry.) The exception would be any sheets that face the outside of the boat (topsides panels, deck panels.) These get the above treatment on the inside, but are left dry on the outside to be sheathed in glass cloth and epoxy.
The epoxy is easy to fair when it’s in its waxy state, but it can’t be done with sandpaper. If you try it will just gum up the sandpaper.
If you wait long enough for the epoxy to be just sand-able, it’s a lot more work, makes a lot of dust, still gums up sanding discs at a ferocious clip, is noisy, and the epoxy is still gummy enough that the added drag tends to kill off sanders.
Add of course if you wait till a full cure, the epoxy is very, very hard (that’s what makes it such a good boat-building material) so you still go through a lot of sanding discs (but at least your sanders survive.)
By contrast, working with the scrapers can start earlier in the curing process, is fast, quiet enough to talk over, and produces something that looks like shaved white chocolate that can be brushed off with a foxtail and falls to the floor.
Also it makes a better finish than anything I’ve ever achieved by sanding.
When we moved to Oregon my father bought two shotguns in short order.
One was a Belgian Browning Auto 5, chambered for 3″ shells and with a 30″ barrel.
The other was a Rossi double barrel, also chambered for 3″ shells, and with a 28″ barrels, one with a full choke and one with modified choke.
My father was quite fond of the Browning because it reminded him of the BAR from his days in the Marine Corp, but the Rossi got a lot more use because I would stomp around the hills and fields of Southern Oregon with my dog looking for quail, grouse and pheasant, and if the Rossi wasn’t the ideal gun for this sort of hunting, it was better than the Browning.
Over time I became convinced that I wasn’t downing as many birds as I should be because the shot pattern of the Rossi was too tight.
I asked my dad if I could have a gun smith pull the barrels to wider chokes, but he was skeptical about fooling with it. It was well-balanced and made a good duck gun just as it was.
I suffered from terrible gun-lust, prowling the used gun shops of the Rogue valley hoping I could find a double barrel with a modified and improved modified barrels, but there were none to be found. Everything was full and modified combo like the Rossi, and nothing was cheap enough that I could afford to buy it and have it smithed.
Finally, and out of a certain degree of frustration, I bought a very cheap single-shot with a 28″ inch barrel, took it to the gunsmith and asked him to pull it out to a straight choke, the widest shot pattern there is.
On quail and grouse, the single-shot with a straight choke proved to be more deadly than the double-barrel Rossi with the tighter patterns.
Maybe a year later I sold my Laser sailboat, a Bar Mitzvah gift from my maternal grandmother, and bought an “Upland Special” Browning Citori over/under with a straight stock, 24″ barrel, and interchangeable choke tubes.
Merry Christmas, everyone. I hope you find something special under the tree!