Spars and Scarphs

With our arrival in South Devon this autumn I appear to have started off working as a spar maker – just for now at any rate.

Getting established as a boatbuilder when you don’t have a lot of local contacts has it’s own challenges, of which more later, but to get off the mark down here (work wise) I recently undertook some mast repairs to a Harrison Butler Askadil design called ‘Naida’, which was built in Essex during 1939. The mast was of interesting, if fairy basic construction. A 40′ pole had been split, the pith (and a bit more stock besides) scooped out to form a 2″ diameter hollow and the two sides glued back together. The pole was then shaped up to form a pear section, tapering above the upper spreaders – with a rectangular stock drilled for tabernacle mounting on 1″ bolts. On exploratory dissection it was clear that the glue used was an early Urea Formaldehyde (more recently known in the UK as Cascamite, Polymite etc etc..) presumably recently available from the aircraft industry. It had done remarkably well in the intervening 70 or so years – with nearly all of the glue lines in the areas that I had to dissect still being much stronger than the surrounding wood.

Despite the success of the glued construction the mast had spent a few years lying on the floor at the back of a shed in Latham’s Yard and was now in sorry condition. There was a significant section of rot and worm infestation to be cut out and replaced just below mid height. In addition, detailed investigation (with a table saw) showed that there was rot at the gooseneck. At this point the owner decided that it made sense to replace the whole lower half of the mast.

Douglas Fir was sourced from John Moody (just down the road), prepared in the workshop, and shipped up to the barn where Naida is being restored outside Yeovil. One of the major costs of getting a new 40′ spar is the transportation. Moving a (new) 40′ mast would have been expensive. Moving the 22′ lengths of timber needed for the mast repairs (on top of the trusty Picasso) was merely a challenge!

With the new stock on site I set too and machined up the scarphs. This was straightforward for the rectangular stock that I had brought up but machining scarphs on an irregular pear shaped spar was fun. A power planer does most of the work of course but a router down the ramp was needed to trim up the faying surfaces before gluing up.

Resourcinol is the glue of choice for this sort of work, Aerodux 500 in this case. Clamping pressure is hard to get when you need nearly a newton of pressure per square milimetre of surface area! Clamps, clamps, more clamps and improvised wooden clamps – and a tent with fan heater overnight were all needed overnight to get the glue to go off and allow fairing the next day.

The fairing process was interesting too. Using a spar gauge does not, of course, give the right result. Fortunately, the length of spar that I was replacing was parallel sided (apart from the stock) so I made up a section template, marked up a number of tangential chords, scribed them on the rectangular stock with a marking gauge and power planed to the lines. Once there I had to resort to spiral planing by hand to get of the flats and used a rhino hide strop to remove the plane marks. With the mast track back on, the stock faired into the mast shaft and the tabernacle bolt holes drilled my part of the job was done.

Richard, Naida’s owner, who is making a great job of restoring her, will take on the varnishing and re-instatement of mast fittings.

With Naida’s mast out of the way I then quickly polished off a new bowsprit (4″ section)

After the bowsprit it was an extension to Mat Ali’s boom (5″ section). This latter, with a single feather scarph over 1.5m long, needed a new 12:1 scarph box.

I think that it’s probably now time to do something other than spar making. If not I’ll find myself dreaming about spar planes and ways to power sand a pear shaped mast fair.


And then the sun shone…

At 4pm the sun shone for a few minutes. Just in time to show me where I still needed to do some more fairing to Lizzie May’s new counter planking.

I got to learn a bit about steaming heavier stock with this one. The new planking is 1 1/4″ oak and getting the short lengths to bend and twist to shape meant, in the end, about 1 1/2 hours of steam. I certainly did not get this one right first time and was glad to have some advice and assistance from Nigel Gray when steaming the crucial first plank.

The trouble with… new teak

Fixing old boats is what I do most of and an awful lot of what I get to fix is made of teak. Prima facie this seems quite reasonable and sensible. Teak rubbing strakes, toe-rails, decking, saloon furniture; They all get damaged and need, ideally, like-for-like replacement. However, when like-for-like means sourcing timber of questionable political origin, astronomic price, limited availability and dubious quality we need to start finding better solutions. I don’t think that I have a solution to this or even a hint of one but need to start by telling a story as an example of what can go wrong when people get hung up on an idea like ‘I need a laid teak deck’.

I’m currently in the process of replacing the aft king plank (rotten) on a Spey Class Motor Sailer. The deck is 1″ laid teak, rather fancy for a boat built in Buckie but it looks, to me, about right. Nothing unusual about that you might think for a boat built in the late 50’s. However, when I tell you that the deck was completely re-laid 10 years ago you might raise an eyebrow or two. What could have happened to the job such that 10 years later the teak king plank had rotted, the deck had started leaking and, of course, the deck beams had rotted as well.

Once the old plank had been dug out it was pretty clear what had happened. The teak was soft and spongy and when I cleaned up the end grain you could see that the growth rings indicated that the tree had been putting on 12mm of girth, each side, year after year. This, if I have ever seen it, is fast grown plantation teak suitable, at best, for paper making.

So, whose fault is this: the timber supplier; the client (who supplied the timber to the yard); the yard or the the shipwright? The supplier would try to claim that this is all that was available on the market, the client would claim that he purchased teak (and everybody knows that teak does not rot), the yard would claim that the client supplied the teak and the poor shipwright probably knew that the deck would not last but just did as he was told.

More important than the particular party at fault in this case is the general climate in which a large number of people ask for a particular natural resource (in this case teak) which is is in increasingly scarce supply and all expect to obtain access to the ‘real thing’. There just isn’t enough material, at any price, of a quality suitable for boatbuilding. We, as boatbuilders (or whatever) have to have more imagination in proposing alternatives and be more aggressive in saying ‘no – this wood is not good enough to go in a boat’.

As a jobbing boatbuilder (working here as a subcontractor) I got on with the job, scarfed in repairs to the deck beams and made up a new king plank using the supplied teak. I pointed out that decking and especially a king plank, however tight the growth rings, really really does need to be quarter sawn but when is the last time that you saw a 200mm wide quarter sawn teak board? If there is no option of doing the job properly because the materials are not available on the open market there is little motivation for the yard to tell the client about this impossible option. There’s no doubt about it, I’m part of this consumption conspiracy.

This post is not meant to be a whinge or a rant but is, I hope, a way of phrasing a few questions.

  • What happens to wooden boatbuilders when wood suitable for boatbuilding is no longer available?
  • What happens to all the old wooden boats that need to be repaired?
  • What happens to all the fancy superyachts when they need new teak decks?

I know that people have been saying this sort of thing for generations but for us it really does seem to be the end of the line, for using tropical hardwoods in boats at any rate.

Article in Watercraft

Writing a magazine article is probably the nearest that I am likely to get to doing marketing work, other than sailing of course.

Anyway, Watercraft Magazine recently (Nov/Dec 2011 issue) published an account, written by me, of building a 4.5m Peterboat. To my knowledge this is the first 4.5m Peterboat built since Norman Whyte of Findhorn closed up shop in about 1994. Reading the article on paper, a few months after writing it, it all looks a bit worthy and, for anyone not interested in actually building boats, a bit boring. Is this good marketing?

Anyway, to help atone for all the technical stuff in the article, here’s a couple of photos of Teal looking all nice and pretty, just before she was all bolted together for delivery.

The first photo illustrates, I hope, the success that I had in creating an ‘all round’ seating arrangement.

The second photo shows how surprisingly good matt varnish can look – very few distracting reflections.

The eagle eyed reader of Watercraft will also have spotted that the new Peterboat, sailed by the owner, also features in the photo-coverage of Portsoy 2011 by Kathy Mansfield. As I recall, I was on the other side of the camera boat at that moment, sailing Seapod. That weekend, my first visit to Portsoy, was exceptional not least for the weather. I spent the whole weekend sailing in t-shirt, shorts and bare feet and went back to Edinburgh somewhat sunburnt.

Here is the ‘sail and oar’ fleet, relaxing in the sunshine after the Kipper race.

One of the points that I did not make very clear in the article, is that I now hold a license to build wooden Drascombes in the UK. What’s next, a Lugger, Dabber, Longboat ….??

Builders sometimes take liberties

This summer I was doing some refit work on Mat Ali.  She is a Harrison Butler Khamseen, built in peninsular Malaya during 1935.  An interesting boat with lots of stories to tell no doubt.

Part of the refit work meant removing the (non original) rubbing strake to access the chainplates and once off it became apparent that Mat Ali’s sections were perhaps not quite to her lines.  The design lines (a rough copy of which are published) show sections with the traditional tumblehome that you would expect of a Harrison Butler.

Looking, however, at the midships section of the boat as she is now, it was clear that someone, at some point, had taken liberties. Not only had Mat Ali been equippped with tumblehome – but the tumblehome had, over the last plank or so, been reversed out and turned into a subtle but definite flare.

With some boats you might reasonably ask the question ‘has she moved/pinched/hogged’ to create this effect, but Mat Ali, built over 4″ sawn frames, is a bit too stiff for that sort of movement. Besides, the covering boards (original) continue the flare in line with the sheer strake, the frames sit cleanly against the planking and the boat shows no other signs of movement. The extent of the flare is not huge but enough for me to need to bend the re-galvanised chainplates by 1/8″ when tightening the bolts up in order to get the chainplates to sit flush against the planking. These sorts of things don’t just happen by accident.

I guess that this sort of ‘interpretation’ of a set of lines is the way in which builders make their mark on a design. My fancy is that Mat Ali (the builder of Mat Ali), who had never built a yacht before, but had a lifetime of experience in building Malay working craft, had some strong opinions about the way that things should really be done – and adding flare to tumblehomed topsides was his contribution to how a real boat should be finished off.

What I have not yet been able to establish is if tumblehome reverting to flare is/was a feature of any Malay craft and what the proper term for this feature is anyway.

Time to build a new boat

For some time I have been thinking about a new boat for myself. Building one that is. Before I can really get started I need to sell Seapod. Lovely though she is, I can’t accumulate boats so … Seapod is for Sale. I built her in 2008 and have used her each summer since. I now want to build another boat for myself (i.e. the sort of boat any normal client would never commission) and can’t justify keeping Seapod when I do.

Update: Seapod was sold to the first viewer – and now lives in North Berwick.


One of the good jobs over this winter has been to assist with the winter refit of the Cornish Pilot Cutter, Lizzie May. On a boat of this size, used for chartering, there are always a collection of broken locker catches, sticking doors and minor breakages to attend to. One of the more photogenic tasks relates to Lizzie May’s tender and has a nice tale attached.

When Lizzie May was built by Luke Powell, way back in 1999, she was supplied with a traditional clinker tender built by one Will Stirling. At some point the yacht (if that is the right word) and her tender were separated and subsequent owners had to make do with inflatables. On a trip down south over the winter Jerry, Lizzie May’s owner, was offered her back and jumped (I think) at the chance. After a lot of oil poured into her inside and a grey paint job to her planking she arrived in Granton (winter berthing) to be re-united with her ‘parent’.

There is no evidence of dinghy chocks on deck so she was originally stored, I presume, inverted over the coachroof and skylight. Anyway, Jerry decides that it makes more sense to store her right way up so chocks are made up (by me) and a cover is measured for and made (by Fabricworks).

So, on a very very wet day I drill a few holes in the coachroof, bolt in the chocks and we fit it all together. The arrangement looks, I think, quite fitting.

I was initially sceptical about ‘right way up’ storage on deck but can now see three big advantages.

– somewhere to put the fenders (and lots of other junk)
– no need to roll the tender over when launched and recovered
– light still gets through the skylight

The gap between the tender and boom is not large (some surgery was needed to the stemhead to ensure clearance – sorry Will) but she fits on deck rather well – for a counter sterned boat ‘only’ 42′ LOD.

Assuming that she gets well lashed down when it blows hard she should stay in place. In harbour she will enable skipper and crew to arrive ashore in considerably more style than last year. I do hope that yacht and tender manage to stay together second time round!

BTW Lizzie May is a charter boat and can be booked.