by Herschel Finch 

Where does the infernal notion come from that suddenly instill us with the desire to build a boat? My wife says it must be middle age dementia. I think perhaps it’s more than that…in my case it came from two places. The first was the desire to have a small craft in which to fish the Shenandoah River. The other was the price of commercially available craft. Strike that…even ‘used’ craft were out of my budget, at least the ones that were still serviceable anyway. So I began thinking.

I was pretty fair journeyman carpenter, thanks to the tutoring of my Grandfather, from the time I could pick up a hammer and do some damage to a hunk of wood. I have built several small and not-so-small projects over the years, small cabinets, workbenches, end tables and the like. Home repairs requiring woodwork and finish carpentry skills were a breeze for me, and I’ve become sort of the family go-to guy for those, building a boat should be a breeze. I began thinking about the old wooden johnboats I used to rent at small local lakes down home. They looked simple enough; surely I could handle something like that. But a johnboat requires a trailer, motor, state registration fees etc to work the river…so I figured maybe I could build a canoe. But where to start? Well, in the 21st century where every good boat wright begins…the Internet!

I was damn near overwhelmed with the wealth of information!!! The types, the builders, the commercial sites, the homesites of those who have gone before…and then I saw an intriguing word: Pirogue.  Lots of different places to get plans, help, advice, parts etc. I settled on Uncle John’s version for the price, and for what came in his “kit”. Making compound angle cuts on a piece of wood as soft as Cypress is not the easiest thing to do. So I figured if they will do it for me, it would be worth it. Second, the stitch and glue method of waterproofing a boat seemed ingenious to me, although a bit daunting since I had never tried my hand at handling epoxy resin and fiberglass cloth before. I found out that there are many places to learn how this process is done, including this fine site and the many posters who have put up pictures and detailed diaries of their process (many thanks to you all!) but they never give ALL the information. There are many things you will find out for yourself. 

Like just how fragile fiberglass cloth is, how hard it is to cut straight with no fraying, how much resin can you mix at once without running out too soon, or having too much to use up before it hardens, and what kind of container should you mix in, and stir in hardener, cream or liquid versions, rollers or brushes? Oh the questions came fast and furious. But I persevered and learned a few things along the way, and came out on the other side with some good tips and couple of tricks.

Pick your Luan or fir or what-have-you carefully, knots, splits, and other imperfections will require repair and prep-work before you start. If you don’t have a table saw or some method to ensure long, straight cuts with a jigsaw, spend the extra couple of bucks to have them rip your long strips for the gunwales at the store. You’ll be glad you did. Keep your block plane SHARP and tight. It will be your most important tool when you get to the fairing work. When setting up your scarf joints, make sure that when your boat is assembled, the vectors of the angle point toward the outside and aft. This will ensure when you flex the wood around to your stems, the stress concentrations will on the thicker areas of the joint, not on the thin sections. (The engineer in me is showing). Also your leading edges will have water flowing PAST the joint, rather than into the joint. The scarf joint in the bottom isn’t so critical, but I made sure that the leading edge of the scarf-angle was inside rather than on the outside as well, just seemed logical in helping to prevent leaks that way. Water will pass over and away from the joint rather than being forced into it.

Disposable-everything is the way to go. You’ll spend nearly as much time cleaning up as you do building if you try to use permanent tools and such with the epoxy. I used disposable nylon brushes to spread the Epoxy; wide tongue depressor type sticks (available at craft stores) to mix hardener, and those small disposable leftover containers from the grocery store to hold the epoxy. They are cheap, readily available and easy to hold and mix in. Don’t forget your respirator, and on this one item, buy the best one you can afford. You’ll be glad you did.

A tip from my long-suffering spouse: Cutting Fiberglass cloth into 3 and 4inch wide strips is an exercise in frustration. The weave of the cloth is very loose and it tends to skew as you cut. Get a cutting board and wheel-type cutter from your local sewing outlet. Use the “wavy-edged” blade in the cutter and you  will greatly reduce the frayed edges you get trying to use conventional scissors. Do all your cutting before you start, or I guarantee you, you WILL get epoxy on the wheel cutter and it will slowly stop working as the epoxy works it way into the spindle. You can buy the strips precut, but it’s more expensive and you will still have to cut to length for short runs.

Brush on epoxy down the length of the tape, gently pushing air bubbles as you go. Trying to pull them out on the short side will also pull the tape out of place and stroking across the cut edge of the tape will pull fibers out of the strip. Some say foam rollers are the way to  go here because they don’t pull fibers out. They’re probably right, but foam rollers saturate with epoxy very quickly and you’ll need to clean the roller often and use refills generously. The foam tends to tear apart as it gets heavy with epoxy. Plus, frequent cleaning increases the chances of mixing Acetone with resin and ruining the cure with pits, fisheyes etc.

Much is made of using only real marine epoxy resin such as West Systems or Raka. I read where only a couple people talked about Polyester resins, but the majority of people said don’t use it. I’m gonna’ commit heresy here and admit that I used polyester resin. It’s cheaper, more readily available and easy to work with and sand. You also don’t need to be so exacting with the hardener mix. I used liquid instead of the cream type hardener and just a momentary squirt (about 1.5 seconds) into a half-inch deep portion of resin in one of the leftover containers seemed to be about right. It held up for about 10 minutes worth of work time at 75 degrees before it started to stiffen up. I figured I wasn’t building a boat to compete in the America’s Cup here and she wouldn’t be shooting class 5 rapids or be transported long distances, so the Polyester should hold up just fine…and so far I’ve been right. Nary a leak. Plus, I wasn’t looking for that clear, blinding shine that true epoxy gives since the ‘Charldonjes’ is painted.

I highly recommend you try building a boat at some point in your life. I’ve been hard pressed to remember a project that gave me such a feeling of accomplishment. And true to form, (and to the warnings I received if I built one) I’m already thinking about the next boat, a bit more involved, a bit more challenging I think. Something along the lines of Chesapeake Light Craft’s Millcreek 15 maybe. We shall see.

Post Script:

The name Charldonjes comes from a combination of the names of the three most important people in my wife, my son and my future daughter in law. I needed a vaguely French/Cajun sounding name given the heritage of the Pirogue-style canoe and as luck would have it, the combination of their names rendered the perfect nom-de-plume as it were.


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