From the Boatshop
by Ron Magen

T O O L S is tools

Recently I’ve been ‘a bit distracted’, like everyone else in the country.

Oddly enough, one of the newsgroups on the ‘net that was overflowing with comments wasn’t one you would expect {my ‘firearms & competitive shooting ones were really calm - it was a boatbuilding one !! The moderator had to finally call a halt to the threads - almost no one was talking about BOATS. I found this quite depressing because to me sailing & boatbuilding {or just building something with wood} has a calming effect.

Not just because our President said it, but along the lines of "Living well is the best revenge" or in this case not letting THEM get CONTROL we should all get on with our lives. Albeit not, ‘just like before’.

Additionally, I had received a ‘thank you’ about last months column about ‘materials’ so I think it’s a good idea to continue THAT THREAD.

Tools is tools. Just that and nothing more. Neanderthal had a rock; Norm Abram has an electric hammer. 'Mr. Animal Skins' had to build some kind of craft to fish & eat to survive; 'Mr. Plaid Shirt' needs it to look good and fit into one or two 30-minute episodes. (re; when he built a 'Clancy' from a KIT).

There are people on this list who are building, or have built, boats ranging from a 'cement mixing tray' to an 40+ foot Ocean Voyager. The basic tools they NEED are almost identical; their time and circumstances aren't.

To illustrate my point, when I built ‘Rubens Nymph’ and ‘Bee’, the only MAJOR power tool I had was a small, old B&D 8" 'table top' saw. It couldn't saw a straight line if it was hanging like a plumb-bob. In one of the photo's you can see it all 'jigged up' with clamps and featherboards. In actuality, it was of VERY LITTLE USE. The heaviest and thickest part of BEE was her motor mount board - and that I did by hand with a Jack Plane.

In addition, the first and biggest thing I had to do was make a floor . . . the 'shop' was simply an extension of our back drive and large broken stone. Not concrete like Norm, but scrounged pallets covered with used interior paneling. For a 'level hard spot' a sheet of OSB.

The most IMPORTANT tool ? . . . DESIRE !! Everything else can be scrounged. Read 'Buehler's Backyard Boatbuilding' to 'see' a master of the technique.

My old, and cheap, Rockwell 5-1/2 inch circular saw is fine for cutting 1/4 inch ply fairly close to the line.{Just as a ‘by the by’ we bought it right after we bought our house - used it to cut ½ inch ply to ‘lay a floor’ in the attic crawl space for Summer/Winter storage . . . about 20 years ago} A saber saw - pick the brand you like - is good for cutting shaped frames from thicker ply. A drill (they all reverse now) with a clutch will both make holes and fill them with screws. SPEND the extra money for GOOD BLADES to put on anything you cut with. Get a good KNIFE (pocket or otherwise) and learn how to keep it SHARP. Layout lines instead of pencil, scoring ply before cutting, sharpening your other pencil, or shaving a gunnel to fit are just some of the uses.

Do I have TOOLS !! ? Absolutely; I'm a 'tool geek'. However, I've 'collected' them over 20-years and more. Plus I have either made them myself, or they are used for things other than boatbuilding.

If you read Chappell or Gardner’s books and dream over the plans, just remember that most, if not all, of the boats they are discussing were designed BEFORE the era of power tools & ‘Magic Goo’s’. (agreed, some of Gardner’s are in the ‘transitional period’) For a little ‘hands on experience’ make a pilgrimage to Mystic Seaport and go through the Small Boats exhibit. If you ask very nicely, you may get to take a tour of the undisplayed stuff in the warehouses. I was fortunate enough to get to see and touch Lawton tender to the Grenadier which was photographed for one of Gardner’s books. Hand tools, copper rivet & rove fastenings, and maybe a touch of heated animal glue.

I don’t think anyone will disagree that Harold Payson is one of the greatest proponents of ‘modern’ amateur boatbuilding. Take a look at Dynamite’s ‘Build the New Instant Boats’. His beginning two chapters cover getting started and the ‘tools list’. Surprisingly minimal, but I don’t think anyone will argue about what has come out of his shop.

Everyone has their favorites and ‘must haves’. Almost every book has a list. George Buehler covers the subject in two pages; with no ‘itemized list’. Same Devlin takes 9 pages, including an itemized ‘Basic Amateur Builder’s Tool List’ of 27 items totaling $650.oo {in early 1990's prices). [This doesn’t include the table saw which is mentioned in the ‘Advanced Tools’ list which comes after the ‘Additional Tools & Materials’ list. BOTH books are the same page size. BOTH builders/designers produce excellent work]

The following is MY suggested ‘starter’ tool list; not necessarily in order of precedence {unless so mentioned}. Remember, just because you have them doesn’t mean that they are exclusively for boatbuilding. I’ve tried to make some comments about them all, and note that a number of them are ‘self made’.


YES - FIRST and a NECESSITY . . . along with an open mind. As illustrated in the paragraph about Buehler and Devlin, everyone has their own approach. Nobody ‘owns’ a technique and you don’t have to pay royalties - especially if they put it into a book !! It’s their business if they want to use books as a profit making device, an advertising medium, or an ‘ego trip’ for ‘running their mouth’ {like me ?}. It’s not stealing and why not combine ideas if it suits YOUR objective.


See ‘BOOKS’ above . . . you WILL use it. ESPECIALLY if you are going to use the plans you find in the BOOKS.



Remember when your mother or grandmother said, " Don’t do that, you’ll put an eye out"?

She was right . . . DON’T DO IT !!

"The Usual Suspects . . ." -

If you don’t have a smallish home / kitchen tool box - GET ONE !! Outstandingly useful and you’ll keep your butter knives intact.

A regular claw hammer, a smaller, lighter one {for tacks - you can make it magnetic yourself if you want), an inexpensive set of screwdrivers, a couple of different types of pliers (at least one that can cut wire as well), an assortment of sandpaper and some blocks to wrap it around, a set of plastic putty knives {cheap, don’t rust, easily shaped if necessary), a couple of throw-away wood handled ‘chip brushes’, and you have a good basic kit for kitchen, bath, basement, or boat.

Buckets with SEATS -

Maybe I’m getting old, but I do like to sit rather than stoop over or kneel. I also like to make one thing do several jobs at the same time. At Home Depot, Lowe’s, etc. for about $5.oo they have these DOMED tops for the ubiquitous 5-gallon bucket. Typically black or yellow, I prefer the lighter color for viability. For more money I’ve found one that is compartmented with a flat, transparent lid. Also a domed yellow one with a open compartmented ‘lip’. The buckets ? - I use the RED ones I get from the Township for free - if you don’t mind the label "Glass Recycling". Make them classy with "Bucket Boss’ aprons and compartmented liners.

Clamps -

You can never be too thin, too rich, or have too many clamps !! Long, short, one handed, two-handed, metal, plastic, wood - you WILL use them all. LOOK for SALES - whenever I see a ‘box’ of 2 inch plastic spring clamps on sale for about $1.00 each, I get a box, or a 2, 3, and 4 inch set of ‘pairs’ for $10.oo. The ‘old style’ wooded two-handed ‘woodworker’s clamps’ are available from several sources . . . I’ve even made my first pair myself. One day when I was using them for one of Joanne’s projects she said, "I didn’t know you could do that with a clamp !!".

Sawhorses -

See ‘CLAMPS’ above. I ‘collect’ them; I’m a connoisseur of the genre; a ‘horse geek’ if you will. And I’ve only bought one set of legs. When we bought the 19 foot sailboat I needed something to support the outboard for storage. I bought a cheap set of collapsible steel pieces that clamped onto a 2x4 for an ‘instant sawhorse’. Later, I used a set of stamped metal ‘heads’ that 5 pieces of 2x material when I temporarily needed a ‘really tall’ one.

Since then I’ve collected plans from just about every woodworking magazine, and copied them out of countless books. At the moment I have three ‘sets’. A ‘take down’ set from a sheet of 3/4 inch ply. A ‘Tall & Wide’ set made from PT 2x6's. They were originally used to support the boat that I jacked up off the trailer so I could paint the bottom. Now they are my ‘general use - outdoor’ set. The last are my ‘shorties’ made from 2x4's, 2x6's, and 3/4 ply. About knee high, they are good for setting up temporary assembly stands, or holding a skiff upside down for cloth application or painting.

As a corollary to this I also have ‘long bench’ from two doors a neighbor was throwing out, and two tool mounting stands - one from a sink cutout, the other built from scratch.

Planes -

If your only going to have one - make it a 10 inch Surform one. You can beat it up and you don’t have to learn the ‘art’ of sharpening and tuning it, or the agony of feeling that beautiful edge get beat up on ‘lumberyard’ plywood. Very handy for hogging off material fairly quickly; to get that scarf down to where sandpaper and a wood block will finish it; to remove those hard ‘knobs’ of cured epoxy when fairing; etc.

I now have 9 ‘planes’ -

  • A Stanley Jack Plane, about 14 inches long
  • A Stanley Surform Plane w/ 10 inch interchangeable blade
  • (Also a File that takes the same blade)
  • A Stanley Surform Round ‘file’ about 10 inches long
  • A ‘no-name, Made in India’ 9 inch plane that I modified for roughing
  • A Stanley Low-Angle Block Plane - for end grain or breaking an edge
  • Two Stanley Surform ‘Block Planes’ 5-1/2 inches long
  • A Stanley Modeler’s Plane - simple, open, about 3 inches long

I use Stanley because they are the originator, and I have found that the frames of the cheap copies can’t withstand the force put on them from the aggressive cutting action. They are not expensive, either . . . if you SHOP SMART

Hand Saw -

A ‘Toolbox’ saw - a 20 inch long hand saw with very aggressive cutting teeth. I got mine several years ago. Recently I’ve noticed that they are available from a couple of sources. Fairly smooth fast & easy cutting. The handle is such that it gives you a 45 degree marking angle with the back edge of the blade.

Liquid (& Dry) Measuring equipment -

In terms of probability it’s a pretty safe bet that if you are building a wooden boat in the present you’ll be using epoxy. Even the ‘traditionalists’ are going that way - ‘glued lapstrake construction’. {In the near future they may have no other choice . . . when was the last time you saw a source for oakum, starting irons, white lead, etc.?} Although almost every source of epoxies says, "measure by weight . . .", "a 300 gram mixture . . .", etc., they universally offer volumetric pumps and discuss mix ratios. You should have a way to ‘check’ your pumps, make larger or smaller quantities than a ‘standard increment’, measure additives, and just cheap and handy to have around.

The "$1.00 Store" is a good source for sets of large ‘plastic’ stirring/serving spoons. Great for doling out fixed amounts of dry fillers. Also a set of stainless steel Measuring Spoons. Occasionally you are going to need ‘just a little’ epoxy, or a bit of thinner, or add a touch of dark paint to light, etc. Use these and no worries about dropping them into a small container of cleaner as a ‘holding bath’.

For larger amounts a plastic graduated medicine cup, a specimen bottle, or a paper or plastic tumbler will do. Look for them where you buy your epoxy or at your local pharmacy.

Rubber Gloves -

You will need skin protection. You don’t need ‘Medical Quality’ gloves. If there is a decent automotive repair place near you, NOT your local gas station, go there and watch. More that likely you will see them wearing Industrial Rubber Gloves. Ask where they got them, or maybe they will sell you a box or two. They are also available from your epoxy supplier - compare prices - get the CHEAPEST you can. Another product to consider is a protective paste or cream - one brand is Glove Kote.

Knife -

Being a sailor, if I could have only one it would be a good size rigging knife with a marlin spike.

However, I also have about 7 Utility Knives with the replaceable blades. I have a couple of plastic handled ones (kitchen and office), another plastic (Neon Green) in my on-board tool bag, two metal handled ones in the basement shop, and two metal ones (Safety Orange) in the outside shop. Metal for heavy use; Non-Retractable for VERY HEAVY, such as wood, cutting.

I’ve also carried a pocket knife since I was a child. Probably one of the most useful survival tools in the world. A good habit to get into . . . present world circumstances not withstanding.

So far I’ve gone on for almost 4 pages and haven’t recommended one ‘power tool’. In my ‘on-board’ tool bag (a 14in x 8in x8in canvas riggers bag) I have a small vice that clamps to anything handy (that you don’t mind scratching). One day I’m sitting in the cockpit of my 19-foot sailboat, with it clamped to a piece of wood I’m holding between my knees. It’s holding a fitting or something I’m working on and I’m reaching into the companionway where the toolbag is for different files or tools or the piece I’m trying to fit, because the cockpit is too small. A guy on the dock, who has a boat at least twice the size of mine says," What do you have down there - a machine shop ?".

I have a ‘push drill’ with about 8 bits, and a ‘push screwdriver’ with about 4 bits. Better than twisting your wrist off with a hand screwdriver but still a lot of work. Today, each one of them would cost more than my Roybi, 115 volt, 6-clutch settings, reversible, 3/8th inch electric drill which can replace both of them.

So lets add some power

Drill / Driver -

My little Roybi is a good place to start. It was actually the first of the ‘new breed’ of clutch drills that I got, and only a few years ago. It is NOT ‘Cordless’. When you get cheap with cordless equipment you have either almost no power (torque) or almost no working time. NOT both - TNSTAAFL {there’s no such thing as a free lunch}. She is equipped with a Quick Snap attachment so I can change hex shanked bits very quickly. I also now have a much more expensive, and much heavier (battery power and life is directly related to weight), cordless one as well. For ‘long runs’, like a gunnel, it’s more efficient to drill pilot holes and set screws with two individual tools.

Circular Saw -

If your cutting a long straight line the ever present 7-1/2 inch model is the way to go. The Sears I have has got to weigh a ton. I’ve got so many blades for it (various manufacturers and styles, always bought on sale, and universally CHEAP) I can’t keep them in the case. Want to bisect a sheet of ½ inch or thicker ply - clamp on an 8 foot cutting guide and have at it !!

1/4 inch ply or a gentle curve - the Rockwell 5-1/2 is the tool of choice. For straight cuts use the cutting guide. It’s plastic housing makes it very light and easily maneuvered.

Saber saw or Jigsaw -

Like the circular saw above - got a ‘heavy as lead’ one from Sears many years ago. Hardly use it anymore, but have an idea, and plans, to mount it upside down for cutting large varied shapes. For the curvy stuff that the circular saw can’t handle or ‘plunge cuts’.

Sanding -

Course of Fine - you WILL be doing some sanding.

Rather than try to make one tool do everything and give it an early demise, as well as your dissatisfaction, let’s break down the tasks. Then you can decide which you want to get first.

Rapid removal of a LOT of material -

The hand-held belt sander or the angle grinder with a very course disk fits this usage. How much you have to spend and how much control you want are the questions.

I can finesse my angle ‘grinder/sander’ to do detail body work to keep my 18-year old pick-up from completely rusting out - with help from a lot of epoxy. Even on the relatively flat surfaces of the bed side panels. Also good for removing rust & old paint from the inside portion of my steel daggerboard. Don’t have to worry about sparks burning through the bag - no bag. But messy as hell - almost had to flush out the entire boat with a fire hose. Also either ON or OFF - no speed control and just a 15 degree quadrant of the disk as the ‘area of contact’. Working on a gunnel edge or shaping a wood part or knocking down a hard outside fillet - VERY QUICK but do it outside if you can. Also a ‘flap wheel’ gives decent surface control.

Have 8, ½ inch, 4x8 sheets of ply you need to scarf? No problem - just ‘stair step’ them and cut away most of the material with the extra course belt on your in-line belt sander. The ply-lines will serve as a guide, then either change to a finer grit, or your Jack Plane. Need to rough up that flat bottom or deck before the next coat - use a finer belt and slow down the speed. Filter bag should catch most of the dust. Gunnel high in spots and doesn’t look like a nice smooth sheer line - keep the sander moving and flat to the gunnel and you’ll be there.

Moderately fast removal, moderate amounts of material, lots of control -

The 1/4 sheet palm sander the angled head random orbit sander. Both are available with some sort of dust removal systems, and how much & how fast material is removed depends on grit used.

While the small ‘square’ palm sander can be used with rather course papers and gotten into small areas & square corners it really is a finishing sander. Press too hard and it can either stall out or burn out. Relatively inexpensive, if your budget is really limited this is for your tool box - especially that kitchen, bathroom, etc. one I mentioned. Does come in handy on some of those tight spaces you forgot about during assembly though.

The Porter-Cable 6 inch diameter angled head sort of covers the gap between an aggressive tool and a finishing tool. Able to attach a vacuum hose, speed control, wide variety of grits and types available and easily adapted to many tasks - IF YOU are handy. While not as aggressive as the heavier duty tools, or with as small a ‘head’ as the 1/4 sheet, it is a good compromise. If I could only pick one - with the vacuum attachment this would be it. It actually IS the one I use most.

I’m sure there are many items I missed. I’m equally sure everybody will tell me about them, and how stupid I am not to have included them, 

HOWEVER, this isn’t MY LIST - it’s YOURS. These 7 pages should be enough to get you THINKING. To paraphrase, with profound apologies, Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan;

"Make up a little list,
"Put on it anything you wish . . ."

I guess it's time to build another 'soap box'; this one's getting a little worn.


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