There Are More Than Two Ways to Skin a Cat (or a Tri…)
The two men sat in relaxed positions on two of a jumbled group of chairs in a corner of the workshop. All of the usual paraphernalia lay in the vicinity – plans catalogues, design books, sketches, rags, faxes, magazines, a disassembled block plane, pencils, a tape measure, half empty coffee mugs……..
It was late in the afternoon, and these two friends had been sitting in silent repose for half-an-hour, having previously completed a long glass-taping job. Ian was lost in an old copy of the magazine, “Small Boat Journal”, - as usual, making notes in his left-handed scrawl. Mike Rowe was more focused, giving his attention to a sixty-year-old book of designs by William and John Atkin.
Suddenly, Mike lowered the book and spoke to his companion. “I reckon that the so-called quick methods of building a boat these days are a fraud,” he interrupted, “Just think how long it took us to set that ‘glass taping job up, and consider how long we were fiddling around with resin, brushes and rollers – all the time having to work with gloves and masks – not much fun if you ask me!”
Ian looked up at him, and viewed him over his reading glasses for a moment before replying. “I’ve heard it all before,” he commented, “you get self-righteous about the simplified methods of building, without considering how many people benefit from the easy systems.”
“But my point is,” said Mike, putting down his book and leaning forward, “that the quick-and-simple systems are neither quick, nor simple - they just pander to people’s natural fear of accurate joinery and their desire to get straight into the building job without setting up jigs and moulds.”
It was now Ian’s turn to put down his reading matter and get serious. “That is garbage!” he said, “You carry on as though everybody should be the same as you. Just because you want to play with planes, chisels and screwdrivers doesn’t mean that it is the only way – nor is it the best way.”
Mike looked frustrated, and even a little hurt. “You don’t understand. I’m not critisising the people, and I know that stitch-and-glue is a wonderful system from an engineering point-of-view – it is just that I don’t reckon that the time savings are real, and it involves throwing out the evolutionary methods which are generally the easiest in the long run. The builders who established the traditional methods did so over hundreds, or thousands of years. Traditional methods became traditional because they worked, and involved the minimum amount of work for the required result.”
“As usual,” observed Ian, “you have remained narrow minded. What about the birchbark canoes – they are a traditional application of the same techniques as used in stitch-and-glue. Even Arab Dhows and Viking Longships could be considered stitch-and-glue with more emphasis on the stitch and less on the glue.”
“I’m not talking so much about the method of fastening, but more about the construction being done without a mould or strongback. I just don’t feel comfortable working with a floppy bundle of panels – give me a solid mould any day.” Mike sat back; sure that he had demonstrated his point. Warming to his subject, he continued, “Having decided to use a strongback and mould, there is nothing to stop you joining the panels with glass tape and resin. But I’d rather work with a plane and timber any day – it is more satisfying and much less messy.”
Privately, Ian thought that arguments about speed of construction had much more to do with the attitude of the builder than with the method. He knew that Mike could build faster than he could, whether having to make a mould or not. However, he knew that his friend had a fragile ego, so he decided to continue just for the fun of the game…”Well, you have it your way, but while you are fiddling around with plumb-bobs and screwdrivers, I’ll be out in my stitch-and-glue boat having fun on the water.”
Mike rose to the bait in a predictable fashion. “Absolute rubbish! With each system, you still have to make station moulds, frames or bulkheads – the difference is that the liquid-joinery boat must be trued up and plumbed after stitching, whereas the conventional boat has the truing-up done before assembly. But from there on the traditional system is much more fun. Everything is solid and true, and the epoxy is used as an adhesive only – much less messy.”
“That is all very well for people who can sharpen and use a plane and chisel,” said Ian, “but it is an elitist position – you don’t want to believe that anybody should be able to build to their own standard. You want us all to be clones and do things the ‘proper’ way.”
The above conversation could be continued forever without doing anything but bore the reader. The point is that there are more than two ways to skin a cat (or a tri…). Before committing yourself to a “quick-and-easy” building method, spend some time thinking about the way YOU would prefer to work. After all, the whole idea of building a boat is to have fun.
How many different systems of boatbuilding have existed I do not know, but it is worth examining the way people have built particular types of boats before launching into a revolutionary ‘new’ method which promises quick results with minimum effort. My approach is to use modern materials (plywood, epoxy, fabric reinforcements etc) combined with traditional methods. This requires careful consideration, as certain materials are incompatible with certain methods – an example being the use of rigid adhesives with a traditionally fastened carvel hull structure which is subject to wetting and drying cycles. But it must be considered that most ‘traditional’ methods remained traditional because builders continually adapted to make use of the best materials and fastenings available in a particular location and at a particular time.
Do I have a favourite system? My range of work and experience is limited, but for the small boats I usually build, my favourite system is glued-lapstrake (clinker) using plywood for the planking and epoxy as the adhesive. Closely following for me, is the use of longitudinal stringers and transverse frames, planked with sheet plywood and glued together with epoxy, 3M 5200, or Sikaflex 292 – usually backed-up with silicon bronze screws and nails. Next on my list is probably cedar strip planking with two diagonal layers of veneer laid on top, using epoxy as the adhesive.
Read as much as you can about the way boats were built in the past – that will give you a basis on which to base your decisions about building methods. Beware of ‘Johnny-come-lately’ methods and people – they are not all bad, but choose with caution.