The Online Magazine For Amateur Boat Builders














Other Risks of Boatbuilding
by John Tuma
excerpted from "Messing About In Boats"

Boatbuilding can be a risky pastime. Many of the risks that the boatbuilder faces, such as dismemberment by power tools, being crushed by heavy objects, dangerous chemicals, and for those of us who work in wood, slivers, have been covered in depth by any number of learned writers (see, for example, David Carnell's article about chemical safety in the October 15 MAIB). Those risks, albeit serious, are not what this article is about. No, my purpose is to acquaint the aspiring builder with risks that have been neglected by many, if not most, writers who are concerned with the craft of boat building.

One danger facing the boatbuilder that is often overlooked concerns the obsessive behavior that seems to afflict many otherwise reasonable people when they start building a boat. I refer to this form of madness as "WoodenBoat Syndrome" (so named because the glossy pictures in this fine magazine have been demonstrated to produce this malaise).

While the classic symptoms seem to be most prevalent in those of us who build boats from wood, those who build in other materials are not immune from the obsessive/compulsive behavior that is symptomatic of this madness. Examples include waking from a deep sleep to make notes about adding a small cuddy to the 8' pram out in the garage, or building a mock-up of the entire interior of your 16' daysailer to evaluate seat spacing when just setting two chairs 22" apart would do, or having 12 different custom color paint samples which cannot be returned made up to get the color just so.

The important thing to remember when afflicted with this syndrome is that no one, other than your fellow travelers down this path to madness, care one whit whether your bungs are the same color as the wood or that the grain of the bungs is properly aligned. Efforts to work into the conversation the clever way you split that $97 piece of teak so that the grain of your coamings are perfectly matched will only send your friends scurrying when you round the corner. This kind of high art is fabulous, but talking about it is boring for everyone who does not worship at the altar of mirror gloss finishes.

Closely related to WoodenBoat Syndrome is the risk of addiction. As you descend ever deeper into your obsession you will find yourself looking at plans for your next boat before you have finished the one you just started. However, like many addictions there are moments of clarity wherein you will see that you have a problem. For me, this moment always comes on the third day that I am sanding the interior of the hull, getting it ready for the buff sandstone paint with just a hint of medium ochre highlights. "I hate this, I hate this. I'd really rather be sailing," I say over and over again.

After the first boat I waited a year to start the next one. After the second boat, I couldn't stand the thought of starting another boat for almost two months. Now, 18 boats later, I have given in to my addiction. I start lofting the next boat before the paint on the previous
one is even dry.

Once your addiction has set in, the next risk follows naturally enough, the risk of accumulation. Unlike bottle caps or baseball cards, the accumulation of boats, even small ones, is not a harmless little quirk. Boats take up a lot of space and boats rarely travel without a lot of associated gear such as paddles, oars, sails, flotation vests, seat cushions, dry bags, polypropylene underwear (because cotton kills when it's wet), and so on. At first it doesn't seem like much of a problem. That double bladed paddle that you need for your kayak stands neatly in the corner with the brooms and the kayak hangs out of the way from the rafters in the garage.

But a kayak is not a rowboat, and the rowboat you need is too big to hang from the rafters. So it goes on a trailer under the overhang off the garage and the riding mower you just had to have, along with the wheelbarrow, the bicycles, and other assorted garden tools, are consigned to the shed in the back yard. This is not an ideal arrangement because none of these things, with the exception of the riding mower, can be retrieved for use in less than half an hour, but until now no one is complaining too much. And your precious rowboat, with the finely varnished oak rails, the mahogany trim, and the hand carved nameplate is safely stored out of the weather.

Alas, if only your boatbuilding mania was confined to the accumulation of boats. It is not. Your garage is now stocked with more tools than your local hardware store and you've erected a "temporary" building shed out in the back yard. Your wife is getting angry and keeps muttering, "It was a black day the day that I met you," whenever you are within earshot. Her car is now permanently parked in the driveway, the clean laundry is frequently covered with sawdust, and except for the swath of grass surrounding your building shed, which you faithfully mow with your riding mower, none of the yard work is getting done.

Now your rowboat is not the sailboat you dream of, which is why a new boat is going together in the temporary shed in the backyard. And so it goes- Each boat that is built meets a particular need that cannot be filled by any of the other boats in the fleet. And a fleet it quickly becomes, because one of the reasons that you build boats is to try out new and unique designs that offer new and unique capabilities.

This leads to the final stage of accumulation, the storage facility. The kayak continues to grace the rafters in the garage, although it hasn't been used in two years. The little outboard skiff you built last year now occupies the space in the side yard that used to belong to the rowboat, just waiting to go fishing.

The little sailboat you built three years ago is now stored in the storage facility around the corner, along with the rowboat, and while there is some reason to question why you still cling to these boats, the clever use of the storage facility has reduced the friction on the home front. Your wife continues to accept that your madness is better than drinking as a hobby, but only because several of your boats are hidden.

One of the risks that has been well documented in the boatbuilding literature is the risk that this hobby poses to one's marital relations. However, while the problem has been well documented, the reasons why it poses such a strain have not been explored in adequate detail. Accumulation without adequate provisions for concealing parts of the fleet are certainly one reason for strain, as is your demonstrated inability to have a conversation without describing in grotesque detail the clamping sequence you developed to insure a fair curve lo the yard on your batwing sail.

But the real reason for strain (other than the "temporary" shed that now stretches the full length of the back yard) is that a boat builder does not operate in the same space time continuum as his wife. For example, she pokes her head out the door to say that dinner will be ready in ten minutes. "Okay," you respond, "I just need to fit in this last garboard clamp and screw it into place."

Three hours later you have finished your ten-minute job, dinner is cold, the kids have gone lo bed, and your wife is curled up on the couch watching "Thelma and Louise" while quietly plotting her revenge. Now does not seem like the right time to explain how you had to shim the garboard on the seventh and twelfth frames to get a beautiful smooth

In this moment of clarity you realize that something has got to change. So you decide to become a professional boatbuilder. The first step is to find a shop where you can work. You get your tools out of the garage and your wife can park her car in there for the first time in years. Vegetables will grow where once only boat shed could be seen. You won't have to hide your fleet, you'll sell it instead. And because boatbuilding will be your job, you won't be working nights and weekends. Right.

Your madness is complete. The final risk of boatbuilding to be considered here is the "Professional Fantasy." This one has been explored in some depth in the literature. No matter how alluring it seems, the bottom line is that there isn't any money in boat building because (a) WoodenBoat Syndrome leads you to spend 18 hours getting a perfect varnish job on the coamings, because (b) when you started it only seemed like it would take about two hours to get the right finish, but (alas, c) the whole rest of the world operates in the
same space time continuum as your wife. How many $6,000 rowboats do you really think you can sell?

As I said at the beginning, boatbuilding is a risky pastime. In addition to the physical dangers of working with tools and chemicals, there is a whole range of psychological afflictions that are even worse. In the end it's a lot cheaper to just buy a boat and you'll actually have the time to use it. Yep, buying a boat is by far the best bet. It's cheaper, faster, and you get more time on the water.

Yep, you get more time on the water. It's faster. It's cheaper. But to heck with the logic, there just isn't anything that compares to watching that boat you built with your own hands splash down for the first time...

(John Tuma builds boats in Fremont, California. He sells them when he can and stores them when he can't. Right now he owns only six boats and none of them are stored in his wife's garage. Mr. Tuma has been married for many years, but despite this wealth of experience, he isn't yet sure how he will successfully conceal boat number seven.)