It’s the radical ideas that make the best memories. Building a wooden boat from scratch with no boat building experience and a nine-year-old helper was certainly a radical idea but it was also more than that. As a father-son project with my younger son, Jacob, it was a million wonderful things all rolled into one. It was exciting, it was challenging, it was fun, and it was useful. (I mean who can’t use another boat or two, right?)
We spent a few weeks and a few hundred dollars back in 2007 building the SS Jacob and it was a blast! We made the boat out of marine grade plywood, epoxy, and fiberglass. In the process we learned a slew of new woodworking tricks, learned how to deal with very fast-drying epoxy, and learned the financial truth that building a boat actually costs more than buying one!
Jacob and I also learned that we both very much love boats! The idea of building a boat that could take you places new and unknown was exciting to the point of being physically palpable. It still is.
Like all new and exciting things, however, the boat was eventually set aside as fresh interests worked into the heart and mind of my fast growing young man, who is now dangerously near passing me in height at the strapping age of 15. At first, use of the boat waned a little, then it simply got parked, leaned up against a wall, where it sat for well over a year.
Here’s a news flash about wooden boats: Like a fine musical instrument, they will last forever but only if you lovingly care for them, use them, and keep them in “bristol” condition. We didn’t do that and our boat ended up suffering for it.
The good news is that Jacob grew tired of seeing his boat sitting unused and the call of the sea stirred in his young heart once again, finally leading to the words I so longed to hear: “Hey Dad, do you think we could fix my boat soon?” Hmmm… let me think.
It just so happened that I was looking for a new project, I needed a chance to try out some awesome new work-ready clothes from Dickies. They sent Jacob and I some gear to put to the extreme test of working in the Florida July heat and humidity. This article is about the boat, not the Dickies gear we fell in love with, but truth be told I could go on and on about the comfort and overall perfection of the Dickies clothes we wore. I’ve never been so comfortable working outside (over 100 degrees!) in my life and I’m literally amazed by the sweat busting fabrics. We still felt dry after working in the heat for eight hours, no kidding. But I digress.
Step One: Remove the Rotten Wood and Assess The Damage
The bulk of the damage to the boat was a result of improper storage. We leaned it against a wall outside and even though it was up on some pressure treated boards, a portion of the hull was in direct contact with the ground, which is a bad thing for most types of wood, even marine grade plywood. The result was a frighteningly large section of rotten wood on one side and a smaller section of the same on the other side.
The first order of business was to remove the rotten wood so we could see just how deep the damage went and determine what the repair would involve. Happily, we found that only the outermost piece of a three layer rail along the top edge of the hull was ruined. Both the inner layer and the most important center layer (which is the actual boat hull) were repairable. Another month or two and we would have been looking at a different story.
Step Two: Make Replacement Parts and Set in Epoxy
West System Epoxy is a great product for boat building and for just about a million other uses as well. It’s very strong, completely impervious to water (although the wood itself is not), and relatively easy to work with. Epoxy dries faster and stronger than traditional fiberglass resin and, through the addition of various additives, it can be mixed into thick pastes for use as a filler or into a thinner consistency for use as a glue. Epoxy can even be made into a finish coat. (think epoxy table top)
Since I felt like part of the blame for the rot was in the fact that the plywood didn’t hold-up the way I expected, we cut the replacement parts out of solid pressure treated lumber. I used standard 2×4’s and ripped down strips ⅜” thick X 3” wide. Once cut to the proper length, these were ready to install on the boat.
Installation was accomplished using screws to hold the material while the epoxy, which was applied liberally to both the boat and the replacement parts, dried and cured overnight. The screws themselves aren’t meant to hold much long-term as the epoxy is a permanent bonding agent (in theory, at least).
For the longer board, as seen in the pictures, we also used a few clamps to be sure the curve of the boat’s rail didn’t put too much stress on the screws. You don’t want parts moving around while the epoxy is setting up and curing.
Step Three: Sand Away Excess Epoxy, Final Prep, and Paint
After letting the epoxy cure overnight, Jacob and I set about removing the clamps and sanding down any excess epoxy that remained on the boat surface. Our first experience with building the boat taught us two things about excess epoxy.
- Try not to have much of it…do your best to clean excess epoxy away before it sets.
- Sand off what you do have the very next day…if you let it sit for a few days it can get so hard that you can barely remove it.
As it was, we didn’t have too much difficulty getting the surface of our repairs and surrounding area smooth and ready for finishing.
Due to the time constraints of working with epoxy in the 100-plus degree Florida heat (heat makes epoxy set faster), there were a few gaps here or there that were too large to fill with just paint. We went all the way around the boat with a tube of top-shelf PL window and door sealant to fill any remaining gaps or cracks before painting.
The paint, which was done almost entirely by Jacob, is Petit EasyPoxy in Bikini Blue and White. This particular paint is an ultra high-gloss coating made particularly for boat topsides (meaning it’s not made for constant submersion such as a boat bottom that stays in the water all the time). It’s a bit expensive at about $100 per gallon, but when properly applied this paint rewards you with a finish that looks like it was done in a professional paint booth, even though it was actually applied with a $3.00 foam roller in the open air.
The end result, as you can see in the pictures, was just as rewarding this time around as it was the first, and Jacob is happy to be back on the water.
Not surprisingly, his 15 year-old ideas go a bit further than his 9 year-old ones did. He’s talking about adding a solar panel roof connected to a deep-cycle battery and an electric motor so he can go anywhere he pleases without a penny for gas. Every teenager’s dream come true!
Dad is pretty happy about the idea too, if we’re being honest.
See the whole process and some Florida scenery and cast-netting action in the video we made of the project: