A Boat on the Side

Tools, Teaching, Talk

Excerpts from my Australian Amateur Boatbuilder column over the last year . . . . 

All Tooled Up

We men are hardwired to build things, it’s an inescapable part of our nature - our ancestral DNA – this will to create and it’s a good thing too, this magazine owes its existence to that very compulsion. Women are certainly better at many things in life, and generally nicer too, but when it comes down to building a shelter or a table or a boat, ask a bloke.

I’ve been doing some teaching lately and it’s wonderful to pass on a little part of half a century’s worth of woodworking. And how it changes people! Geoff tells me it’s given him such pleasure to build a simple seat and such confidence in his own ability. That’s because I make him do his homework, of course . . . . . I am well aware though, that sadly there’s an awful lot of knowledge just slipping away – all the minutiae of it, all the little tricks and treats of it – and then there’s the traditional tools of the trade – gradually, almost imperceptibly disappearing. Geoff’s been trying to find a cutting gauge, for instance – pretty much essential for lots of hand crafted joints but there’s none to be found. Marking gauges yes, but the cutting gauge with its tiny triangular blade – well it’s pretty much obsolete. I still use mine occasionally, not much for boatbuilding but I did a lot of furniture last year and all the old tools were back in service. Some of them are family heirlooms and still going strong after a century’s use. You have to pay big money for tools to last a lifetime these days but most were and are simply good, practical, everyday tools that had evolved over the years into the near perfect hand driven machine. My cutting gauge, for its simple efficiency, cannot be bettered, nor can my boxwood spokeshave or my refurbished No 4 plane. Now there’s a thing, possibly one of the most enduring tools in the box, the good old Stanley or Record No 4. When I acquired the plane it needed a bit of TLC so I sent it off to a specialist for some mods – a new laminated Samurai style blade, a new acacia handle, the base machined and a good clean up. The result is wonderful to use and the super sharp blade keeps its edge for ages and boy, does it get a workout.

Boxwood Spoke Shave and Rosewood Marking Gauge

Boxwood Spoke Shave and Rosewood Marking Gauge

Two Old Friends - Compass Plane and No 4

Two Old Friends - Compass Plane and No 4

Older power tools can be worth their weight in gold too. One of my prized possessions is a 1970s Bosch Scintilla drill. Well and truly thrashed in the yard for over forty years and still going strong. Swiss made with roller bearings, it’s never ever been serviced. It’s been dropped, accidentally set on fire, well and truly abused and forced to drill holes in things it was never designed for but, touch wood, it’s still going strong. You can’t say that about today’s Bosch drills, can you? Makitas possibly, I’ve had a fair few Makitas in the shop and yes, they do last well. My Makita belt sander has had an appallingly rough ride and while it’s held together with epoxy and the odd non-standard fastening, it’s still OK. The other day it faltered a bit though – what, breaking down after 315 boats, countless furniture and a new house? Why I only bought it in 1990 – I’ve a good mind to send it right back and demand a refund! Oh, I almost forgot, the boatbuilders’ friend, the compass plane – what a wonderful thing that is, perfect for all those lovely rounded bits that all good boats should have. I still use it for coachroof hatch sections, stern trims, our ‘dashboards’ and in fact it’s been used on every kit and finished boat we ever did. There’s really no substitute for these tools, honed and fine-tuned by generations of artisans and craftsmen – using renewable muscle power rather than coal fired power. It’s up to all of us to continue to use these efficient old instruments and look after them so that future generations can enjoy them as much as we have.

A Plane a Day Keeps the Shrink Away

In the last issue of AAB I enjoyed writing about some of the woodworking tools I use, so I’ll carry on. I got to thinking about my work when Annette asked me recently if I ever felt daunted by it all. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘never! – It’s a joy! I look forward to every day and relish both the challenges and the solutions.’  Part of it is having a good workshop and certainly a good part of it is fine tools. A razor-sharp chisel to pare away a few thou here and there, a thin slice with a beautifully balanced Japanese pull saw, a crisp even shaving from a vintage jointer plane – woodworking is an ancient and fulfilling occupation and I’m privileged indeed.

The jointer is my largest plane and mainly used, as its name implies, for truing up longer stock for accurate jointing, but also just to get a variety of things straight and true. Its extreme length means it only hits the high spots whereas at the other end of the scale, the block plane will follow all the undulations. The shallow angle of the block plane, however, means you can plane end grain satisfactorily and if used diagonally it’s excellent for clearing up irregular and interlocking grains such as European walnut – not that there’s much of that at the local hardware store.

Incidentally, the photo of the new block plane iron clearly shows the machine marks on modern tools. By the time I’ve ground the iron right back beyond the recommended angle and flattened the back on my diamond stone I’ve started to get the thing ready for serious use – Plane on you crazy diamond, you might say if you were a Pink Floyd fan. Speaking of Messrs Floyd, will there ever be anything to rival ‘Dark Side of the Moon?’ Heard some on the radio a while back and I was amazed yet again as to how fresh and exciting it still sounds, even after more than 40 years. Apparently it’s still selling well around the globe as each generation ‘discovers’ its timeless tracks.

Pull Saw and Iron in Progress

Pull Saw and Iron in Progress

The Planes

The Gov'nor's Planes

More essential workshop equipment . . . . .

1. The Lead Shot

Lead shot is incredibly versatile and we use it for a lot of jobs. It’s the nature of our designs, with their fixed keels, that ballasting cannot be fitted far enough forward in the three quarter keels. To bring the keel forward would upset the boats’ balance, so internal ballast is needed generally under the mast or forwards. Lead-acid batteries are good, of course, but lead shot encapsulated in epoxy is better. The resin/shot mixture spreads the load in the bilges as low as possible and hardens to a solid lump of heavy plastic.

Bagged lead shot is excellent for holding all sorts of materials down while the resin sets. We regularly ‘veneer’ marine ply with 4 or 6mm timber, often over a jig to form curves conducive to the job. The lead inside the bags settles to create a nice, even pressure and if you use epoxy accelerator, they can be removed after an hour or two. Bags of lead shot can also be used anywhere where weight and levers are applied to bend and twist things into shape. Toxic but versatile – don’t forget to use gloves.

2. The ultrasound trolley

Many of our customers are medical people and one of them, a radiologist, had asked me to spend a few hours helping to get the bottom panels on to his boat. While I was there I noticed several hospital trolleys in the workshop – ‘Oh these,’ he said, ‘once the machine is obsolete they sell it off but throw out the trolleys.’ I mentioned that my own wooden trolley – the rolling bench – was well past it – ‘I’ll bring one up,” he replied and so my own ultrasound trolley carries tools, screws, resins, bags of shot, around  the yard to wherever they’re needed. The locking castors even hold their own on the sloping entry under the roller door. The trolley is wonderfully versatile – it holds up the ends of spars as they are sprayed, helps me unload heavy slabs of timber unaided and can be moved in an instant.

The Medical Trolley with Secret 20

The Medical Trolley with Secret 20

3. The Glamorous Assistant

No workshop should be without one, quite apart form being a useful source of discarded apparel (see previous blog ‘A Tale of Two Secrets’) the services of a beautiful young woman in your workshop cannot be underestimated. They include:

  • Brightening a dull day with a lovely smile
  • Sweeping the floor
  • Engaging in water fights with your son
  • Fetching coffee and snacks

- essential in fact, but contrary to popular belief, few wives ever object to their menfolk engaging an attractive assistant, more often or not they will say something like ‘Look darling, I know you work very hard and I think you deserve someone nice to keep you company and help out in the shed.’

The Glamorous Assistant

The Glamorous Assistant

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