Holes in My Boats

Centerboard Slot, rough cut


(to start of project)

(Happy Birthday, T!)

This weekend was all about cutting holes in the hulls for centerboard slots. This is one of those things you only have once chance to get right – no do overs – so it took a lot of time to get up the nerve. Made my mouth dry and my palms sweat. There’s just something instinctively wrong about cutting a hole in the bottom of a boat, buried deep down at the genetic level, like a fear of snakes or spiders; as though our ancestors, who had the good sense to keep such holes out of their boats, thus lived to pass on their genes and a wise aversion to said holes. Continue reading “Holes in My Boats”

Coins Under the Mast

 A Morgan Dollar, epoxied in place.


(to start of project)

Traditions die hard among watermen. Sailors and shipwrights have been putting coins under masts of ships for several thousand years, and still do today. They’ve been found in the mast steps of ancient Roman shipwrecks, even recently. The hope, still, is the offering will bring good luck and safe passage. The original practice had much in common with the consecration of ancient Greek temples as construction began and, more eerily perhaps, putting coins in the mouths of the dead before burial. It was believed that you had to pay the ferryman, Charon, to take your soul across the River Styx to your final resting place in the underworld. Otherwise, your soul would be doomed to wander the earth. A silver coin was preferred, usually an Obolus, placed under the tongue. Continue reading “Coins Under the Mast”

Attaching the Stems


Finishing the Centerboard Trunks


(to start of project)

Continuing with the process of permanently attaching all the parts. This weekend it was the stems and mast steps.

I wanted to screw the bow stems in place from the inside. It just seems to make more sense. I try not to make any more holes than necessary through the outside of a boat, where they might develop leaks and invite rot. Doing that, though, means one screw needs to go beneath the mast steps, so the stems have to be attached first. That may be why Barto has you attach the stems from the outside – if you follow his build sequence, the steps would already be in place. His plans show counter sinking deep holes into the stems from the outside, then driving in screws and bunging the holes. Given the order I’ve been following, it’s easier to use long bronze screws and attach them from the relative safety of the inside. Continue reading “Attaching the Stems”

Turning for Home

Finishing the Centerboard Trunks


(to start of project)

Steve, over at Log of Spartina, asked how the boats were going. It’s going well, just too slow. It feels like when you’ve made the last turn onto a long tack for home, hoping the wind holds, hoping you reach land by dark. I think he’ll know what I mean. Steve sails extended trips in many of the same areas I plan to explore, and keeps a great blog of his travels, often accompanied by his friend, Bruce. I hope to meet up with him now and then for some tandem sails, and to pick his brain, as he surely has acquired a lot of very useful information. Continue reading “Turning for Home”

Words Fail, as does the Power

The Listening Chair


(to start of project)



Great wind for sailing last weekend. Too bad I couldn’t take advantage of it.

This is what it’s like: You wait all week to get back to work. You plan your steps, lay out your tools, go through the motions, in your mind working through the trouble spots. The day arrives and you wake up early, all spunky and ready to go. You got your coffee, your music, you even fire up the saw and make a couple of good cuts. Continue reading “Words Fail, as does the Power”

Steam Bending in a Microwave


(to start of project)

This was a good weekend, spent bending many pieces of wood into pretty shapes. There was a lot of free time between steps, so I could play with the video camera some. The video above shows the whole process better than I could describe it. If you want to see it in HD, there’s a version on Youtube here:

Steam Bending Wood

Barto’s plans call for steam bent Ash as knees to support the side decks. I’ve never seen a Melonseed that actually has them. All the builders I know used sawn knees. Now that I’ve tried it I understand why. Done properly, I imagine the sawn knees may even be stronger, and certainly must be quicker.

These side knees are rather short pieces, and in Barto’s plans are made of two parts: a flat wide piece that conforms to the shape of the hull to form a solid base, and then the more deeply curved but thinner piece that angles down from the coaming to attach to the base, which actually provides the support.

Since these pieces are small enough to fit in our big microwave I decided to give it a try.

A long time ago, I knew a wood turning craftsman who created works both beautiful and unique. He turned green wood on a lathe into thin, delicate bowls and vases. Then he microwaved them wet, and, while the wood was still hot and steaming, would warp and pucker them into intricate sinuous shapes. The forms were fascinating and elegant, and the idea has always stayed with me. I didn’t have a great experience with a conventional steambox last time, and since these pieces are small enough to fit in our big microwave I decided to give it a try.

(This is what I was going to start last weekend when the power went out. Yesterday, after everything was set up and ready to go, literally as I reached to punch the Start button on the microwave, I heard two distant explosions – two transformers – and, you guessed it, the power went out. Moments later, sirens. Then, fortunately, the power came back and stayed on.)

There’s surprisingly little information on the web about steam bending that I could find at all. What you can find is often interesting, but not much good for details on how to do it. There’s even less on using a microwave. Ok, almost none. But, after a couple of frustrating evenings of trial and error, I came up with a combination that works really well. This is what I found out, so if it helps someone else, great.


Bentwood kindling. Lessons learned the hard way.


I did learn that it’s not the steam that makes it possible to bend wood – it’s the heat – which is why a microwave works. Heated to near boiling, the wood softens like plastic, then rehardens as it cools. The wood does have to be moist, though. Steam heat is more efficient at heating stuff than dry heat, and reduces the loss of moisture when wood is hot for a long time.


Soaking the wood for several days in advance.


The advantage of a microwave oven is speed. IF you use green wood, or soak dry wood for several days in advance, the microwave will heat the wood very quickly, before it has a chance to dry out. It literally turns the water within the wood to steam. In fact, it heats it so quickly that if you’re not careful it will boil the water off and char the wood in seconds. The first piece I tried turned to charcoal, from the inside out.


A wet piece of towel helps diffuse the energy
to heat more evenly, and holds in the steam.


The key, I learned the hard way, is to get the timing right. The time can vary, depending on the size of the wood and the power of the microwave – they are all different. A minute to a minute and a half on High was right for our new oven; the old one would have taken more than two minutes. And you might want to do this while the primary cook is out of the house for a while, long enough to clear out the smoke if necessary.

Most important is to use a bending strap. This strap is the key to successful wood bending, regardless of your heat source. Only a few very old documents I found made reference to it, but it’s what made the mass production of bentwood chairs possible in the late 19th Century, the ones that appear in so many Impressionist paintings. It was considered the first modern chair, and they were favorites of artists like Picaso and Monet.

I used a tempered stainless steel ruler for my strap, since it was the right width. Without it, every piece I tried to bend broke. With it, very few broke, and those were the scrap pieces with grain runout or other odd flaws. Wood doesn’t stretch. When bent into a curve, the outer edge is pulled apart, and this is what causes the wood to snap or split, no matter how hot or wet it is. But heated wood will compress, and that’s where the bending strap comes into play. When clamped on tight along the outside edge, it prevents the wood from stretching, and forces the inside edge to compress.


Bending jig.


With 24 pieces to bend, it made sense to build a jig, and this helped, too. Especially since these pieces are small and hard to bend by hand. When you want to break up sticks for firewood, you do what? Bend it over your knee, of course. It’s the easiest way to break a piece of wood – apply all the pressure at one point in the middle. So don’t do that if you want the wood to bend instead of break. Apply controlled pressure along the whole piece of wood, not putting too much on any one place. A rolling jig helps with that.


Bending jig, close up, with strap.


Once the wood is bent around the jig, let it cool completely. Then, if you’re careful, you can move it off the jig to another form. Let it dry on the form for at least day or two; less if you use heat or have good air circulation.

There’s some spring back when removed from the forms. In this case, I want to install the knees under light pressure, so that’s OK. Also, each piece is a little oversize and takes on a slightly different bend all its own. I’ll shuffle them around the different locations until I find the best fit for each piece, then cut to size. The slight spiral shape of the curve will help, allowing me to cut the final piece out of the blank to include the curve that suits the location. In most cases I overbent the wood some, and expect to use a heat gun to open them a little to the final curve for a good fit.


melonseed skiff, mellonseed skiff, melon seed, mellon seed   




Custom Sail Bags from Dabbler


(to start of project)

What an amazing day.

The Northern Neck is the large finger of land between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers. It’s where I spent so many summers growing up at my grandparents’ house – sailing, fishing, crabbing, and exploring. So many great memories are scattered around the marshes and woods and waters of that place, and no doubt we’ll be making more soon with these new boats. Continue reading “Sails”