Blue Anarchy >> The Construction Of The Sea Louse

The Sea Louse Begins

I was back in the Bay Area again, squatting an Emeryville warehouse with all the free space that I'd ever dreamed of, having gone from three boats to none. After owning a share of a 55' tripple-masted schooner, then a couple of 30' sloops, and now nothing, I was in serious danger of somehow accumulating another boat. I decided that I'd learn from my mistakes, and that what I really wanted was something very small. Maybe 12 or 13 feet.

The thing about squatting is, you end up with a certain amount of freedom that you're afraid to use. After your fifth eviction, you start to think twice about spending a lot of time on a place, or even painting the walls. The world is full of multi-year squats that still look as bad as they did on the first day, because any day could have been the last. So when I finally found that I had all the space I'd always dreamed of, it was difficult to make myself do anything with it. But the tragedy of it seemed too overwhelming, so I started building a boat -- hoping that I'd finish before we were discovered and kicked out in the middle of the night.

The Plan

Since I didn't have a lot of time (or money), and since I'd never built a boat before, I decided to employ the fastest but least respected form of wooden boat building: stitch and glue. I walked to the bookstore and got a book called "Stitch And Glue Boat Building" that had plans for something called "The Jimmy Skiff." Since I didn't have a lot of tools (or the lifestyle that could really accomodate a lot of tools long-term), I decided that I'd build the whole thing using only hand tools. I got a small Japanese pull-stroke hand saw, a block plane, a rubber mallet, a bit-and-brace screw driver/drill, and some clamps. Nothing large, and no electricity. While I made a lot of mistakes during this process, resolving to use only hand tools was the best decision of the project.

The next day I got four sheets of plywood from the hardware store, and began.

Scarf Joints

Plywood Measured For A Scarf Joint There's Nothing Quite Like A Sharp Block Plane Scarf Joint Angle Two Of My Three Tools

My skiff was to be 13ft long, but I was building it out of plywood, and plywood only comes in lengths of 8ft. So the first thing I had to do was turn two peices of 4'x8' plywood into one long peice of 4'x16' plywood. One way to do this is to lay both pieces of plywood on the floor, then line the 4' ends up, and screw in a small piece of 1x4 such that it holds the two pieces of plywood together. This is called a "butt joint."

The problem with butt joints is that they look bad and aren't very sturdy. This is especially true when you're bending the wood, since it won't bend at a constant rate near the joint. One alternative is called a "scarf joint." Essentially, you make two matching diagonal cuts in two peices of wood, such that they fit together and are a constant thickness. While you might be able to do this with a hand saw on a small 2x4, it's more difficult with plywood.

The trick is to lay your plywood on top of each-other, then plane across them until you have a constant slope that's the length of your scarf. When I'd gotten pretty close with the block plane, I put a peice of sand-paper on a scrap piece of 1x4 and sanded it the rest of the way down. This took a while, but at the end of the day I'd discovered a new love in my life, and it was a finely sharpened block plane.


Marking The Hull Curve Marking The Hull Curve The Hull Curve Planed Curve

After I finished planing out the scarf joint, I flipped one of the pieces of plywood over and lined it up with the planed edge of the other one. From the side, the tapers should match pretty much exactly, so that the thickness of the plywood doesn't change in the area where they're joined. Being my first scarf joint, it wasn't exactly perfect. I mixed some two-part epoxy, slathered it down with glue, and then put some cinder blocks on top of it while I waited for it to dry.

The next day, I sanded down the excess glue, and started lofting. This is the interesting process of transfering the dimensions from a set of plans (whether your own or someone else's) to the scale of your lumber. Since boats are symmetrical, all the measurements are provided from a center line, and one side is just the mirror-image of the other. The plywood I just scarfed was to become the bottom of the boat. The first thing I did was mark the length-wise center of the plywood with a chalk line. The plans I had specified the distance from the center-line to the edge of the bottom in 16inch increments. So every 16 inches, I marked another chalk-line width-wise, then measured the specified distance from the center, and drove in a finishing nail at that point. I was left with a set of finishing nails that approximated the curve of the bottom of the boat.

To get the exact curve, I took a long/thin piece of trim, and bent it across all of the nails. Using clamps to hold it in place, I was able to draw a line along the inside edge of the trim. This was the curve of the boat.

After drawing out the curve on both sides, I removed the finishing nails and made quick work of the cut with my pull-stroke japanese hand saw. While the pull-stroke saw cuts pretty quickly, I found it difficult to get a perfectly straight line. So throughout the process, whenever I needed to cut something, I'd cut it about 1/8in wider then necessary, then plane it down to the exact width.


The First Side Hull Panel Goes On! The Beginning Of The Stiching On The Port Side A Nearly Complete Hull

Once I had the bottom cut out, I repeated the process for the side panels: I took my other two sheets of plywood, planed them for a scarf joint, glued them together, then lofted out the side panels. Once I'd cut them, it was time to start stitching the pieces together.

It's called stitch-and-glue construction because the wood pieces are temporarily stitched together with string or bits of wire, then epoxied in place. After the epoxy cures, the stitching is removed and everything's ready.

I had dumpstered a large bag of small plastic zip-ties, so I decided to use those for stitching (which worked quite well). I drilled corresponding 1/8in holes in the very stern and the very head of the floor panel and side panels. I zipped one of the panels on, then bent it out in the middle and marked the place where it matched up with the floor at that point. Then I drilled corresponding holes there, zipped them together, and had my basic shape. To get things exactly right, I went back along the edge, drilled holes and zipped through them every 6 inches. I put on the other panel, finished zipping everything together, and was left with something that had actually started to resemble a boat.

The Stench Of Fiberglass

A Complete Hull The Skeg

Fiberglass is not the most pleasant material to work with, and it requires a lot of patience. Once everything was stitched together, I made fiberglass fillets over the interior zip-ties. This consist of mixing fiberglass epoxy with a thickener until you have the consistency of paste, then spreading it evenly across the seam. Before it hardened, I put a layer of fiberglass tape on top of that. Once I'd done that for each seam and they'd all dried, I cut the zip-ties off from the outside, sanded them down as well as I could, and plugged the exterior holes with more epoxy paste. The result was a water-tight hull.

I then cut some more plywood into the shape of a skeg, and fiberlgassed that on to the bottom, as straight as I could get it.

Trim, Daggerboard, and Rudder

Gluing Up The Dagger Board Trunk Rudder Assembly The Completed Paint Job

Around about this time, I was evicted from the Emeryville squat. It was being demolished, so that they could expand the mall. Nearly defeated, I put my partially-completed boat onto the roof of a friend's truck, and drove at 25mph over the Bay Bridge towards San Francisco, where I moved into another house with an empty driveway.

There, I fashioned up a daggerboard trunk, put strong popular rub-rails on, made a small deck, cut out a folding rudder and tiller, and started painting. It was kind of nice to work on the sidewalk, actually. Neighbors would walk by all day and stop to talk about the boat, ask about its progress, or just shout "lookin good, moxie!"

The Mast

Mast Deck Fitting

For the mast, I decided I'd just use a long piece of 2x2. Everyone who saw it looked at it and said "that's too thin." And they were right.

The Tyvek Sail

The sight of the luff line A re-enforced grommet My calculations

The only thing that remained was a sail. I decided to follow Bill Wallace's excellent instructions for making a Tyvek sail, and started looking for Tyvek. It's incredibly expensive to buy, so I just rode my bike around until I found a house that was under construction and had visible Tyvek. I walked in, told the fellow doing the work that I was a boat builder in need of a sail, and he handed me a roll of Tyvek right there. It was a 12' wide roll, so I was able to make my whole sail out of one panel.

I didn't have access to a lofting setup, but one of the roommates in my new house had just moved out, so in the day where the room was completely empty but the new roommate hadn't moved in yet, I layed out and cut the sail. It definitely took me a while to remember the appropriate trigonometry.

Following Bill Wallace's instructions, I then re-inforced and grommetted the corners. I decided on a lace-up style lashing, and put grommets all along the luff for it.

Setting Sail