Sunday, April 1, 2012

Building a Classic Wooden Motor Boat - Part 1

I've always liked old wooden motor boats, a lot, but i can't afford the 40 or 50 grand on a restored american classic. Coming back from a vacation in Easter Island this last summer - where we spent a great deal of time in and around boats - I decided i could build my own.
This is the first part of the chronicle on the construction.

I love classic wooden boats. The mahogany kind that have shiny varnished decks that James Bond uses to make elegant escapes from Venice, or the classic american runabouts of the 1940s and 50s by John Hacker, Gar Wood or Chris Craft. It's no surprise i like them; they live at the intersection of wood works and classic vehicles, two of my passions and hobbies.

They are rare sights in these days dominated by white fiberglass, and are becoming scarcer as their original builders never imagined they would become collectible and would need to last 50 or 60 years, they were designed to last 6 years, so most of them have rotten, or were bulldozered and burned in piles in the 60s in favor of fiberglass.
The concours restored examples are becoming increasingly expensive, and thus they don't see action and water all that often. Most are seen in wooden boat shows and museums.

Still there is a strong community of owners, collectors, restorers and replica builders. So even though they are scarce, they are far from extinct. You can also find excellent resources online, from coffee table books with beautiful pictures, to detailed plans, great books on restoration, and a few history books as well.
eBay sells every bit of chrome and bronze hardware salvaged from rotten hulls and they also will sell you a full restored runaboat if you have the 50 grand to spare.

Where it all began
Our summer vacation this year was split between our wooden lake house (the long chronicle on the construction of that in this same blog), and in Easter island.
It was just connecting the dots: a finished wooden house just in the border of a lake... and a far far away Island (you can't help but notice the boats on an island, even if you are very drunk you'll see the boats).
And then we went diving, where you ride on boats and focus even more on their shapes, hulls, curves... and what if they had a deck and were more beautiful?

So I started planning to fit a nice wooden deck on these fiberglass fishing boats as a shortcut, but luckily i wasn't convinced the final contraption would look good. I was willing to be fooled but i had my doubts the result would look very elegant.

Further online research showed that we still have skilled wooden boat builders here, no big surprise in a country that has more coast than surface when you think about it.
So instead of buying a fiberglass hull I could buy an actual wooden one, just built for me. And what if the builder could produce something more like a motor boat than a fishing one? Ha! now we are talking...
I love wood working, but I know my limitations and building a beautiful boat that floats is beyond my current capabilities (maybe the next one), so i needed someone who made the beautiful bare wood hull that floats, and I would just make her more beautiful.

Walter, the boat builder
One of the independent wooden boat builders with the best blog page is Walter Mansilla, who leaves near Calbuco, a small rainy fishing town I know from the sailing trips we have taken with a friend from Puerto Montt to the beautiful island of Chiloe.
Walter is a pleasant fellow that builds fishing boats all by himself, out of mañio and cypress, and has some good pictures of his boats on his page. One of them in bare wood, which I particularly liked.
I wrote him an email telling him my plan, along with this photo, and asked if it was possible. he said it was... so we talked over the phone agreed on some basic design stuff (like the height of the deck, two spaces for bench seats) and set a price. This was a month ago.

Over this last 30 days i've read a couple of magazines on varnishing techniques, and Don Danenberg's excellent and huge two volume book: The Complete Wooden Runabout Restoration Guide -the best there is - according to my 60 minute research in Amazon (a lot of other buyers agree) which covers everything you could want to know.
This is a pricey printed book, so i got it in ebook format for 20 bucks. Not very romantic, but good for searching and reference.

So after reading a few chapters I would call Walter and interrogate him on the wood he'd use, he would call and ask about transom heigh and strength and design, and I called back a few times regarding the hull shape for better speed, water proofing between the planks, and fastener material to avoid fast or early corrosion. So we had talked more or less an hour on the phone, even though we haven't met.
It's called joint remote design using collaboration tools. In this case a cell phone and pictures by email.
I can say that Walter is a very patient man, probably a good trait on a guy that bends wood and builds boats.

So what we have under construction is a mañio and cypress wood (both good at resisting rot) 22 ft long boat that is going to be 7.5 feet at the widest point and 3.5 ft tall to the deck. The fasteners are going to be all copper, that promises to last a lifetime. After I do the finishing work I'll fit a 100 hp outboard engine (since an inboard seemed more complicated in construction and sourcing for the first timer).

I've also bought almost every conceivable bit of hardware from eBay, from chromed cleats to transom mahogany flag pole, to boarding rubber step pads, to stern lights... the works. I'm still looking for a reasonable priced chromed windshield frame from the 50's period runabouts in case you find one.

And this last friday I took the day off, and we went with Carola to meet the newborn boat and his creator. We flew to Puerto Montt and picked up Walter in Calbuco's plaza after having breakfast. Then the three of us rode the rented car back to Walter's house in nearby Huito, a nice small channel fishers village north of Calbuco, upstream in one of the many channels where they harvest seafood (Choritos if you must know).
Huito is small - 20 houses give or take - and it's inhabitants either go to school, or to church of have a fishing boat. And there is Walter who builds them.

He used to work in the Chiloe salmon plants, but an epidemic disease (the ISA virus) affected the chilean salmon industry some 3 years ago, and today many plants and boats can still be found abandoned.
Things are starting to pick up steam again for the salmon companies, but in the meantime Walter has found a new job. He learned to repair boats and bend wood as a kid, and repaired many boats along his young years. Then he learned more from a few boat builders, and two years ago he decided to start advertising and do this for a living. And so far he has produced more than two dozen boats for recreational and tourism use for a lot of customers between Santiago and Chiloe. His customers are starting to line up.

MIne is his most "particular" boat type for now. But not for long, as he has a 30 ft round transom fishing launch from Norway for his next challenge. A nordic customer came to his place with plans and all.

Walter modified his templates to accommodate the added height of my boat, with the dimensions reflecting the shape of an old Hacker Craft from the 1950's, one of my favorites. So i'm very pleased with what he has built and I expect to pick the finished work in a month or so, to take to the lake and work on the sanding during the winter, and then vanishing and finishing on the spring, and fitting the engine before the summer season.

The pictures below show where the boat building is so far.

No comments: