01 October 2015

The Big Refit

Okay! The 2015 sailing season is officially over for the Blue Moon, if not for me ('other peoples boats'). For the record, we did more sailing this summer than ever before. I didn't quite reach my goal of sailing every week, but almost (there was a long stretch in August that was hot, hot, hot with practically no wind.) My new bowsprit and jib handling gear were a big success. I didn't go on any long cruises because of work commitments, but all in all, a great sailing season.

Normally, I don't lay up the Blue Moon until November, but it has been 5 years since Bob, Helena, and I painted her stem to stern in Steinhatchee, Florida, so the time has come for The Big Refit.

I've tried to keep up with the painting required by every wooden boat while she's been afloat, but realistically, there is only so much you can do on a mooring or even at a dock. So I've decided to pull her out of the water early so I have all autumn and all spring to paint, paint, paint. By the time I splash her next year, she should look great.

No, she will look great.

Here she is on the hard, hauled out just yesterday. I've stripped everything possible off the deck because I'll be tackling the deck this fall, and the hull (the easy part) in the spring.

Ready for work
Her bottom was getting pretty gunky by the end of the season, so I was a little worried I'd see some worm holes after the guys power washed the bottom, but actually she looked great. The bottom paint was getting a little thin, but there was still plenty left to fight off any hungry marine boring worms. No sign of nasty critters at all, so that was a big relief.

Most importantly, I've had the mast taken out for the first time ever. I've climbed up the mast several times to replace halyards and rig extra blocks, but I've never seen the top of the mast. I couldn't help wondering if all the paint was worn off from the sun, and rain was just pouring down into the grain, rotting it away from the top down.

So it was a huge relief to be able to take a look at that mast top for the very first time.

First view of the top of the mast

As I hoped, the top of the mast is heavily fiberglassed. Even the paint is mostly intact. So, no water intrusion, no rot. But definitely time for some TLC for the standing rigging, and several coats of paint for the mast itself.

As a side bonus, I got to see a view of the bottom of the mast for the first time. The Blue Moon's mast is stepped on the keel, so a very traditional approach to the mast construction. The mast is strongly fiberglassed and the bottom of the mast looks, literally, as good as new.

The Blue Moon's mast

So, at least one part of the boat that doesn't need work! Good to know!

One thing that struck me as funny is looking at how the paint on the mast has faded above the deck. What's funny about that? When it came time to paint the boom, gaff, etc., a couple years ago, I went to great lengths to match the color of the mast. The faded part of the mast, that is.

Since I plan to work on the Big Refit as often as I can this fall, and want to record lessons learned (there will undoubtably be many) as I go along, I will break somewhat from habit and post short posts, more frequently.

Maybe I won't get quite so far behind as usual! Well, we sailors must live in hope.

Next Up:  

02 September 2015

Sharpening the Saw

If you lived through the 90s, you probably read Stephen Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People". It was one of the biggest book of the era and Bill Clinton even invited Covey to Camp David to talk about how the President could use the ideas to improve the function of the government.

Well, that didn't work out too well, but I still remember the book positively and hope that I have absorbed at least a few of its lessons, at least a little bit.

The final habit, if you recall, is of continuous improvement.  He called the habit Sharpening the Saw. The idea was to create a positive spiral of growth, change, and improvement by constantly building upon what you'd already learned. By renewing yourself constantly through education, you would propel your self ever upwards along the path of personal freedom, security, wisdom and power.

Lofty goals. So it struck me as odd the other night, as I was sitting at my work bench, that Covey called the habit 'Sharpening the Saw'. One of the first things you learn as a newbie woodworker is that no one with any sense sharpens their own saws. Planes, chisels, even drill bits, sure! But saws? No. That's too hard for mere mortals.

This prejudice was introduced to my mind when I read the bible of old tools: Michael Dunbar's "Restoring, Tuning, & Using Classic Woodworking Tools". In the section on restoring saws, Dunbar says, "As a woodworker, I have a bench grinder and other sharpening equipment, and I sharpen my own edge tools. I will occasionally touch up my saws with a file, especially in the case of a minor accident. However, it requires a lot of time to completely joint, file, and then set each tooth. This is one job I leave to the professionals."

This bias against sharpening saws was confirmed by Christopher Schwartz's excellent book, "The Joiner and the Cabinet Maker". In the section (I can't find it at the moment, so pardon me if I don't get this exactly right) where the book describes how things were done in a professional cabinet maker's shop, back in the day when such places were common, he says that even in a shop filled with master craftsmen with apprentices to do the dirty work, no one sharpened their own saws. A professional sharpener would come along every couple weeks and sharpen all the saws in the shop.

Frankly, not being able to sharpen my own hand saws wasn't a big problem for me until fairly recently, when I decided I'd had enough of the billowing clouds of fine saw dust created by power tools. During the course of this summer, I've pared my power tools down to the minimum -- bandsaw, planer, and drill press -- and gradually taught myself how tune up my hand tools. I went around the shop tuning and sharpening everything in sight, until finally my eyes finally fell on my saws. In particular, two ancient Disston rip saws that were so dull you couldn't cut your way out of a cardboard box with either one.

The first, and by far the oldest, was an old Disston I'd inherited from my grandfather. I'd actually been dumb enough to think it was sharp, back when I used it on my very first woodworking project -- fixing a bedroom door. But it was dull. Really dull. And bent. Oh, and the handle was broken.

The second was a much younger Disston that had been given to me by my Uncle Marty. This had a straight blade and a handle that was intact, even if it didn't have the charm and workmanship of the much earlier saw. But it was also quite dull.

"Simple," I thought. "I'll just send it out to be sharpened."


Now, maybe there are still professional saw sharpeners in the hills of North Carolina, or Maine, or Oregon, but not on Long Island. Not anyone I'd trust the job to, anyway. I quickly figured out I'd have to mail my saws to someone I found on the Internet, and hope they came back properly sharpened. This would be time consuming and costly. Needless to say, I never got around to it. The saws hung on my shop wall as idle decorations.

That wouldn't do in the long run, of course. Almost without thinking about it, I gradually accumulated a saw file and even an old Disston saw set that I spotted at a garage sale hosted by a lady who had no idea what it was. I enlightened her, and she was happy to let it go for a dollar.

But I had no idea how to use these tools and didn't have the nerve to experiment.

Finally, I stumbled across a video by Paul Sellers, a 'lifestyle woodworker'. The video was a revelation.

"That looks easy!", was my first thought after watching the video, which you should watch before reading further. And last night, I finally worked up my nerve to sharpen my saw.

The first thing I did was to make a simple saw clamp. This is nothing more than a strip of scrap wood with a cut down the middle and a hole bored at the end of the cut to keep the wood from splitting.

Saw held in saw clamp
You just slide this over the blade and clamp the whole works into your bench vise. Unlike Paul, I like to sit down while I work, so this style clamp fit my budge and legs.

5 1/2 Teeth per Inch Rip Cut
With the teeth held up to the light, it was easy to see why the saw wouldn't cut: the teeth were pitted and even looked dull. After battling a moment of fear and hesitation, I plunged forward with the next -- and most drastic -- step in the process: filing (or 'jointing') the teeth to an even height.

'Jointing' the teeth to an even height
To work smoothly, all the teeth of a saw need to be the same height. It's easy to understand how a particularly tall tooth could cause the saw to catch or jam on every stroke. Having tested the dull saw on a piece of pine before starting, I knew this saw caught badly about 2/3rd of the way down the blade.

To joint the teeth, you file them down with a flat file, as shown above. In essence, the first step is to make the saw less sharp!

I tried to file the teeth with an old half-round file in my tool box, but only for two strokes. By now, I've learned that files are nearly as disposable as sand paper, and this file was dull, dull, dull. I dashed down to Home Depot to complete my toolset with a new flat file -- a flat bastard (seriously, thats it's real name.)

All the tools required - saw clamp, medium flat file, 3-sided saw file, and saw set.
This new file made quick work of filing the teeth down to the same size. It only took a few firm strokes, and they were all the same hight. Don't waste your time with worn out files. Bin them!

Then it was time to sharpen the teeth with a sharp 3-sided saw file. Paul has a specific technique for filing the teeth and I won't try to improve on his method. If you want to learn how to do this, just watch his video. My only comment is that his estimate of time is about right: it took me about 4 minutes to sharpen all the teeth. It is not rocket science.

Putting a sharp edge on one tooth
After examining each tooth, I decided I'd been a little too gentle with the file, and sharpened each tooth for a second time, a little less fearful, a little firmer, and a little more focused on the final shape and look of each individual tooth. It still took about 4 minutes to sharpen each one.

At that point, I decided to do a test cut with my newly sharpened saw. Clamping a piece of pine in the vise, I gave the saw a try. It was already much sharper than before, but it was still catching about 2/3rds of the way down the blade. Also, the saw kerf seemed too thin. The saw was binding in the cut a bit. It was time to try my saw set.

A saw set is a tool used to push saw teeth over at a slight angle. First you push every other tooth over to the right, then turn the saw around, and push the remaining teeth over to the left. Again, it was a fairly simple process, at least on a saw with enormous teeth.

Setting the teeth
Again I tested the saw and again it caught in that one spot. I tested the saw with several strokes, and each time it hesitated or caught at the same spot. I studied the one tooth that seemed to catch each time and, sure enough, it looked different from the others. It didn't have quite the same vertical rake.

I quickly filed that one tooth into shape, then continued to test and tune the saw until it sawed smoothly. The final step was to use Paul's trick to slightly close up the set of the teeth, so the kerf was wide enough to prevent binding, but no wider than necessary. See video for this step, which involves whacking the teeth gently with a ball peen hammer.

Then I used some 000 steel wool and linseed oil to remove the old grime and rust from the handle and saw blade. The result? A beautiful old saw that cuts as well as it looks.

Disston D12
As far as I can tell, this is a Disston D12, from the late 40s or early 50s. The etching on the blade isn't readable enough to be sure. Here is the information page on the D12, if you are curious about such things: http://www.disstonianinstitute.com/12page.html#d12

Bottom line: I'm now convinced old masters didn't sharpen their own saws not because they lacked the skill, but because it was cheaper to have a lower-skilled sharpener do the job for them. It just wasn't worth their time to do it themselves. I've never read this theory anywhere else, so take it with a grain of salt, but it makes sense to me.

Anyway, if I can figure out how to straighten its blade, I intend to file all the teeth off my really old Disston, and turn it into a 10 or 12 point saw. That should take some real nerve!

Next Up:  The Big Refit

04 July 2015

Cruise to the Baltic

No, Helena and I are not off again (alas!), but Eric Forsyth is. He and his crew will be sailing Fiona 'down east' to Maine, then across to Nova Scotia, and finally up to Newfoundland. From there, they'll be jumping off across the North Atlantic aiming for a landfall in Scotland.

To get there, they'll have to wind their way through the ice field off Newfoundland which, as of today, is still pretty busy! The chart below (updated daily by the North American Ice Service -- who knew there was such an organization?) shows the number of bergs the Ice Service is currently tracking in each area. Since Fiona will be heading almost due east from Newfoundland, they'll be running through the trailing edge of the field.

I've been watching this chart for a few weeks and the ice field is steadily retreating from the warm weather, but it's anyone's guess if it will be gone before Fiona begins her crossing. Just one of the many interesting aspects of the cruise!

Icebergs currently tracked by the Ice Service

You can follow the ice field yourself at this link: Ice Service. Just click on "Today's NAIS Iceberg Chart".

Another interesting thing to watch is the weather in the North Atlantic. By clicking on that link, you can see the kind of weather they'll be facing on Fiona. From what I can tell from watching this chart for a few weeks, they won't be bored!

You can follow Eric himself on his Facebook page and on his website. He generally makes a short post every day, weather and satellite phones cooperating.

Helena and I will certainly be following along. Good luck Eric and crew!

Here is a 1-hour film about last year's cruise to the Antarctic, on which Helena and I crewed on the Brazil and Caribbean legs. We even make a couple brief appearances in the film! Check it out. You can watch it full-size on you computer by clicking the 'full size' button.

Fiona Battles to Reach Antarctica from Lew Schatzer on Vimeo.

Next Up: Sharpening the Saw

29 June 2015

Sprit Installation

Here's a hint: if you every need to replace your bowsprit, make sure of the length.

When I did emergency bowsprit surgery back in the Carolinas in 2010, I never thought to measure exactly how much I cut off. In fact, I just kept cutting the bowsprit back until I found solid wood.

Then when I started building a new one, I just followed along with the full set of plans. What could possibly go wrong with that?

But once the sprit was done, as I was varnishing (there's lots of time for thinking during the varnishing phase), a question started to tickle at the back of my brain: was the sprit the right length? How did I know? Was I really so sure that the Original Builder had built the Blue Moon's bowsprit exactly to plan? He'd made several other changes. What if he'd made the sprit a couple inches too short? Or too long? In that case, the whisker stays that I'd carefully put away and kept to reinstall, would be too long, or too short.

What then?

Tony and I talked about this possibility, but for a week or so I stayed firmly in denial. Of course the stays would fit. The turn buckle installed on each stay would cope with small differences. Besides, I'd put too much work and money into the sprit. It had to fit!

Anyway, it was too late to do anything about it. If the stays didn't fit, then I'd improvise. I could use galvanized chain for stays, for example.

"There's no problem on the Blue Moon," I said confidently, "that can't be solved with some rope, or tarred marlin, or chain."

"I hope so," Tony said, shaking his head.

By the time the last coat of varnish dried, my confidence was getting stretched pretty thin, but I tied my new sprit on the roof of my car, and tied a positive smile on my face. I'd be working on the Blue Moon on the Ketewomoke club dock, and with my luck, there'd be a whole crowd of members on hand to watch. If it didn't fit, it was going to be darn embarrassing.

I brought the Blue Moon along side the dock to face the first test: would the sprit even fit into the hole in the stem? I was pretty sure it would but...

Step 1 - Fitting sprit in stem

Phew. It fit perfectly. First hurdle behind us.

With the butt end of the sprit clamped to the Sampson post, it was time to fit the whisker stays. These are the to wire stays that provide lateral support. The stays run from the kranze iron back to steel chain plates about 4 feet back from the stem, just under the rail. You can just see them on both sides of the boat, in the photo above.

I did not take a picture of this step because... well, because the stays didn't fit! The one on the port side fit okay, but the one on the starboard side was a couple inches too long. I'd been mentally prepared for both to be too long or too short, but just one of them? That didn't make any sense.

We puzzled over this unexpected problem for awhile until Tony said: "I wonder if they are the same length?"

Doh! As soon as he said it, I realized that was the problem. Most bowsprits -- the Blue Moon's included -- are not mounted on the centerline, which is usually occupied by something more important, such as the forestay chain plate. You can see in the photo above that the sprit is on the starboard side of the centerline. Of course the stays would be slightly different. If I had them reversed...

We quickly unshackled them and compared their lengths on the dock. One was indeed an inch or so longer.

We reattached them with the longer one on the port side and, voila! they fit perfectly.

Of course I forgot to take pictures until she was back on her mooring. Her she is with both whisker stays attached and my retractable bobstay in place. I prefer it to the fixed bobstay the Blue Moon came with, so reinstalled it.

Bowsprit installed.

The Chief Harbor Dog has his chauffeur row him out for a closer look.

I normally trice up the bobstay on the mooring to keep the mooring lines from chafing. It's rigged here just for the photos.

Another small improvement I made was to attach a heavy piece of leather to the base of the sprit, so the anchor doesn't ding my varnish every time I haul it home.

Leather bump pad protects varnish from fluke of anchor

And that was that! Tony and I took her out for a test sail and the sprit didn't break in half, and the bowsprit traveller worked beautifully. Of course, it was too exciting to take pictures. I'll post some as soon as I remember.

Anyway, a big project finally done.

Summer must be here because Eric Forsyth will be setting out on his next long trip, this time to the Baltic. Helena and I went to his bon voyage party this weekend. Lots of food, fun, videos of past adventures, and the traditional ragtime band were a good send off.

Here's Helena telling an old sea story to an enchanted well-wisher, with Eric listening approvingly:

Helena telling stories of high-sea adventures, with Eric (middle) looking on.

And here's good-old Fiona, mostly ready for sea.

"Just a few more chores," said Eric.

Aren't there always?

Fiona almost ready for sea
But summer is finally here. Time to seize it.

Sunset on Huntington Harbor

Next Up: Cruise to the Baltic

23 June 2015

Oil or Varnish?

Of all the sails on a traditionally rigged cutter, the jib -- the sail set at the end of the bowsprit -- is the most ornery.

Unlike the foresail, which is hanked on to the forestay and thus kept under close control, the jib is 'set flying' -- i.e. its tack is hauled out to the end of the bowsprit while its head its hoisted to the masthead.  A wire sewn into the luff of the sail prevents the wind from tearing it in half.

The jib on the Blue Moon has always been easy to set: just tie on the lines and haul away smartly before the wind can blow it away. Striking the jib, on the other hand, was like wrestling with a angry tiger: pulling like anything, thrashing away at anything within reach, always looking to jump overboard, and you with it.

I got better at handling it, over the years, but every once in awhile I'd wait too long to take it in, and there'd be too much wind, and the damn thing would try to kill me. I thought about putting it on a roller-furler, but then I went sailing on Agnes and saw how things were managed on a properly rigged boat.

The tack of Agnes's jib was attached to a bowsprit traveler which could be hauled in or out along the sprit. This kept the tack under control at all times, and made setting the much larger jib on Agnes a simple affair. I'd never seen a bowsprit traveler in my life -- or ever heard of one before -- but as soon as I saw it in action, I thought, right... that's for me!

Jib hauled to end of bowsprit on a traveler on Agnes
Finding one, on the other hand, is not so simple. Even at the better chandleries in New England, such things had been removed from the shelves at the same time they stopped carrying mast hoops and kranze irons. And speaking of kranze irons, I needed one of them, too.

I found a foundry in the Puget Sound region that claimed it could fabricate both a traveler and kranze iron for me, in bronze, in just the sizes I needed. No problem! I will not name this well-known company, but suffice to say I wasted most of the winter waiting for them to 'get around to it'. They never did. Desperate, I finally ordered both from Classic Marine in the UK. These are not off-the-shelf items even for them, but they did manage to fabricate and deliver them on time. Phew. Highly recommended. I'd love to visit them sometime.

Here's what a traveler looks like. The pig tail hook is the traditional shape. You can hook the tack of the sail on to it and it will stay attached. No fumbling with shackles. This one is about 4-inches inside diameter, which is just big enough to fit around the bowsprit, when the traveler is hauled in.

A traveler for the Blue Moon - 4" inside diameter
Rather than running the outhaul line through a block at the end of the bowsprit, I thought I would let a sheave into the end of the bowsprit. Much neater, I think. While the bowsprit was still 8-sided and could be clamped firmly to the bench, I cut the mortice for the sheave and drilled a hole for the pin.

The grotty-looking sheave, by the way, I removed from one of the Blue Moon's original wooden blocks. The block body was falling apart, but the galvanized sheave with bronze rollers still had plenty of life left in it. I cleaned it with kerosene and greased it up good before installing it. Bet it's still spinning out there 20 years from now.

Mortise cut in end of sprit for traveler outhaul sheave
Then it was time to 16-side the sprit. I did that fairly quickly with a spokeshave. It's actually hard to tell from the picture below that it's 16-sided and not round. From this stage, it's pretty easy to get it completely round with a few strokes of the spokeshave.

16-sided sprit
Then it was time to face the big question: Varnish or oil?

Luke had finished his bowsprit with deck oil. Not the deck-of-a-ship oil, just plain old backyard-patio-deck oil. Agnes's sprit looked beautiful to me, and John and Captain Flint finished Swallow's new mast with oil in Swallowdale, so for most of the winter, I was pretty set on oiling the Blue Moon's new bowsprit. But neither the sun nor the winters in England are as harsh as they are here in New York, and I really did not think oil would give good enough protection. And besides, there really isn't enough varnished wood in the world these days, so in the end, I decided to varnish the sprit to match the Blue Moon's boomkin.

So, with spring fitfully springing, I hauled the sprit out to the backyard and started applying a coat of varnish per day, at least on days it didn't rain.

Smoothed and almost ready for varnishing
Meanwhile, I got the crazy idea that I should dress up my new kranze iron with turks heads on either side. I'd never tied one before, so whiled away the time between coats of varnish by practicing. It's pretty tricky to tie a turks head with light line, but I eventually got the hang of it.

Practicing Turks Head
So here is the finished end of the bowsprit, with sheave installed (Canadian 'schooner' dimes covering the pin holes), and kranze iron in position with matching turks heads, varnished solid. That's 2-inches of solid white oak at the end. Much stronger than the 2 inches of Douglas Fir it replaced. Do not get in my way!

Bowsprit cut to length, with sheave and  new kranze iron installed

With the varnishing complete, there was nothing left to do but to install it. I sure hoped it was the right length for my whisker stays, but there was only one way to find out.

Next Up: Installation

20 June 2015

Roughing Out

A couple weeks after bagging the white oak timber for my bowsprit, spring came to Long Island at long last, and it was time to get really get moving on my project. The full-length timbers were almost too long to maneuver into my basement, so I decided to cut the bowsprit roughly to length outside. Although the wood was mostly clear, there was one knot I wanted to avoid. There was plenty of extra wood to do so.

Cutting roughly to length
Once cut, Helena and I carried the still-heavy timber into the basement and arranged it on the bench, along side the old bowsprit. Just lifting both pieces onto the bench made me realize just how much heavier the air-dried white oak was, compared to the bone-dry douglas fir. That's when I first started thinking about shaping the aft-end of the new sprit to eliminate as much wood as possible.

Rough timber and old sprit on bench
In the photo below, you can see the full set of the Blue Moon's plans on my bench. Although some very detailed plans include an offset table for spars, Tom Gilmer contented himself with a simple drawing, and trusted his builders to pick the dimensions themselves.

What I did was this:

  1. Snapped a center line on the timber, using a chalk line
  2. Drew 'stations' on the plan, one foot apart, labeling them A, B, C, etc.
  3. Drew the corresponding stations on the timber.
  4. Picked the diameter of the spar off the plans at each station,
  5. Transferred those dimensions to the spar
At that point, I had stations and points that I could connect using a batten to draw the curves. I hammered small nails into the timber and bent the batten around them. I could have used a slightly longer batten, to be honest, but it was the best I had on hand, and was just long enough. Note that only the out-board part of the sprit was going to be round. The in-board part would be left square. So the curve was only cut on part of the timber.

Laying out curves
It was quite a chore to run the heavy timber through my bandsaw, but my friend Tony and I just barely managed it. It was one of those many jobs which are so fraught that I forget to take pictures of the process, but here is the result of the first two cuts. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you can see the centerline and stations.

First curves cut on bandsaw
Then it was a matter of marking the curves on the cut sides and making the second set of cuts. At that point the timber was rough cut on all four sides. The photo below doesn't really show the shape very well.

Both curves cut
Then it was time to 8-side the timber, at least forward of the stem line, where the sprit would be round. To do so, I used the typical 8-siding jig, used by most spar makers. Using the magic of Geometry, this simple jig draws the lines which mark the corners which must be cut away to turn a 4-sided piece of wood into an 8-sided one.

8-siding jig
That done, I was a bit muddled about how to actually remove the corners. I started off the most obvious way, with a spokeshave, on the forward end of the sprit, but this was such a slow and laborious process that not only did I forget to take pictures of it, I abandoned the effort after carving a mere foot or so. The spokeshave was too slow. I needed a quicker way to knock off the corners.

After consulting my boatbuilding books, I found a simpler, faster, and probably more accurate method. Basically, you use a saw to make cuts in the corners, cutting down to the lines, and then chop the waste out with a sharp chisel.

Here are the corners cut, with an ordinary saw.

Cutting corners...
Then it was a 'simple' matter of chopping the corners out, VERY carefully, using the chisel bevel-down, just in case the grain ran down into the wood. It took a bit of practice, but I was soon chopping with confidence and control.

Chopping them out
The one tricky bit was the transition between the round shape and the square shape. This transition would be just outboard of the stem, so would be quite visible on the finished sprit. Basically, I just eye-balled the transition, made my cuts, and hope for the best.

Transition from round to square
After chopping out most of the waste, I turned back to the spokeshave to plane down to the lines. This approach was a complete success and much faster and more accurate than carving it would have been, I believe.

Shaving flat
And here is the sprit 8-sided ahead of the stem line, and shaped aft of the stem line to remove as much wood as possible.

Rough-out complete
I was pretty pleased with the progress so far, but there was still plenty of work to do before I could install it on the poor, spritless Blue Moon.

And meanwhile, Cabin Boy needed some sprucing up for spring. By 'some', I mean two weeks of scraping, sanding, painting and varnishing, with the early spring weather not always cooperating.  But it is always worth it to see him looking fresh and happy each spring.

Cabin Boy's spring refit complete

Next Up: Varnish or Oil?

13 May 2015

The Quest for Wood

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

Okay, so it wasn't so far away, but it does seem a long time since I started working on my bowsprit project. It was meant to be my big winter project, but here it is late spring and I'm just finishing up. What with working like a dog on a new iPhone project, shoveling snow, and snatching the odd spare moment to work on the bowsprit, I've not had time to blog, but on this beautiful spring day, I decided to take a day off and (start) to catch up. But where to begin? Where to begin...?

The story actually starts nearly five years ago, in October of 2010 in a galaxy called Georgia. Long time readers will recall that I discovered some rot in the end of my bowsprit and had to perform emergency surgery which shortened the sprit by over a foot. You can revisit those happy days by reading the blogpost called Bowsprit, but suffice to say I've been meaning to replace it ever since.

Midnight bowsprit surgery - 2010
The original sprit was built from laminated Douglas Fir. This time, I had my heart set on building the sprit from a single timber. The reason is simple: I meant to varnish it and thought a solid spar would look better than a laminated one. Also, I'd already had the pleasure of gluing up a spar -- two of them, in fact -- for the Blue Moon's 'new' boomkin. If you missed my boomkin saga, it starts with this post: A Bigger Bumpkin. Carving a sprit from a 4" X 4" timber would be a new challenge, I thought.

And, oh, I was right.

A better bumpkin - 2012
The original plans call for a 'spruce' bowsprit, so back in January, when my Christmas projects were done, and I finally had time to start on my new project, I started hunting for a clear (meaning knot-free) spruce timber.

Now, spruce is not a rare and exotic wood. It grows throughout the northern part of North America, from Alaska to Nova Scotia, and is one of the most used woods for construction 2x material. If laminating the sprit was acceptable, I could probably have dug through piles and piles of 2x6s, until I found two or three clear pieces I could glue together. But kiln-dried construction lumber just wasn't what I was looking for. No, I wanted a clear, air-dried, spruce timber. Something that, 50 years ago, I might have found fairly easily. But today? After calling a dozen small mills, and every marine timber business in the north east, I started to wonder if such an artifact even existed. But finally I thought I'd found one. A woman at Condon's Lumber thought there might be a 4x4 piece of Sitka Spruce in her warehouse. She quoted me a price which made my eyes water, but what did I expect for the last such timber on earth?

"I'll take it!" I said, but alas, she was mistaken. It had been sold long, long ago.

My spirits plummeted. Did I really live in a world where such a small piece of wood (relatively speaking) was simply unavailable? It seemed so, but I kept googling and dialing, hoping against hope to find a source.

Finally, I found an old article in the New York Times (Loggers look at a Tree and See a Boat) about a company in Connecticut called New England Naval Timbers. The article was about a Cornwall logger named Charles (Duke) Besozzi, who was "supplying select timbers for the grand schooner restorations and one-of-a-kind wooden yachts that are being brought to life in boat yards up and down the New England coast."

That sounded promising, though a bit grand for my little bowsprit project. I was actually too intimidated by the words 'Naval Timbers' to call Duke right up, but after running down every other lead, his name was the only one left on my list. I found his phone number, and gave him a call.

Turned out, he didn't have any clear spruce, or any other softwood that would serve the purpose. After kicking the problem around for awhile on the phone, he finally asked, "How about white oak? Historically, white oak was often used for spars."

My first thought was white oak would be too heavy. But after chewing it over a bit, I realized 1) it would only make a difference of 10 pounds or so, and I thought nothing of hanging a 35 lb anchor off my bow, and 2) the Blue Moon could actually use a bit more weight in the bow to balance the weight in the stern.

"I'm sure I can find a couple nice, clear pieces for you," Duke said, temptingly.

Well, that might have been true in the summer, or even a normal winter. But in February of 2015, all that beautiful white oak was buried under enormous drifts of snow. It wasn't until the first week in March, when the tide of snow began to ebb, that Duke and his crew were able to dig out and mill up the two pieces of white oak that I'd ordered. Helena and I jumped in our station wagon and drove up to one of the prettiest parts of New England to collect our bits of wood.

Historic Sailing Vessels... Yes.

The office
The offices of New England Naval Timbers might have been modest, tucked away, as they were, in the snow-bound woods, but their product was decidedly not. 'Prodigious' would be a better word for it.

Helena with Titan of the Forest

White Pine

Scattered though an acre or so of forest were massive piles of logs, such as the ones above. It was a marvel just to walk around and look at such potential, even more fun to imagine the boats one could build from massive slabs of air dried white oak and white pine. Like that open Mackinaw Boat that I hope will be my last boat... I could almost see it in that pile of wood...

But those dreams were for later. There was business at hand. Money was exchanged for lumber, and then it was time to hoist two pieces of wood onto the roof of my car. Two rather heavy pieces of oak: one 4"x4", the other 4"x6", both about 16-foot long. 

"Ooff!" I grunted, trying to pick up my end of the first piece. Jeff, the burly sawyer at the other end of the stick lifted up his end with one hand. 

"It's not that heavy," he assured me. 

Helena scrambled to help me lift my end and together the three of us hoisted first one, then the other even heavier piece onto the car.

The quest completed
Jeff helped me tie the wood securely to my rack -- it wouldn't do to have weighty javelins flying through the windshields of cars on the Hutch -- and then we reluctantly headed back to New York. The quest for wood was over, but as I looked at the timber's profile through my sunroof, I wondered how I'd manage to shape that massive balk into a slender, tapering spar? 

Next Up: Roughing Out

30 March 2015

Gripping Vice

We are having a late spring here in the northeast, which is a good thing because it gives me a bit more time to get winter chores done.

Here's what Huntington Harbor looked like on the first day of Spring. Cheery, eh?

First day of spring
On the project front, I'm finally gearing up to get my bowsprit done. I've got the wood (more on that next time) and am just waiting for a break in the weather to get started on that project. In the meantime, I've been getting ready.

One thing I needed last week was a metal-working vice. I have an old vice, stamped 1913 on it, which has been mounted on one of the rickety little tables in my shop. Between it's metal jaws and unstable platform, it was next to useless for woodworking, but I made do with it for many years.

Now that I have a good wood vice, and have experienced the bliss of working on a bench that doesn't move, I was determined to do something with my metal vice. But bolting it on to my bench wasn't an option. It would be too much in the way, and there was really no place for it anyway.

Luckily, I'd seen a nice trick somewhere, for turning a vice into a tool that can be brought out when needed and put away when not.

To get started, I needed a good size hunk of hardwood. Something wide enough to mount the vice on. About 4"x4" would do.

I didn't have an off-cut that size, but I did have some good chunks of seasoned firewood. So using the sled-and-bandsaw trick discussed last time, I quickly had it squared off. Not the kind of wood you'd want to build fine furniture with, but good enough for this job.

Metal-working vise mounted firmly to block of red oak
I bolted the vice to this block of wood using 2 1/2-inch lag bolts. I might as well have welded the vice to an I-beam. Real solid.

Then to use the vice, all I need to do is clamp the block of wood in my front vice.

Block gripped in woodworking vice
Voila! A rock-steady metal working vice that can be stashed on the tool shelf when not in use (which will be most of the time, of course.)

Why did I need a metal-working vice so urgently? A frozen shackle. I mean, it was really frozen. Still is, in fact! Even clamped in a vice, and bathed in Liquid Wrench, I could not get that shackle open. Complete and utter defeat.

Frozen shackle -- still frozen!!
Ah well, at least I have a good new tool.

Next job: a new bowsprit.

Next Up: Quest For Wood II

16 March 2015

Plane Talk II

With the body of the jack plane complete, it was time to tackle what, to me, seemed the more difficult job -- that of carving a suitable handle.

I set a high bar for this handle. I took as my model the handle of an old D-8 Disston saw that had long hung on the wall of my shop. Though missing a horn, the handle of this saw is still the most comfortable tool handle I've ever had the pleasure of holding. The craftsmen who built these old Disston saws put a lot of work into them, which is why even Disston gave up making them that way after awhile. But it shows what can be done if you spend enough time at it.

That is, assuming you know how to fit a wooden handle to a human hand, which I did not, but I was willing to give it my best shot, and wouldn't be happy until it was good as my old Disston.

My model for comfortable fit - and old Disston D8
I spent several hours Googling for instructions for fitting tools to hands, but found nothing... not one word. Evidently shaping handles is indeed a lost art, so there was nothing for it but to figure it out myself.

I began with the blank. I had a small scrap of walnut that looked about right. I re-sawed it to the correct thickness on my bandsaw, and then smoothed it. Of course I used my new plane, this time with the blade sharpened. The plane worked beautifully, as you can see, even without a handle.

Smoothing the blank for the handle

Then I glued a template for the handle to the wood and cut out the basic shape on the bandsaw.

Using template for cutting

That was the easy part done. Then it was time to start shaping the handle with various rasps I've accumulated over the last few years. None of them are very good, but they were all I had, and had to do.

To hold the piece at a convenient height, I clamped it in a Jorgensen clamp, and then clamped the clamp to my bench.

Add caption
Looking at the picture above, it's amazing what a mess I made getting this far, but...

Using the saw handle as my model, I tried to shape the handle to the right general shape, first using coarse rasps to rapidly -- but carefully -- remove wood.

Roughing out the basic shape

Then I turned to finer rasps to refine the shape. Surprisingly, this work went fairly quickly... I didn't track my time, but it was less than an hour, even proceeding slowly and cautiously.

Getting closer...
Then it was time to cut the tenon. I am by no means an expert at cutting such joints, but I did the best I could. I don't own a real tenon saw, or anything like one, but my trusty Japanese pull saw did a good-enough job.

Again, holding the piece in the Jorgensen clamp was a lot more convenient than trying to clamp saw the piece while it was clamped in my front vise.

Cutting tenon
That finished the roughing out phase. The handle was already more comfortable than many of my store-bought tools, but I still wasn't satisfied. Compared to the Disston handle, it was awkward to hold. I wasn't sure what was wrong with it, but the handle just didn't feel right.

But how to 'fix' it? I had no idea.

I again turned to my books and the Internet, looking for ideas, but no one seems interested in this fitting process, anymore. Again I failed to find a single hint, so was forced to figure it out on my own.

I sat in my 'thinking chair', holding the handle, trying to 'feel' where it was wrong. When I squeezed it hard, as you would when actually pushing a jack plane across a rough board, the handle felt 'uncomfortable'. This information was too vague to guide me, so I had to think more. Why was it uncomfortable?

After turning this question in my mind for several minutes, I gradually realized that there were several 'pressure points', for lack of a better term: points where the handle pressed uncomfortably against my hand. In particular, the handle pressed painfully at the heel of my palm, and on my index finger.

Since these areas were pressure points, I reasoned that if I took some wood off these points, the pressure would be relieved. This seemed logical, so I began shaping these two areas, alternately squeezing the handle (while it was held in the clamp) and rasping off wood.

Amazingly, this simple process worked. Very quickly, I relieved the two major pressure points, and then continued to squeeze and search for smaller and smaller pressure points, relieving each as I found it.

Sooner than expected, I eliminated all the pressure points, leaving the handle a perfect fit to my hand and completely comfortable to squeeze.

I don't know if this is how old-time tool makers did the job, but it certainly worked for me. And since, as far as I know, this is the only how-to on the Internet that says how to do it, I think it will just have to do.

The final handle.
Then it was time to attach handle to the plane. I cut away the back of the plane so the handle would not sit up so high, and then defined the location of the mortise for the handle. I did this by putting the handle on the plane, moving it around until it looked about right, and drawing a line around the tenon.

Very scientific!

Making mortice

I removed most of the material from the mortice on the drill press, then very carefully cut the mortice sides  with a chisel. I am really bad with chisels, and have botched several previous projects with poor chisel work, so took my sweet time with this one. Sometimes, all it takes is time.

To smooth out the bottom of the mortice, I used my home-made router plane. Obviously, I was not so concerned with handle shaping when I made this tool a few years ago, but it still did the job.

Finishing mortice with router plane
Then it was time to glue the handle in place. I might have used Epoxy in the past, but recently read an article in Wooden Boat magazine by an expert who maintains that TiteBond III is even stronger than Epoxy. So I used that.

There was one more step that I didn't take photos of: making a proper wedge to hold the blade firmly in place. I actually made three before I got it right. The first was a rough and ready one for testing. The second was a beautiful thing, made from a choice bit of teak, seemingly a perfect fit until I tried to tighten it up with a few light taps with a hammer. Too thin!

Starting again with a scrap of white oak, I finally got it right: thin enough a the end to fit under the bronze rod, but just the right taper so it held firmly at the right spot. The lighter wood looks nice to my eye, too.

All that was left was to give it a rub down with linseed oil, and to give it a final test. The blade was already sharp. I carefully adjusted it to take a very thin shaving, and gave it a whirl. The result: thin, full-width shavings.

The final test... thin, full-width shavings
Click the photo above for a closer look.

Bottom line, I am totally sold on these Krenov style planes and plane blades. The blades, in particular, are much easier for me to sharpen than the thinner blades often found on old classic woodies. The plane itself is much less clunky than traditional wooden planes, and feels solid and well-balanced in the hand.

Best of all, I can tune it to perfection. Using the piece of marble and several grades of sandpaper, I got the bottom of the plane perfectly flat. After a half-hour's use, the live oak looked slippery, it was so smooth. And indeed, it was slippery. No need to wax the bottom of this plane.

I intend to build a whole set of planes in this method, using whatever scraps of wood I find around the shop. Now that I know what I'm doing, it won't take more than a few hours each to build them. A worth while project, I think.

But no time for that now. I must have the Blue Moon off her winter dock and on her mooring by April 1st. Once again, winter was too short, and spring is here.

No wonder Norwegians are such happy people!

For details on how to build your own planes, check out "The Unplugged Woodshop: Hand-Crafted Projects for the Home & Workshop" by Tom Fidgen.

Next Up: Gripping Vice