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February 10, 1998

Building Boats

by Neil S. Milligan

"I couldn't build the *Broadened Horizons* today: You can't get the wood anymore," said Leaf, referring to the 32-foot ketch he built with his wife and fellow RiverKeeper 12 years ago. My environmental-activist friend opted to spend some of the winter with me in balmy Lower Alabama after suffering last year through the dreary and dismal season north of Chattanooga where overhaul of his sailboat home continues. Unfortunately, Cielo had to remain on hand to deal with a pair of lawsuits concerning the sanctioned rape and pillage of the river ecosystem. (See Harbinger issues 1/20 - 2/2, 1992 and 4/22 - 5/12/97.) Besides the physical and mental depression such weather brings, structural work using paint and epoxy is impossible in the cold and damp. Leaf offered to build a pair of wooden kayaks from his own design, out of friendship and for my support of the RiverKeeper project. A more important bonus for me was the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time with a mentor and spiritual brother.

For some people deep ecology is their religion: Living lightly on the planet isn't an affectation, it's a way of life. Leaf lives in harmony, pretty much out of the mainstream and out of the system, and doesn't proselytize or judge -- unless asked point-blank -- but just lives an example for any who care to observe. He has had experiences that give him a perspective unlike most people I interact with. He is truly comfortable with the path he is on -- and how many people can say that in today's society? We have some of the best conversations, and it seems that maybe he gets something from me once in a while, too. He is also a master woodworker, and while I probably could not build a beautiful boat on my own right now, I appreciate that I gained some knowledge, and my own technique has improved with exposure to his.

Leaf's statement was illustrated when we shopped for lumber for my boats. Three-eighths inch A-C fir plywood isn't what it used to be: three equal-thickness laminates of fir with one side graded "A" quality. Forest products sold under that name are now sheets of plywood made from one interior thickness of fir covered on each side with a very thin veneer of luan (a type of mahogany harvested in the tropics). A search for "clear" fir boards had similar results: a plank of any length six feet or over either had too many knots to be sound, or was made of several short pieces glued together with finger-joints -- thin, alternating zig-zag cuts that join segments of wood together into a longer piece.

The physics of wood products are fairly simple to understand. Some species of tree provide wood desired for its strength, lightness, rigidity, suppleness, rot-resistance, beauty of grain, and ease of working with it, or some combination of these traits. A "clear" grade means fewer knots and better homogeneity in strength and density throughout. Plywood is a sheet of several thin laminates arranged with their grain oriented in alternate directions for maximum rigidity and strength. Given similar wood strength and weight, a board of solid wood is weaker than the same thickness of plywood. Plywood with thicker veneers is weaker than a product made from thinner layers, more of them stacked up to produce the same dimension. Clear boards and thin veneers require sounder wood with finer grain and fewer imperfections, stuff that natural mature forests typically provided. Harvesting at a faster-than-sustainable rate is responsible for the passing of climax and virgin forests, and a progressively larger share of timber cut each year comes from second-growth stands and tree plantations.

OSB or oriented-strand board, also called chipboard, is made from wood chips approximately 3 inches in diameter -- instead of whole sheets of veneer -- glued together under pressure. Particle-board is little more than sawdust pressed and glued into sheets. Both of these products are heavier than plywood and much weaker, trading structural strength for the (short-term) economy of using immature trees that are indiscriminately clearcut from mixed-species forests. Anyone who has shopped at the super hardware stores for wood, whether two-by-four framing studs or clear boards for cabinets or shelves, has probably been frustrated by the pieces offered for sale. It usually takes a lot of sorting through warped, splintered, knot-ridden timbers to find suitable wood, and the search is very often fruitless.

It isn't just a misperception that wood-quality is deteriorating. Writing in Wooden Boat magazine, Richard Jagels bemoans the lack of suitable quality as the timber industry focuses on rapid wood production in second- and third-growth stands. The author refers to a wood-industry textbook from 1949 that noted old-growth timber yielded 10.8 percent select-grade (highest quality) and 27.5 percent low-common (least quality), while wood from second-growth produced 2.4 percent timber graded select and 58.7 percent low-common. The textbook stated that "In the future, wood users will have to become reconciled to the acceptance of more low-grade lumber than at present," which Jagels updates with his perception that "47 years later, 'reasonably acceptable,' as available to most boatbuilders, has a strong resemblance to crap."

He continues, "technological fixes can sometimes help to maintain or improve the quality of wooden boats, but they can not substitute for the real thing -- high-quality wood. The argument comes down to one of speed and technology versus long-term sustainability. Even if we ignore the wood-quality issue, the economic flaws in the speed and technology scenario are becoming more and more apparent. The savings that a company makes by not applying sustainable silvicultural practices in the forest are often eaten up at the processing end with increased production costs in making reconstituted product substitutes. But even more importantly, technical fixes come with environmental pricetags. These include such obvious costs as the use of scarce, nonrenewable resources for the machinery and adhesives, and increased energy consumption to chop, press, or extrude reconstituted products. But we also need to factor in the long-term effects on forests, where changes in species mix, destruction of soils, or lack of management strategies lead to environmental degradation and loss of species diversity."

Our goal was to find wood light enough yet strong enough to build kayaks for exploring coastal wetlands. When powered by an oversized gasoline-burning outboard motor, weight of the boat is of little consequence. It can be made of thick plywood and hefty timbers, or even metal if the design allows. If one desires an easily-transportable, highly-maneuverable watercraft powered only by human effort, light weight is essential. Just as important in this project, using the fewest structural members called for sound wood that exhibits strength even when cut into thin segments.

I had some ash boards left over from an earlier project to use for the frame, and these were cut into strips one-half inch wide and one-eighth inch thick. (Ash is the same wood preferred for baseball bats because of its strength and light weight.) For the bulkheads, one at each end of the cockpit around which the long ash strips are bent to make the shape of the kayak, we needed the obsolete three-eighths fir plywood. Leaf made up for that deficit by taking an extra sheet of one- eighth inch luan plywood (the wood to be used for the outer skin covering), cutting out three identical shapes and gluing them together to make each bulkhead. The result was a better piece of wood, lighter and stronger than what passed for three-eighths A-C fir. He also made a custom paddle-blade by bending and gluing together two panels of luan.

Leaf built a dozen boats before this Grand Bay model and salvaged dozens more. Using metal fasteners, he told me, makes a vessel weaken over time. As the hull flexes independently of the screws or nails, wood fibers get damaged and holes enlarge, and the holding power of the fasteners is reduced. Additionally, the penetrations provide entry points into the wood's structure, allowing moisture damage and dry-rot. A two-part resin-based epoxy holds all of our components together, starting with the laminated bulkheads and the "basket" of ash-strips that serves as a frame. Panels of one-eighth luan are cut to fit the shape of the hull and are epoxied to the lightweight frame. The finished boat will have a skin of woven fiberglass cloth and epoxy applied over the luan, and this gets painted for protection from UV radiation.

There is a distinct comfort that comes from using a limited resource to make a durable object of high quality. It was a joy to see Leaf's excitement grow as his idea took shape as a functional boat. He is very skilled at working with wood, and his pleasure with the results was evident when he pointed out things that contributed to the kayak's efficiency and light weight and explained plans that he modified because he learned as he went along. His only disappointment was that the boats were not ready for us to use when Mobile County was flooded with 16 inches of rain during the first three weeks of January.

Life is supposed to be a learning experience, and we took time away from the project to look at erosion first-hand. The storms and ill-planned development all around the area provided plenty of opportunity for that, and for a study of the human response. We saw contractors replacing structures that the creek-turned-torrent washed away; heavy-equipment operators feverishly rebuilding a failed earthen dike as water continued to build up behind it; engineers filling tons of rock into a washout hole in a steep slope of saturated soil. Someone once said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is an indication of insanity. We didn't see any evidence of a mastermind at work behind the operation.

Too soon Leaf's visit was over and he had to return to Tennessee, back to the ongoing RiverKeeper activities and to finish the boats up there. We drove all day and rose early in 32-degree weather to give the prototype kayak its maiden voyage in a low-water cove. Structurally sound, lacking mostly finish-work, Cypress measured 14 feet long, 22 inches wide and weighed 32 pounds; Leaf estimates that it will not exceed 40 when the last coat of paint is dry. The light weight makes it effortless to skim across still water; the slim contour and shallow draft create barely a ripple.

I am grateful for the boats, but the most important things I got are intangible. And that's how life should be.


The Harbinger, Mobile, AL