Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Installing the wales

They are called gunwales, outwales, or simply wales.  They are thin strips of hardwood that run the length of the hull along the sheer line.  They are quite necessary for a guideboat.  Wales reinforces a hull that appears deceptively fragile.  There was an old time guideboat builder in the northern adirondacks whose last name was Martin.  His boats were so lightweight and had such a delicate appearance that they became known as “Martin’s eggshells”.  Fortunately, the hull of a guideboat is much sturdier than it appears.  The wales also provide a place to attach the straps, or oar sockets, and the decks, which hide the carrying handles.

My past experience with hanging wales causes me heartburn.  The wales on my boat are one-inch square cherry stock that run the length of the hull.  On past boats they were very stiff.  To counter that in the past I have had to rig a tent to steam them and use a windlass affair to slowly bend them in place.  It took a number of hours to get one side of the hull done.  I was always afraid that I would hear a “craack! as  I forced the stock to conform and have wasted hours of work.  Fortunately that never happened.

Someone suggested that, instead of using flat sawn cherry for the wales, using quarter sawn stock is much easier to hang.  It made sense to me since the grain will then run parallel to the length of the stock and therefore should be more compliant to bending along the sheer.  I took the suggestion and bought 3 1/2 board feet of quarter sawn cherry at $9.80 a board foot.   It is not a cheap route to go.

I milled the material to  one inch  square stock and scarfed it to get two pieces 16 feet long.  I used #8 X 1 1/4″oval head brass screws to fasten the wale to the hull starting at the midships.  The oval head screws lend a decorative look to the finished boat.   I left the hull on the builder’s jig while installing the wales so that I wouldn’t have to worry with the hull “flopping” around.

The wales went on very easily with only modest pressure necessary to conform them to the hull.  When installing the wales, if there is a choice of whether to use the sheer edge of the plank or the wale to define the sheer line, default to the wale.  In any case, you should end up with a nice, fair curve to define the sheer line of the hull.

I then got ahead of myself and tried to join the end of the wale to the stem.  This is not a good idea as I soon learned.  This joint is very difficult to get right and probably impossible when the hull is upside down and the joint is below your waist.  I will show you some tricks I learned when I joined wale and stem once the hull was right side up.

Below is a photo of the hull with a wale being installed.

Wale being installed.
Wale being installed.

Building and Adirondack Guideboat-Varnishing

Varnishing used to be the scourge of boat builders. First of all, one would have to sand between coats of varnish to insure good adhesion. That gets tedious when trying to varnish the inside of the hull of a guideboat since there is only a 6″ space between the ribs.  Sanding the area close to the ribs is difficult enough but getting the dust out of that area is even trickier. Second, varnishes just love to run. You may not notice the runs until it is time for another coat. Then they are quite obvious and they are not easy to remove. A cabinet scarper is probably the best way to remove the gummy residue of a run. I’ve ben told that trying to dry varnishes on a humid day is vexing too. I haven’t encountered that problem since I apply my varnishes indoors where the humidity is never too high.

Fortunately there is a varnish on the market, Epifanes Woodfinish Gloss spar varnish, that makes varnishing no longer a chore. If you apply another coat of it within 72 hours of the previous one, you don’t have to sand between coats to get adhesion. Hooray! And, more great news. I fully expected to see runs when I applied the second coat to the hull on this go around. So far I haven’t found one. Epifanes gives a high gloss finish and has all the UV blockers that prevent degradation from exposure to sunlight.

When I varnish I don’t subscribe to the strongly held believe that you need to apply some concoction to the bare wood first before you apply the varnish. The concoction contains linseed oil and often other ingredients to prepare the wood for finishing. Since the varnish manufacturers don’t call for any pre-coat I don’t think it is necessary. My first guideboat has endured 14 summers of Adirondack sun and moisture without having had the pre-coat and it is doing just fine. I did refinish it once in those 14 years but the finish is holding up just fine and I don’t expect to have to refinish for several years.

As you can see below I use a foam brush.  It gives a smooth, even finish and, best of all, there is no brush cleaning afterwards.  I extend the life of my foam brushes by putting them in a zip-lock bag and then into the refrigerator (my wife isn’t keen on that idea).  The brushes are cheap enough so that you can throw them away after each use.

To prepare the surface for varnishing I first sand it with 220 grit paper.  Then I use the shop vac to remove as much dust as possible.  Just before applying the varnish I use a tacky cloth the remove the last of the dust.

Epifanes Wood Finish Gloss Spar Varnish
Epifanes Woodfinish Gloss Spar Varnish

Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Wow! It popped

Hull after two coats of varnish
Hull after two coats of varnish

I decided to start varnishing the hull while waiting for the screws I ordered so I could attach the gunwales.  I wasn’t anticipating the absolute change in appearance this would cause.

The wood I used for the hull, Spanish cedar, was hinting at having an abundance of figure, or chatoyancy, in its unfinished state.  Sure enough, as soon as the first coat of varnish was applied, the appearance of the wood “popped” as some woodworkers call it.  The wood took on a depth or three dimensional appearance.  There was even some “birds eye” in one of the planks.

This sort of figure is seldom, if ever, seen in guideboat planking.  Why is that?  The reason is that the old timers and even many modern guideboat builders use quarter sawn (QS), rather that flat sawn (FS) planking.  Quarter sawn planking expands less with moisture uptake compared  with flat  sawn planks.  In many builder’s minds quarter sawn material, because it expands less with moisture uptake, is less like to crack along the seams.  The downside is that quarter sawn wood is rather dull  in appearance and does not display “figure”.

I am a maverick on the QS versus FS argument.  QS wood is an absolute necessity when there is water or liquid on one side and air on the other side of a wooden structure, say with old wooden sailing  vessels or with barrels.   In those cases you want to  minimize the expansion of the wood due to moisture uptake on the “wet” side to prevent leaks.

Does this apply guideboats?  I don’t think it does.  Guideboats are not continuously in the water but are hauled out after a  few hours or even a day of rowing.  So there is always the opportunity for the guideboat planking to rid itself of  excess moisture.

Another factor becomes important, especially with modern guideboat construction.  Boats today are finished with multiple coats of marine spar varnish.  It has been shown that these coatings severely limit moisture uptake by the wood they protect. These two factors suggest to me that is perfectly OK to use flat sawn planking in guideboats.

Building an Adirondack Guideboat-Why use hand tools?

Visitors to the Adirondack Museum’s boat shop often are puzzled by the overwhelming use of hand tools when building a guideboat. To the layman, hand tools are something from the past, something that is irrelevant now that we have all manner of power tools, even portable ones undreamed of only a few years ago. Then, when they view the boat shop video of Willard Hanmer building a guideboat in the 1950’s, they learn that he “mechanized all aspects of building a guideboat that he could”. So why isn’t the Museum’s boat builder doing the same?

I once met a cabinet maker who still uses hand tools for much of his work. Of course, he had access to any power tool that he wanted. He claimed that he could perform a wood working task as fast, if not faster, using hand tools than when he used power equipment. The difference, he said, was that there was no set up time when using hand tools.

But there is something else about using hand tools. It is superbly expressed in the excerpt below from the book The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. The book is the story of the University of Washington’s rowing team that won the 1936 Olympic Gold Medal despite the best efforts of Hitler’s Germany to stop them.

One of the characters in the book is George Yeoman Pocock, and English rowing shell builder and authority on rowing who was recruited by the University to build their rowing shells.

“Pocock didn’t just build racing shells. He sculpted them.

Looked at another way, a racing shell is a machine with a narrowly defined purpose; to enable a number of large men or women, and one small one to propel themselves over an expanse of water as quickly and efficiently as possible. Looked at another way, it is a work of art, an expression of human spirit, with its unbounded hunger for the ideal, for beauty, for purity, for grace. A large part of Pocock’s genius as a boatbuilder was that he managed to excel both as maker of machines and as an artist.

Growing up and learning his trade from his father at Eton, he had used simple hand tools-saws, hammers, chisels, wood planes and sanding blocks. For the most part he continued to use these same tools even as more modern, laborsaving power tools came to the market in the 1930’s. Partly it was because he believed the hand tools gave him more precise control over the fine details of the work. Partly, it was because he could not abide the noise the that power tools made. Craftsmanship required thought, and thought required a quiet environment. Mostly, though, it was because he wanted more intimacy with the wood-he wanted to feel the life in the wood with his hands, and in turn impart some of himself, his own life, his pride and his caring, into the shell.”

The parallels to guideboat building re uncanny. A guideboat is a machine designed to carry at least two men with their duffel, and perhaps a hound or two, and maybe a buck, across rough water far into the wilderness. It must be light enough for one man to carry yet sturdy enough to last for years. And every one who has built a traditional guideboat has been complimented on what a work of art it is. The reaction is usually instinctive when someone views a guideboat for the first time; for an instant one stops breathing and then “Wow! How beautiful!”

Who, having built a guideboat in the traditional fashion, hasn’t felt part of him or her taken up by the boat while making such and extraordinary craft.