I have never built a guideboat in the truly traditional manner. The ribs and stems for my boats were made of laminates formed by gluing together thin strips of wood in a mold that had the shape of the rib or stem. The main reason for making the ribs this way was that I could never find someone who was willing to part with the flitches, or sections of spruce roots, that could form the strong, but light, ribs and stems.
I was delighted when Keith Austin of Blue Line Hardwoods in Long Lake offered to sell me enough flitches to build a boat. Brian, the owner of Blue Line, then offered to deliver the flitches, and material for a bottom board, to my home in Delaware. True to his word, these items arrived last October.
My friend Jeff says that “An adventure starts with questions and uncertainties”. This was surely the case since I had no experience building a boat using flitches or “roots” or “stumps” as the native Adirondackers call them. How many flictches are needed to build a guideboat? I really didn’t know. I knew the trick would be to align the rib patterns as closely to the path of the grain in each root. How easy would that be? Would the flow of the grain in the flitches accommodate the varying shape of the ribs as one moves from midships to the stems? I was about to find out.
Keith sent me fourteen flitches. One of my former bosses would have called them a “dog’s breakfast”. I never asked him what he meant by the term but I assumed he meant a mixed bag. They were indeed a mixed bag. I wondered if fourteen flitches were enough to do the job (there are a total of 48 ribs and two stems in my boat). That question would nag me throughout the entire process of “getting out” the ribs and stems.
The flitches had various deformities that I would have to work around. There were checks, or splits, knots, and worm holes. Some flitches were superb while others not so good. But as I began to work with them I found that “ugliness is only skin deep”
The flitches were taken from Adirondack red spruce stumps. Red spruce grows only at higher elevations and usually grows at a very slow rate. Hence the grain is very tight. I found the spruce to have a lovely white color causing me to immediately think of ivory. It is a delight to work with being very forgiving of the woodworker’s bumbling. It made me realize, once again, why I prefer to work wood with hand tools. It is a sensory thing that flows from the wood through the tool to the craftsman.
So the first step in getting out ribs is to lay some patterns on a flitch so that the curve of the rib follows the grain as closely as possible. You want to absolutely avoid cross grain, or grain that is perpendicular to the curve of the rib. Cross grain would cause a dangerously weak area in the finished rib. With these flitches avoiding cross grain was not difficult. Even as the ribs began to be more upright at each end of the boat I could find flitches that would give me a grain pattern the followed the arm of the rib and yet gathered to become horizontal at the foot.
Here I lay out the patterns on a flitch.
The next step is to cut out what I call a “bundle” The flitches are a little over 2″ thick so, with care, I should be able to get four ribs from one bundle. That is what I need because the boat is symmetrical. There are identical ribs fore and aft. There is little margin for error as I extract them from a bundle since I want my finished ribs to be 7/16″ thick.
Here I am cutting out a stem bundle.
The next step is to rip the stem bundle in two or a rib bundle into four rough cut ribs.
The same goes for the rib bundles.
I am using a finger board to prevent any wandering of the band saw blade. I must get good straight cuts if I am to get four rough cut rib blanks from a bundle.
I then surface plane the rough cut ribs down to their final thickness of 7/16″.
That rough cut rib must be given its final shape. This is where a lot of hand tool work must be done. First the shape of the rib is transferred to the rib blank from the pattern and the band saw is used to cut away much of the excess.
The hull side of the rib is given its final shape using a block plane and long board.
A final smoothing is done using the long board.
The rib hull surface must be perpendicular to the sides. Here I am checking that with a small square.
It is very important to get the correct angle between the rib foot and the arm. Even a small deviation in this angle will cause larger and larger shifts of the rib out of position on the hull as one moves up the arm.
Now the inside surface of each rib must be shaped. Below are the tools I used to do this. They are a Veritas spoke shave, two sizes of contour planes, a cabinet scraper, long board for sanding, and a home-made curved sanding block. Then, of course, my old faithful Black and Decker Shop Mate. I couldn’t live without it.
Here I am shaping the inside surface of a rib using one of the contour planes.
Here are some of the ribs that have reached this stage of execution.
I still need to round off the top surface of each rib and shape each foot.
Getting out ribs is a big deal. But my concerns at the start were ill founded and I have a great set of ribs to build a boat.
Next time I think I will switch gears and talk about hunting from a guideboat.