Home - Project Just Right
Chapter 1 - My goals and Requirements
Chapter 2 - Choosing the Boat to Build
Chapter 3 - Preliminaries, What I Did Before Starting
Chapter 4 - Setting up Frames and Building the Hull
Chapter 5 - Interior
Chapter 6 - Deck and Exterior
Chapter 7 - Topside Details
Chapter 8 - Keel, Centerboard, and Rudder
Chapter 9 - Mast, Rigging, Sails, Outboard & Anchors
Chapter 10 - The Electrical System
Chapter 11 - The Trailer and Trailering
Chapter 12 - Sea Trials and Cruising Pictures
Chapter 13 - Future Projects ... When is a Boat Finished?
Chapter 14 - Useful Information... Sources and Links
Chapter 15 - Questions and Answers
Chapter 16 - Other Vagabond Builders and Aficionados
Chapter 17 - A Few Good Ideas
Chapter 18 - Chapter 18 - Specifications and Equipment

Chapter 3 - Preliminaries - What I Did Before Starting

A Place to Build a Boat

I have been thinking about building a 20 foot trailerable sailboat for a long time. In 1984, I had part of the crawl space under my townhouse excavated so I would have workshop space. The shop connects with my two-car garage through double doors. My plan was to build the boat diagonally in the garage and when finished, keep it in one half of the garage. The perfect retirement boat - no slip fees, use it when you want to and in the meantime, it doesn't eat much.


Build a Small Boat First

I learned a lot from building several smaller boats. I've built a Bolger Light Dory V, two Dobler Pepitas, and a Pygmy Kayak, all stitch and glue plywood construction except the dory. The second Pepita and the kayak used epoxy resin. The Pepita turned out to be a great little boat. We used it often and took good care of it. When it came time to sell, I repainted the boat and it looked better than when it was new. The Pepita confirmed my confidence in stitch and glue fiberglass/epoxy/plywood construction. I am including a short description of the Pepita.

Pepita...The Perfect Dinghy?

Pepita was designed as a small yacht tender which would row, tow, stow, sail and even power well. It is sized to fit on the foredeck of a 27 foot sailboat between the mast and bow cleat. It is constructed of marine plywood using the taped seam construction method. The entire structure is saturated with WEST resin. The outer skin is 4 oz. glass cloth. The sides are 4 mm. mahogany plywood, while the bottom and interior parts are 1/4 inch fir plywood. The boat is trimmed with solid mahogany. The sheer rail is laminated mahogany and spruce.

The sailing rig is the same as the Sabot dinghy with about 38 square feet of sail. All spars and oars stow inside the boat. The rowing position dimensions were derived from larger rowing boats. By using sturdy, maximum length oars, the boat rows extremely well for its size. Two sets of oar locks allow the rower to select the best position depending on whether one, two or three persons are occupying the boat. Although a small motor could be fitted, the boat rows so well that it would be unusual to need a motor.

The hull shape makes the boat a good "sea boat". It handles rough conditions very well for its size. The flip side is that the boat is tender and care must be exercised when entering or exiting. I insisted on enough floatation that the boat could be rowed out through small beach surf even if swamped. Once outside the surf line, the boat can be bailed and rowed out to the anchored yacht. With cooperation from a buddy, it is possible to climb into the boat after snorkeling. With these characteristics, the boat might if called upon, serve as a lifeboat.

Pepita is 7'4" long, 4' wide and 16'' deep and weighs less than 60 pounds.

Pepita was designed in 1979 by Joe Dobler, a small boat designer from Manhattan Beach, California to my requirements. I built and used the first version for several years. Joe redesigned the boat to make the planking easier and add slightly more stability. I built the second version of the boat and liked the improvements. Joe submitted Pepita to a 1981 Cruising World Magazine design contest and was one of four finalists. Cruising World built the boat and liked it but commented that it was a bit tender. Joe completed a third version of the boat with a wider bottom to add stability. A number of plans were sold and boats built both by amateurs and professionals. Several stretched versions were completed. One Pepita survived a storm that destroyed the King Harbor breakwall without any major damage.

Building a Model was One of the Smartest Things I Did

The Vagabond plans, being computer generated and plotted are an extremely accurate 1/10th scale. I copied the panel and bulkhead drawing, cut them out and transferred the shapes to cardboard. With my glue gun and tape, I stuck together a quick tenth scale model of the boat. It has proved to be an invaluable aid to visualizing spaces and sizes of objects. It allayed any fears of the inaccuracy of the panel shapes when the panels matched very well. It was fascinating to see the floppy cardboard turn into a very stiff structure as I added the bulkheads. [As an aside, the builder of the Young 6 Meter in Canada told me that he had his boat surveyed and the surveyor commented that he had never seen a stiffer small boat.]

My late designer friend Joe Dobler was a fan of models and built some beautiful cardboard models. He used the models to take off plank shapes in some cases. I owe the mirror technique that you see in the following picture to him. Not to be outdone, John Hoaglund built this beautiful mantelpiece model. It was so much fun that he took time out from boat building to build two more models.


The Search for Materials - No Virginia, you won't find this stuff at Home Depot!

Jacques original plans called for lots of 8 mm marine plywood, 1708 double bias mat glass fabric, and epoxy resin and fillers. From my earlier boatbuilding experience, I knew this would be an adventure in shopping but I had no idea how many phone calls, web sites and trips I was going to have to make before assembling the parts in my garage. Lots of Email flowed back and forth with Jacques as I investigated Southern California sources.

Let me tell you a little secret - Don't plan to build a boat to save money. In Southern California, I sold a perfectly complete Mirage, with sails, trailer, radio, everything--ready to go in the water for less than just the plywood cost for the Vagabond. One of my Principles is that if you want to race a sailboat, pick a boat size for which money is no object, i.e. if you need a new jib to win, just write a check. The same goes for building a boat. The second secret is - Don't think you'll sell your boat at a huge profit or for that matter, sell it at all. So much for the finances. Let's face it, we build boats only because we want to.

I started checking out sources for plywood. I had used some Brunzeel in my Pepita and in the Pygmy kayaks so I knew what perfect plywood was like. In all my calls, I didn't find any local dealers with the stock I needed, and never found any 8 mm. anywhere. The 1088 plywood was typically $100+ a sheet. I could find distributors with good prices but wanted to sell only large quantities. I finally spread my search to old reliable Edensaw in Port Townsend WA. I had purchased some WR cedar from them for my sauna and found them reliable and fair priced. In Email with Jacques, we changed the scantlings to use 6mm, 9mm and 12 mm plywood. Since the plywood is all epoxy coated, 6566 grade okoume was satisfactory. I ended up finding all the Kelit plywood I needed at Edensaw's stocking dealer Sorensen Woodcraft in Chowcilla CA. Daryl Sorensen was a pleasure to deal with. He also sells hydroplane kits.

Not knowing all the trade jargon for higher tech glass fabrics, I started calling some of the local distributors. I obtained several samples and some price quotes. I was surprised when I tried to go from distributors to dealers, how few stocked fabrics. I learned a lot from the RAKA web site and eventually purchased a sample of the double bias 12 oz. fabric that Jacques and I had settled on.

I used WEST resins in the Pepita and System Three in the Pygmy kayaks so was familiar with both. I made up some sample panels with DBM1708 and DBM1208 fabric with some older System Three resin and was unhappy with the peel tests. At the Wooden Boat Festival, I was able to get some experts to look at the samples and they made several suggestions. I tried samples of MAS and RAKA resins after seeing some favorable wetting out demonstrations with the lower viscosity resins. Next, I made up some samples with the DB120 from RAKA and S3, RAKA and MAS resins. In the end, I decided to use the System Three products primarily because I was familiar with them and because Jacques entered into an agreement with them and I was able to get exactly the resins and fabrics that I needed for the boat. Kern Hendricks of System Three has always answered my questions by email which is a plus to me.

Now, you may ask what I learned from my crude tests of the materials. I believe the questionable adhesion of the DBM fabrics was due to the mat backing. With my techniques, it was difficult to saturate the mat. In my first samples, I coated the plywood and immediately applied the fabric. In later tests, I let the resin setup before applying the fabric. I had somewhat better success by putting the mat surface up. Experts tell me that mat can be a problem with epoxy resins. The mat is widely used with polyester resins where the binder in the mat is dissolved by the resin. My solution was to go to DB120, double bias 12 oz. fabric which has bundles of fiber in layers running + and - 45 degrees to the long dimension of the fabric and no mat.

The net of my technique is to roll on a coat of resin including the edges and let it set. Scrub with warm water and a Scotchbrite pad to remove the blush. I then sand the panel with 80 paper. Later, when I apply the fabric, I use a brush to stipple the resin into the cloth and a squeegee to spread the resin out. In some cases, I was able to use a roller to distribute the resin after the fabric was wetted out. I believe that the roller helped to soak up excess resin from the rather thick weave of the DB 120 fabric. I was able to schedule layering the tape and cloth so I applied the next layer within 6-12 hours thereby avoiding having to wash and sand during most of the covering.

Although scarf joints are nice, I decided to use glass tape butt joints. The tests I ran produced good results and didn't have the hard spots that I saw with butt blocks. My technique is to fill the panel joint with resin/wood flour or silica putty and cover with Saran wrap and weight the joint under a 2x4 with lots of weights on top. The putty evens out any irregularities at panel edges and holds the panels in alignment when it sets. Then I applied a six-inch DB120 tape. Some panels were taped only on one side and others on both. In either case, the panels didn't seem to display any hard spots. I did experience failures in sample splices without the filled joint.

So now with the plywood, fabric and resin in my shop, it was time to add a few tools. I bought an industrial strength Porter Cable 7336 random orbital sander with the dust collector. I also picked up a Makita Christmas special kit with 9.6 v. drill and 3 3/4 in. circular saw. Incidentally, I have read and reread Sam Devlin's book "Devlin's Boat Building". Surprisingly, I found I owned most of the tools he recommended in the book. Now, if I can only get my boat to look half as nice as his!

Time to get started building a boat.

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