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Week 18: Sometimes setup seems like half the job

There is an old military saying that goes “Getting ready to be ready.” That kind of sums up where we seem to be with boatbuilding here in week 18 of our year at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding. Yes, we have learned to sharpen everything to a fine edge, figured out how to loft, and even cut more than a few planks, but, the real art to constructing wooden boats appears to be in the setup for a job to follow.

Just think, after all that time spent on hands and knees ensuring waterlines were properly denoted, the rabbet is set “just so” and the transom has been “rolled out,” the next instruction is to assemble “molds” and a “strongback.” Let’s start with the latter and then move to the former.

Strongbacks are the platforms upon which your future work of art will be assembled. For the small craft crew they strongly resemble ladder frames one used to find beneath a vehicle. Twin planks run in parallel joined by slats spaced about 24 inches long. Simple enough, until you’re told there must be a true centerline and spacing such that the “stations” on one’s lofting will be complimented by said strongback. Now things get complicated. Add to all this a need to be level—well, suffice it to say the ladder frame on my old pickup truck is nowhere near as precise as the strongbacks found in the various small craft shops. Then we come to us large craft knuckle-draggers.

IMG_1245Instead of working upside down, we are going to build the Folkboat so that the keel is sitting on the shop floor…or at least only a couple of feet above the shop floor. That meant the strongback initially consists of a 2 x 12 inch, 30 foot laminated plank being mounted 10 feet above the shop floor.

Yes, above.

Do you have any idea how heavy or unwieldly a plank of those dimensions can prove to be? Its no small project and certainly no indication of the fact we are planning to build a boat. Honestly, it looks more like a rafter for someone’s new home.

Then you realize it must be perfectly straight. There goes another four hours of labor—10 feet in the air. At this point a few of us have climbed up and down a ladder more times than we can count. (I, personally, have to stop at 10…that’s when I run out of digits on my two hands and refuse to remove my boots so as to arrive at 20.) We did achieve the impossible, just like the contemporary and small craft teams, and no hard hats were required.


Onto “molds.” Here we encounter the shapes for laying on planking and lining up stems with transoms. Precision is everything. Off by a 16th of an inch at the midpoint of your mold and it will grow to a ¾ inch problem at the bow and stern.

This wooden boatbuilding world is unforgiving with us  constantly reaching for measuring instruments and bevel gauges.

In any case, the small craft crews seem to be well on their way with the molds—to include placing them atop strongbacks. How about us in large craft? Well, the Folkboat molds are constructed and the strongback I-beam is in place. We just haven’t reached the point of pairing both. Something about having the ballast ready to mate with a keel. There’s nothing like moving 2200 pounds of iron keel about a shop floor to keep one humble.

And then, of course, is the 50-plus feet of rabbet that must be hand-chiseled out of purple heart. I can hear the sounds of mallets striking chisels in my dreams.



So where are we at week 18?

A walk through the shops finds the contemporary crew making amazing progress on submarine and pram. The Handy Billy is ready for an engine and more interior fit. The small craft teams have the bits and pieces in place to start assembly including planking that is suffering through multiple rounds on a planer. And here in large craft? I suspect the Felicity Ann will be fully planked by the end of week 19, the Sea Beast will have much of her initial interior, and the Folkboat will have a sea of us cutting a seemingly endless rabbet.

In other words, we are all well on the way to “getting ready to be ready.” Simply impossible to build a wooden boat without completing the invaluable first steps.


eri profile

Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering
in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard.  A new resident of
Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.