Here it is. My building the Otter series. It’s all here. The ups and downs, the tears of joy, frustration and sadness, and, of course, the story of boat whose destiny was doomed from the start. I have added annotation in green and bold, a little hindsight info for those starting their own project. Be warned, the tale is not for those faint of heart. May you learn from my mistakes!!
I don’t know about you, but I am not Bill Gates. Anymore, the cost of pontoon boats for fishing requires that you own a company listed on the Nasdaq exchange. I, for one, wasn’t ready to fork over that kind of dough. (I did eventually. Paid $1000 for a Dave Scadden Skykomish Sunrise that I have since sold and purchased a Scadden Outlaw Escape) That’s when I ran across Bateau.com. They have dozens of plans for building plywood stitch and glue boats. They even have a free set for a 7’10” pram called the D4. (Get them here) I went ahead and bought the plans and the epoxy kit for about $275 and the plywood cost about $75. That’s about all you need, besides the tools (power saw, sander and drill).
I began by ordering the plans and the epoxy and flotation foam kit. The epoxy covers the boat to keep the plywood safe from water and adds strength to the structure. The kit also include fiber glass tape for the seams between the plywood panels, wood flour for building fillets and the flotation foam. The foam is added beneath the seats and makes the boat unsinkable.
Once I was in my new house and had taken care of an infestation of moving boxes, I purchased the plywood, or rather tried to. Apparently, A/B plywood in the thicknesses required has not made its way to Nevada. Maybe the new Transcontinental Railroad will improve this situation when it is built…what they finished that about a hundred and fifty years ago? Then what’s the #@%&* deal? I finally settled for some expensive 1/4″ oak plywood and some crappy 3/8″ Douglas fir rough faced siding. I am guessing 3/8″ plywood is an endangered species east of the Sierras. Nice! Guess who gets to sand those smooth! (Big mistake, spend the dough to get quality wood. If you aren’t sure, do a little research online. Try the forums below)
I did, however use the forums at Bateau2.com and got some nice suggestions. One was an outfit called Edensaw.com. (They sell plywood on Bateau.com also) They can get some really nice marine plywood to you for a reasonable cost. A bit much for this little project but not to bad if you were building a bigger boat (luckily the D4 can be built with just about any decent plywood product). (I did not get a decent plywood product. Oak veneer paneling is not oak plywood!) Other suggestions included special ordering from your local home center/lumberyard and one I can’t mention on these family oriented pages (just kidding).
OK, I have the raw materials and now I want to get busy. The wife is not in the mood so I decide to build the boat (Ha, some of my irreverent humor). In about half a day I manage to cut four hull panels, bow, stern, and four bulkheads with my jig saw. Not too shabby. The kit includes patterns you can trace but I decide to loft (fancy boat building term for measuring) (actually laying out the panels by measuring instead of tracing). Once the first panels are cut I use them to trace the matching panels for the other side of the boat. I am so smart. Meanwhile, back at Justice League Headquarters…
Nothing happens for about a week. Call it laziness, call it…well just call it laziness ’cause that’s what it was (there were many such lulls in activity). The next Saturday I spent about 5-6 hours stitching this thing together. I am surprised at how quickly the D4 went together and became a boat. Once all the panels are together it is rock solid (it really was, the panels bent around the bulk heads is very structurally sound, by design). I won’t bore you with the process but one part is kind of neat and worth mentioning. I didn’t use nails or screws, I used zip ties. That’s why they call it stitch and glue. You can also use wire but I had a lot of ties in my tool box so I used them (they were harder to get out of the hull when you needed to because of the rough surface, but you could easily cut them flush).
Its been two weeks and I have only managed to coat about 1/3 of the interior of the Otter (I chose a name) with epoxy. To be fair, I am coaching my son’s t-ball team and I have been traveling for work. That’s me, Mr. Excuses! Coating the boat is fairly easy, though the epoxy doesn’t exactly flow like paint does (If I did it again, I’d use rollers). I just brush it on and that’s about it. The wood looks really nice under the epoxy but I have decided to paint it for durability and because not all the wood is of top quality (Use quality wood and you can finish a boat bright, or with a natural finish. Very pretty. Also the boat will not fall apart upon use, hehe) (see Part I).
I did manage to forget to sand the rough siding face. This made coating the wood very difficult (again, if you get good wood, not an issue. Are you sick of me saying this yet?). It also made some nice wood putty as particles would gather in the epoxy as I coated the corners. I decided to sand the pieces but they are, of course, already attached to the boat. I could get all but the corner between the bottom, sides and bulkheads, but I did that by hand. It really helped. My advice? Do whatever it takes to get the right wood, don’t settle. It just makes more work in the long run (See, even then I was preaching about wood!).
One little side note. After reading about others builders efforts on the web and at Bateau.com, I think could have gotten away with significantly less zip ties to hold the boat together. Probably two or three along the length with a few more at high stress points would have been sufficient. I placed them every four inches religiously. Not a big deal but it could have saved me some work to place fewer (don’t forget you have to get them smooth with hull later or remove them completely).
Its the day after Part III and at about 7 pm I went out and coated another third with epoxy. Now I know you saying to yourself, “Wow, how exciting. This story is absolutely riveting”. Well, when your finished being sarcastic, read on and learn what thousands of others already know. Somehow though I failed, during countless hours of reading boat building message boards, to discover this well known fact. Epoxy cures! Yes, you read that right, epoxy cures. Read on!
I mixed a bigger batch than usual and went to work. I have the fast hardener for colder conditions and my garage was probably a little warm. About 2/3 through the batch the epoxy started to get warm. Within a few minutes it was uncomfortably warm (In fact, it got so hot I couldn’t touch the cup). I guessed it was curing so I tried to use as much epoxy as possible before it set. Next thing I know, the epoxy is steaming and turning into chunks of hardening goop. Soon the wax from the cup was melting so I took the “China Syndrome” outside to meltdown in a safe location. The next batch got warm right at the end, so I am guessing the fast hardener coupled with the warm garage were the culprits. I will make smaller batches in the future. See, I can be taught.
Anyway, I now have about 2/3 of the Otter (that name is so damn cute…oh sorry) coated with epoxy and by next weekend I will be ready for fillets. Stay tuned and find out how I manage to mess that up, because I will mess it up. And when you are through laughing at my expense, you might just discover you learned something. No, really! (I got a lot of response when I first posted this. All the boat building vets got a good chuckle.)
I finished coating the interior the next weekend (April, 27, 2002 for those keeping score) despite being in Las Vegas for 3 days and a brush with death! While riding on the State of Nevada jet (yes, we have a jet…cool, huh?), with the Governor no less, the plane depressurized at about 22,000 feet. The oxygen masks came out and everything. I thought I was going the way of Payne Stewart for a minute (I added a link, it’s been a while since Payne died. I love telling this story to new employees right before we take off. He he!). Needless to say, we landed safely and all is well. I tell you this so you can understand the what I go through to bring you this story. I almost died for you people…sort of.
Anyway, after I finished coating the interior with epoxy I made up some putty from the wood flour and some epoxy. I place the goop in a sandwich baggy and went to work. The putty could have been a little thicker (it is supposed to be like peanut butter), but it worked all right. I did play it smart and decided to try out the first batch in the small bow seat area, which will be filled with foam and covered. I will do all the enclosed areas first, hoping to get the hang of it before I do the exposed areas. While the putty was still wet I cut some fiberglass strips to length (I should have done this first), mixed some more epoxy and started glassing.
It was pretty easy and I quickly learned to work for the center out to the edges of the tape to keep it from bunching. I made sure the epoxy was totally saturated (Actually, I made sure the fiberglass tape was saturated with epoxy), which is easy enough since it becomes transparent when wetted. Within half an hour the bow seat compartment was done and I had ruined another shirt. I manage to get epoxy on my shirt every time (I do wear old t-shirts, no Cutter & Buck for me) and usually wear the same ruined shirts over again when I epoxy. There is some sage advice hidden in there somewhere (Tyvek suits are a wonderful thing. I ruined many shirts).
I am again amazed at how rigid the boat has become with just the bow glassed. The bulkhead is solid as a rock and the bow flexes much less than when it was just stitched in place. I expect the boat will be plenty strong when finished (Joints yes, wood no). I have discovered that the boat is 1/2 inch out of square. I figured that was only .5% and I can live with it, or rather have to now. I did check but forgot to recheck right before coating the interior with epoxy. Oh well, live and learn.
I finally finished glassing the inside of Otter! I had to order some medium hardener (the fast stuff would set up as I stirred it in the summer heat), and then some new epoxy because I ran out. I don’t think I’m using too much, I just think I wasted a lot (see Part IV) (Nope, using way to much, she was way to heavy when finished). Anyway, enough excuses. It’s done. I did learn a lot along the way. First, I was using way to much putty for the fillets. I finally found that a bead of the stuff along the corners about the diameter of a good extension cord was enough (Hard to judge until you’ve done it). Since I saved the visible parts for last, they naturally look the best. Again, my superior intelligence shines though. Another thing I learned was how to get the epoxy on faster. Not just one method works for everything and to describe the methods would take pages, but suffice it to say it goes much faster (a roller would apply it evenly and thinner than the brush).
Speaking of spreading epoxy, I covered most of the outside of Otter in about 5 minutes. I need to do the sides, but because of the epoxy’s selfish tendency to drip all over my garage floor I will turn the boat on its side. Take that epoxy!! (Note: An orbital sander with some good 60-80 grit takes it right off with minimal damage to the concrete.)
I have gone through several emotional stages throughout this project. First, I was fired up and really put the boat together fast. Next, I sort of bogged down after I starting the glassing. It seemed I would never get it done. Now that the end is in sight, I’m again fired up. Once I finish glassing the outside, I just have to fair the boat, cut and install the seat tops, and paint her! I’m sure it will be a lot of work but I think it will go fast.
(I find this last paragraph funny in retrospect. It did not go fast. I lost heart several times. Still it is a record of the experience and you will go through similar ups and downs. Now after reading the last paragraph, the next one is really funny.)
By the way, I have decided after going boat shopping to build an OB17 from Bateau.com. We priced a decent fishing/family boat from tracker at over $13,000 and were shocked to say the least. I figure I can build the OB18, not quite the same as the tracker, with a new 25 hp 4-stroke for under $6,000. I plan to launch her next spring. No payments or interest, just about 100 hours of my time this winter. I can’t wait to start. (I did not even finish the Otter that winter! I was obviously on one of my highs. It would not last. I still have those plans, so you never know, but don’t hold your breath.)
Having finished covering the outside of Otter with epoxy, I started filling the seams with putty. This process was much easier on the interior corners than the exterior. I tried several methods with little success before I finally just let it slop all over in an attempt to fill the seam. I then had to sand the corners and all the excess putty down smooth. I also sanded a small radius, maybe a 1/4″, on all the corners to help the fiberglass lay flat and give them a nice finished look. While I was at it I lightly sanded the hull to get a head start on that and to give the epoxy for the seams a little bite. (I should not have let the putty slop. It was a bitch to get off. Using more wood flour would have made it think and better able to hold its shape.)
Next, I glassed the seams (sounds like a euphemism for something). I used two layers of fiberglass tape as per plan. The layers overlap, with one length of tape about 2/3 on one side of the seam and 1/3 on the other. The other length overlaps the seams but visa-versa. One trick I used was to make sure the edge of the tape that has a rough, raveled edge was not under the other piece of tape. This would create a raised edge under the second layer of tape that would be difficult to fair. Now before you get all crazy and think I am the smartest man on the planet, I read that little trick on the Bateau.com message boards (you can still consider me the smartest man on the planet, I do). They sure do get a lot of free advertising on here, don’t they?
After I got all the tape on the seams, I used 4″ wide putty knife to squeeze all the wrinkles and air out of the glass. It worked pretty well, but was a little unforgiving. I had to really take care not to squeeze all the epoxy out of the weave. I think a plastic squeegee, or Bondo spreader would work better but its all I had (I used a bond spreader later and it was easier). I waited to put the glass on smaller corner seams until the larger ones had cured. I then sanded the raised ridges created by the raveled edge (only the rasied edges, sanding the fiberglass is a no-no. It will weaken the structure). I did the bottom of the transom immediately after the chine and keel (notice the free use of nautical terms, I’m becoming salty), but I ended up with 6 layers of glass at the end of the keel and that was just too many. I know the epoxy should be wet on wet but I think the possibility of bubbles under the glass is far more offensive. Before I build a larger boat, I will research it to see if their is a preferred method. (I don’t think it would be as offensive on a larger boat. You have much more hull to fair it into.)
Well, my next step will be to install the skeg along the keel. This basically helps the boat track in a straight line while rowing or whatever. After that I will fair the hull then flip the boat over and clean up the inside, especially where the panels meet at the shear, install the knees and rub rail (more fancy boat talk, what a showoff), and finally paint the @#$%&* thing. As the saying goes, “You gotta hate it, to finish it.” (Reality has once again set in.)
I feel like I am getting close. I want to be finished before October 10th. I am going on a cast and blast (fishing/hunting trip) and want to take Otter. I think I can do it, and the extra motivation sure doesn’t hurt. (Did not happen. As stated before, I went through period of great optimism and even greater pessimism.)
Recently, I installed the skeg. I have some extra lumber the cabinet makers left behind and found a piece, 3/4″ x 30″, that worked just fine. I made a template out of some left over 1/4″ plywood. It just so happens that one of the curves from the side panel is pretty darn close, so the template needed very little work. I then cut the skeg and bedded it in some epoxy putty and then glassed it on. Very easy and seems very strong. We’ll see how it stands up to rocks in the near future, I’m sure. Captain Stubbing I am not. (A few screws through the hull would help, but on a small boat like this probably not necessary.)
After I installed the skeg, and as you can see forgot to round the aft end, I began filling the weave. Basically I put a good thick coat on the bottom and made sure that the weave of the fiberglass was filled and smooth. I assume I will need to sand again then apply at least one more coat. The sides will be a little trickier as the epoxy will tend to run but I will just have to try and be careful and maintain the epoxy as it dries. (Some air bubbles formed under the fiberglass. I got most out, but a few remained. Again, a bigger boat might suffer because of this.)
I have also decided to finish the Otter rough. In other words, I am not going to fair the hull to a glass smooth finish. (I ended up fairing the boat. it wasn’t as hard as you might think on such a small craft, but it was time intensive. I probably didn’t need too.) If the glass is slightly visible, I can live with that. The inside will be even rougher, just a good sanding after one more coat and I will call it good. I have two reasons for this. One, I plan to use the boat as a utility boat for fishing and hunting. Two, I am going to finish the boat in flat camouflage colors so as not to spook the fish or ducks. Why kill myself sanding and fairing when you won’t even see it. (Good question!)
I am sprinting to the finish. Well, sprinting might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but I am moving right along. I finished installing the keel, mostly just making it look pretty. I then flipped the boat over to install the breasthooks, knees and the seat tops. I made the breasthooks and knees out of left over 3/8″ plywood. since the plans gave no exact dimensions or patterns, I just made my own. I used a poor man’s compass (roll of duct tape) to scribe the reversing curves. I just eyeballed the angle between the bow or stern and the sides. It worked really well with only slight sanding to make the fit perfect. They look really nice, too. (These would make a great place to build in some custom touches, i.e. cup holders, storage pockets, etc.)
I screwed them to the panels then put a fillet on the top to make them blend. I will coat the with epoxy when I do the seat tops. If I was thinking, I would have made room for a cup holder in the knees at the stern. Live and learn. (See!)
Next I began cutting the seats. This too was easy. I measured the area needed, transferred the measurements on to 3/8″ plywood and cut them out. I did need to account for the curvature of the sides, but I just eyeballed this too. To be honest my seats are a little loose as my measuring against the angles sides and fillets left something to be desired. Again, epoxy putty to the rescue. Some nice fillets and You will never know. I did have another small problem. Iran out of 3/8″ plywood, so I cut two for the front seat and will epoxy them together. With epoxy all things are possible. (The space between the hull and the seat tops was too much, maybe up to an inch, and it was difficult to fill. Either measure better, make a pattern or fill the gap with foam or something.)
Well, I am almost done. Just finish the seats, sand the heck out of the boat and paint. I am getting excited. I had a lull through the summer, but I am motivated now. Hopefully, this will the next to last or next to next to last chapter before I launch the Otter. (Ah, my eternal optimism shines through once again.)
(The Infamous Beer Episode)
I was hoping Part IX would be the end. Hardly. I do have the construction of the boat essentially complete. I just need to fillet the seats in and its all sanding and painting after that. Unfortunately, I ran out of epoxy…again. I have applied nearly three gallons of epoxy to a boat that is supposed to take one and a half (Which is why the boat weighed like 90 pounds)! Now, I have wasted quite a bit but not enough to make up for that. I have way to much epoxy on my boat. Oh well, it should be bullet proof (The epoxy yes, the substandard wood, no).
I finally got to play with the two- part foam and added the foam flotation to the seats. This was really easy. I just poured the mixture into the cavity and watched it expand. A few times I held the bow up to level out the bottom so it would spread the way I wanted, but other than that it was a no brainer. I did leave the foam in the middle seat a little high and couldn’t figure out why the seat top was out of kilter. I had gone so far as to epoxy the seat and put it in place when I figured it out (The foam did not rise evenly and i doubt it would unless it was spread evenly. No harm though it cuts easily). I quickly removed the seat when the epoxy was about half cured and cut the offending foam away and replaced the seat. It cured as strong as the other seats despite the stringy nature of the epoxy. Epoxy is very forgiving too it seems.
Finally, I covered the seats in the last of my epoxy and figure while I wait for the UPS man (or whoever), I would tell you about my exploits. I really am nearly done and will be cruising by X-mas, so help me. On another subject, I have scraped my plans to build the OB17 this year. Funds do not allow it. I am however going to build the D-15 (Indian River Skiff). The main reason is I have an 18 horse Evinrude that will push the D-15 nicely, while I would have to buy a new motor for the OB17. When finances allow I will build it, but after the D-15 I also want to build a duck boat. It will probably be a Devlin Broadbill or Mallard. The next installment you should see primer on the Otter. (My optimism runneth over! I was so sick of boat building when I finished, I never wanted to do it again. I am rethinking that though.)
OK, so here it is January and I am still not done. I have to quit swearing these oaths to be finished by such and such date. But by God, I will not let this take more than a year (Note the subtle humor). Well, another New Year’s Resolution out the window. Anyway, I have decided to fair the Otter despite what I said back in Part VII (that’s Part 7 to all you non Romans). I figure I need the practice and I couldn’t get the hull as smooth as I thought with just sanding (more care with the epoxy may have done the trick because epoxy is a bitch to sand). So, I bought some phenolic microballoons. Sounds like technical but really the stuff is just a purple, powdery thickening agent that sands easily. Basically, the stuff fills in the low spots to make the hull smooth as can be.
I also bought (boat building sure does involve lots of buying)( yes, it does!) some cabinet scrapers. This is a small, thin rectangular shaped metal blade that have a very small cutting edge burnished on the side. You drag them along your stock (wood, epoxy coated wood, etc.) and it shaves off material leaving a smooth finish. Basically, Amish sandpaper. They are great for smoothing cured epoxy, especially at taking down drips, and are much easier and quicker than sanding, believe it or not. I highly recommend. You can get them at any tool shop but, Lee Valley Tools has the scrapers, holders and a neat burnishing tool to keep it sharp from Veritas. You can also make your own. Read the article “Smoothing Epoxied Surfaces” by Robb White in Wooden Boat, #165 (this is actually some pretty cool stuff. It worked well, but not well enough with all the drips and globs of epoxy).
I also got a neat little gift for Christmas from my Wife. A swift personalized Wooden Boat ball cap. It will go with me on my first voyage, and probably many more. Check it out. (Too bad the hat lasted longer than the boat.)
I am still fairing the hull. I was out of commission for about a month due to a bad back, but am back at it now. I have learned much about fairing a hull. First, I hate sanding epoxy! Second, pay very close attention to how neatly you apply the epoxy as you build. I can not stress this enough. (Sanding a few hundredths of an inch is one thing. Sanding a quarter inch thick drop is another!) I slopped and dripped it everywhere and now I am paying for it. Lots of thickened epoxy and lots of sanding. I have the bottom of the hull and the bow faired and have started on the sides and transom. It should go faster now that I know what I am doing, sort of anyway. I still have to wait days sometimes for the epoxy to harden because of the cold weather. I almost bought a kerosene heater, but luckily changed my mind. Kerosene apparently does not burn clean and leaves an oily film which is not good for subsequent layers of epoxy. I will buy a propane heater. (Never did. I just suffered through.)
One other problem I have run into is my epoxy thickening in the cold garage where it is stored. If you haven’t experienced this, the epoxy turned white and chunky and won’t flow. It also clogs the pump and all but renders it useless. I read about warming the epoxy in a bath of warm water and this worked somewhat. I still have chunky epoxy and have to pour it rather than pump it, but it seems to work fine and harden as normal when mixed with hardener. In the future, I will keep it in the heated laundry room to avoid the prevent this from happening again.
I can see the end of all this and it has almost been a year. I look back and can’t figure out why it took so long. (I took long periods off, that’s why!) It really is very simple and straight forward. I guess you can chalk it up to learning. Hopefully, the next boat will go quicker, whatever I ultimately decide to build.
Part XII – The Finale
This is the end!
I have been putting off finishing the Otter for months. I had plenty of excuses. I was very busy this summer, lots of traveling. I had fast curing hardener and didn’t want to deal with that in the heat. The list goes on, but really I had just come to hate sanding that damn purple stuff. It was the bane of my existence. Well, enough melodrama, onto the story.
I was in need of some serious motivation and it came in the form of a Jeep. I was sick and tired of thrashing my truck while hunting and fishing and decided to get an older CJ-7 and restore it. For that I needed my garage back from the Otter, so I went on a building binge. I finished fairing the starboard side and the stern (see how easily I slip back into the salty talk after several months away?), installed the rub rails and then painted. I did all of this between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I won’t bore you (or myself) by telling more tales of the battle with the purple tide. Did I mention I hate sanding that stuff? Anyway, the rub rails were easy. I had some 1/2 x 3/4 quarter round trim from my cabinets that was left over so I decided to use it. I epoxied on one piece on one side then another on the other. The back to back I placed the other two pieces to make half round rub rails. I alternated sides to ensure they wouldn’t pull the hull out of alignment, though the hull was already very rigid. They look great and I have decided to finish them bright. Now onto the painting.
Painting was easy compared to the rest of the “body work” (I’m slipping into the auto restoration vernacular already). First was the primer. I used Interlux Pre-Kote. What can I say about this? It’s gray. I rolled it on and then sanded it lightly. A few spot wore a little thin but I decided not to do a second coat. I don’t think the paint I chose is all that picky.
Since I brought it up, I am using Parker’s Duck Boat Paint. It is marsh green and has a flat texture. I faired the hull pretty well and it could stand up to glossy paint but the boat is for fishing and hunting. Flat is good and I will eventually camo the hull.
All in all, I don’t have a lot to say about painting. Rolling is pretty easy and since the paint isn’t glossy I didn’t tip the paint with a brush. I would recommend a flat or semi-gloss instead of the high gloss paints. It is easier to apply, more forgiving and tends to hide small imperfections. Gloss paint brings attention to them.
Now the last steps. I only painted the vertical surfaces of the interior of the boat. The rest got covered in marine carpeting. There were two reasons for this. First, it saved me a lot of prep and sanding, second, it will help deaden the hull while fishing so I don’t spook fish. Next I installed the oar locks with brass screws and the Otter is ready to hit the waves.
I gotta admit, the Otter was a pretty good looking boat. She did great in the water the few times I had her out. Unfortunately, as you may have gleaned from reading the story above, the wood I used was inferior. In the water, supported evenly across the hull, she was sturdy but once a point load, a rock under the hull while she was beached, was applied…well, the wood gave way.
I’d love to say that I repaired her, but I had no room in the garage due to the Jeep that was in it’s early stages of disassembly and it wasn’t long before the wood began to delaminate and that was all she wrote. The Otter, dear to me as she was, had to go when we sold the house. She know sales in the great landfill in the sky 🙁
I will not disgrace the memory of the Otter with pictures or descriptions of her current state. Let’s remember her how she was, in her glory.
I hope my experience helps you if you decide to build a D4 or any stitch and glue boat. I may build another some day, who knows. In retrospect it was fun and I will never forget the experience. Even thought I only had her in the water twice, it was all worth it.
Thanks for reading!!