Monday, January 31, 2011

A most excellent day

Today was one of those days when we actually achieved my unrealistic, wildly optimistic hopes: We got the transom firmly attached to the chines, and we got all 20 floor ribs (joists? frames?) milled, cut, and attached. And that was before 5p.m.!

What was most amazing was that when we set a level across each floor rib, they were level. And the hull seems to be straight and symmetrical too. Even more bizarre, I bent a strip of plywood around the chine to see if the garboard (the first side-plank that attached to the floor) was even conceivable, and it fit too. Hmmm. We're waiting for the big shoe to drop. But 'til then, celebrate!

Tim Cooper wandered in for the night shift and we selected the only two cedar boards I had that were long enough to form the center boards for the floor. We planed them down, cut them straight, and clamped them in place to see how the bend looks. Pretty darned good. The other four floor boards will be a bit easier to find in my pile since they'll be quite a bit shorter.

A lot of the really hard thinking is coming to a close now that the frame is created, and we are moving more into assembly with the planking of the floor and sides. Not that we won't have to scratch our heads a bit in days to come, but getting this far is pretty exciting. For the moment we are done with white oak framing and moving into northern white cedar planking. Milling the cedar is oh so aromatic—it smells like a cross between a cedar chest and a pencil sharpener. And it's pretty with a coat of oil-turpentine-varnish:

* A note to fellow boatbuilders. Most boats are built sides first, bottom last. Makes it a lot easier to work on a damaged bottom. But the original Edith was built floor-first, then sides. So it's not that we're crazy—we're just trying to replicate the way the original was built. But why are we replicating this goofy method? Mmmm. Okay. We are crazy. Fine.


I mentioned a couple days ago that ballasting would be critical in keeping this skinny beast right-side up. Well, in my rereading of Ellsworth Kolb's book last night, I found where he too describes the theory:

"Five or six tin and wooden boxes, filled with provisions, went into the large compartments under the stern. A box containing tools and hardware for the inevitable repairs, and the weightier provisions--such as canned milk and canned meats--went in first. This served as ballast for the boats. Then the other provisions followed, the remaining rolls of bedding and tents being squeezed in on top. This compartment, with careful packing,would hols as much as to ordinary-sized trunks, but squeezing it all in through the small hatchway, or opening on top, was not an easy job."

It's just common sense, really--the same concept that makes a punching bag stand back up no matter how many times you knock it down. This concept worked so well in the Powell boats on our 1999 reenactment that in Specter Rapid, after being nearly rolled over by the first big lateral, the boat actuall righted itself as we were being hit by a second lateral from the same side. That was pretty wet. And I think that's where I snapped the 13-foot sweep oar in two.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Yippie Ti Yo Ti Yay

At 11:30 this evening I got the big old monster chines affixed in place. Woo hoo! There are so many little details that go haywire when you're bringing together an untried set of plans, especially with an untrained nutball carpenter like myself. But if you stare at the crisis long enough, a solution always seems to present itself. Like how to clamp converging, compound-bending, feisty, 2" thick oak chines together. For this I had to forsake my favorite one-hand squeeze clamps and pull out a few old-school pipe clamps. (Did you know that my mother was the only woman in Tompkins County that owned 29 pipe clamps? And could use all of them at once?) The big squeeze here required a double whammy, putting mondo torque from above and below, then through-bolting the sumbitch with a big fat carriage bolt. Sometimes the delicate art of boatbuilding is more about crude brute force.

In order to remove the clamp swarm from the boat, I had to make a few dozen angle-irons (actually they are angle-aluminums) to fasten to each fin of the mold to hold the sproingy monster chines in place. Which required a lot of time down on the floor. Which required inventing a new tool, which I think mechanics call a butt-creeper. The tool catalog wanted $129 for something that would do what I wanted, but about 20 minutes of inspired found-object coalition produced a suitable substitute for $0.00. Somehow this photo seems to imbue personality to the new creeper and its mischievous friend the trusty old Dewalt. They're up to something.

Although the last blast of espresso was still twitching in my veins, I figured I better walk out of the shop while the getting was good. Running loud power tools after midnight makes the neighbors suspicious. Tomorrow, floor joists. Or whatever they're called.

Note severe added bracing on the snout to combat the massive torque of pulling in the recalcitrant oak chines.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Clamp Storm

The final chine half bent into place this morning without a whimper. We then replaced the bowpost and beveled the north forward chine into it. After carefully measuring where that chine-half ended amidship, we removed it and put in the stern half, transferring the measurement of where the bow section ended. We then drew out 16-inch corresponding bevels on the overlapping section of each chine half, cut them, replaced them on the hull and glued the new joint together.

With one chine section cooling in place on the south side of the boat, and the entire length of the north chine clamped in place—and the new joint severely clamped in place, we have somewhat of a clamp swarm. Or a clamp storm. Not sure which. But it's good we don't have to clamp anything else right now.

With 3/4 of the chine now in place, the shape of the boat bottom is becoming easier to visualize. It's a bit bizarre—narrow, long and with a pretty good rocker—a lot like an oversized old fashioned surfboard from the fifties.

This is going to be one tippy little bugger. I think the lesson all of us have learned that have done trips in the Powell replica boats—which are equally narrow and even longer—will come in handy with Edith. Ballast the bejeezus out of her. The Kolb's report stowing about seven hundred pounds in each boat. If that load is packed bottom-heavy, with the densest load on the bottom and toward the center, and the fluff up high holding the heavy stuff down and in place, I should stand a chance. 

I'll be running into one of the same conundrums I had in the Powell boats. We try and make a very faithful replica, then try to duplicate the river experience with one major exception: Powell and the Kolbs portaged the big rapids. That's something we hate to duplicate, so we commit the sacrilege of running them instead.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Why the Kolb Brothers went boating.

We could not hope to add anything of importance to the scientific and topographic knowledge of the canyons already existing: and merely to come out alive at the other end did not make a strong appeal to our vanity. We were there as scenic photographers in love with their work, and determined to reproduce the marvels of the Colorado's canyons, as far as we could do it.

In addition to three film cameras we had 8 x 10 and 5 x 7 plate cameras; a plentiful supply of plates and films; a large cloth dark-room; and whatever chemicals we should need for tests. Most important of all, we had brought a motion picture camera. We had no real assurance that so delicate an apparatus, always difficult to use and regulate, could even survive the journey--much less, in such inexperienced hands as ours, reproduce its wonders. But this, nevertheless, was our secret hope, hardly admitted to our most intimate friends--that we could bring out a record of the Colorado as it is, a live thing, armed as it were with teeth, ready to crush and devour.

It was suggested... that we might secure the help of some one of the voyagers who had been members of one of the previous expeditions. But--we may as well be frank about it--we did not wish to be piloted through the Colorado by a guide. We wanted to make our own trip in our own way. If we failed, we would have no one but ourselves to blame; if we succeeded, we would have all the satisfaction that comes from original, personal exploration.

Ellsworth Kolb
Through the Grand Canyon from Wyoming to Mexico

Steaming ahead

With the success of yesterday's steam bend under our belts we cooked up two more sections this morning—that's all we have room for on the mold at one time. With some trepidation we unclamped yesterday's bent chine and damn if the board hasn't decided it likes to be bent. Just to be sure it doesn't revert, I clamped it back onto the mold, a few inches below where the overlapping rear section has to be clamped today. Why risk recidivism?

We got a full two hours of cooking this time, and they bent on with little resistance. I guess it's like torture. After a while it just loses it's conviction to resist. I know I'd be pretty malleable after two hours in the steam box.

One more to bend tomorrow. While it's cooling on the south side of the mold we can scarf the north chine and affix it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Steam Powered Woodworking

Dan came by this morning and we cut out the chines—which for any of you non-boatbuilders are the long sticks that form the joint between the side and bottom of the boat. In this case, it lives up to its nautical name of chine log. The beast is 2" by 2" of white oak, beveled down to 1" on one side. Dan and I did a test bend to see if we could bend it around the curve of the boat floor. Hah! We took turns prying each other away from the boat, the chine log staying pretty much straight as an arrow.

We had anticipated this problem, however, and set up Dan's magic steam box, which he built a while back for some curved ash trim he was making for his house. Not being certain this was going to work, we chickened out on trying more than one at a time. In went our first chine log for a prescribed 2-hour steaming.

But at 1-1/2 hours we ran out of water in the steam box. Although we really weren't quite ready to do the hot stick dance, we decided to give her a try. A bit of panicked running for clamps, gloves, towels and tools and then, to our amazement, it bent right on as if it were made of rubber. Well, hard, stiff rubber. A few judiciously placed clamps and we were good to go.

The transom is almost done and tomorrow we'll try and bend the other three chine logs and let them cool in place. (Since White Oak is hard to find and expensive to ship, especially in great lengths, I ended up with no boards long enough to make the chines in one piece, so we're doing forward and rear sections, each bent separately. They overlap now, but we will make each pair into one with a scarf joint once all the bends are set.)

Once the chines, bowpost and transom are done, we'll need to drop in the floor ribs. Then comes the fun part: planking.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

First Cut

About noon today I finally won out over my post-trip inertia and began cutting the first actual piece of the boat, the inner bowpost. Of course it is one of the trickiest pieces as well, having converging curves and intersecting curved bevels. All told, I think I did pretty well. I'll save the back curved scrap as a pattern for the bow cap later on.

I'm carefully attaching the pieces to the mold in such a way that, with luck, I can still unattach it once the boat is screwed and riveted together. The curved, beveled cutoffs add temporary flare to the project.

Later this afternoon Dan came by and we planed out some 3/4" cedar for the transom. Then I cut out the transom and its oak inner braces. With luck that will go on tomorrow as well and we'll begin cutting the chines. They are thick oak and we may have to steam them to get them to bend around the boat.

Lastly I took inventory of my silicone-bronze screws and copper rivets left over from previous lapstrake builds. I've got enough for the next few steps of the project, but its time to order about $500 worth of hardware. Damn, that stuff is pricey.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


For light reading on my recent travels I've been wading through Howard Chapelle's massive, convoluted 1947 tome, BOATBUILDING. The guy, as Abe Lincoln once said, can cram an awful lot of words into a pretty small thought. But here is today's gem:

"In every amateur boatbuilder's shop there should be a "moaning chair"; this should be a comfortable seat from which the builder can sit, smoke, chew, drink, or swear as the moment demands. Here he should rest often and think about his next job. The plans should be at hand and here he can lay out his work."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A short strange trip

From the time we approached the Marquitta Mine until we were well northwest of Quartzsite five days later, we did not encounter much that was not damned peculiar. We visited the only native palm trees in Arizona in the jagged Kofa Mountains; we hired a gravel-voiced native to drive us from Martinez Lake to the put-in at Walter's Camp--a two-hour drive of nonstop narrative, little of which we understood; and spent four days floating through the oddest, most jagged terrain I could imagine a river flowing through.

Odder yet was the consistent downstream wind--something boatmen rarely experience. Had it been a few degrees warmer it would have taken the cool edge off, but we could not complain. The skyline was unlikely at best, with peaks so jagged there was no way they could actually be standing there through the millennia. Each time we found a way ashore through the mostly-impenetrable tule grasses, we found something odd: perfectly manicured burro trails leading to the distant peaks; moonscapes of oxidized irridescent rocks with nothing but the occasional creosote bush to differentiate it from the photos sent home from Mars and the moon (in fact I think creosote bush might grow well in those locations too); strange structures--cement helipads, a brick furnace, a perfectly preserved cabin, reed tunnels to nowhere, the great Picacho Mine, scene of some profit and much great swindling; stone circles; and everywhere, great, white surveillance blimps and strafing helicopters and planes. A wonderful, horrible, wild land. You gotta do it.

The End of Hum Woolley's Road

It somehow seemed appropriate to have a boat with me when I went to find Hum Woolley's destination on his 1903 boat trip through Grand Canyon. He left Los Angeles with a boat and two helpers to get to the Marquitta Lode in order to do some assessment work for the mysterious Madame Schell (Mrs. Jaques Traves). On his way, his became the first expedition to launch at Lee's Ferry, and Woolley and his companions completed the fifth known traverse of Grand Canyon by boat. Why he didn't take a train to Needles or Yuma and land coach on to Quartzsite will not likely ever be known.

About 5 miles west of Quartzsite, Arizona up a winding dirt road in the foothills of the jagged Dome Rock Mountains is the Marquitta Lode, now called the Marquitta Mine: still an active gold mine, owned by a grouchy guy named Dale. Dale's caretaker, a gray-haired, orange-toothed man whose name I did not catch, was amused to see a boat arriving, and enjoyed the tale of Hum Woolley's journey. Dale, however, thought we were stupid sons-of-bitches and would not let us through the gate to turn around. So after a couple quick snap shots we backed on down the mountain, laughing pretty much all the way. I'm not sure if you really need a boat to get to the Marquitta Lode, but it's sure fun to have one. In that I agree wholeheartedly with Hum Woolley.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Time out

Dan came by today and we stabilized the strongback with vertical and lateral bracing. She feels pretty solid.

Note the quad exhaust ports for the inboard turbodiesel. Okay, they're access ports to fasten and later unfasten the transom to the form. It still looks pretty small and narrow to me, but also amusingly like some sort of skeletal dinosaur/centipede crawling across the shop floor.

Much as I hoped to get an actual piece of the boat attached to the strongback before leaving town, that will be left until I get back in a couple of weeks. In the meanwhile my mind's wheels will be grinding and smoking about how to blend the big, gnarly oak chines into the bowpost, how to get the first strake to lie correctly, how to convince all those well-wishers that have said they'd love to help--to actually show up and help pound in several hundred copper rivets in February. It's FUN! REALLY!.

Tomorrow--off to the Arizona/California border to run the lower Colorado River above Imperial Dam--a stretch I have never run. Ellsworth Kolb ran it in 1912 on flood in a beat up old skiff. Hasta luego amigos anonymoso...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Looking more boatlike

Today it was bulkhead forms, eleven of them. The big guesswork in this is trying to subtract the thickness of the side strakes from the plan outline and then figure out the actual angles of the strakes. On the original boat the strakes actually bend to the form of the curved boat-side a bit, making it even a bit more complex. All this will no doubt sort itself out in time as the boat comes together.

Translating the offset tables into shapes:
(One fun part of this is finding the errors in the offset numbers and being able to correct them.)

The bowpost cutout area:

This crazy boat looks more like a canoe!  Four feet wide at the gunwales, sixteen feet long. Ack. The thought of sliding into Granite Falls, or worse yet, Lava Falls, makes me the teensiest bit queasy--but no sense running the rapids before I have a boat.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Let the games begin

Okay. I finished the coffee table this morning that I started late last night (to get the wood out of my way, you see), loaded the McKenzie on the trailer (to get it out of the way), stuck a few last labels on my new drawers (just because), and finally...

...began the Edith.

This afternoon involved marking out the floor where the strongback will go; deciphering the lines drawing to figure out the actual strongback layout (boat outline less thickness of sides/bottom) marking the plywood centerboard of the strongback and... actually cutting them out and installing them on the floor. There is a notch for each of the eleven stations, and tomorrow's project includes crafting those, inserting them, and square/plumb/leveling the entire beast.

In the close-up I have outlined in red and green the two-piece bowpost that will set into the strongback and somehow join up with the converging chines. Those details of joinery are hidden in the original boat, due to the built-in galvanized hatch-liners. The bad news is I'll have to figure it out. The good news is no one can point out that I did it wrong.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Wood and distractions

After a leisurely three week journey around the continent, 250 board feet of Northern White Cedar arrived—mere hours before a foot-and-a-half of snow would have made delivery highly problematic. It is amazingly light, which makes me wonder how strong it might be—the image of the entire side of Emery Kolb's original Edith knocked in at Waltenburg Rapid comes to mind.

I sorted the wood and placed it all up on high racks, out of the way and have been trying to finish up a few last details in the shop before launching into Edith's strongback. I have now completed twenty tool drawers, which has made the clutter factor far more pleasant. I finished trimming out the windows and bench fronts in a festive pumpkin orange, which was totally unnecessary but looks cool and makes me smile.

And I have just overhauled, caulked, and oiled Juan, my little McKenzie boat for a trip on the Lower Colorado above Yuma this weekend with Lora, as well as stripped, repaired, oiled, and leathered a sweet but abused old trio of super-thin, super-light Smoker oars for Juan.

I still expect to see myself procrastinate another day (or two or three) before jumping into the all-consuming Edith. Any bets on how long I can put it off?