Sunday, November 25, 2012

Lofty ideas

Or: Getting Your Ducks in a Row 

Inspired by my WoodenBoat School course on boatbuilding, I decided it made sense to loft the next boats that I plan to build. Lofting is the art of drawing full-size patterns of the entire boat in several views, such that you have all the curves fair and the measurements correct before you start cutting wood. It is an arcane science at best, but Greg Rössel, my instructor, made it look pretty much insane not to do it. Here is Greg showing us how to lift lines off the lofting to make perfect forms. (Note lofting ducks in lower part of photo.)

First thing I needed was a place big enough to loft. Since my book warehouse has gotten so dusty due to the collapse of the book market, I figured I should multi-task that space. Voila, a 4' by 19' lofting table with a lifetime supply of river books beneath it. 

The next thing I needed were some lofting ducks--essentially lead weights that hold battens in place for the purpose of creating perfect fair curves. Turns out there are only a couple places in the world that sell lofting ducks and they run around $35 - $45 apiece, and I wanted a dozen or two. That would get pricey in a hurry. Further web searching brought up two things--instructions on how to cast your own ducks, which was tempting, and an outfit that paints them like ducks: which I found inspirational. (This site also has a good picture of how the ducks are used.) Thus began a week or so of part-time goofing around at the newly founded and short-lived Fretwater Duck Foundry. Here is how to make about $1200 worth of ducks for about $100 and a bunch of messing around.

Carve a pattern duck out of an old two-by-four.

Get a bucket of lead tire weights from Double-D Tire Coral.

Fire up Dan's steam-bending blaster.

As the steel and bits of rubber float to the top of the melting lead, rake it off with a slag-rake (made from finish nails and a scrap of plywood).

Meanwhile, make a box of damp sand, make some duck molds with your pattern, and get ready to pour.

Spray paint them, drill them for their brass points--made from 1/8" brass rod, and glue in the points.

This next part is key: invite a bunch of friends for Thanksgiving weekend and have a big tamale party. Meanwhile, lay in a supply of hobby paints and brushes.

The rest is magic:

Starting with Daffy Duck (at about 5:30 in the picture):

Daffy Duck
Virgin of Guadalupe
Pato Corto Corrientes (Chilean Torrent Duck)
Hopi Blue Corn
Bowling Pin
Blue-footed Booby
Dory van pulling dory
White Pelican
Guinness Bottle
Belted Kingfisher
Eared Grebe
Whooping Crane
Great Blue Heron
Schizophrenic Wood Duck / Ibis
Jameson 12-year Bottle
another Great Blue Heron
American Flamingo
Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Whale with barnacles
Corn goddess
Flat-nosed Rainbow Trout
Acorn Woodpecker
Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Many thanks to Lora, Jim, Andy, Kate, RJ and Terri for their magnificent renditions.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Going to School

Here is a catch-up blog from earlier this year:

In May I flew east to go to--what else would a boatbuilder do on his holiday?--boatbuilding school. The course at WoodenBoat School of Brooklin, Maine, was called Fundamentals of Boatbuilding, taught by the infamous Greg Rössel, modern-day luddite boat guru of some renown, writer of books, and disk jockey. I had a long break between river trips and couldn't say no.

But first I had to stop and visit Lora and our lovechild Ruby the Dory. Ruby needed a house so we loaded her up with lumber and built her a collapsable structure out on the island.

Time was short but we got 'er done, launched in the dark the next morning, and got in one last sweet sunrise row. (On my return train trip to Arizona I downloaded a mess of iPhone photo apps to play with as you see here.)

Although no one in Brooklin, Maine has ever heard of Major Powell, first to run Grand Canyon (intentionally, that is) in 1869, the cottage where the Major died is still standing just to the west of the village.

The view from there is likely the last scene Powell ever gazed upon--Eggemoggin Reach, a branch of Penobscot Bay.

Two miles east, I set up shop on the lawn at WoodenBoat School and gave my desert tent one hell of a workout throughout the next two stormy weeks. Eggemoggin Reach is still in the background.

The WoodenBoat campus is set on an estate built by a zillionaire who lost it all a few years later in the Depression. The boat school proper is in a giant fireproof horse barn.

The master's house now holds WoodenBoat Magazine

Greg showed up early each morning to prepare for class and begin ten hours of coffee drinking. Priorities.

To my delight, one of the boats we got to work on was a Whitehall, the very style that the old Major used in Grand Canyon, and one of the tougher small boats to build. It is high on my personal list of boats to build back at Fretwater. In this shot Greg is using it as a drawing board.

Greg is an excellent teacher with a bottomless wealth of knowledge, a great ability to explain things verbally, on the chalk board, and in practice. His sense of humor is equally bottomless. 

In the afternoons we got to row some of the company cars, weather permitting. Here I am in a Whitehall, gazing down the reach toward Major Powell's place. Something oddly perfect about that.

And this is the apple of my eye--Wild Rose, a Swampscott-ish dory with tholepins.

I learned to row her in the Susan Manning style of one pin per oar. Good discipline.

We learned all sorts of stuff not directly associated with boatbuilding--like how to hollow-grind chisels.

And how to grind up endless northern white cedar boards to make teeny pieces. This teepee stack is about 20 feet tall.

Greg is telling us strange and wonderful tales of good steam boxes doing bad things.

And here is Greg preparing for the afternoon session.

The Whitehall boat had one side plank that troubled Greg. It just wasn't right. One day we came in and he had pulled it off the boat, leaving a gap. The planks are hard enough to cut accurately when you have to just match one side to within a 32nd of an inch or so for sixteen winding feet. This one would need to be that accurate on both sides--curve, width, bevel, and shape all perfect. It's called a shutter plank when you fit one like this in, and is among the harder things a boatbuilder will need to do. I volunteered.

Once you are sure the plank is absolutely perfect, it has to be steambent into place with great force. The great force is problematic on a twisting hull like this, and Greg let me invent a giant hanging pressure bar to pry against. It is the big dark plank over the boat in the next picture, braced against the floor and ceiling and clamped to the keel strip to hold it steady.


Fellow student Doug was my partner on this. Here he is test-demonstrating how the pry-bar will work when the steaming hot plank shows up. Dirk from Germany is in the background, bemused by this creation.

But by god it worked.

Lookit! It is in there, tight as a tick.

As the course drew to a close on the final Friday, we finished the Chaisson dory and dragged it outside for a class shot (two guys left early but I PhotoShopped them into the picture.) Finished boats are sold to the first student who can cough up the price of materials. Charlie got this one after a month or so deliberating.

'Twas a marvelous experience. Great faculty and staff, incredible food, wonderful place, big fun, wood boats...  Don't go there. You'll hate it.

Burg and Buzz 75 years later

Seventy-five years ago this winter Oregon writer, photographer, and riverman Amos Burg proposed a radical idea to America's latest hero-du-jour. Buzz Holmstrom had just rowed the first solo descent of the Green and Colorado Rivers in his homemade wooden boat and, though he hoped to keep quiet about it, agreed to a major story in the Saturday Evening Post. Upon reading of Holmstrom's feat, Burg suggested Holmstrom repeat the voyage for a new film Burg hoped make the following summer. Burg planned to accompany Holmstrom in what would be the first inflatable boat to run western whitewater. Burg's raft, Charlie, eventually convinced other river folk to follow suit, abandon wooden boats, and give birth to modern whitewater rafting.

But there is a lot more to Burg than his pioneering raft trip--lots more. Vince Welch, who collaborated with Cort Conley and I to write Buzz Holmstrom's biography (The Doing of the Thing: The Brief, Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom) has just published his comprehensive bio of Burg:
The Last Voyageur: Amos Burg an the Rivers of the West. In it Welch traces Burg's many amazing voyages, often alone down the many major rivers of the West, and Burg's many other adventures around the globe.

Winter is coming, so I recommend you get a copy of this for those long, lonely nights. And if you haven't read Buzz's bio, you should get that too. Hell, go ahead and throw in Every Rapid Speaks Plainly, the annotated journals of Buzz's river voyages and Burg's journal of his voyage down the Colorado in the Charlie.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Betty Boop's back

Marieke, Betty Boop's new owner, let me take her downriver on a test run in September. Holy cow. What a sweet boat she is. I can honestly say I've never rowed anything lovelier. Here she is at Lee's Ferry. Jim Hall brought up Betty's old traveling mate Tatahotso, to see her off. Gary Ladd, Tatahotso's original owner and a man who has known Betty Boop for more than forty years, came to add his good wishes (and take the Tat for a spin).

Betty held two passengers really well. Gary Ladd's idea of handles for a rear rider were enormously popular.

She carries a tremendous load as well

And rocks out in the rapids

And has a really cute butt

Billy and I are taking time out to repair the guitar with boatbuilding supplies. It took us three tries to get it right wrong. But Billy swears it plays better than ever now. We call our new business the No Account Luthiers.

The Lava Falls team took her out in the eddy the night before for a couple practice flips. Just like when we tried her with a minimal load this spring, the high arched turtle-decks make it almost impossible for even one person to get atop her before she rolls up again. She just hates to be upside-down. 

She made it through Lava just fine, surviving the trip without a ding. What a fine craft she is, at 45 years old. Betty's only drawback is she is not set up for sleeping, but a new deck arrangement could fix that. I reckon we'll be building a few copies of this hull style shortly.