Thursday, November 30, 2017

Boat School Query: What and when would you like to learn?

Many of you have been asking what Fretwater Boatworks is teaching this winter and when. I want to check in with all y'all and see what you are looking for. Here are three courses I am contemplating between now and April. They will all be here in Flagstaff at my big ol' shop.

If you are interested in one (or more), drop me a line at and let me know. Tell me when you can or cannot attend. And let me know what you are hoping to learn or accomplish.

I have several immediate shop projects to get done so will not be able to pull anything off before Christmas. I am looking at January and February.

I work on a donation system: about $60 a day seems to make it worth our time and cover costs of running the shop. I do not have lodging available, so you'll need to move in with a friend or find accommodation somewhere.

Here's what I'm thinking:

Building the Briggs Grand Canyon Dory

An eight day course, from lofting to beginning to deck her out. This is the classic Grand Canyon boat, but equally lovely for many rivers of the West: Green, San Juan, Yampa, Upper Colorado, Salmon, Snake, Rogue, and so forth. It's a big boat--nearly 17', and accommodates a boatman, four passengers, and a lot of gear below decks. We certainly won't get her done, but you'll have learned all you need to know to build and complete one at home. On the last day we will raffle her off to anyone who wants her for the cost of materials.

Bronze Casting

Four-day course. We will be making patterns, pounding sand molds, pouring bronze, trimming and polishing. We mostly make oarlocks, deck hardware, bow-eyes and stern-eyes, but the possibilities are endless. It is loud, smelly, smoky, filthy, scary, wildly fiery work. Oh yeah--all those fun things at once. You will also learn how to make your own low-cost foundry at home. Additional cost will be the poundage of castings you take home.


Five days. To my knowledge the perfect workingman's oar is no longer being built, and has not for many decades. Just about any oar you can buy is ergonomically awful, destined to bring tendonitis, golfer's elbow, bad shoulders, and carpal tunnel syndrome. We ran two courses last winter and the oars that came out of those are bringing huge smiles to faces down in the Canyon. "I didn't know oars could feel like this. I thought they were supposed to hurt." 

We will be making some oars from scratch and reshaping others to make kinder, gentler oars for the working boatman. We'll work on shaft shaping, blade carving, leather wraps, mild counterweighting, and oar tips. If you already have oars but they seem heavy and clunky, we may be able to fix that. Or you can start from scratch. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Keep picking at it, it'll never heal

With the lids manufactured, we proceed to apply the nonskid pulverized polycarbonate powder. 

Then we blow the surplus off carefully with compressed air. While that kicks on the main decks we do the tedious edging work.

Pushing paint. This is the classic 1953 Willys Beryl Green of dory fame. (see: Proper Dory Colors)

I'm a huge fan of George Kirby's paint. Small, family owned, and the best covering, least sagging paint I've ever used. It's hard to see but I have my Kirby Paint tee shirt on.

We are emulating the original paint job. Peace River may be the only dory to have kept pretty much the same paint job for more than forty years. We've added a wee bit of curve to the lines, but I don't think the boat will mind.

With the decks nearly finished we decided to roll her over, patch a few of the minor dings on the bottom, and get the exterior ready for paint. Hmm, what's going on with this little flap of loose fiberglass? It peels up kind of easy. Ohhhhhhh shitttttt.

That's wet. That's not good. There's a wee bit of rot in there as well. Better see how easy this glass is to peel back. Hmm. Pretty easy. Hmm. Wasn't really planning on this. 

Well, that only took about an hour. The good news is that the bad news was really localized. That very first spot we dug into was one of the very few spots with rot. And none of the rot had made it all the way through the floor or up into the side panels. What's really amazing is that about 75% of the bottom  is the original 1972 Briggs floor,  boat nails and all. That's almost impossible with that many years of commercial service, but there it is.

So with all the rot spots and nail holes saturated with Board Defense rot assassinator, we hoist the old girl up to the ceiling, stoke up the fire and let the drying out begin. It's gonna be okay, girl.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Together again

With the decks back on I invited some friends from the space program to come help sand things smooth. The balmy fall weather has made for nice working conditions.

Bill made it up to the shop for another weekend of grunt work on his boat. He brought along his daughter Taylor, heir apparent to Peace River, to help put some love in her legacy. We decided the boat had earned some fine bronze work, so we fired up the foundry. Time to pound sand.

And get stuff really hot.

Taylor making gunwale stars:

Bill clearing slag out of the crucible.

Bill's friend Drew brought his son Marcus by to see what was going on. They just meant to do a drive-by, but we Tom Sawyered them into polishing bronze.

They finally escaped after forty stars.

We are forming up the pattern for the breasthook here--the showy piece that holds the bow of the boat together.

Taylor is tooling the leather on the breasthook pattern.

Not a bad day's haul.

It's dirty work.

The next day we put on the gunwales, using up our mountain of shiny bronze gunwale stars.

It was a delight to spend the weekend with these two, bonding with each other and the Peace River.

The trouble with this boat work is that the longer you spend with the boat, the more you realize you really ought to do to it. Janek is grinding out rusted bolts to replace the stem cap. The old one just isn't right.

Gotta have an oar slot.

And now for the persnickety job of making custom lipped hatch lids. First we milled out ash strips for the lips, rabbeting each one to catch the plywood lid.  These we glued together in place with five-minute epoxy, then gingerly lifted them out of the boat and traced the lid shape onto the plywood.

Then cut the plywood to fit.

Then glued the plywood into the frames.

We had a bit of extra epoxy in the pastry bag so of course, we had to make stuff.

It is so rewarding when the finished lids actually fit.

Next we put a thin layer of fiberglass on them to protect them from the upcoming decades of foot traffic.

The decks are getting a coat of glass as well.

With the glasswork all hardened and sanded, we installed the shiny new brass hinges. And here we are laminating a stiffening layer of 1/4" plywood inside the hatch lid. While the epoxy is still kicking, we pre-spring some camber into the lid so that the latch will pull the entire lid tightly closed.

Tomorrow: non-skid texturing and paint. and a million tiny details.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Give Peace a Chance

The Peace River is one of the very early Briggs dories, sister ship to my Cataract. Martin Litton had six of them built in 1972 after good reviews on the 1971 Briggs prototype, the now famous Emerald Mile. She got her first paint job from Jeff Clayton--a dory green that was quickly changed to white with a red top stripe.

The first river guide to adopt her was photographer John Blaustein. He rowed and photographed her for most of her first decade, keeping the classic paint job. John is quite excited to see his old gal being restored and has shared these six images of her in her youth. 

John's early GoPro:

To see more of his work, check out The Hidden Canyon. Better yet, buy it.

The boat eventually ended up in the Idaho division of Grand Canyon Dories and remained there until just a few years ago when O.A.R.S. (who bought the dory operation from Martin back in the 1980s) sold it to Bill Paul, a former boatman. Like most company boats, she had been wrecked and rebuilt, changed and modified many times, and generally taken some different paths over the years. Bill brought her by the boatshop with the hopes that we could restore some of the heritage that had been lost. And maybe make the damned hatch lids stop leaking.

Overall she is in amazingly good shape, and what I thought was remarkable, she had nearly the same paint job she had in 1973.

But there was an era when some folks felt the ribs should be removed from dories. To me, they are not only a lot of the strength of the boat, but impart a true classic look to a Briggs boat. As well, in an attempt to make the hatch lids more waterproof, great massive aluminum gutter systems with intricate plumbing were installed, with mixed results. One result was wicked abrasions and avulsions when scraping your hands against them. Yet another innovation that turned out to be a nightmare was the idea of permanently epoxying the outer gunwales to the hull, making repairs pretty much impossible. Another infuriating trend--ensuring that repairs and modifications would be irreversible by using space age caulk that is stronger than Godzilla.

We wanted to get Peace River back to something more classic. We had our work cut out for us. I mean really cut out. And ground out, and hammered out. Damn, they really didn't want that thing to be repaired again! Here is Bill removing the back deck, which was half an inch out of level.

We had every annoying, screaming, cutting tool I own going simultaneously for about four hours. By evening we had removed what had probably taken various builders weeks to create. We literally ground off the outer gunwales. Sorry. I know you earlier repairmen meant well. But...

An interlude:

The aftermath of the Day of the Dead procession, which we dedicated to Katie Lee and her paramour Joey, who departed this plane in the days just prior. More on that another time. The next day was the Day of the Living Dead. Ouch. (Thanks to Maggie the Muralist for the paint job.)

A side project--making High Density Polyethylene skids for the coolers at AzRA, so they can be dragged around with greater ease. (The ones we put on our prototype ChillyBin last year were a great hit, making the truck driver very happy.) Janek is sintering forty of them here, so the epoxy will bond.

Countersinking epoxy-grabbing holes is a strangely satisfying feeling, like machining butter.

Okay, back to work on the Peace River. Up to the loft for a big plank of the sacred Port Orford cedar. Then planing out sweet fragrant structural members into which we will cut guttering to move the water to somewhere other than the hatches.

Cutting structural members from Port Orford cedar and mortising them into each other. And recreating ribs where the originals had been excised.

Next, clamping temporary gunwales on to fair the hull, so that when we attach to decks they will hold her in her proper shape and she will conform to her new ash gunwales.

I'm not sure how it happened, but Cricket, Janek, and I had all the decks spiled, cut, beveled, caulked, and screwed on in five hours flat. That should have taken a couple days. Two hours later we had the fillets and seam tape on, securing the decks to the hull. We'd better slow down or we'll be out of work soon.

This morning we fired up the steam bender to limber up the new gunwales. While they were cooking we sanded and cleaned up all the gutters and last night's glass work.

Steamed gunwales bent to shape.

Later: cooled and hardened gunwales scarfed and glued together.

We should have those installed this weekend.

We also managed to sandwich in some more work on Kate's amazing woodcut dory. To protect her artwork from issues with the river, the hull needed to be stabilized with penetrating epoxy. And oh my god did that make the colors jump. We thought the boat was striking before. Wowzers.