Small Boat Repair and Restoration

Making an Old Boat Sound and Useable

by Dale Hedtke

"Hey folks, we are talking about regular old boats here, not rare museum pieces..."

As an avid "old boat" guy I often come upon old boats that are going to need some kind of repairs. The question that I always struggle with is "do I make repairs (fix it so it works again) or do I restore (return to original condition) the boat?"

Most of the projects that I take on are repairs or rehabilitations. My goal is to make the boat sound and useable again. Doing so, I am comfortable with using non-original materials and techniques. If my goal is to restore a boat I try to stick with materials that are similar to those that were originally used. There are many commercial sources for original hardware or reproductions.

Hey folks, we are talking about regular old boats here, not rare museum pieces or boat house queens.

Scarfing in a patch for plywood Hull or deck.However, if you do find something that truly is rare, be careful, sometimes doing nothing is the best approach. Do not remove any finishes! Do protect the boat from the weather and make sure that the hull is well supported. Wooden Boat Magazinepublished an article in the September/October 1999 issue (#144) called "What is Museum Quality" that is worth looking at. It offers a more sophisticated look at restoration and conservation.

My first step when evaluating a boat acquisition (after convincing my wife, neighbors, and others that I have a good place to keep it) is to go through the whole boat and clean it out. This is actually my favorite part of the process, because this is discovery stage of the project. Pull up the floorboards, clean out the bilge, wash the whole boat, empty out the storage compartments and lockers, look through the owner's manual, etc. You will learn a lot about the previous owners and how they used the boat, and you may also find out some about the boat's maintenance and repair history. I love this bit of marine archeology. Look for parts and fasteners dropped in the bilge, keys, fish hooks & sinkers (I pulled a couple of dozen sinkers from my old Thompson runabout). Save everything that is not obviously garbage. I often discover the use of some weird looking part of fastener that is not attached to the boat when I get it.

While you are cleaning the boat, start evaluating the boat's condition: look for broken ribs and planks, rot, broken or missing fasteners, failed paint, open joints, loose or broken engine mounts, etc. Begin making detailed lists of parts needed and tasks. I love lists!

When you get down to making repairs, take your time, think things out, and don't strive for perfection. I have a few principles when working with old boats. First, I remind myself that it is just a boat-I am not curing cancer with my repairs. I'm just trying to get the boat back on the water. Also, almost any repairs you make are going to improve the boat. The repairs do not have to be perfect. Below, I present a few details concerning repairs:

Broken Frames

Add another frame next to or on top of the old frame. This is called "sistering". Attach this sister with epoxy, screws, clamps, or bolts. If the frame is curved (a bent rib) it may be possible to approximate the form from the hull's form, from an adjacent plank, or from the other side of the hull (a mirror image.)

Rotted or Damaged Planking

Butt blocks for hull or deck jointsRepairs may be possible in two general ways. If the damage is extensive, remove an entire panel or a section bounded by the keel, a chine, and two frames. A Variation of this technique is to add a butt block between frames to back up a joint between new and old plywood sections. This works better if there is not much twist in the panel. Another (more elegant) variation is to cut out the damaged section and remold the section. To do this the plywood edge needs to be cut back, as if to scarf the panels together. This can be done with a chisel, plane, saw, router or sander. Another valid approach is to cut a series of "steps" in the planking and fit in increasing larger lamination of plywood or beneer. It may be necessary to add some fiberglass tape or cloth to the inside (and outside) of this patch. Try to get the inner surface as smooth as possible-try for a color match on the wood. Fair the outer surface as required.

Broken or rotted knees

Use the old ones for the pattern. Sometimes you need to make up a shape when nothing is left.

Plank replacement

This is a subject that I frankly don't know much about, so I am going to leave a blank in my discussion. Consult a book on wooden boat building and repairs, or hunt theWoodenBoat Magazine's index and back issues.

Fiberglassing the hull

Quite a bit has been written regarding sheathing the outside of old boats with fiberglass cloth and epoxy in an attempt to "save" them. The boating magazines and epoxy supplier have ample instructional information on doing this. There is one over-riding principle when considering preservation of an old hull by chemical means: what ever you do to the outside of the planking should be done to the inside. This means that if you sheath the boat's bottom with a fiberglass and epoxy matrix, the inside of the planking should be epoxy coated as well. This creates a "balanced panel" that will not have moisture moving thru it on one direction only. (The wood must be dry before encapsulation.)

Many times it is just not feasible to remove the old finish from the inside of the boat in order to prepare it for epoxy coating; you must let your intuition guide you. If you are working on an old boat that will be lost anyway if you don't coat the outside, you probably will be justified in the one sided approach.

A note about epoxy and polyester resins: Modern marine epoxies are easy to use and provide a strong, waterproof composite matrix. They are suitable for coating new & old wood, gluing up joints, making fillets, filling gaps & rot pockets, and laminating beams & panels. Epoxy and the associated additives are also useful (and recommended) for repair work on fiberglass hulls that are built with polyester or vinylester resins. The resulting repairs should be stronger than the original construction. Not all epoxies are alike. There are differences between brands and also between different products within a manufacturer's line; familiarize yourself with these differences and the characteristics of the product you are working with. Polyester resin is not recommended for any of the work mentioned above.

I hope that this simplified overview of boat repairs is of help. Take your time when getting into repairs and understand what you are doing before you start. Good luck!

Dale Hedtke owns The Boat House in St. Paul, MN. 651-292-1448

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