Wednesday, November 2, 2011

NHS Steampunk

Well maybe not that steampunk.  But certainly a little Rube Goldberg-ie, and steam is definitely involved.  Over the last two weeks, Monomoy No. 3 has been prepared for her first replacement frames to go in.  On Halloween, I decided of my own accord to go ahead and jump the gun, firing up the steam box and laying in some stock.  And even though I've followed all of the directions from every major boatbuilding publication almost to a tee, I was still amazed that the process worked relatively flawlessly and that I, decked in leather apron, welding gloves and knee pads, managed to singlehandedly replace two of the floors with brand-new gorgeous white oak in only a couple of hours - most of which time I spent reading the newspaper.

So while I may not have been 'steampunk' by the modern pop-culture sense, I still certainly felt like it.  Maybe I ought to invest in an old leather jacket and some round eye goggles.  Then maybe we can get some Comic-Con types to start volunteering - you never know.

The process of preparing for the actual "steaming-in" of a new frame or floor section (on the Monomoys the floors are midships sections of the frames) takes considerably more time, and if there is one thing I learned from the source material, it is that preparation is everything.  Like all the best processes in life, it has about 12 steps.  It goes something like this:

1) clear away the old frame by whatever means necessary.  Most can be unfastened by removing the screws - but owing to the rotten frames they'll just spin and spin and need to be carefully pulled out.  In a few instances, I've had to saw and/or chisel the old frame out of position when the fasteners just won't cooperate.

2) once the old stock is free and away, the surface has to be cleaned up.  Get out the heat gun and scraper and remove all of the old paint bulk.  Use a stiff-bristled brush to scrub out the old dirt and debris and vacuum up the product.

3) Using an epoxy-putty wood filler, fill in all of the old fastener holes.  I use Smith's two part wood filler because it is sandable and about the same consistency as the planking, so I can drill for the new fasteners almost anywhere I want to (more on this later).  Apply from both sides to ensure the putty fills as much of the hole as possible.

4) Measure the length of new frame required using the flexible batten.  Approach the pile of green (unseasoned) white oak planks that have been pre-planed to frame thickness.  Select one with appropriate length to do the job.  Remember to leave at least 6" of spare on each end if possible - this will aid in working in the stock when steamed.  Rip a section to the appropriate width (there are three different widths used in various locations around the Monomoy).

5) Get the steambox up to temperature.  While not as complex as it might seem, there are a few things about steam boxes that need to be learned before all else - namely fuel source and water level control.  Any good text on the subject covers this, so I won't go into detail.

6) Get your clamps ready.  I'll talk more about these in a future entry, but suffice it to say, you have to be prepared to lock that hot frame down and quickly.  The more time you spend fussing with clamps, the more time you'll spend kicking yourself later on.  The ratio is directly correlated, believe me.

7) Lay into the steam box the green stock you want to bend, and close it.  No matter how badly you want to check on the wood - don't.  It's steaming, you can see the steam coming out, and looking inside at close range will melt your eyeballs, not to mention cool the piece and interrupt the 'cooking' process.  Don't do it.  Don't ask how I learned this the hard way without melting my eyeballs.

8) Using the rule of thumb 60 minutes for every inch of thickness, you can calculate when to remove the frame.  It helps if you write down the time you put it in and don't lose the scrap of paper you wrote it on.  When the time is up, make absolutely sure your clamps are ready to go and that the path between the opening of the box and the boat is clear of everything you could possibly trip over or stub a toe on.  Wear welder's gloves and protection for any other part of your body the hot frame will contact.  After a time or two I learned that, for me at least, this means torso and knees.

9) Open the box and remove the stock as quickly as possible.  Immediately - and I mean like right now - take the frame and bend it over your knee.  This is called pre-bending and is intended to put a more severe curve in the stock than you will in the boat while the piece is hottest and most flexible.  Avoid standing there like a doofus in amazement that you just bent a substantial piece of oak that was hard as a rock when it went in.   Move to the boat fast.

10) Get the piece in place and clamped as soon as possible.  This takes some practice and you will mess up.   Live with it and start over.  Once you're good at it you'll seem like an old pro so just embrace your failure if it happens and move on.

11) Let the clamped-up piece cool before you do anything else.  No, not warm, absolutely cool.  Until then it is still flexible and you'll ruin all your hard work if you unclamp it.  I'm too timid to even attempt drilling into it or applying fasteners until cool - despite some books that give advice to the contrary.

12) Bore for new fasteners and go to town.  Because the holes were plugged, you almost have your pick of where to put the new ones.  I say almost because you should still heed the guidance on where to place fasteners - that advice seems as written in bad experiences as my own narratives.  If you choose not to fasten right away - and you're as enthralled by the whole process as I am - you can unclamp the work and remove it to marvel at what you've created.  Of course, make sure you know how it is supposed to be oriented on the piece before you start waving it around and spinning it in your hands.


TONIGHT - we'll be laying in another frame section that I've prepared for.  Dockyard opens at 1800 (call it winter hours) and I'll try to have the box up and steaming before then so we can set straight to work.

PS - yes, I think rather than read the paper while the stock cooks, we'll reef some more seams.  Fun AND productive!


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