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I imagine that when a boat builder whose career approaches the four decade mark is about to describe some of his favorite tools that the readers would immediately conjure up visions of a collection of wonderfully sharp old hand tools from another era. The wood handles might be worn and darkened from the aging of the wood and the sweat from his hands. Well, yes, there are many of those in my collection, and while they are dear to me, also in the “favorite” category are the ones that just feel good to use, are indispensable because they simply work so well, are homemade, or have been passed on to me by ancestors.
The modern boat builder who works with the combination of wood and fiberglass has a pretty wide range of tools, some dedicated to use on just one of the two mediums and some that overlap.
If you looked around my shop you would see a vast collection of tools, big tools like my vintage Powermatic table saw, and lots of very small ones as well. Some inhabit drawers or shelves, some hang on walls and others are stuffed willy nilly into cabinets. Many are homemade tools specific to building the Melonseed Skiff.
Some of the tools shown here are definitely NOT in the eclectic category or would ever be worth much on Craig’s List, but are absolutely essential to the production of the Melonseed. Each has its own home in the shop, a place where we all know it lives, and while that place often seems to defy logic within any organized system you might imagine, it is there for a reason. Maybe that reason is in the category of “just because”, and woe is he who puts it away in the wrong place! The larger wrenches and pliers live in a drawer labeled “Grabbers”, and why not call them that? Some have strange pet names, and there are even a few that we don’t really know what its proper name is so it’s just referred to as the “whizzer” or the “thingy”.
What you will read here are descriptions of just a few of my favorite tools, and for the most part I really like, or at least get along with, most all of my tools. There is however one electric hand drill with a replacement trigger switch that we wired on backwards 15 years ago and have been too lazy to rewire, so the damned thing still surprises and confounds me by turning the wrong way every time I first use it. I don’t like that tool very much. It’s powerful though, and like all Makita tools, it seems to want to live on forever. I’m fond of Makita tools, but maybe it’s just the nice color blue that the plastic bodies are made of.
For the record, I love working on the band saw, and I never met a circular saw I wasn’t afraid of.
I am sure you all have your own favorite tools and maybe you’d have a hard time describing these good friends, your best tools, to others without a touch of embarrassing emotion in your voice. So here, with just a touch of emotion and a bit of folly as well, are a few of my favorite tools.
The Dull Chisel
It’s called the “dull” chisel because it is exactly that, and yet it’s one of the most frequently used tools in the shop. You could almost say we couldn’t build a boat without it as it is the only tool ever used to separate the top edge of the Melonseed’s fiberglass hull from the mold it is laminated in. If it were a very sharp chisel and you made a mistake with it you might scratch and damage either the hull, or heaven forbid the mold. If one needs to hack away at a bit of unwanted fiberglass anywhere in the construction process, this is the tool of choice. It gets a feeble semi-sharpening about once a year when it gets to the hopelessly dull stage, and one must announce the event so that others won’t be surprised by the difference. The Dull Chisel has been around so long that no one can remember what decade it arrived in, and it’s worn down so much that the metal blade is now probably two inches shorter than when it was new.
DAD’S BALL PEEN HAMMER
I found this hammer in the bottom of a metal tool box that was full of some of my Dad’s mechanical tools. It was a little rusted and sad looking and so I worked it up till it was all dandy again.
As a kid I came to believe that my Dad could build or fix anything. Walter Crawford seemed to have unlimited mechanical talents, and one of them was his vocation for many years; repairing printing presses. I remember him using this hammer on the job. This hammer is not big or heavy and maybe only 3/4ths the size of a typical hammer, but the head, shaft and handle are all one piece of absolutely beautiful steel. The wood on the grip is lovely. It’s not like the junky stuff you see for sale these days, and it feels so perfectly balanced that it’s a pleasure just to hold it in your hand. When you swing it, you know it was designed by someone who really knew his tools. I would guess it was made in the 1940’s.
Because it is a ball peen hammer, and part of its intended use is to strike a precise blow with the rounded side of the head, the perfect balance and modest weight of the hammer enables a controlled swing and a good clean accurate strike. I love this hammer! I enjoy using it, but even more so, I just enjoy looking at it hanging on the wall. Dad’s passed over the horizon now, but before he left I told him that I adopted his old hammer and used it frequently, and he was quite pleased about it.
THE “SQUANGLE” (aka: Grampy’s bevel square)
OK, so you all know this as a bevel square. Well, yes it’s a “square” but rather than being used to determining right angles, it is used to measure and transfer odd angles. Years ago someone in the shop couldn’t remember the name of this tool and they said “pass me the…umm….squangle”. Square/angle = squangle. That made sense and for considerable laughter and so the name just stuck.
This wonderful, cherished tool is one of the oldest in the boat shop. I found it jumbled in with a mess of tools in an old wood tool box in the cellar. I believe the wood is rosewood, the end pieces brass and the blade is iron. To my great delight I found the initials “A D” carved into the handle, and it also holds a place of high honor in the shop as it belonged to my maternal grandfather Adrian Joseph Dugas. It is likely that he brought it to this country when he moved here just after the First World War.
Born in Grosses Coques, Nova Scotia in 1891, Adrian Dugas was a master craftsman’s master craftsman and enormously respected by his peers. He built houses, boats, did finish carpentry and anything else he could to support his family. He was quite fussy about his work and often cranky and impatient with others, particularly me as a kid, who didn’t take the time to build things right. For inspiration I have a photo of him hanging right beside my computer monitor in the office. I know that once he got over the fiberglass issue he would certainly have approved of the Melonseed Skiff, but sadly he died shortly before I started building boats for a living.
I always pay a few seconds of homage to Grandpa Dugas when I take his squangle off the wall to use it, and I’m sure it works as well now as it did in the early 1900’s.
SPEAKING OF SQUARES……..
I recently found this quote in a book about life on the Maine coast. The author was referring to a conventional square for right angles.
“If you set out to build a boat, throw away your square. And if you work on her after she’s launched, throw away your level.”
This tool is one of the home made specials. One day many years ago we needed a mallet and didn’t have one, so John made this one out of piece of 4” x 4” oak, and what I guess might have been the end of an old shovel handle or some other piece of flotsam hanging about the shop.
The head is getting a little ragged, having been the survivor of many a confrontation with not only the chisels it’s intended to drive, but plenty of other tasks as well, and some not honorable duty for a tool of this nature. As the mallet gets battle worn and a little less than it was in its prime, it is used by yours truly, who now in my late sixties is in the same condition, and so we understand each other and make adjustments to the rule of simple brute force.
Tapping away on one of the fine chisels in the shop and removing delicate slices of teak with this mallet is a true pleasure. The “tunk” sound it makes with each strike is sweet music.
THE GOOD CHISELS
There are several sets of chisels in the shop, and the everyday ones are in a rack in back of the work bench where you can grab one in an instant if need be. This set however, lives quite regally in a velvet lined case in a cabinet. They are kept surgically sharp. Never, NEVER, shall these chisels be used in an impatient moment, or to hack away at anything other than wood. They are kept as sharp as possible and well cared for.
THE WOOD HANDLED SCREWDRIVERS
I started my own business in 1976 with heaps of youthful enthusiasm and optimism, but only a modest $3000 that I borrowed from a local bank. Feeling flush with money in hand, I dashed off to Sears and Roebucks (remember when that’s what it was called?) and bought a basic set of tools, including some very ordinary plastic handled screwdrivers. They were good enough, but not what I really lusted for. THOSE screwdrivers were a set from Woodworkers Supply with beautiful oval shaped wood handles. My friend and mentor in the boat building trade and a genius in the craft by any standard, Jon Blanchard, used those screwdrivers and I always yearned for a set for myself. When the day came that I could afford them I felt that in a way I had achieved some small measure of success as they were about the best screwdrivers one could own.
They have oval handles which give you a wonderful grip and perfect feel for the force of the screwdriver VS. the resistance of the screw. There are four screwdrivers in the set, one each for #’s 8, 10, 12 and 14 slotted screws. When you need to drive a #14 slotted flat bronze wood screw, this is the tool of choice. All the “slots” in the slotted screws in our boats are perfectly lined up in line with the grain or fore and aft as the case may be. You’ll see that there is a flat section on the upper part of the shaft of these screwdrivers so that you can grip it there with a wrench or vise grip (to be found in the “Grabbers” draw) and get some extra torque to help make that final bit of turn and alignment.
The handles are dirty from four decades of hard use, not that visually appealing anymore and they deserve to be refinished. I plan to do that someday so that when my tools get passed along to someone else that hopefully they will at least be appreciated for their beauty.
HALF INCH DRILL WITH THE SPAR SHAPER
The ½” Milwaukee drill is a fairly recent addition to the collection of power tools, having been acquired to replace an ancient ½” drill that finally died a prolonged and noisy death after three decades of faithful service. The old drill did get a proper memorial service though as I said a few righteous words about it before heaving it in the dumpster.
The new Milwaukee drill is a beautiful piece of machinery, and very powerful.
Here’s a good 1/2” drill story, and if you’ve ever used one you’ll understand this even better. When I was in my rookie years of boat building in the early 70’s I had to drill a hole in the cockpit sole (floor to the landlubber) of a new boat. The sole was ¾” plywood with heavy layers of fiberglass laminated over it. I had to cut a 4” diameter hole through it and the tool of choice was a very powerful ½” drill driving a 4” hole saw. With great enthusiasm and a “man on a mission” attitude I drove the pilot drill and then the cutting edge of the saw into the floor. So far, so good. Then, the saw started to bite on the fiberglass and things were still good. Then problem #1 occurred; I wasn’t hitting the surface squarely and the saw bit on the wood and bound up tight, which wasn’t half as bad as the result of problem #2. Problem #2 (well it was a problem for me but hilarious to the other guys in the shop) was that I had the trigger lock on! Now remember just how powerful these drills are. I was now on my knees getting rapidly whipped around and around the drill in circles with the drill’s power cord wrapping my hands tightly on the drill handle. After about three spins around, the plug got tugged loose from the wall, the show ended, I was hog tied to the drill, dizzy and very embarrassed.
I confess that I’ve learned many of life’s most important lessons the hard way. One of those lessons is to be very judicious about when it’s OK to lock the trigger on a ½” drill.
So going forward in time, what does this tool do to contribute to the process of building a Melonseed Skiff? It rounds over and smoothes out the masts, sprits and booms that have first been trimmed to eight sides on the table saw, worked down to 16 or more flat sides and then tapered into shape with an electric hand plane.
If you look at the picture above you will see a 4” sanding belt turned inside out, and a hard rubber drum contraption attached to the drill. That drum is another homemade favorite tool and a very valuable one. A spar is put on special mast stands (see description of those later in this document), and is weighted down with yet another homemade tool, an old boat battery hanging from a strap which wraps around and weights down the spar to prevent it from spinning from the force of the belt. The inside out sanding belt is slid over the spar, the drum set inside the belt, and the drill then turns the sanding belt around the wood spar. Holding the drill in one hand and the metal handle of the drum sander in the other, I slide the whole rig back and forth over the spar in about 2’ long sweeps. After a few passes over a section of the spar I rotate it by hand about a 1/6th of a turn (all the while hanging on to the spinning drill and drum sander with the other hand) and repeat that until the spar is round and smooth all the way around from one end to the other. I start out with a 40 grit sanding belt, then 80 grit and finally 120 grit. It results in a remarkably smooth and even shape.
If you are thinking that this all sounds a little tricky, you are quite correct. This whole exercise is not for the faint of heart or uncoordinated (remember the power of the drill), but after decades of practice, the movements can be almost ballet like or at least look like an old fashioned “two step” when done right. Actually, I’m the only one in the shop who uses this contraption, the others having enough sense to keep a respectable distance from the thing.
I don’t think there’s much I do in boat building that is as much fun as shaping spars. I love free hand shaping and would much rather carve out something with curves in it than make something with right angle joints. It’s satisfying to plane away at a piece of wood feeling the resistance of wood against the plane blade and imagining the effect it will have on the shape of the spar. Then there’s the fun part when you eyeball the progression of the shape and determine where to go next with further removal of wood.
I am fond of this quote: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
Home made? You bet. Take a milk crate, turn it open side up and pack the perimeter of the crate with bricks for ballast. Make a plywood top with a hole in it just about big enough to receive a length of reject mast stock. Stuff the mast stock into the hole, wedge it tight with the bricks and fasten the plywood to the crate. Build a tool shelf around it and fashion a couple of tool hangers on the post. Make a U-shaped thingy just a bit larger than a mast and fasten it to the top of the post. Spend about 35 years re-wrapping the thingy with assorted bits of rag, foam and other forms of padding and then slap duct tape on it about once a year to keep all the goofy padding from falling off. For added character, spill gelcoat, resin, varnish, paint and epoxy all over the stand with regularity. Do all that and you will have a set of first class mast stands just like the ones you see in the photo above.
All shaping and sanding of masts, sprits and booms is done on these stands, and over the years, including the Swampscott Dory and the Melonseed, maybe that’s about 1700 spars. Anytime something long needs to be dealt with and the work bench is tied up, the project ends up on the mast stands.
THE MILK CRATE
Sure, go ahead and laugh, but this too is also one of the more important tools in the shop, it gets used constantly, and obviously it too is home made. You can’t buy one of these at Home Depot! You see, you can’t build a Melonseed Skiff without being able to reach the sanding belts described above and a whole plethora of tools, jigs and patterns that are just out of the range of reach on shelves or hanging up high on the walls. More importantly you can’t tune the shop stereo without getting up on the milk crate to reach it. What about a small step ladder you say? “Why” I reply, when you can easily liberate a good milk crate, and with a proper top on it the thing will last for years.
It’s a versatile tool too. At times it is used as a low work bench, a stand to mix buckets of resin and gelcoat on and so many other uses that the list is almost endless. If you own a Crawford Melonseed it is a pretty sure bet that something from a chemical mix that went into or on your boat got dripped or spilled on this milk crate.
Because my boat shop was originally built as a dance hall back in 1926 it has beautiful hard maple floors so you don’t even have to pick this tool up to move it about the shop, you just give it a good hard push with your foot and it slides nicely over the smooth surface. If it so happens that when you push it just right and it lands perfectly on the other side of the shop, just where you wanted it to be, you feel like pumping your fist in the air and yelling “score”, proving that some of us take a longer than others to really grow up.
4” ANGLE GRINDER
I suppose the winner of the MOST versatile award would be the “small grinder”.
I have three grinders/sanders that spin circular pads, one a big 9” Makita, a very useful 5” Porter Cable random orbital sander and this 4” sander, and all three get about equal time when building a Melonseed. The “Small Grinder” is the most versatile. It is only about a foot long, nicely balanced in your grip and handy. This Makita Angle Grinder not only grinds fiberglass like demon, but also allows you to do very detailed work while holding it in one hand and the object you are sanding in the other hand.
But here’s the big surprise; I do a lot of delicate woodwork with it. Delicate woodwork? Once you get the knack of using the small grinder you can do amazing things with it. The art of marrying woodwork with a fiberglass hull requires that you often have to make some adjustments to the shape of each of those two materials that goes well outside the boundaries of conventional wood boat building. The Gunning Dory breast hook is an example of where this is done. The small grinder does a lot of the fine shaping that makes the final fit between the teak inwhales and the fiberglass hull, and also the teak breast hook and the inwhales. Why use this tool instead of a fine chisel or plane? Well why not? With the right touch this grinder can do the most delicate of tasks, and it’s hard to argue with the results seen on the next slide:
4” ANGLE GRINDER Results!
RIGHT ANGLE DRILL
This cordless 3/8” drill will work just about as well as a conventional drill in most situations, but it shines when you have to work in tight quarters. It is my overall favorite of the five 3/8” drills in the shop and the first one I usually reach for.
One feature I appreciate is that like all battery powered drills, the second you take your finger off the trigger it stops turning immediately. This is useful when you are countersinking holes for wood screws as it allows you to precisely control the depth of the hole.
It is light yet powerful, easily controlled, well balanced and most of all, just plain feels good in my hand.
FULLER TAPERED COUNTERSINKS
These are the best drill bits available to prepare a hole to drive a wood screw into. The drill bit itself is tapered to match the diameter of the wood screw, and there is a countersink on the shaft that matches the “V” shape on the underside of the screw head. The countersink is adjustable and can be set anywhere up or down the shaft for different screw lengths. To set the depth perfectly so that the flat part of the top of the screw head is even with the surface of the wood there is also an adjustable stop collar that prevents the entire bit from driving too deep and it will stop the penetration at just the right depth.
I have them in sizes for wood screws ranging in diameters from #6 to # 12, with # 10 being the most commonly used.
Basically it’s a ratchet wrench, but driven by air rather than by hand. It’s powerful and fast and frankly fun to use. Lots of time and elbow grease can be saved with this tool. We only use it on jobs in the medium to heavy category like assembling trailers or odd jobs around the shop, and never in the finesse jobs directly on the boat. The only down side is that the whining sound it generates makes you feel as though you are in a muffler repair shop and not a boat shop on the waterfront.
It’s not hard to imagine why one might enjoy using these tools. A nice sharp hand plane is very gratifying to use. The sound it makes as a plane iron makes a clean cut through wood is ever so pleasing and one that has been heard in boat building shops for centuries, and the pile of curly shavings that gathers around your feet is a nice reward for your efforts.
The wood block plane was a gift given to me by a wonderful man I first came to know when I built him a Swampscott Sailing Dory back in 1978. The day Ralph took delivery of the dory he presented me with this beautiful piece of beech wood and steel and I was stunned by his generosity. He was a Mainer, familiar with the traditions of good Down East boat building and a very salty fellow.
Ralph used to come up with great names for things and some of them are still in use in my shop to this day. He called anything gooey that glued things together “OOKUM PUCKY”, and that still works for me. When he got well along in years and knew he had to divest himself of some of his possessions he gave me his collection of Woodenboat Magazines that dated way back to issue # 9 in 1976. I still have them, and they provide endless winter reading and a look back at the boat building industry over the decades..
Ralph’s gone now, but the plane still works as well as our friendship did, and I still remember him each time I use the plane.
The small metal plane is a Stanley block plane, handy to use, a one-hander and gets a lot of use on sprits and booms and general rounding over of edges of woodwork when I am not in the mood to set up the electric router for the job.
I own several of my grandfather’s very old wood planes ranging in lengths up to about 2 feet long. I never use them, but like do looking at them in the tool cabinet.
Another one of the marvelous old tools that I inherited from my grandfather, this drawknife, is some mighty serious thing to use, and one must be very careful with it. A sharp drawknife is not a tool to lose an argument with as you could take off a kneecap in one stroke. If the knife is very sharp and you’ve learned the knack of using it you can remove huge amounts of wood in very short order. Part of the trick is not just to pull the knife straight toward you, but to add a little angle and “slice” at the same time as you pull. In spite of its power, when handled with finesse and skill you can also take off minute bits of wood.
The teak stem of my Swampscott Dories were cut from a piece of wood that was 2’ long x 2” thick x 6” wide and had lots of curves in its shape. When making it, the first rough cut was made on the band saw, but after that, Grandpa’s very old drawknife easily had its way with it.
THE “OLD” SAW HORSES
They are pretty mangy looking horses and probably should have been put out to pasture years ago, but I just can’t seem to part with them. I think we built them in 1992 and have half-assed rebuilt them a few times along the way. They do pedestrian duty in uncountable ways just being ordinary saw horses, but they are padded so that they won’t scratch whatever they support, in particular the Melonseed deck when it is being prepped for installation on the hull. The last 412 Melonseed decks have been sanded out and trimmed on these stands. They have even been impromptu seats at some of the parties we’ve held in the shop. I’ll probably never throw them out.
THE “FIND THE CENTER” RULER
Handy? You bet, and a real time saver as it keeps you from getting brain cramps doing the math when you need to find the dead accurate center of any object up to a foot in length. I can’t imagine not having this ruler in the shop.