Posts Tagged ‘Steam Bending’

Wow, it has been too long since I’ve offered up an update, and many good things have occurred in the past two(!) months.

I have gotten started on the Shearwater, though to be fair progress has been slow. One bit of advice I recieved prior to beginning was that although the plans come with full sized patterns for most pieces, the patterns were not necessarily as accurate as one might like, so I went ahead and lofted it full sized on my basement floor.


With all my distractions, the only other step I have completed is laminating the first of the three frames. If you look closely, you can see the galvanized steel straping with handles on either end that I used as backing straps to support the outside of the curves while bending the pieces of wood into place. I came up with this solution because I was worried the fir I was laminating was more brittle and stiff than I could safely bend otherwise. One way or another though, bending this piece went quite smoothly with the assistance of my lovely girlfriend.


Perhaps my chief distraction from boatbuilding has been the whales that I’ve been working on. After finishing the first one in September, I have since completed a second which is shown below. The first two are currently up for sale and hung in a local store called Boy’s Fort. A few days after taking them in, I wandered back to see where in the store they had decided to display them. I found them hanging, one behind the other, as if they were swimming together. They were suspended below some duct work that clearly must have had vibrations traveling through it, because their pectoral fins were bouncing quickly up and down. I think the proprietors might have been nervous about what I would think of this, but I thought it was hilarious. Whether you are interested in seeing the whales or not, I recommend wandering into the shop. Its got a fun mix of art and various products made by local artists and crafts people. Its located at 9th and Morrison in downtown Portland.



After finishing the second, I adjusted the building jig and set about building the third. That one is currently just a few days from completion. For the third one, I have the tail dropped low. Its going to be a very different shape than the previous ones, but I am excited to see what subtle curves emerge. In many ways, for me building these whales centers around an exploration of curves, both subtle and dramatic, that can be expressed through this particular method of construction. My favorite lines are the most subtle ones, though. The curves that only emerge after you have looked at them a while and find yourself seeing something new when you look at them from a certain angle.


In other news I have have been getting to know some of the folks at the Wind and Oar Boat School to see how I can get involved. With a bit of luck I may have some exciting news to share in the coming weeks, but in the mean time I thought I would share two pictures from sailing with them last Friday on the Willamette. I went sailing with their director Peter Crim, a board member named Norm, one of their instructors named Josh and a member of a partner organization named Worksystems Inc. We took out the Francois Vivier designed Ebihen 16 built by students last summer, with a few last details completed over the past few weeks. Its a lovely boat, 16 feet in length on deck with an impressively long bowsprit , and a remarkable amount of space in its cockpit for such a small boat

We put it through its paces. Afterwards we found out that the wind had been blowing an average of 28.5 mph with gusts towards 34 mph, though earlier we had also experienced relative calms. Among other things, we marveled at how much the bowsprit could flex. What was more difficult to see while we were on the boat was the flex of the mast. We sailed it at various times with 3, 4 or 5 people on board and both with and without water ballast. For most of the sail Peter was at the helm, and I distinctly remember glancing back a few times when we had gotten really heeled over and seeing a big ol’ grin spread across his face. We did manage to break a two pieces, including one side of the gaff jaws and we popped the joint between a riser and one of the frames. Nothing that can’t be fixed pretty quickly, and at least from my standpoint a thoroughly worthwhile shake down run. It was a great start to the weekend.


Later in the weekend I had the pleasure of getting out on the water in another beautiful boat, the Row Bird, with Bruce from over at Terrapin Tales. I was excited to get out on the water with him in his beautiful boat for a sail, but as you can see from the picture below, the wind did not last! Instead we enjoyed a row on a beautiful late fall afternoon. For those of you who know me, you won’t be surprised that although I haven’t spent a lot of time doing it, I enjoy rowing.

One thing that sticks out for me about the afternoon was looking at the sketches he shared with me that he had done of the new pedestrian and light rail bridge that is being built between the Ross Island Bridge and the Marquam Bridge here in Portland. If you look at his blog you will find that he shares his sketches from time to time. The ones he pointed me to were a sketch of the bridge he did recently and another he did about a year ago of the same bridge in progress. It was great to look back at his own record of a project I have traveled past by kayak so many times. Looking at them got me thinking. Though I always have a sketchbook going, they are typically utilized primarily for drawing out ideas for things I would like to build or odds and ends like that. It has become rare that I draw my surroundings, but what better way to spend part of a quiet afternoon on the water, when the light has settled over the landscape in some particular way, than by taking out a sketchbook and some combination of pencils, pens and watercolors? He pointed me towards a website that served as a sort of inspiration for his own sketching, which I later spent some time checking out, called Urban SketchersThis isn’t an activity my current boats feel particularly well suited to, but as I pick away at my current build, it seems like one more way to look forward to using the boat I am producing. I like Bruce’s philosophy towards getting out on the water, and if you haven’t looked at his blog before, I recommend it. 



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Last week I finished the whale! As usual, it took longer than expected, but I think the results are worth it. Bending the ribs into place was an interesting challenge. As expected, I broke a number of pieces before getting them all into place, and had to experiment with different thicknesses especially near the front where the cross section becomes flatter. The ribs are pegged at each end and lashed in the same way that the stringers were lashed on my kayak. To finish it, I first fumed it using ammonia cleaner for eleven and a half hours. I oiled the entire thing with two coats of linseed oil, and finished things off by waxing outward facing surfaces. It was a great project, and I’m happy with the results.

A few pictures of it fully assembled before and during finishing.image




And here it is completely finished. Currently, it resides on my living room wall, though I’ve been thinking about finding a show to enter it in.



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Though at times it has felt slower than I might have wanted, progress on my whale sculpture has been steady. After getting the first two stringers bent onto each side and notched into the nose piece, I started work on the pectoral fins and the sides of the tail. To bend these pieces I used jigs with a series of intermediate blocks I could clamp the thin pieces of oak to. I built these blocks as two piece steps to raise the forms off the bed surface to provide better access for the clamps and to add the additional pieces which would be used to stabilize the shapes. Instead of steaming these pieces in a steam chamber, I put a large brownie pan partially filled with water in the oven and turned the temperature up to 230 degrees( forgetting a pan partially filled with water in the oven also happens to be a good way to confuse the roommates). I put the pieces of oak in the nearly boiling water for about 4 minutes before bending them into shape. Like the other parts of the whale, only dowels and lashings are used to hold things together.


Currently, I am still figuring out short to trim the tips of the tail pieces, but clearly there is considerably more material present currently than I will want on the final product. Regardless, I am pretty happy with how these pieces turned out.


Here it is with all appendages  temporarily clamped in place, and before I bent the final two stringers were added to the belly of the whale. If you look closely, you will notice that i took the nose off and changed the orientation of the lashings on the front. Having them vertical simply didn’t look right. 


Currently, all the stringers are zip tied into place. The last big step will be adding the two piece rib hoops that the stringers will be permanently lashed to. After that I will be able to remove the inner framework that the stringers were bent around. The next steps are going to be pretty exciting to see! With a little luck another update should be coming soon!

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With graduate school FINALLY winding down( Its been a long year), I started asking myself what I should start working on as a boat builder without the space or money to begin a new boat. Here is my answer!

As I built my skin on frame kayak two years ago, several things occured to me: First, that the the frame of a skin on frame ends up being a beautiful work of art. Second, that steam bending is awesome, and third, that the frame looked awfully reminiscent of the skeleton of some sort of animal. I decided to start building an idea that has been floating around my head since first building my kayak. If it goes well, perhaps I’ll build more, but initially I’m working on building a framework to evoke the shape of a humpback whale. The construction methods will combine the techniques use in West Greenland skin on frame boat building with European boat building methods. I decided to make it about 4.5 feet long, broke out my battens and drafting ducks, and set myself to work!

To draw out the whale I began by searching for pictures of Humpback whales online. In particular, I was looking for pictures that were directly from the side, or that were from above. I was able to figure out some basic proportions from these pictures which guided me as as I figured out things such as where the widest part of the whale would be, and what its width should be compared to its length. Though I have heard that these whales tend to be somewhat flatter on top than on the bottom, I took a bit of artistic liberty and assumed an oval cross section. I drew in where I wanted cross sectional pieces to be, and an articulated backbone. I knew an oval could be drawn with a loop of string and two nails, so I did some math to figure out how wide to place he nails, and how long to make a loop of string to draw each oval cross section and started cutting pieces out. Everything is bolted together so that after all pieces are bent into place, I can completely take the jig apart inside the framework and remove it piece by piece.


The profile drawing( with a few things in the way).image

The nearly completed building jig.

Currently, I have bent the central top and bottom stringers into place and dowelled them to the nose and central tail pieces. The  I stringers are Oregon White Oak I bought when building the kayak. The nose and tail pieces are from an old 2×4 from the Rebuilding Center that has relatively tight grain. I am keeping sustainability in mind, and it has been great fun starting to see the shape emerge. More to come!


The first two pieces steam bent into place.


Testing the locations of the next two stringers.

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Long story short, I got the deck beam lashings in and the ribs steam bent into place. This update will be a bit long, as its been a while since I have written an update on this project, but if you don’t check anything else out, check out the video of me bending a rib into place. Steam bending may be one of my new favorite things to do.

About a month and a half ago I finished lashing the deck beams to the gunwales, and would have liked to start working on cutting rib stock down to size, but I don’t have any green oak yet. The Cunningham book in particular recommends procuring a source of green bending stock early on, but I didn’t think the project would proceed so quickly, so the need for it snuck up on me.

Sure enough the oak was harder to find than I expected. I e-mailed some of the local folks who build greenland kayaks and some of whom teach classes building them to see if I could buy some from them, and they did not have enough to sell me any. I e-mailed a family friend with a sustainable forestry project, and he did not have any, but he was able to recommend another family run mill outside of Salem which might have some wood. Sure enough, I called the guy and it sounded like he had a lot of material in stock. Unfortunately, its a long enough drive that I wasn’t able to get down there until a few weeks later.

Getting down there was its own little adventure. It was down highways and side roads I don’t know, and pretty soon I came to the “pavement ends” sign. And that was before I had even reached the driveway to this place. I got to the red mailbox he had described and realised it was probably red more due to rust than to any paint. I found the place most of 2 miles down a gravel road which rolled up, down and around the rolling hills west of Salem. The first thing that really took my notice when I parked was the large timber framed barn which houses all the oak which is being prepared for the two kilns. Ben Deumling, the owner of the forest and mill told me the frame of the building is entirely put together without metal. All pins, mortises and tenons. Ben was very helpful, helping me find the boards I needed and selling them to me at a very reasonable price. He also said that with a little lead time, he would gladly specially saw boards in dimensions and grain orientations that I or other boatbuilders might need. Pretty cool. If you find yourself needing oak for flooring or boatbuilding, check them out: Zena Forest Products.

A couple weeks ago I got the rib stock planed down to thickness and jointed on one edge at my old high school woodshop. I cut the boards into the strips that would become ribs at home. Figuring out the length of the ribs out was a bit of a process. For the ribs I am using the methods discussed in the Cunningham book. The book talks about using the measurement across your fingers with your hands held flat and your index fingers touching. It talks about using a the length you would measure closer to your finger tips for a lower volume kayak and the longer measurement towards your palms for a higher volume boat with more freeboard. This all seemed fine except that I also had to take into account the fact that my gunwales are wider than the ones discussed in the book. After much debate the compromise I settled on was adding 6 inches to the length at the bow and 2/5 of that length at the stern. This takes into account the width at the base of my fingers at about 7 inches and a 1 inch decrease in length for the depth of the gunwales.

With this dimension figured out, I had to make the rib length gauge. Each rib has a certain amount of material added to the width of the bottom of the gunnels at its set of mortises. The rib gauge provides these distances, starting with the full measurement of 6 inches at the bow and tapering to two fifths of that length at the stern. Between these two lengths, 24 equal increments need to be created so that each of the 25 ribs would receive its own unique length. The Cunningham book has an elegant method for creating these increments without complicated decimals or fractions. Without going into the method here, suffice it to say it was fairly quick and elegant.

With the gauge created I started going through my rib stock to find the best long sections of high quality oak, and started cutting ribs to length, starting at the middle and moving towards each end. This process went very quickly and it was satisfying to start working on significant parts of the boat again. With all the ribs cut to length, I used my tablesaw to cut a sixteenth of an inch off of the thickness of what would be the inside of the ribs for the last 6 inches of their length. Thinning the ends allows the location of curves in the ribs to be focused more towards the gunwales. The transitions from thicker to thinner portions of the ribs were smoothed with a 4 in 1 rasp with blocks held under the ends to act as height guides. Ribs were sanded before being soaked and steamed, though since the combination of soaking and steaming raises the grain and makes the wood feel rough, I would skip sanding before steaming in the future. When I was almost ready to steam the ribs, I put the ribs into water to soak for 24 hours.

While I was getting the ribs ready to bend I was also working on the apparatus I would use for steaming them, and I approached this process with the goal of spending the least amount of money possible. I was able to create the whole assembly for less than $15, so I feel it was a success. For the boiler I bought an old 4 liter pot from a local thrift shop. To transport the steam from the pot to the chamber I bought a threaded barb fitting and 4 feet of 5/8 inch radiator hose. The steam box I made from rigid foam insulation I was able to get for free. I taped the insulation together with duct tape and put a few dowels in it to hold the ribs off the bottom of the chamber. I used a candy thermometer from the kitchen to monitor the temperature within the chamber. I used part of an old t-shirt as the door to the chamber.

With the apparatus ready and the ribs soaked, I was ready to steam them into place. I clamped my bending jig to a work table near the steam chamber. I filled the pot most of the way up with water, and put it on my MSR Whisperlite stove. I waited and watched the temperature gauge. It struck me how long it took to see any change in the temperature within the chamber. When the temperature finally did begin to increase it did so quickly, but it stopped increasing at a lower temperature than I wanted. I raised the height of the steam chamber so the hose would follow a straighter path from the pot and that seemed to allow the steam to flow more easily. The thermometer did not indicate as high a temperature as I would have liked, but seemed high enough to begin.

I put the first 4 ribs in and started my stopwatch. After about 12 minutes I pulled the first one out and gently bent one end with the bending jig, turned it around and bent the other end. I walked over to the boat, slotted the end closer to me into its mortise and gently bent it down to slot the other end in. It went in easily without any drama. I continued and was able to get all but two of the ribs into place. Two of the ribs with the tightest bends broke as I tried to slot the second side in. Throughout the process adjustments were made to how the ribs were bent. They stayed pliable for several minutes after they had been put in. I had Joseph’s help with this aspect of the process and it was very helpful to have someones help so one person could sight along the length of the boat and call out instructions while the other made adjustments.

A few days later I made three replacements for each rib to allow for multiple breakages. I broke one rib before I was able to successfully bend one into one position, and the other rib went in first try.

The steam bending was great fun. Its really incredible to make oak do things it just doesn’t seem like it should be able to do. I have already gotten started on the next steps which seem like they will go quickly and be satisfying as the silhouette of the boat really takes shape. Stay tuned, I will try and additional updates up soon as the next steps proceed.

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