Thursday, May 5, 2016

Downhill all the way

The weekend before last, I raced for the first time for almost two years, at the Royal Hamilton International Duck Pond Regatta For Old Gits.There's an added frisson at this one, because there's always the possibility of a coronary or maybe a slower demise from poisoning.

You can't say they don't warn you
Happily, I survived and also managed to enjoy the races. It's particularly nice to race with people whom one has coached...especially because they are usually fitter and capable of dragging me down the course.

In the meantime, Joe was busy collecting medals with the Victoria University rowers.

Back home, and time to crack on with the oars. They are conceptually easy enough, but really very difficult to get right and a lot of patience is required so they all look the same. Here they are after many hours of hand-sanding:

It occurs to me that our elegant mahogany stripes on the spoons have condemned us to pursuing a far greater standard of finish: if we hadn't added that detail, a layer of paint could have been used to cover any blemishes. (I seem to remember that was Joe's preferred approach for the whole boat).
They look almost done, but there's still a while to go on the sanding, then they need to be varnished and a layer of glass fibre/silk applied to the spoons. We also need to put leather sleeves and buttons on them.

In the meantime, I have also put several coats of varnish on the hull. I forgot, however, that you can have too much pressure, as well as too little. The excessive airflow meant that the varnish didn't really take, so I ended up spraying several more coats than should have been necessary.

I hope our falerist will eventually come to the rescue...

A deeper gloss beginning to show

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Back again?

Another hiatus...sorry.

Joe and I have been flat out with our coaching commitments since the end of last year: a training camp in December, followed by the Cambridge Town Cup (probably the biggest club regatta in New Zealand), the North Island Championships and then, finishing on Saturday, the Nationals.

The good news is that we did very well at all of them: apart from two, who suffered a stroke of bad luck - or, rather, missed a stroke - everyone in our squad won at least one medal at the North Island Champs. For me, this was possibly the best day the club as a whole has had for many years

Wellington Rowing Club at the North Island Championships
We did well at the Nationals, too, and Joe excelled, winning Gold, two Silvers and a load of Bronzes. He took it in his stride, modesty and understatement being his watchwords:

Bloody showoff

His success was the result of enormous dedication over the year and beyond: well deserved, indeed.

I suppose, now, we shall have to get that boat finished....

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Spines and handles

I am discovering that Joe is spooked by things that work off electricity. He is very wary of the bench saw (I am rather with him on this, because it is a scary beast). But he also believes that orbital sanders are the work of the devil and the router a thing with a malevolent mind of its own. Witchcraft is behind these machines...

"Someone's using a Black and Decker Orbital round here"
We now have all four oars at different stages of completion. The first one has been the guinea pig and has taken about 10 hours to get close to the final shape, but we are confident that what we have learnt along the way will mean that the others are much quicker to produce. The others are following behind nicely.

The trick is to wait until Joe goes off to send smoke signals to people, then get to work with the power tools.

The router helped, so did a sanding disc attached to an angle grinder, as I mentioned before. A lot of wood had to be removed to get from this:

to this:

Nearly there: not bad for a first try? Instruments of the devil in the background.
A big challenge was shaping the central ridge or spine that appears to splice into the spoon from the loom. The answer was much patience and many iterations. Compared to that, the handle is quite straightforward:

Shaping the handle, using a milk bottle top as a template
There is still a huge amount of shaping, sanding and planing, but we can see that the results will be worth it.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Confession time

One of the benefits of our glacial speed in building this thing has been that, at least, each step has been well thought through and planned before we actually finish our tea, get off the sofa and get into action.

"But at my back I always hear
Time’s wing├Ęd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity."

I had a bit of a rush of blood the other day: we had three of our four oars under way: one at such an advanced stage that, if you left the lights off and squinted, it looked almost finished... The others were taking shape nicely and that only left number four, which needed a bit of adjustment and some joining of pieces before assembly.

I acted in haste. Rashly. Impetuously. Precipitously.(I have to cover the options before Joe has a go at me). The result was, well, er, that I built the damn thing upside down.

How can an oar be built upside down, you may ask? If you are really interested, remember we mentioned that the loom consisted of a box with two sides, a base and a cap? Well, the cap and the base are of different thickness and I, in my headlong dash, had attached the spoon pieces to the loom while it was cap down, not cap up. If we had made the same mistake with them all, it might not have mattered, since, though they might have looked a little strange, at least they'd all be the same.

A base

A cap, up
There was nothing for it, but to remove the spoon pieces and swap them over. However, since I had also merrily hacked away with saw and chisel at the loom, we had to splice in a new section. We just happened to have a spare loom knocking around, which we cut to size. (Ask Joe about where that came from).

The repair insert ready for glueing
All a huge waste of time, though I have to say that the challenge of rectifying the error was great fun.

Now we're back on track...
You can't see the join

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

More spoon thrills

I bet you couldn't wait for the next instalment.

Having roughly shaped the spoon of the oar to the overall curve, we then set about making it less like a pizza peel and more like, well, an oar.

The traditional Thames skiff oar is very slim: when I started rowing (in black and white) that sort of blade was called a toothpick.

Thames skiff blades. Picture courtesy of Hobs.
These were superseded by the Macon oar: a fuller shape. The plans we are basing our design on are close to the latter.

It was a simple job to lay a template over the rough block spoon and  cut away the surplus:

Working across a pair helps to ensure uniformity
Then comes the really hard work of refining that 'blank'. Lots of careful chiselling, planing and sanding:

Taking Shape
We are up to our eyes in sawdust and getting through sheet after sheet of sandpaper. The most effective tool is an angle grinder with a sanding wheel attached. This enables us to shape very quickly and effectively, though it rather stings when you accidentally sand your knuckles with it.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


It's all very well trying to be entertaining, but, when it comes down to it, we are building a boat and that's not always going to be funny. There was a vague hope that others would gain inspiration and insight from our experience, but unless you find the story of two non-Completer Finishers, procrastinating their way through a project, uplifting, you are probably out of luck. Buckle up, knuckle down, for a worthy few articles on making oars.

The boat, by the way, has had its 8 coats of varnish on the inside and looks wonderful. We have turned it over and will give the outer hull a final sand and then a last coat. We are debating the addition of a brass rubbing strip down the keel: probably a good idea, given the absence of landing stages on the Waikato.

In the meantime, making the oars is just as satisfying as every other stage of the build. Another learning curve, but another pleasing result. Maybe I am getting ahead of myself, but it's turning out that way....

Having prepared the loom (the shaft of the oar) we glued additional lengths of wood at the spoon end to give the necessary width.
The spoon before shaping
We also added a mahogany tip, for decoration and also strength, but most of this will disappear during the shaping of the spoon.

Most of the resulting block of laminated wood now needs to be removed to look like Michaelangelo (which is our code for "take away everything that doesn't look like the finished article")

A series of horizontal cuts, then chisel away the surplus, was our initial strategy:

This turned out to be very, very hard work, largely because our saw is rubbish and our chisel not too sharp either. Joe had the right idea: he went and wrote emails while I bashed my thumb repeatedly.

It's like uncovering a fossil
Mindless persistence and some heavy work with a sanding disc attached to an angle grinder began to pay off. Since we used different wood types for cap, sides, base and for the width of the spoons, the components are revealed by the shaping process, giving patterns that (we think) add interest.

The mahogany stripes already look nice and we know they will eventually show as a rich glossy brown, contrasting well with the paler wood.

Once the face has been shaped, we then roughly cut away the back before careful, detailed shaping to the template.
What does it mean when Joe's Welcome Mat is inside pointing the way out? 
At a late stage in the game, we remembered that we had a much better option: we have a router, which will make easy work of the basic shaping. As long as we are careful...

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Up the creek

I have to admit that the problem of the oars has weighed on my mind for some time: the closer the boat itself got to completion, the more I sank into gloom as my desire to do it properly collided with my lack of understanding of how to get there. As so often happens, actually getting stuck in relieved the pressure and, at the time of writing, we are well on the way to producing the oars.

Luckily, Joe stumbled upon this Canadian chap, who provides detailed guidance and a set of plans, which includes templates to limit our cockups to an acceptable margin. We hope.

If you are reading this because you want to build some oars, god help you... this isn't the place for detailed guidance, but our next few blogs will aim to give something of an overview which might help your planning, or avoidance of mistakes.

It's conceptually very simple: the oar is a long box made up of a base, sides and a cap. The sides are subtly tapered along the entire length towards each end, to give the correct shape, and the ends are filled to make a solid handle and spoon. Parallel sides are added to complete the spoon, or blade. The base and cap will then be shaped to give a rounded profile and the spoon cut, planed, sanded to give the traditional curved shape.

Here is our first pair waiting for the cap to be added:
The spoon end
The blocks in place to make the handles
It's important to get the sides as mirror images: small discrepancies  can be adjusted with a plane or sanding block, but getting it right from the outset is preferable, otherwise you may be swallowing a fly....

Note that the wood of the base and cap is very unlikely to be dead straight, so it's best to mark your own centre line and use that as a reference for shaping.

We then stuck the caps on and applied as much weight along the length as possible:

When the glue had set, we unclamped everything: there were some small gaps between the sides and the cap, which we concluded were due to the surfaces of the wood not being perfectly flat, but a bit of extra glue will take care of those.

We then planed off the excess where the cap and base overlapped the sides. After much checking to ensure that the handle end and the spoon were in alignment, we glued and clamped the laminates to widen the spoon. We have gone for a design which will give us a couple of mahogany stripes on the spoon: a sort of design twiddle to echo our breasthook and rudder yoke strips (see earlier blogs).

Oar laminates clamped
The spoon ready for shaping

You can discern the shape of the loom, which follows the lines determined by the sides of the oar.

Next comes the real challenge: shaping the spoons. One is easy enough, but four that match is tricky.