Building Wooden Boats - Speculation on a Joint Adventure
Plywood Catamaran images, courtesy of Woods Designs
Cruising Catamarans: Cheaper in Bulk?
OK, so I am a wooden boatbuilding nerd.
When I think of building/buying boats, I think big, because in a couple jobs, that was what I did.... build BIG boats. Remembering those jobs got my brain on the track of how to build a bunch of boats cheap.
One thing about big boatbuilding is that big companies tend to need money/credit/help. You need funds on hand at the beginning of a build, so you can buy materials in bulk. Then you make your money afterwards, using or selling the boats.
The government has some maritime initiatives that might just help a bunch of folks who want a few small sail boats ... but you have to be a company to get them.
Brain goes, hmmmm ... how about a joint venture company to build a limited number of sail boats (green initiative). Might be a thing to look into.
I am not a legal guy or even a business guy. I am a boat guy, who collects lots of old info in my head. But I can puzzle through the basics of the business idea, and here's what I thought out:
From the descriptions of Joint Ventures, they are specifically so you can bring: money, skills, and knowledge together to create a short term project. They get wholesale prices, and they can sometimes get grants and government help.
They are a type of company with a definite, short duration. They also need a business plan. This idea opens up the possibility of getting a credit line, separate from a personal one.
A J.V. allows for each person to bring the skills they possess to the table and be responsible for specific aspects of the project. e.g. "I want a catameran and don't know how to make molds, but I can sand real good and have access to an empty lot" or "I have money, but no time to build a boat." "I have built so many boats at this point, I have no money!"
There are groups that work for a year to put huge projects together for Burning Man. I would think the same stick-to-it and level of motivation could be applied to building cruising boats. Everybody has a day job, but they spend most weekends and some evenings working on their dream together. And sometimes they throw parties and raise some money ;-).
Finding a Group and Agreeing on a Plan
If you can assemble a group of people that also want their own boats, and you can settle on the material to make them out of, then you need a boat plan. (And an arrangement with the person who drew the plan, so you can build more than one boat per set of plans.)
Boat designers make money on royalties, and it is a good thing to pay them. For this pay, most designers will work with you to make the boat of your dreams and still make it safe. They also tend to help you if you have any questions, and they pass on updates to the plans that either simplify construction or enhance safety and useablity.
My recommendation is to find a boat designer that is in your sailing area, has built his own boats, and sails his own boats in the way you would like to sail his boat. There are some designers that are only pencil pushers, and this should not be encouraged. Remember this: it's hard to walk home from a boat at sea. You are betting your life on the designer's idea. One who does not sail his own work is not worth betting on.
I like wood as a material to work with, so I am going to use it for this article. Possibly with some fiberglass reinforcement.
There is a difference in plans for different materials (how the joints are fitted, the weight assumptions, strengths, etc). So be sure you have wooden boat plans if you want to work in wood, steel plans for steel, etc.
I want a catamaran. They're stable, fast, efficient, safe, comfortable; I can walk around on deck, I get more space for the same length, it stays upright at speed, shallow draft, guests can have their own rooms .... I want it big enough to cruise to Antarctica with my family on board.
Here's where this joint venture idea gets tricky. Not everyone likes cat.s; not everyone likes cruising; and not everyone has a family. Well, this starts a sorting process. From the folks that want to build a boat, you go with whoever's compatible. The ones that don't like cat.s, or want a sporty day-sailer, or want a steel boat, can form their own companies.
Now you get the real fine gradients - because it's not necessary to have a cat and a family to join my team. Most folks looking at cruising boats (and making real assessments about gear and capability, living aboard, and such) settle into the thirty-to-forty-foot range. Small enough to take care of, and big enough to be comfy sailing to exotic places. Sigh. Exotic places.
So those that want this size and type of boat, are in the build group. Some may have families, some are planning to charter or carry cargo or crew. Hopefully, some of us live near each other already.
Now the look & style of the boat will depend on the particular design we choose. There are lots of options out there, but I am only going to do this with two designers. I chose these two for several factors: they sail their own designs, they build their own designs, and both have years in the business with recognized, proven, home-built wooden boats currently cruising. They also just look right, and with my boat background I've learned to trust that instinct.
Here are my top 2 designers for cruising cats:
James Wharram Designs
Each of these designers has a style. That style is not just looks.
Wharram's designs tend to be simple and open-decked boats. Lots of room, not as much shelter. They are flexible and elegant, drawn from the traditional catamarans of the Pacific Isles.
Woods Designs tend to be closed-deck, out-of-the-weather boats with creature comforts. Still very simple, but more modern in style.
Both designers have boats in the size range I want, both have wooden boat plans. Examine the Tiki 38 on the Wharram site, for example, and the Woods design Romany (34 feet) for comparison.
So which do I want?
I live in the Pacific Northwest. For year-round sailing, I want a bit more protection from the weather, and I want to sail into the cold parts of the world. And I'm considering sailing with children, or novice crew, who might need a little more comfort to stay happy onboard. So I am going to look at the Woods Design boats.
There's some nice boats there. I like the look and description of the Romany. It has a couple of features I didn't think of before, like a foot-way to the foredeck. Nice detail, and makes the boat safer to move around on. It's also a modular build, so I can build each part separately. That could be handy, especially if we end up building in separate yards or shops at first.
So I ask the other folks interested in building a cruiser if that's the one we want to build. They are already picking out chintz patterns, and nod and smile ;-)
I think the basic hull is an easy decision. Most of the variation would be in accommodations and sailing rig. The hull is in fact the cheap part of boat building. It's the fitting out, time, and space that can get expensive. Fitting out can be done to suit each owner's taste and budget, and the time and space are something we can economize together.
For the bones of a dream, I am pretty sure I can find 5 people to agree. They can paint it puce afterwards for all I care.
So we have our hypothetical boat plans, pending a deal with Woods Design.
Setting Up Shop:
A corporation can rent space near a launch point that a 'private party' could not even look at. Like a big warehouse with its own dock. So we go looking for a space to build in. There are lots of big spaces for cheap rent in the industrial area. This has the advantage that you can work late without bothering the neighbors.
A company does come in handy for building boats.
Especially if you are looking at wholesale, credit lines, leases, and grants.
Just the credit line and wholesale (real wholesale from the mill) would put the materials for several boats at your finger tips. The grants for green projects are nice, 'cause you can apply for any that fit, and use grant money to pay down the credit line sooner.
Most folks don't have $10,000 just sitting around in one lump. But that's the way to do business these days. You go to the mill, make the offer, and drive away. Most times, they will throw in the trucking to a place near you for free. Yes, it costs a little in time and gas to go there, but you get better results. Often if you are personable, you end up with someone watching out for you, and giving you tips on good deals for other materials.
The same sort of thing goes with Epoxy: a business can get it far cheaper from the manufacturer than you will ever get it from an outlet. Instead of paying $50.00 a gallon, you end up paying $2.00 a gallon.
I've seen the prices some companies pay for materials. The ones that do a bit of footwork get materials 50% to 75% cheaper than the home builder can.
One added bonus to the company model that I dug up: it's hard to kill. It's easy to let stebacks kill your dreams when you're on your own. But when a company has got things going, folks will bend over backwards to try to keep it floating.
It's also hard to back out once you get into it (not just in legal restrictions, but in plain emotional commitment.) A promise is good, a dream is nice, but an oath or signature is better.
If one partner did fall through, the rest could keep going forward. They could sell the extra boat, or the unused materials, at the end of the process to pay off the lost partner's debts.
You get peer support, a real commitment, and a safety net.
Why Choose the Same Hull?
So now let's look at why it's a good idea for a group to all build the same hull together.
It takes 1 person 2500 hours to build 1 Romany-type boat (according to the designer). Most of this time is drawing out, setting up, fairing, and making cuts that will only be done once. However, my saw don't care if it cuts one sheet of 1/2" ply or 5 sheets. In fact, 5 sheets means I get better results: a truer cut, and a fairer curve.
So let's run this out.
It takes me 10 min to cut one sheet of ply.
It takes me 10 min to cut 5 sheets of ply.
I just saved our group 40 min; I used 1/5 of the estimated time.
It takes me 20 min to sand the edges of one ply bulk head.
It takes 15 min to sand the edges of five ply bulkheads.
(Why the extra 5 min? Isn't that backwards?
'Cause I have to keep checking to make sure everything is square. It's hard to keep a 1/2 inch board square on the edge, but on a screwed-together 2 1/2 inch stack, I can just use my T-square. Or adjustable square if it's an end bulkhead.)
This same thing applies to much of the boat. Some elements take 1/5 as long, some things take half as long.
The slow-down comes in the small stuff, but even there you can save time. A limited number of people can be working on the small stuff. Others can be working on other big stuff. The fact is, that you can run production on most of the hull if you pick a good plan.
When you are thinking production and working for yourself, you pay attention to things like time, accuracy, and jigs.
The big part of doing several boats at once is the planning. Many people don't do very much planning in the set-up stage of a homebuilt boat, because they can't see the whole project and how it goes together. Instead of thinking of it as a process, they think of it as discrete jobs, and don't look ahead for ways to make the next step easier.
I've not had many shore-side jobs, but those I have had were all in some type of production. In each case, I have done the job better and faster than those before me, because as a sailor I know two things:
- Getting the job done is a necessity; Time is a luxury (and you only have that luxury if you have all the details worked out.)
- The details make the big stuff fall into place.
If it takes 8 person hours to cut all the bulkheads for 1 boat, that is one "person day." If you are doing 5 of the same bulk heads in a stack, it will still be 8 person hours, but you get 4 more done. You have just saved your building group 32 people-hours, or 24 people-hours if your cutter has an assistant for the heavier stack of wood.
Scarfing takes lots of time, especially if you are doing flat panel hulls. To make one big, flat panel (which makes a fairer boat), you are scarfing all the sheets of plywood together with wide joints. Most folks who have done this a couple times learn some tricks, but it still takes about an hour to cut the panels and lay out the scarves, and usually another hour to cut all the scarves. Well, if you are cutting for 5 boats and it's all the same measurement ('cause all the hulls are the same length) your one cut does 5 times the work.
When you lay out the stack of plywood, it's all going to be a 1:10" scarf, and you can lap the pieces to take several off at the right angle with one pass. For the most part, this scarf is going to be done with a belt sander/router/power tool and jig. It's not going to take much longer to do 5 boats' worth of scarves than it does to do one boat's worth. You only set the jig up one time, and the passes you make can take the same amount of time due to not having to reposition the tool constantly.
So say we are doing a step that involves 8 scarves per hull, 4 on each side.
What would have been 2 man-hours x 2 hulls x 5 boats, say 40 hours total between all of us, becomes
2 hours x 2 hulls = 4 hours (doing 10 sheets at once in slanted bundles). Allow an extra hour or two for being careful, or if you choose to divide some of the bundles. And allow for people helping each other out instead of going it solo. Still takes you something like 6-10 man-hours instead of 40.
Anyhow, it's the scale of the thing, makes it work. So you might spend 8 hours doing a single task and I might spend 8 hours doing a different task; if we double up and do multiples, we have saved each other 8 hours each. Multiply that by the number of tasks that are all the same on identical hulls, and you can cancel out hundreds of hours in a hurry.
I can see a couple slow downs or pinch points:
- The time it takes to bend the panels to molds / tack them down / glass them. It has to be done carefully for each hull. I suspect this will go faster than I think, with practice.
- Glassing the inside of the hulls.
- Fitting bulkheads into the hulls and filleting.
I think each of these pinch points can be worked through by some prep time.
For example, after you put the first skin on the mold, you will know where the difficult parts are and can figure out how to work around them. If you glue up the long panels beforehand, I think test-fitting it to the mold will show you how to fix the difficult bits, saving time on each additional hull. I figure one day to fit the skins, and one day to glass, for each 2 hulls, with 5 people. You might be able to make it faster using different kinds of epoxy, or having an extra person to drive screws, make clamping jigs, etc.
So the time spent per pair of hulls could be 16 hours, with 5 people. Or 80 man hours per pair of hulls, before removal from the molds. 400 man hours for 5 boats.
That's not as direct a time savings. But everyone gets quicker with practice, each hull goes faster with 5 people working instead of 1 or 2, and it saves expensive mistakes, having to run out and get more resin before it sets up, hiring shipyard workers or in-laws, etc.
The rest of the assembly will be similar: saving a little time and stress because you get to practice each task 5 times, and because you can re-use jigs, molds, clamps, etc. Using the same 120 clamps to do 5 boats, instead of 'making do' with 87 clamps each (for a total of 435 clamps purchased).
(All these numbers are just off the top of my head for examples. I have some experience to back it up, but I haven't built these particular boats, or worked with this hypothetical motley crew.)
Looking at the Woods Romany again: If you built 5 of them on the same molds, I think you could get all 5 to the fit-out stage in about 6 months. 1 month of mold building and parts-cutting; 5 months of hull, beam, and cuddy building, mostly on weekends. The major layout is the same for all 5 hulls and cuddy's.
Then you have maybe another 6 months together to get to "floatable" stage, doing details like plumbing and electrical, decks, bulkheads, etc. These might vary a little depending on people's crew and cargo needs, but it's still worth sticking together for deals on plywood, wire, etc.
So let me define floatable: this is when all parts of the hull of the boat (cuddy/cabin, cross beams, hulls and rudders) are stuck together. The boat will be able to be pushed around with a motor. All the other stuff is negotiable for sailing a boat, and folks have their own opinions about it.
Fitting Out, Paying Up, and Drifting Apart:
After this point, almost everything is personal likes and dislikes, lay-outs and table-tops kinda stuff. There's still things you can buy in bulk, 'cause every boat needs pretty much the same stuff. (Romex, pipe, plug ins (ground fault), fuse boxes, light switches, stay wire, anchor chain, cable etc.) This is all pretty standard. Almost all of it hides behind the bulkheads, under the floor boards or in the overheads.
But when it comes to visible stuff, and handling stuff, everybody has their own style. In my case, I like my old wooden blocks, and can build a table top faster/cheaper than I could buy it. I don't like plastic stuff, and I use minimal electronics. Pretty much, I like to keep my boat simple and easy to fix. Another owner might have more money than time, or want smoother blocks rather than fixable ones. So it would not make sense to try and get the cash for this part up front. Each owner can take it from here, and pick their own materials and fittings.
At this point, after the group buys all of the basic building materials (with 10% extra material like a smart business), you cut up the credit card and everyone pays it off. It's going to be the same costs for everyone. The bill is a known quantity, what you owe is a known quantity, and everyone has received the same value.
The bill will be less done this way, even with 15% interest, because you have saved 50% on the materials, and maybe another 50% on time. The total bill is cheaper (assuming you pay it off within 5 years). You can spend as much time and money as you like on paneling and upholstery, or install some lights and take off with your floating garage.
Am I Dreaming?
As I lay it out in my head, it sounds like fun, and like it would get some folks out on the ocean a lot sooner and cheaper than they would make it on their own.
But are there 5 people (couples, families, etc) who are reliable enough, and dedicated enough, to spend a year and a chunk of change on the same dream?
Maybe 4 couples could make 5 boats fast enough, to sell the 5th one, and recoup their costs? (Or a 'silent owner' from a different region could put in some extra money to get a floatable boat at wholesale, and offset time and materials for the hands-on folks.)
My wife and I built a small sampan-type boat together this past year, and had a lot of fun. (Girlfriends may sand and paint, but wives can do fiberglass too!) I think I am getting her hooked on sailing. And she keeps making me think about the business end of the deal. So maybe in a few years, we will be ready to throw our hands into a venture of the kind I just described.
Thanks for reading, and good luck with your dreams.