If God Had Wanted Fiberglass Y-Flyers

NOTE: This article appeared in the Y-Flyer class newsletter in two parts in 1988-89. It has been edited to bring it up to date, make it suitable for publication to a wider audience and add links where appropriate.

My first sailboat was a Fireball. It was a woodie built from a kit by a friend with whom I was rooming. I mostly watched while he built, offering moral support…and an occasional hand when needed. More of a builder than a sailor, my friend sold me the boat soon after it was launched. My most lasting impression of that effort was that the whole project seemed at first glance quite overwhelming, but that any single step as described in the instructions was quite manageable even for a novice woodworker.

Through many years of sailing Thistles at Acton Lake, Jerry Callahan—a local sailor and Y-Flyer national champion—never gave up on converting me to Y’s. In 1985, I decided to build a wooden Y-Flyer. Based on my fond recollections of the construction of the Fireball, the obvious suitability of the Y for wooden construction, my hunger for a new project, the availability of a competitive fleet in Oxford, and Jerry’s infectious enthusiasm, it was a natural choice for me. While Jerry was anxious to get me into a Y, he was less than encouraging about building a woodie. He cited several examples of fir plywood (originally the preferred material) boats that had quickly deteriorated and were no longer competitive. I was familiar enough with the WEST (wood/epoxy saturation technique) system of wooden boat construction to know that these new materials made it comparatively easy to build a durable, competitive, minimum weight boat that was more beautiful than any glass boat. Jerry was unconvinced, but referred me to Greg Kleffner who had just such a project underway. Greg’s encourage and advice on techniques and on suppliers proved invaluable. In 1990, Greg won the National Championship in the boat he built.

I ordered the required plans from the class, which also provided copies of some of the old class publications describing construction using fir plywood and conventional fasteners, adhesives and coatings. These contained valuable advice on layout, jig construction and construction sequencing; however, most of the actual construction technology has long since been superceded by better plywoods and the WEST system. The latter has virtually revolutionized the building and maintenance of wooden boats. A thorough source of information on wood boat construction focusing on the amateur builder, WoodenBoat magazine can be found at large local newsstands.

Without question, the best money spent on the whole project was for the book by the Gougeon brothers on boat construction using their WEST system. No one should consider building a woodie without first reading this book. It not only offers a clear explanation of the uses of the epoxies in boat construction, it provides a wealth of clear, very simple step-by-step instructions for virtually all of the situation one is likely to encounter in the building of a Y-Flyer. Perhaps most important, it is written in a simple, clear and practical style that instills one with the confidence necessary to actually plunge ahead with the project. For more information on the WEST system, visit their website. Several books are available under the heading “Using WEST system epoxy” along with lots of other tips and building information.

A word about the skill required. My boat draws a lot of admiration, which is very gratifying. These kind words always seem to be couched in the assumption that it is the work of a master craftsman, but obviously beyond the capabilities of the average weekend handyman. I don’t believe this to be the case. I am not an accomplished woodworker. I am familiar with hand and basic power tools. And as an architect, I’m able to read construction plans. If you have the confidence to undertake building a kitchen cabinet from a set of clear drawings and instructions, you should have no trouble with a Y-Flyer. If, on the other hand, you have no experience with even simple carpentry tools and have difficulty assembling the kid’s toys on Christmas Eve, you’d be better off buying your boat.

Actually, the project involves fewer tools than most people expect. I used the following tools: table saw, sabre saw, power drill with standard and spade “speed” bits, high speed vibrating sander and a router. Essential hand tools include: hammer, nailset, screw drivers, small block plane with a good water stone for sharpening, ¼” and ¾” chisels, roller guide for sharpening tools, 4-way wood rasp, utility knife with disposable blades, six 3” C-clamps, a hack saw, a high quality Scanvik flat cabinet scraper, a heavy duty staple gun and standard pliers. And of course you’ll need shelter (preferably a heated garage . . . epoxy is very finicky in cold weather).

I ordered the plywood from Harbor Sales (800-345-1712; no web site) in 4’x8’x?” sheets. Okoume is the standard mahogany plywood for boat building. It is strong, light and well-suited for boats. Its grain pattern isn’t very uniform in appearance, however, and results in a relatively bland appearance for a varnished deck. Other exotic plywoods are available that result in a more distinctive deck. Typically, only the very thin top ply is the exotic species, with all other plys being Okoume. I used 5 sheets of Meranti for the deck, which is a spectacular light red mahagony with very prominent ribbon-striping over the Okoume base. I also used 5 additional sheets of solid Okoume for the hull. Harbor Sales can factory scarf the bottom panels to give the required 18’ length; I did my own scarfing with a hand plane and staple gun using the technique described in the Gougeon book. It took one evening, saved a lot of money and probably ended up with a better job. As I neared completion of the project, I had plenty of this plywood to make the floorboards, but this would have required piecing. Instead, I bought a sheet of teak (over an Okoume core) ?” plywood, good on one side and about $100 (about $215 in 2001) – ouch! This gives an unjointed, unpainted teak floorboard for skid resistance.

The bottom was painted white with Interlux Interthane 2300 series, applied with a foam roller and feathered with a foam brush. The result was a glass-like high-gloss finish that compares favorably to professional spraying. The deck and cockpit interior were finished with four coats of clear Interthane in the same manner. Yes, I’ve heard all of the convincing arguments that a painted deck is more serviceable. But if you think that I spent all this time on the woodwork so that I could make it look like a fiberglass boat, you’re just plain crazy! Contrary to popular belief, it is easier to build a natural deck than a painted one; minor flaws vanish on a varnished deck but are magnified on a high-gloss opaque paint. Besides, Gougeon said I could expect 5 years of service before having to strip to bare wood, provided a thin touch-up coat was added each year. This takes about 2 hours. So there!

I used ash for the rub strip on the gunwales, oak for the split tiller and mahogany for the top of the centerboard trunk. The plans call for a lot of select spruce for the chines, gunwales, keelson and all of the nailing strips that are used on the frames. Instead, I used “white wood” direct from the local lumberyard where it was being sold as standard framing lumber. I took a sample to the post office to have it weighed; it compared favorably with the published densities of spruce. It was probably western spruce; I didn’t really care about the species as long as it wasn’t something really heavy like southern pine or Douglas fir. I was lucky; the lumberyard let me select my own. I bought a lot of 2x8x10’ pieces and cut to size on my table saw; I scarf-joined the 18’ pieces with no problem.

A critical component to building the boat was the Gougeon WEST epoxy system. The epoxy itself is a 2-part low viscosity (about like motor oil) liquid that was used to pre-coat virtually every piece of wood prior to assembly. They offer a standard and a slow-drying formula. I used the slow-drying for a little more working time before cure. A foam roller is used to apply three coats of epoxy to every piece of wood prior to assembly.

The end result of this epoxy coating is a remarkably stiff boat that will probably remain competitive for longer than its fiberglass counterparts. According to Gougeon’s book, wooden boats lose up to 50% of their strength due to the absorption of water vapor through traditional paint and varnish coatings (which also results in temporary weight gain). The advantage of the WEST system is that the outer wood fibers are saturated with epoxy to form a vapor-tight seal that keeps the interior wood fibers at near optimum moisture content and results in a significantly higher working strength over the life of the boat.

The same epoxy was used for the adhesive by adding a ground fiber filler. Virtually any consistency up to that of stiff peanut butter could be achieved by varying the proportion of the fibers. The resulting mixture is very strong and has good bridging characteristics. Unlike conventional glues, a tight epoxy joint is not essential for strength. Typically, the two pieces of wood to be joined were shaped only approximately, liberally “buttered” with a stiff epoxy mix, clamped or nailed together squeezing out the excess, which was cleaned away before curing with a solvent. When larfe amounts had to be applied quickly (such as for bottom and deck panels), application of the epoxy was greatly facilitated through the use of a “cake decorator” squeeze bag fashioned from a plastic nozzle top half of a mustard squeeze bottle and a small Ziploc bag. This cures to a translucent creamy color that is very inconspicuous, even with a natural finish. In a few places where it was important to match the color of surrounding mahogany, I added a little powdered brown tempera (from the local art store) to the mixture…it worked great.

The same epoxy was used as a fast-sanding filler by adding micro-spheres (very fine hollow phenolic spheres) resulting in an ultra-lightweight mixture (you would think you were working with shaving cream) that sanded easily and smoothly when hard. In case you haven’t already figured it out, this epoxy is magic stuff. Order five gallons; I used it all and ended up ordering another gallon. Order all related supplies at the same time – a special hand pump dispenser for the 5 gallon container and 1 gallon hardener; special fire-proof solvent; 3 dozen disposable foam rollers and reusable pan; two bags of disposable gloves; two 16 oz. cans of the their special hand cleaner (for removing epoxy) and even a box of 500 tongue depressor mixing sticks.

Most of the remainder of my supplies came from Jamestown Distributing Co.(1-800-423-0030; www.jamestowndistributors.com): disposable foam brushes, bronze ring shank nails, brass wire brads (to install the deck, left flush and exposed), stainless screws and bolts and no-fill adalox sandpaper. They also sell boat hardware but I used a local source for this.

Throughout the building process, I was concerned with weight. I took care to roll out the epoxy coating thin and carefully followed through on every weight saving tip. Still, I used three gallons of epoxy more than everyone predicted; a lot of this was squeezed out excess. I expected it to be light mainly because all of the mahogany plywoods are much lighter than the Douglas fir plywood from which the boat was originally built. However, I was quite unprepared for the 450 pound weigh-in at the Nationals requiring 50 pounds of corrector weights to bring it up to the required minimum weight of 500 pounds. I have since replaced the aluminum centerboard with a ¼” stainless steel one which added an extra 45 pounds.

People are always interested in comparing the cost of my boat with a new fiberglass one. Including the sails, premium hardware, stainless centerboard, trailer and cover, it cost about half of what a brand new one would have. In 1986, my boat cost between $3,500 and $4,000 while a similarly equipped new boat would have cost between $7,000 and $8,000. Costs have increased since then—a new fiberglass one similarly equipped now costs about $12,000.

How long did it take? My best estimate is 200 to 225 hours, with a lot of this being head-scratching time. There were very few operations requiring extra hands; positioning bottom and deck panels and turning the full over, for example.

Was it worth it? Certainly the admiration from fellow sailors is nice. The boat has a remarkable solid sound and feel in heavier wind and waves. And the construction process itself was enjoyable and fulfilling; I’d like to start building another tomorrow. But surely the ultimate joy comes with the first win in a home-built woodie…there is no greater high.