Building a Lapstrake/clinker Built Yacht

My brother Farrell, AKA Teaberry, had been mulling in his mind about building a boat. But never having built a boat before, he was a little hesitant. One day in late winter of 1954, while walking in his woods, he saw a wild cherry tree that had grown crooked. The longer he looked, he began to realize the crooked part was exactly the correct curve for the bow stem of a boat.

An hour later he was back with the Ford tractor and a chainsaw. In no time the future bow stem was in the back of his pickup and ready to visit the sawmill.

The next day Teaberry went to the Adkins Co. sawmill and talked to the sawyer, who happen to be an old friend. After quitting time, the sawyer strapped the wild cherry in place and proceeded to saw out a rough bow stem. It was up to Teaberry to do the fine carving making it suitable to attach planks. It also had to fit on the keel strong and tight.

For the keel, he went to see Uncle John Henry Elliott. A waterman and boat builder since he was a boy. At the time he was building Chincoteague Scows in his yard. He dropped everything to help Teaberry.

In a few days they had a long piece of oak for the keel. The keel was three or four inches thick eight to ten inches wide and around twenty feet long. Both the bow stem and the stern extend past the keel. It has to be in one piece and its heaviness causes a lower center of gravity and provides stability in rough seas.

Uncle John attached another piece to the bottom and another piece on top of the keel. This was the stuffing box. The metal shaft from the motor to propeller would go through it. Uncle John took one of his huge drills or augers, about six foot long and placed the end dead center on the stuffing box. The hole started in the center and had to come out in the center. The auger went through the outside part of the stuffing box, sometimes called the skag. On through the oak keel and the inside part of the stuffing box. They had decided on an inch and a quarter shaft so the hole they were drilling was about a thirty-second or a sixty-fourth larger.. This allowed the shaft to turn freely. Water would seep up and cool the shaft. A rubber bushing at the inside end of the stuffing box prevented it from leaking into the boat. The hole was successfully drilled, straight and at the correct angle. A grease fitting was added.

A week went by and the keel was sitting in the basement of the unfinished duck hatchery with the wild cherry bow stem and an oak stern. Teaberry wanted the sides to flare out to their maximum width about ten feet from the bow and then taper in slightly to the stern. He made a form inside the yacht that reached to where the planks had to go.

White cedar was the wood of choice for the planking. At the Adkins Co. he would cast his eye down a white cedar board. If it was the slightest bit crooked or uneven, it was discarded. It had to be a perfect board for Teaberry. Straight, even and above all, no knots.

Now it was time to attach the first plank to the bow stem and the keel. All screws, rivets and bolts were either copper, brass or stainless steel.

Looking inside an older lapstrake/clinker built boat, you see the planks are attached to ribs about eight to ten inches apart. You would think the ribs are put in first and the planks attached. But it is the opposite. Planks first and ribs last.

This is where I began helping Teaberry. I would hold the board while he adjusted the end to the curve in the bow stem. Once it was correct, he drilled holes for the screws. On this first board, he used stainless steel screws. Since the boat was to be twenty-eight feet long, the board did not reach the stern. The second board was butted against the first and attached to the keel and the stern. Later we would put a wooden block, one inch by eight inch by eight inch over where the two boards butted or joined. This is the “strake.”

The next board will overlap the first by one inch. There is no curve yet in the boat’s bottom, so neither board has to be sanded or planed, I hold the plank in place while Teaberry fine-carves the end to make a perfect fit on the curving bow stem. He puts two screws in to hold that end secure. We put a big C-clamp on the other end to hold it in place. Then we step back and look. Is it straight? Is it overlapping one inch? This board also had two feet sawed off. This was done to make the “strake” occur at different places and prevent weak spots.

The earliest record of a lapstrake/clinker built ship is from the fourth century BC. The Vikings perfected this method in their longships. A ship where the planks are edge to edge and not overlapped is said to be carvel built.

Now the riveting began. Teaberry would drill a hole in the center of the overlapped area. I, on the outside, would tap through a copper rivet. My side would have a flat head the size of a nickel. His side protruded about a quarter inch. On it he placed a copper washer.

I had a special hammer. A sledge hammer with one normal side, the other side tapered to a rounded point. I held the round point firmly against the rivet. Teaberry tapped the rivet with a ball-peen hammer. He deforms it slightly and causes my hammer to fly back. But because I am holding it firmly against the head of the rivet, it flies back with force and taps the rivet back in place. Each time Teaberry hits the rivet, he deforms it more and eventually deforms it tightly against the washer. We do this about every eight to ten inches, We had a good seal with no caulking. We work our way up the sides in this manner until we reach where he wants the gunwales.

We had oak scantlings for ribs. A scantling in Taylorville was a small board. Our oak scantlings were twelve feet by two inches by one inch. By the time it had been planed and reached us, it was more like one and a half inch wide and three quarters inch thick.

Teaberry had a length of dredge pipe, probably eight inches in diameter set at a forty-five degree angle. The end on the ground was plugged. We filled it with water and built a fire under it near the plugged end. We fastened strings to one end of the scantlings and shoved them into the pipe, as many as it would hold. The idea is to make the oak scantlings very flexible. They have to be bent in a U shape to make ribs.

After a few hours of boiling, the oak scantlings are ready to become ribs in a lapstrake/clinker built yacht. Teaberry is in the boat with ball-peen hammer and the drill. I am outside with my sledge hammer, two C-clamps, heavy gloves and a box of copper rivets.

I grab a string and pull out a scantling. It is extremely supple. I have to hold it over my head to keep the ends from dragging on the ground. I run to the boat and slide the scantling across the gunwales. It will become stiff in no time so we hurry. Teaberry steps on the oak and pushes it tight against the planking. I tighten a C-clamp against the rib and the top plank. Teaberry put pressure where the rib may not be touching the plank. Once it is firmly in place and touching every plank, I tighten the c-clamp on the other side.

We light a cigarette and study our work. Is it touching where it should? Is the rib straight? We don’t want a rib going up the side diagonally. It looks OK and we start.

Teaberry drills a hole through the rib where the two planks overlap. I tap a longer rivet through the hole. Teaberry adds the washer and begins tapping. The first rib was put in the center and we added ribs in each direction. We do all the scantlings that are in the boiling water and then I quit for the day and go home. The next day we do more ribs until all are in place.

Teaberry does all the trim work, adding the gunwales, putting a covering over the bow area and installing the floor boards. Brother Irving helps find and install a Chrysler marine engine.

We are ready to launch the Expense. Teaberry named it the Expense because it cost more than he expected.

It ended up a really nice looking lapstrake/clinker built yacht. The main thing, it didn’t leak. I used it more than anyone during college. Going fishing and clamming in the bay. Once we went to the Jack Spot twenty miles out in the ocean and trolled for bluefish. We caught a lot that day.

About twenty years later, Teaberry sold it to someone in Pocomoke. The new owner used it a great deal for hunting and fishing on the Chesapeake. Then a few years ago, the owner pulled it up on the marsh and the Expense was abandoned.

01/09/15 1479 2/3/15 1571 2/5/15 / 1610

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5 Responses to Yacht

  1. sandra frazier says:

    This is wonderful. I would like to know more about Teaberry . Who r u? What do u do? What happened to Teaberry?

  2. Carol Ann Ellis says:

    Hi Nelson,

    I just read your boat-building story and was impressed by the details.

    One suggestion: I think using the present tense when you’re talking about the actual building and past tense when you’re talking about history and what happened to the boat works, but you may want to check consistency when you’re describing the process. The tense seems to hop around. Also, after Elliott, a comma before a waterman, etc. (not a period). (Old English teachers never die. . .).

    I’d love to see a picture of this boat if you have one. Could you scan and sent it to the writers?

    I think a magazine such as Soundings or other boat-related publication would be very interested in something like this. I haven’t seen a copy of Soundings in the last three years or so since Liz stopped writing for them, but they used to have a “look-back” feature where they talked about boat history. This would be perfect.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Carol Ann

  3. I remember the Expense, but didn’t realize you and Farrell built it. Good story! How did you get it to the creek? Charlotte

    Date: Sat, 7 Feb 2015 14:57:51 +0000 To: mcpowrealtors@msn.com

  4. Olin Shockley says:

    A tremendous article. Enjoyed reading it. Hope all is well with you and Jeanne. Things here on the creek remain calm. Olin

    Sent from my iPad


  5. Gerald Pine says:

    Damned good work, Nelson!! Well written and interesting!

    “The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that you can never tell if they are genuine.” –Abraham Lincoln


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