Restoring an old companionway: the sliding hatch

This is my first attempt to write a blog post directly from my phone. I am moving around tranquility speaking to my phone and I feel very weird. If somebody was looking at me now would think I’m a total dumbass. Which may be true. Anyway I am here gathering the necessary tools to complete my next task which is to epoxy the top of the sliding hatch.

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The two pieces of 1/4 inch plywood have been laminated together with wood glue and clamped down to the hatch frame for one day to get the curvature. I need a drill and I have to find the right size screws so I open my screw container where I keep all the screws I find on board subdivided by length and type. This time I need 10 screws 3/4 inch long to secure the plywood to the frame. The screws are meant to press the laminate down to the frame while the thickened epoxy  sets. I can then remove them and the epoxy will hold the plywood in place. This way I will have a permanent perfectly sealed joint.

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The borders of the plywood wetted with epoxy

A good practice is to wet the surfaces with resin and let it set for 15 minute before mixing epoxy with filler to the consistency of a thick cream and laying it over the ledger. An easy way to do so is to take a ziplock bag and cut one of the lower corner then fill the bag with the epoxy and use it as if it was a pastry bag. Apply epoxy exactly where you need to squeezing the bag and moving along the edge of the frame.

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Once the plywood is firmly in place held by the screws it’s time to clear coat both sides of the hatch with epoxy resin, to prevent future intrusion of water into the wood.

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After the epoxy cured (12 to 24  hours) the old teak strips can go back in place, having care to number each one to find the better combination. Once the sequence is chosen, we have to work very quickly and mix epoxy and filler to attach the strip to the plywood. I ended up using quite a bit of resin and filler to fit all the pieces.

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The epoxy is cured and the whole hatch can be sanded down with a belt sender and the orbital sander to level any high spot. As you see in the picture old weathered teak can come back to the original color once the superficial layer is sanded off.

What to do with old teak?

Teak is a fascinating hardwood. It has  a charming golden brown color and the abundance of natural oils in its grain makes it weather-resistant and unaffected by dry rot. For these and other reasons teak has always been the number one lumber for the marine industry. One big problem with teak is its atrociously high cost, as you probably know if you deal with boats or with outdoor furniture. So the answer to the question what to do with old teak could be to avoid it entirely!

When we bought Tranquility she came with the original teak features on deck: forward and lazarette hatches, companionway and seahood, toe rails. Not a full teak decking, but a classic nautical touch. If not protected against UV action with constant application of a finish, teak ages and loses part of its oils, turning grey and forming deep grooves and cracks, and after 50 years in the elements all we could see on deck were grey wrinkles on the surface of the hardwood. We were ok with some ugliness and cosmetic imperfection, we had definetely bigger problems to deal with at that time.

Teak Seahood rotted away
Teak Seahood rotted away

But the teak onboard didn’t have only cosmetic problem. Unfortunately hatch doors are built with teak in combination with plywood. The plywood used as a supportive panel for the teak strips has rotted away, and with this supportive action compromised the hardwood also started to rot and break. Trying to waterproof such a damaged door was impossible without taking everything apart and rebuilding it. When we did the first part of our refit in New Bedford we didn’t have time to repair and restore the teak doors and many other nuisances all over the boat. We had other priorities to make the boat sail before winter. This way we spent the trip learning about every single leak and taking mental notes of a future job list. All the doors leaked badly and that didn’t make for a very comfortable winter cruise. Both the forward and lazarette hatch leaked and their plywood was basically gone, and the water coming from the seahood and companionway was an enigma we couldn’t solve while we were still living on board.

Once we got in sunny Georgia we resumed our list of repairs and improvements and so came the time for woodwork. While we could protect the companionway with a tarp, we couldn’t do the same for the hatch doors so I started dealing with the lazarette and forward hatch. At first I tried to save as much as possible of the original teak, but after discovering all the damage it was clear that if I wanted a new hatch I would have to build it from scratch.

A tarp protects the companionway on Tranquility
A tarp protects the companionway on Tranquility

Being always on the cheap side of a budget I first considered other options to build a less classic door. But then a little voice started to suggest how I may wanted to keep a little accent of nice teak on deck. I followed this voice and looked around for teak. I was lucky enough to find the access to a scrapwood pile of teak. All the pieces came from different projects and those were the ones left behind and discarded. I put much labor in cutting, planing and sanding the scraps down to useful size but eventually I cobbled up enough wood to build a whole hatch. Taking the old rotten hatch as model, I first assembled four pieces of teak lumber to form a rectangular frame and joined them with screws and thickened epoxy (West System resin and 406 filler) at the extremity.

Building the frame with teak lumber
Building the frame with teak lumber

Joint detail
Joint detail

Once the frame was finished I cut a piece from a 3/4 inch plywood sheet, fit it and screwed it in place. Every gap was filled with thickened epoxy and the lower side of the hatch coated with clear epoxy resin.  Even if the plywood won’t last forever and it will eventually rot the epoxy will protect the wood from moisture and prolong its life.

The hatch ready for teak strips
The hatch ready for teak strips

The following step was to put in place the teak strips. In order to do that I decided to use #8 screws to set the distance between the strips.

How to set teak strips in place at the same distance
How to set teak strips in place at the same distance

When the dryfit was satisfactory and after correcting the math a couple of times due to my metric system bias (I have to be honest, imperial sucks!), I used several batches of thickened epoxy spreaded evenly on the plywood to set the teak strips in place. The scrap pieces formed a rough uneven surface, so when the epoxy was set I used a belt sander to shape the wood uniformly and a router to round the corners. The result was well above my expectations.

All ready before wooden bungs and caulking
All ready before wooden bungs and caulking

The finishing part took a good deal of work too, especially filling all the gaps with black caulk. Once everything was completed I applied three coats of Semco teak sealer, to protect the wood. The result pleased me so much that I understood I was going to do the same with the second hatch door, and  problably with the rest of the teak on the boat.

The hatch after caulking and three coats of teak sealer
The hatch after caulking and three coats of teak sealer

These two project made me fall in love with teak and woodworking in general and even after assessing many alternative ways to fix my equipment onboard I decided I would do the same for the companionway and the toe rails. The companionway (seahood+ sliding hatch) is made out of a solid thick lumber, massive enough that I can still reuse the frames without fear. The toe rail didn’t survived that well as it is more exposed to impacts, chafe and other mechanical stresses. I would have to replace them completely as many part are broken or missing. For this specific project I found a deal on Ebay 0f 4×4 inches teak posts that will do the job. Again the cheaper price means that I will have to transform rough lumber myself into the desired shape and I started to think I am being a little masochist lately.

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Right now I am rebuilding the sliding hatch. I started removing the rotted plywood from underneath and with great surprise the teak strips came out without breaking. Considered that they are still 3/8″ thick and in overall good shape I sanded them down to reuse it. With a bit of work and time spent in cleaning up the old teak I now have perfectly fitting strips and I can avoid cutting and planing them. Not the same luck with the seahood hatch. It was in worse shape and broke as I started taking the thing apart. To replace the old teak I will be cutting the strips out of a big plank that a friend of mine bought on a big sale so I am having it for a very competitive price. If I account for the money I spent in buying wood since we got Tranquility I may be reaching the 1000$ very soon.

Restoring teak with a grinder
Restoring teak with a grinder

Using teak on your sailboat deck may not be the cheapest or most practical way to fix your boat but for me it is very enjoyable and motivating, more than using fiberglass and epoxy again. I did enough fiberglass work this past summer and too much of something becomes quickly boring. Now it’s woodwork time again as I try to comfort myself imagining how good a little bit of teak will look on deck when I will be finished.

Bliss recharge

The last post of the delivery trilogy was holding up my writing and creativity for too long, and writing it was like a big let go. There was also something else occupying my resources: our wedding re-enactment in front of family and friends. We called it “Family blessing and feast” because technically speaking we are already married.

Photo by A.Zotta
Photo by A.Zotta

We didn’t have a public celebration when we walked in the Woodbine Courthouse a little more than one year ago, just a handful of witnesses who had a free day and a secret but lovely suprise party from local friends when we got back. Even if for “The Law” we are a family we felt important to celebrate our union in front of our kin people and also to check if our families were somehow compatible. We had some good vibes about it but you are never sure until you try so why not try to organize a family blessing and feast in La Cialvrina, a wonderful resort in the Lys Valley?

Lys Valley and Monte Rosa
Lys Valley and Monte Rosa

Kate and I have been busy planning a destination wedding for 80 people in the Italian Alps, with guests traveling from all over, one of those things I loved but that I really hope I would not have to do again. We were in Italy for a month to give us enough time to put something together for the people traveling and to try to make that a vacation for them. The amount of stress and work involved grew as we approached the event, and beside some invaluable help and support from our friends and family (and the amazing staff at La Cialvrina!) we did it all by ourselves, planning, executing and improvising. And we did a darn good job!

Photo by M.Lodola
Photo by M.Lodola

Kate is a terrific planner and organizer and I like to work with groups of people, especially leading tours and organizing transportation. But that should be a well-paid job because it’s a lot of work that really wore us down. I understand now why people who get married do honeymoon… We really need a vacation! Unfortunately our honeymoon will be delayed to Spring 2016 and between here and there there is a big chunk of work to be accomplished. We hope it will coincide with our departure on Tranquility, the original project that exists since before we decided to get married.

So now we are back in Brunswick, with the jetlag gone trying to pick up life right where we left it before the “Italian affair”. The restoration projects on Tranquility need a restart and this time of the year the priorities are set by the weather: because of the frequent thunderstorms passing everyday over the Golden Isles I must do a good job in waterproofing the last leaks on the boat. A boat with dry interior is a luxury we are ready to pay the price for, even if it’s hard to stop leaks under huge rainfalls.

But it’s not just that. We now live on land, in a nice house with a wonderful and popular roommate, a band of happy animals, a backyard a bathtub and many other luxuries. Over time we got used to certain comforts and we also accumulated junk to store and maintain. The plan to go back to a full time living in a 29ft. boat requires a re-downsizing and re-organizing of our life and this takes some serious work too. Not only muscular work but also mindset work. Luckily we did it once already.

We are trying to figure out “how” but the important step is that the “what” is pretty clear. As happened during past endeavors planning, executing and improvising will happen if we keep our eyes on the goal, and the holy energy emanated during the “blessing” is the fuel we need to get us there. I promise to post a little more about the how when I figure it out myself a little better.