Raised Panel Bulkheads

The interior layout of our friendship sloop is simple, and we feel, comfortable. The impression that many visitors get, however, is one of elegance and I think this impression is caused, largely, by the design of our bulkheads.
            As we set out to decide what kind of bulkheads to install below, we faced several interesting design problems. One was that some of the desired bulkheads would be too big to fit through the hatch if they were single pieces. This really only left us three choices: plywood with seams, tongue-and-groove and raised panel. We rejected the first two options, the plywood because it did not feel right to put a plywood interior into such an otherwise, traditional vessel (also I hate working with the stuff). Likewise, we rejected the painted tongue-and-groove because it requires a tremendous number of fastenings and if you ever need to remove a bulkhead for maintenance, the resulting unfastening is both expensive and very time consuming.
            At about the time that we were finalizing our decision to go with raised panel construction, I was able to lay my hands on a good-sized pile of recycled mahogany at a very reasonable price. There were two reasons for the reasonable price, one was that at least half of the pieces of wood in our acquisition were in short lengths; the other was that some of the pieces had worm or ant holes. Cutting these out would result in even more short lengths. Normally, working with many short lengths of wood is problematic, but since the panels are all basically short lengths, this turned out to not be a drawback, and another reason to go with raised panels.
            A couple of other contributing factors were that the bulkheads could be built in sections that could be taken apart so that they could fit through the hatch. The resulting sections could be “set up” with fewer fastenings so that when they needed to be struck for maintenance to the hull or interior, the process is less problematic. Another contributing factor was that I had built this kind of bulkhead before so neither had to invest in tools or learn new skills.
            As there were benefits to choosing this kind of design and construction, there were negative aspects as well. The design of raised paneled bulkheads is one of those areas of interior boat design that looks complicated because it is complicated. There are many pieces, they all have to fit together snugly, and the layout has to account for every other part of the interior design that abuts the bulkheads.
            Two critical steps to ensure a high quality results are the making of templates or “mock ups”, and laying out everything on paper before picking up a single piece of wood.
            Since we had put in a temporary pine interior the first year we owned the boat, we already had templates with penciled notes already made on them. Using the templates as a starting point, I began the layout. I saved the layout drawings for several of the bulkheads and have posted them here:

Port Fwd Bulkhead

Sbd Midships Bulkhead
Sbd Aft Bulkhead
            Even though they are freehand drawings, you can see that I have included a lot of detail specific to each. With drawings complete, I could now start going through the pile of wood and designate pieces of wood for each part of the bulkhead.

Rails and stiles:
            In a few places, I made these by hand, as I have done many times on other projects. Part of the attraction of this method was that I could dig out my plowing and combination planes.

Combination Planes

            I do not have a shaper table (rails and stiles can be made using that method). I do have a router and a bit set, and router table. I built the router table more than a decade ago because I could not find one that had all of the features that I was looking for in an affordable combination. The table I built is adapted for a number of jigs and has storage drawers for all the bits and tools that go with the router and cost about $40 in materials.
            With our bulkheads, I decided to use the router table to do the rails and stiles because we wanted to produce a slightly more fancy joint and the router and router table made a good joint in the end-grain pieces much faster than I could by hand. After building a few jigs, the router table also cut beautifully on the rails and stiles that had one or more curved sides.

Sample of rails and Stiles cut with router table

Making the panels:
            As with the rails and stiles, I had the option of making these by hand, or by using the router and router table. It is also possible to make panels with a table saw, but for some reason I have just never liked this method.
            In any event, whenever I could I used a set of panel planes that I built years ago, that have produced a multitude of panels over the years and are a joy to use. As with plow-and-molding planes, they need to be kept sharp. I would also point out that on some of the curved panels I used the router table and jigs rather than the planes to do the roughing out.

Raised Panel Planes

            When all of the pieces were made and dry fitted together, I broke down the pieces, did all of the finish sanding, and glued up the bulkheads in sections. The sections were then varnished and ready to install.

Port Fwd Bulkhead Installed
Sbd Midships Bulkhead

            If this kind of design problem interests you, I would recommend an article in the current issue (Issue#200) of WoodenBoat Magazine by Maynard Bray entitled Thinking about Interiors. While the interiors he discusses are quite a bit larger than I think most of us who work on our own boats will ever get to play with, the principles he lays out remain the same. I would also recommend a back issue of that same magazine (you will have to look it up in their index) where three designers are given the same wish list for a new interior for a Concordia 31 and the result is three very workable, but different interiors.


One Response to “Raised Panel Bulkheads”

  1. Paulene Labbe Says:

    A roommate urged me to read this post, brill post, fanstatic read… keep up the cool work!

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