Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Boats for HMS Unicorn

January 9, 2015

A year ago when I built the toy ship HMS Unicorn for one of my nephews, I did not know how well it would survive either the interest or the rough handling of a seven-year-old. As it turns out, the Unicorn is still much adored and other than the loss of the horn of the figurehead and the unraveling of one of the anchor rodes, it has survived and is in excellent shape. When I saw the nephew in question early in December he brought out the Unicorn and began to ask all kinds of questions about how 18th Century ships functioned. As we talked it became very clear that HMS Unicorn was in desperate need of ships boats.

“Cutting out expeditions” need ships boats, that house is full of wooden toy ships just begging to be cut out. The sailors need to be able to get to and from the shore, the crew of bears aboard Unicorn has not had shore leave in a year…anyway, it was time to remedy the situation.

As with almost all the toys I make I started with rough sketches drawn to actual size and then shaped the hulls for the ships cutter and jolly boat based on those sketches.

The boats themselves were not that challenging to make, but the crews took a little time. Templates helped speed up the repetitive process of carving the crews for both boats.

The idea was to have each rower positioned such that an oar could either be shipped with the loom in the rowing position,

or the oar could be removed and set in the “oars up” position for coming along side.

The cutter has an officer and coxswain and the jolly boat has a midshipmen in charge. “Away all boats!”

HMS Unicorn

January 22, 2014

While I have been doing a lot of writing in the last eight months or so, it has been for a book and not this blog. It is time, however, to add to the wooden toy category.

I visited with a six-year-old nephew just after Thanksgiving and he was completely obsessed with building a version of HMS Unicorn from one of the TINTIN books.

Since I was only visiting for a few days, there was not time to even start on this project, but it certainly made it easy to figure out what to make him for his Christmas gift.

This will be mostly a photo post, but here are a few particulars and some of the decisions that I needed to make.

First, it appears that the Unicorn in the books is a frigate, a 38, if I remember correctly, and that would be both too much work and too big a toy. So, I went with a 14 gun brig—essentially a sloop of war. This allowed me to keep the scale appropriate for small hands to play with and also make this a project that was manageable over a three-week period.

As I have said before on this site, I like to sketch out ideas in scale and work from there.

Another consideration is that no matter how careful he is, at some point either my nephew or one of his friends, or siblings is going to drop, knock over, or step on this toy, so it had to be built solidly enough to survive.

Starboard side showing the main chains. The wood for the main chains are mortised in to the side of the hull with the grain running across the center line so they won’t break off.

The wood is poplar, a choice that I have had good luck with over the years, inexpensive, readily available, easy to work, and stable.

The guns for the Unicorn have barrels turned on the lathe of and simple carriages made from a piece of “U” channel stock that I made up. To save time the carriages have no wheels, so I suppose they could be technically carronades.

Guns fresh from the lathe, gun ports, and capstan, which turns.


I was concerned with the possibility of the masts getting broken off, so the masts are made of thick hardwood dowels and much thought went into how to stay the masts to support them.

In the end I chose to go with the most obvious solution, which is basically how they would be stayed on a real vessel. The dead-eyes took the most time to make, but I could not think of a better way to tighten the stays, and once into production mode, took less time than you might think. The lanyards and dead-eyes made it easy to tighten the stays and make the rig very sturdy.

The wheel took a ridiculously large amount of time to make, but is a key feature so I felt it was worth the three hours invested into it.

Helmsman and wheel with the rigging started.

On the other hand, the figurehead took little time and is also a great detail.

Unicorn has anchors that may be fished and catted over the rail or deployed.

Anchors fished and catted

The rigging took about seven hours spread over a week of evenings and two long sessions in the shop over a weekend.

Sails were made from an old pillowcase that had just the right amount of wear and yellowing to look like canvas. The edges of the sails were sewn so that they would not fray and to make  them less likely to tear, the vertical seams were drawn with a pencil and straight-edge. The actual cutting and stitching of the sails only took a few hours, but bending them on was a more involved task and took more time.

I chose to leave off most of the sheets so that it would be easier for small hands to reach in and play with objects on the deck. Only the masts are rigidly attached to the hull, all other spars are lashed to eyebolts so that they can move. This has two advantages, one being that sails can be trimmed to approximate tacking, running, and heaving-to, the other is that if dropped, or knocked down, the spars and sails twist and move rather than break and tear.

Unicorn caries a compliment of two officers and four crew members, all bears. These pictures were taken before the crew had been varnished.

Lieutenant and captain

Hand going aloft

All deck crew have holes drilled in the bottom of their feet so that they can be set on pegs that stick up in strategic places on decks and in the tops. This way crew can be moved around and set on pegs, but don’t fall over when Unicorn moves.

So there you have it, the good sloop Unicorn.

Wooden Toy Car

April 8, 2013

I have been tied up with a bunch of other projects for the last six months or so and this blog has suffered as a result, but it is time to make up for that. First a toy post:

I have a nephew who just turned six. For some reason he likes old cars. I mean really old cars, as in from the 1920s. So for his birthday he got the touring car below.

The doors and trunk open, and close and the car came with a bear driver and a bear passenger. If you are new to this site you might want to read  “the whole bear thing” for an explanation.

The hood ornament is a bear, and as with the saber jet in the last post, a little acrylic for a windshield adds something to a toy which is otherwise made entirely of wood.

New Boat Part 21

July 16, 2012

This will be a long post because while I have been writing and chronicling what has been going on in the boat shops, I have not been good about putting up posts. so now it is catch up time. First we needed to focus on the Friendship Sloop, getting her ready for the season. Then launching and rigging her and even getting in an occasional weekend cruise.

Friendship ready to move, picture taken early in June

Transport day June 10th

Then we had a little time to re-focus on the Penny Fee, we got to do some of the fun jobs. The rope fender, floorboards, rudder, and oars. I would have liked to have slowed down and tried to savor these jobs more, but then we never would have gotten the boat in the water this season.

The rope fender:

As described in an earlier post, we designed the outwale of the gunwale to have a groove or gutter running the length of the boat so that the rope that we are going to use as a fender will lie evenly along the edge of the boat. The fender is attached to the boat with stainless steel screws. The installation is fairly simple, the idea is to place a screw within the twist of the rope so that only the innermost strand is pierced by the screw and secures the rope to the outside of the gunwale. We started at the transom and worked along to the bow, around to the other side of the vessel and back to the transom again. At least that was the plan.

I had bought 36 feet of 1 1/8” rope, which should have been enough to do the job easily. I back spliced an end with almost no waste and started to attach the rope. I got most of the way down the starboard side and noticed that it looked like there was not enough rope. An optical illusion, I thought. To be safe, I felt I had better double check, I checked and found that there was not enough rope. Then I measured the rope and found that it was not 36 feet long, but 32. Oops.

Some desperate calls to Hamilton Marine, and we determined that whatever I had bought was a closeout and not a standard rope. Since they could not match it, the only plan was to replace it. They offered to do so free of charge and a new length of rope was on the way. The new rope arrived in 48 hours, and I have to say that the customer service at Hamilton Marine was excellent. I had found that to be true in the past, but when things go wrong it is always nice to find someone who is going to go out of the way to help you out. Anyway, removing the fender we had already installed took a lot of time and then the screw holes had to be filled. Still, in all the new rope went on fast (under two hours) and looks great.

Rope fender in place


We started the oars back in March, but we simply did not have a great deal of time to work on them until recently. All we did was to glue up spruce blanks that were oversized oars. Then we simply shaved the first one down until it was the shape and weight that we wanted. Once we did this it was only a question of whittling down the second oar to match the first.

One oar shaped and the other still in the rough

Matched pair

The oars are quite long (9 foot 6 inches), we decided to leave the loom of the oar above the oarlock position square in section to act as a bit of a counterbalance to the long outboard section of the oar. The oars will be painted to minimize the amount of maintenance that they will need each year. Varnish looks great, but is more of a challenge to maintain on oars.

Oars painted and waiting for their leathers


This is an area of the boat that we wanted to keep simple. 1”x4” pine boards were a relatively inexpensive option, we have been cutting and shaping them so that they lie on top of the floor-timbers and are fastened to cross-pieces of 5/4” pine with bronze screws, countersunk and bunged. The floorboards will get no sealer and will be allowed to weather naturally. The end result should meet our needs, were quick to assemble, and require little or no maintenance.


The centerboard pin:

A very important piece that sometimes gets overlooked in the rush to launch is the centerboard pin. In our case a piece of 3/8” bronze cut so that it is short. In other words, it is recessed about 3/8” from each side. This leaves plenty of pin to do the work, but it also leaves a space to squirt caulking goop. The goop is covered by a rubber gasket, and that is capped with a bronze plate that is held in place with four screws.

The hole for the pin, with the pin in place, the rubber gasket (red), and the bronze cap-plate

The goop has been squirted into the end of the hole with a caulking gun

Bronze cap in place

The Rudder:

The plans for the boat came with two options for the rudder. One was a traditional wooden rudder, and the other was for a kick-up rudder made of wooden parts. Unfortunately for us, neither of these designs will exactly meet our needs. We do need a kick up rudder, but we need something that will need less maintenance than the one provided in the blueprints. That design is also a bit more complicated than I would like, and requires some hardware that I was not sure I could find in the limited time I had before launching. So I set about pulling together a kick up rudder design of my own, one I could put together with some off-the-shelf hardware, and one where the lower section of the rudder (the kick up part) is made from a single plate of 1/4″ aluminum.

Design showing rudder down

Design showing rudder up

The rudder design is still not what I would call simple, but the dinghy dock is only in about two feet of water at low tide, and we intend this boat to take us ashore on rocky Maine islands, so a kick up rudder is necessary. The top section of the rudder is glued up from three pieces of plywood, the middle piece is slightly thicker than the aluminum plate. This middle piece of plywood is cut in such a way that it not only provides space for the aluminum bottom plate to pivot, but it also provides stops for the up and down position of the lower section of rudder. The weight of the aluminum  section of the rudder will keep it in the down position unless it strikes a submerged object, then the lower section can kick up. A manual line and jamb-cleat on the trailing edge of the rudder allows for locking the lower section of the rudder into the “up” position for extended periods, like when the boat is beached.

Bottom part of rudder with cardboard template.The aluminum was cut with a saws-all and a metal cutting blade. Then hand filed.

Finished rudder in down position

The launch:

Before we trailered the boat to the coast I wanted to launch her here at our local pond where all of the boats we have built have been launched. On a lovely summer evening we sprinkled some hard cider over the bows, slipped her off the trailer, and went for a row. I was too busy checking to make sure there were no problems, but there were not, and as I slowly relaxed, I realized that this was a delightful boat. Stable, she caries her way well, although she does make noise with those laps and a little chop.

The first launch

The next evening we brought the boat over to the sea by trailer, and launched her again, this time in salt water.

Sitting in salt water

The new tender

We need to use her more before we have any real idea what her performance will be like. We will tow her with us to the Friendship Sloop Gathering in Rockland this week, and we will find out how well she tows, then I need to finish the mast, sprit, and sail. Can’t wait to get a sail on her.

If you would like to read all the posts related to this project together, go to the category at the right called “Penny Fee” and click on it. It will pull all the posts on the penny fee onto one page for you.

Happy 4th!

July 3, 2012

New Boat Part 16

March 27, 2012

March seems to be the month for getting things done on our Penny Fee project; at least it was last year and is looking to be the case this year as well.

After making the cardboard templates for the bulkheads we went on to make the bulkheads themselves out of the left over marine grade plywood from the planks. Using the same basic method utilizing cardboard templates, we started in on the floor timbers. We glued in the first three floor timbers over the weekend.

Aft bulkhead glued into place

Fitting the floor timbers in the boat

Next we started in on the centerboard trunk. Mostly this consisted of making up the individual parts of the centerboard trunk and gluing them together to make the two halves of the trunk. We will not glue the two halves together until the interior surfaces of the trunk have been painted. We had finished coating the centerboard with epoxy, and before getting too far along on the centerboard trunk, we did a dry-fit to make sure centerboard and trunk were going to fit together properly.

One aspect of the centerboard and trunk that I wanted to elaborate on is the pivot pin for the centerboard. The actual pin arrangement is not made as clear as I would like in the drawings. It seems to call for a tube that is set though the trunk of the centerboard and centerboard as well that has a bronze pin inside it. I have a lot of experience reading blueprints, but could not make sense out of the drawing. My concern with the pivot pin is that since it is below waterline, this is a potential place for water to seep into the wood of the centerboard, or the wood of the trunk.

I finally decided that what I would do is to make a sort of epoxy bushing for the 38” bronze pin. The pin will be cut a little short, and either end of the hole for the pin will be filled with Boat-Life polysulfide, before we cover the ends of the holes with the “squishy rubber” gasket and plate that the design calls for. What we did was to bore out a 1” hole where the 3/8” bronze pin would go in the centerboard and in the two trunk sides.

Next we coated the sides of the holes with raw epoxy. Then we filled the hole with the thickened epoxy mix and let it set. We put waxed paper under the hole so that the glue does not attach the piece of the boat to the surface that it rests on. When the glue is dry the waxed paper pulls right off. Waxed paper is one of the materials that we use a lot of that you might not think is typical for a boat shop.

When the epoxy had set we drilled out the 3/8” holes for the bronze pin, and there you have it; epoxy bushings that seal the marine environment out while providing a stable and tough surface for the pin to pivot on.

You can see the first couple of steps in the process on the centerboard itself here.

We now need to paint the interior surfaces of the centerboard well before we glue the two halves together, otherwise we would have to paint the interior with some sort of narrow roller on a stick arrangement, and we may have to do subsequent paint coats this way, but while we can paint these surfaces easily and well, it seemed like a good time to take this on.

While all this was going on, we also started in on the oars, or I should say we started in on the first set of the oars. Eventually we expect to have two sets of oars, but for now we want to try out one pair before committing to a second set. The oars will be 9’ 6 ¼” long. We contemplated spoon bladed oars, but they would require additional time that we don’t have right now, and are not in keeping with the work-boat function that we are striving for, so regular oars will do. We are using kiln-dried spruce to make the oars light and inexpensive. I should say that although the plans are very detailed for the Penny Fee, and although just about every spar combination has been meticulously drawn out, there are no notes for oars. There are a number of formulas for calculating oar size. The simplest is to make the oar just a little shorter than twice the beam of the boat.

Starting to glue up the blades of the oar blanks

Adding thickness to the looms of the oar blanks

Oar blanks ready to start the rough shaping

If you are looking for a more specific formula I can recommend the Shaw and Tenney website. It gives a much more complicated formula that involves measuring the beam of the boat in inches, dividing that number by two, take the result and add two inches, divide the result by seven, then take that result and multiply by twenty five to get the final length in inches. The end result is an oar that is—wait for it—just shy of twice the beam of the boat. However, if you are afraid of making a mistake go to their site, check it out and do the math. They make a fantastic oar and they know what they are doing, we are making our own because we can save money that way. I calculate that what we will have spent in materials to make a pair of oars, including paint and epoxy will amount to about $35 a pair.

Seat supports. The other project that we have been working on are the seat supports that are glued into the insides of the hull to support the outboard ends of the seats. Cutting and fitting these pieces took more time than I would like because they are a complex shape and curve in two planes to match the inside surfaces of the hull. Having said that, I can also say that the plans make very good use of the interior laps to locate the correct placement and to facilitate the gluing of these pieces into place. Even so it was a challenge.

Gluing in seat supports

You can see the seat supports and aft bulkhead in place here

The next week will see the multiple coats of paint on the interior of the centerboard trunk, continued placement of the seat supports and we need to place the socket for the heel of the mast soon. Stay tuned….

If you would like to read all the posts related to this project together, go to the category at the right called “Penny Fee” and click on it. It will pull all the posts on the penny fee onto one page for you.

Another Toy Plane

March 22, 2012

One of the more pleasant distractions in life is the making of toys for nephews and nieces. I have written about this before on this blog, but the truth is that when a birthday comes around for one of the younger ones, I never know what I am going to do, I think I won’t come up with any ideas, and that I will never get anything done in time. What I try to do to come up with an idea is to think about that last conversation I had with that child in question, and to recall what we were doing together at the time. It always seems like something that child said, did, or asked about gives me an idea for a toy.


Case in point: I have a nephew who turned five this week. When I realized his birthday was just around the corner I began to stress over what to make. I could not think of anything. Then I started thinking about the time we spent together just after Christmas. I suddenly remembered playing on the floor with him with a bunch of wooden boats and fire trucks that I had made him, and he quite suddenly started asking me about a toy biplane that I had made for his older brother when he was little. He seemed fixated with the plane (which he is not allowed to touch) and I was a little surprised at the time because it is a rather simple toy, and not one of my more elaborate efforts. Once I recalled the conversation, however, I knew what I was going to make him.

The plane is an Albatross D-series fighter dating from World War I. The toy is made of varnished poplar. All parts are glued and doweled together for strength. It has a plexi-propeller disk, a design which I have found holds up better and is less prone to getting broken than a wooden propeller blade that turns on a spinner. A bear flies the plane, and the insignia on the fuselage is made up, but loosely based on the bear symbol of the city of Bern Switzerland.

More Wooden Toys…

January 4, 2012

Happy New Year.

Having now survived the rather frantic run up to the holidays, I can share a few more wooden toys that I made to give to family.

I have four-year-old nephew who is a fireman (at least that is what he tells me). He goes everywhere in turnout gear and helmet, and is often talking on a plastic handheld VHF radio—I believe it is a toy, at least no one has answered him yet on it. Clearly a fire truck was in order:

As with most of my toys, the crew for the truck is made up of bears.

Another nephew has a fascination with the Trojan Wars. This year I made him a toy acropolis. Admittedly it is from a later period than the actual Mycenean, but I could not resist the challenge of making an early Doric temple. And the truth is that at least half the fun of making toys is trying to come up with ideas that are fresh and unusual.

Over the years this nephew has acquired quite a collection of Greek and Trojan toys. Some of the collection can bee seen here.

The Trojan Horse was in another room, and it turned out that several squads of Greeks were hiding in the hull of a toy arc, given to a different nephew…sneaky.

November is here…already!

November 3, 2011

A month has slipped by during which the boat was taken out of the water, winterized (just barely before an autumn snowstorm), we fit in a trip to Mystic Seaport while visiting family, built two more ukuleles, cleaned out the tractor shed and built a new loft above the rafters, built a foundation wall for new back steps for the cottage, and hung the storm windows and got in most of our winter fuel. All of this has left little time to attend to this site, so it is time to get back to “dovetails”.


The trip to Mystic was fun because neither the woman who will willingly get up in the middle of a stormy night and stand an anchor watch, nor I, had been to Mystic in several decades. It was also fun because in late October the place is devoid of crowds, which pretty much allowed us to look at what we were interested in. We were impressed by the ongoing work on the Charles W. Morgan and equally impressed by the shop floor and piles of beautiful timbers that will take their places as new pieces of the old vessel. We were also impressed by the rest of the fleet and the small boat collection.

The ukuleles that we produced were part of a wedding gift and although one was a tenor and one concert ukulele, they were both made of Hawaiian Koa wood with Aquila strings (the tenor was given a low ‘G’ metal wound string) . They both sound just beautiful, although at the time they were given away the strings were still stretching.

With luck, as we get the sails settled in the sail loft for winter and do our final chores putting the Friendship sloop to bed for the winter, we will be able to get back to the Penny Fee and I will be putting up some more boatbuilding posts…

Autumn Weather

September 13, 2011

The last month for us has been dominated by the weather. First came the approach of hurricane Irene (Tropical Storm Irene by the time she reached us). A weekend spent getting the boat secured against any eventuality, and a part of another weekend getting her back into commission. Since the season for many people ends with Labor Day, we noticed the disappearance of many boats.  We are very fortunate to have a little more extended season. This time of the year can be very full and has not left much time for writing or to work on our Penny Fee project, but as we ate the first pie from our own apples last week, and followed that with a wonderful weekend with Family on the boat, we savored the pleasures of September and the more salubrious side of the weather.

We hate to see the boating season winding down, and we need to leave ourselves time to wash and dry sails, and clean and winterize the boat. Our focus will shift more and more to getting the cottage ready for winter, but we are not there yet. There is time to enjoy a few more sails and a few more quiet evenings before the shorter days and the colder nights prompt us that other, different chores await us—and that the end of one season heralds the beginning of another.