Back at it

I always knew the Shellback project was ambitious – and I suspect my readers knew that, too. And yes, I was a tad dispirited in 2016 when it became apparent that we weren’t going to finish even one boat, especially since the kids had worked so hard toward that goal. The realization of time slipping away at the end of the term hung heavy.

But here we are, two years later, picking up the project. I have 17 students enrolled in the class and four Shellback dinghies awaiting completion. I remain optimistic about completing the project, and yet much of that depends upon the students’ motivation and focus. Regardless of the outcome, they’ll learn a lot and gain some important skills.

But here’s hoping!

Sail design

Just a quick update to share a video of our custom-designed Shellback sail using Sailcut, an open-source sail design program. We’ll print patterns and begin sail construction next week. You’ll see in the video three design views: wireframe, development (shows panels and seams/hems), and shaded view.


I received a message today from a thoughtful follower asking if everything was OK. Yes, we’re fine, and the project is progressing – although the past two weeks haven’t been without their surprises (in and out of class). My family mourned the passing of a much-beloved mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother just a week ago yesterday (her 91st birthday would have been today), which left little energy in reserve for blogging. Work continues in the shop, but we have run into a few hiccups.

Last week the Five Guys crew discovered that their mid-plank was several inches too short. After checking the length of their plank against the plans, we confirmed that their plank length matched the plans. I searched the internet for some information about the issue and discovered nothing. Will figured the best course of action was to taper the end of the plank and scarf on a new section of 1/4″ ply to make the plank long enough, which he did. This past week they attached their modified mid-planks to the ladder frame.


As I was working with another group this week, a Five Guys crew member sought my input on a task he was doing. I walked over to the boat with him and my heart sank. He had planed the overlapping portion of the mid-plank even with the garboard plank. (The Shellback is based on a lapstrake construction that leaves a slight overlap on adjacent planks). Aside from the extra work that misstep created and the extra materials it necessitated, I was troubled by the fact that it could have been avoided if the plans and build book had been consulted. For some reason, there is the occasional – and apparently overwhelming and irresistible – desire to improvise on this project, it would seem. We discussed possibilities and ultimately decided that it was best to remove the (epoxied) plank and start over. While the crew member carefully removed the plank and sanded away the pieces of ply epoxied to the joint, another member cut a new plank. Although the setback was just that, the young man handled it with grace. I was proud of his calm ownership of the mistake and his quick and pleasant readiness to make it right. Mistakes happen; That’s just part of life. How we deal with our mistakes is what makes the difference. If this young man continues to apply that kind of humility and positivity to life’s exigencies and inevitable setbacks, he’ll do well.

The other three groups spent the majority of the week finalizing placement of their midship frames and attaching the bottoms. Each bottom is positioned, pre-drilled, and then screwed to the transom and the stem. Once fit is confirmed, the bottom is epoxied to the stem, the midship frame, and the transom. The edges of the bottom are then beveled so that the garboard plank fit flush with the bottom from stem to stern. The kids have used both a hand plane and an electric plane to accomplish this, taking their time to ensure an accurate bevel and fit.


Matt and Ryan have their mast section nearly tapered properly on both sides. Soon they’ll taper the other two sides of the section and begin planing the corners to create a round spar section. (Sorry, no pictures of that).

Attempting to maximize their productivity, groups have multiple tasks underway. A few kids have been shaping the tapers on their rudders and cutting out the daggerboard. The plans are not nearly as detailed for these pieces so the process is, as we’ve termed it, “organic.” I’m impressed by the quality of the parts these kids are turning out so far.


Sunday I’m meeting a few students who are eager to keep things moving. I’ll provide an update on our progress after the weekend.

Thanks again for following along!


Spring break was a nice reprieve, but it sure killed our momentum. Work on Monday was tough to get going – myself included. By Tuesday we’d picked up the pace and gotten things moving again, but there were a few moments there when I didn’t know if we’d come out of our spring break-induced haze.

Three of the groups need(ed) to finish their midship frames before advancing to planking, and with the Five Guys group making significant strides toward turning their boat into a boat, groups were a bit more anxious to do the same.

The TKJCPN group produced a very nice frame and worked to get it positioned properly.


Mid week we were privileged with a visit from AA alum John Henri, who gave Matt and Ryan a hand with their mast section. The boys finally sorted out an issue that was resulting in an odd mast profile. Now they have the mast section ready for a rough cut and initial shaping/planing.


I’d say they’re pretty pleased with themselves.


Katie was eager to work on another aspect of the build while the rest of her group sorted out their midship frame, so she turned to the plans and drew the rudder profile on a 1/2″  piece of plywood. Jake worked with her to cut the piece so both groups can benefit from using the first rudder as a pattern.


Katie has good reason to be proud. The rudder looks good!


The Five Guys and a Dinghy crew were prepared to place the next row of planking on their boat but discovered that the plank is about two inches too short. After consulting the plans to verify measurements and confirming that their hull plank matches the plans exactly, we’re all a bit confused. My idea was to pause for a bit and let another group place a midship frame and then test their hull plank for proper fit. If theirs is too short, too, then something is up. We have measured and verified the ladder frame, and it’s fine. We did a test-fit of the gunwale plank, and it’s long enough. So why we’re coming up short on the middle plank is baffling. I’m sure we’ll sort it out, but it’s certainly unexpected and a tad frustrating.

More planking

It turns out at least one person wanted to continue work over spring break, so I spent a couple hours at the shop this morning working with Jacob.

Jake prepped each garboard plank by dry-fitting and screwing the planks in place, pre-drilling and countersinking each fastener hole. With the planks fitting well, Jake cleaned the mating surfaces between the bottom plank and the garboard planks before coating the edges with unthickened epoxy. We then coated all of the joints with thickened epoxy to fill any gaps and secured the hull planks in position.


It’s happening: planking

Rather a stressful week with a lot going on, but Friday saw the first hull planks going on the Five Guys and a Dinghy…dinghy. This is epic. I’m so excited to see ladder frames turning into hulls.


The other groups are on the cusp of doing the same once they finish shaping their midship frames. We’re on spring break at AA, so work will pause for the week – sadly. We’ll see you once we’re back at it.

Final midship frame laminated

Josiah and Katalina agreed to come in this (Sunday) morning at 9 to laminate their midship frame. I was pleasantly surprised when Katalina brought her dad, who was more than willing to jump right in and help out. Together the four of us worked to mix epoxy and wet out each of the fir strips before stacking them on the jig. In less than two hours, we had the laminated frame clamped to the jig and the job done. Thank you to Katalina’s dad for lending a hand.


Katalina’s dad worked with Josiah to mix epoxy, while Katalina and I spread it on the strips, doubling our efficiency.

The final midship frame is done! This is such a messy part of the build, it’s nice to have it behind us.


It was great to have a parent stop by and not only see what his daughter is doing but also participate in the process.


Laminations look good with plenty of epoxy squeeze out (too much epoxy, really). But better too much than too little.


Up Next: The Shelleyback crew will have to clean up and cut their midship frame to size and attach it to their ladder frame.

Wrapping up Week 9: Laminating midship frame #3

We ended this week with another round of epoxying and laminating the third midship frame. Trevor, Eric, Katie, and Josh worked in shifts to wet out a stack of fir strips before clamping them to the jig. This job isn’t especially difficult, but it’s an important step in moving their build forward; hull planks can’t go on until the midship frame is laminated, shaped, and secured to the ladder frame.


Will stood in for his group and finished plotting the hull bottom on his 1/2″ plywood. He’s a determined worker, and he wasn’t ready to leave until he’d cut out the bottom piece. Go Will!


And I didn’t get a picture of Joven’s work, but he stayed behind and finished shaping his group’s stem piece, which is now ready for attachment to the ladder frame. (Ok, I stole a picture of the stem from the TKPJCNL2K16 site.)


Up Next: I know I’ve said it before, but…planking hulls?? I hope.