G-10: The Secret Weapon of DIY Boat Repairers

People who enjoy fixing old boats all have their favorite products. Some like working with wood, some on fiberglass boats, others with epoxy etc. Regardless of the type of boat or construction, one product I’ve come to love is G-10. What is G-10, you ask?  It’s also known as Garolite, and is the same stuff used on your computer’s motherboard, that pressure-  and heat-formed sheet to which all the electronics are attached.

An 1/8 inch piece of G-10 can withstand 40,00 PSI, so this use of G-10 as washers for keelboats in a wet bilge is perfect.
An 1/8 inch piece of G-10 can withstand 40,00 PSI, so this use of G-10 as washers for keelboats in a wet bilge is perfect.

What is so great about it? and What is it good for? are easy questions to answer when it comes to boating applications: It is impervious to water; it is super strong yet lightweight; it won’t rot; it can be cut and shaped with wood tools; and it is fabulous for high-stress applications like backing plates for handrails, jib tracks, turning blocks, or stanchions. When used in thin 1/8-inch sheets, it has some flexibility to conform to minor contours, like cabin tops.

It is not very expensive–a 12 x 12 1/8-inch sheet costs less than $14.00. It is flame-resistant, stronger than aluminum plate of the same thickness, and, of course, is a good electrical insulator.

G-10 comes in different shapes, so this half-round on the leading edge of a keel provides perfect shape and lift
G-10 comes in different shapes, so this half-round on the leading edge of a keel provides perfect shape and lift.

In thicker ½-inch sheets, I’ve used it to customize mast partners. In solid tube form I’ve even used it to do a “nose job” on the front edge of a keel—to get the perfect round edge. The fact that it comes in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors lends itself to your imagination on how and where it can be used. You can order it online from industrial suppliers like McMaster-Carr.

The only drawback I can think of is that G-10, like other epoxy based products, is susceptible to breaking down when exposed to UV sunlight—so if you do use it topside, a simple coat of paint will protect it; otherwise you don’t need to paint it and it is maintenance-free.  G-10 is truly a wonderful material for repairing boats.

(Editor’s note: This post originally appeared in December, 2010.)

Rotten to the Core: Fiberglass Core Repair, Part Two

In my last post, I explained how to identify where the core of a fiberglass boat needs repair. When repairing core problems it is important to find the extent of the damage.  Moisture meters can help, but I find simply drilling test holes into the suspect area more effective. Drilling will definitely show you if water has gotten in, and if you see rot on the tip of the drill, carefully drilling more holes will show you the extent of the damage. Using a marker, note which test holes contain problems.

Exposed Rotten core with test holes showing the extent of the damage

You’ll need to keep the area dry while you repair it, so getting the boat, or at minimum the area of repair, under cover is helpful. The next part of the repair is to remove as much water as possible, so go ahead, drill some holes on the bottom side of the affected area and let it drain.  You will have to open up one side of the fiberglass sandwich skin to get at the affected area.  Before you cut the skin back to remove the rotted or delaminated core and allow access to lay in the fresh material, connect the test holes with a marker to show the extent of the damaged area and act as a guide for your cut. I usually like to remove the top skin and let gravity help with the repair.  In other words, if you have a delaminated deck, repair it from the top. If the problem is in the hull, repair it from inside the boat using the outside skin to support the repair. There are some exceptions to this, particularly if you have a molded surface such as a hatch opening or non-skid that would be hard to replicate. In that case you may choose to go in from the underside. The best tool for removing one skin area is a roto-zip set to a shallow depth.

Repairing the deck of this boat was done from inside the cabin because of the difficulties replicating non-skid. Notice the ingenious way that the repair is supported by spring loaded shower rods.

Carefully pry off the skin and use a sharp chisel to remove rotten or delaminated core.  You’ll want to keep going until you are into solid core.  If the area is still wet, allow to dry. Acetone can help drive moisture out in a pinch, but remember to wear latex gloves.  Now cut and dry fit the replacement core.

Tape up any drilled holes with masking tape.  This will keep the liquid epoxy from oozing out as you apply it.  You are now ready to epoxy in the new core.

Before you epoxy here are a few tips for staging your materials, and techniques for epoxying that will help make this go smoothly:

Have an adequate supply of latex gloves, disposable quart containers, foam brushes, stirrers and acetone.  Chandleries such as West Marine or online suppliers such as McMaster-Carr carry most of the materials you will need for the repair. Core material comes in various thicknesses. You can also obtain it in rigid sheets or sliced and mounted to backing paper(preferred) for use on contoured areas. Note: epoxy gets hot when it cures so have a clean trash barrel for waste and don’t mix acetone laden rags in with the refuse to avoid a fire.  Epoxy will set up in roughly ten to fifteen minutes depending on air temperature and which hardener you choose, so you’ll have to work fairly quickly.

I find the quart containers the right size for mixing and applying the goo before it starts to “kick”.  I prefer West System Epoxy from Gougeon Brothers because it will bond to almost any prepared surface—fiberglass, wood, foam…  If you buy all the measuring pumps and follow the instructions it is pretty straightforward. When doing this kind of repair with West System, I recommend using their 403 Microfiber Adhesive Filler for a better bond.

The thing about West System Epoxy is you can keep adding resin while it is “green” or not completely hard, but upon hardening it emits a surface sheen called Amine Blushe, which needs to be sanded between coats to form a mechanical bond.  In a perfect scenario you want to avoid sanding if possible and take advantage of the “green” chemical bond– even if this means making up several small consecutive batches of epoxy resin.  Simply throw out the old container and applicator, change gloves and keep going.

The repaired area awaits painting and the remounting of hardware.

Using a disposable foam brush, generously “wet out” the inner skin with epoxy mixture, do the same to one side of the core material, and lay the two wetted surfaces together.  Use peel ply or wax paper to cover the area and then put something heavy on top of the wax paper to hold it in place until the epoxy is completely set.  For larger repairs you may want to do a section at a time. With the core in place, take a piece of cardboard, cover it with wax paper and fiberglass roving, wet out the top of the core and the roving,  and secure in place until set.

When remounting any hardware, overdrill the holes, tape and re-fill with epoxy. In this way, when you drill the right size hole through solid epoxy, you will have sealed the core against further water intrusion and a repeat of the problem.

For a couple of hundred dollars in materials and plenty of patience, you can make an old boat new again.

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a series on fiberglass repair.  Read Repairing Fiberglass Boats, Part I

Fiberglass Core Repairs, Part One

If you are considering buying an older fiberglass boat that your marine surveyor has indicated has water in the hull, don’t be put off– this is fairly common and can be easily remedied. Boat hulls and decks built with fiberglass skins sandwiched around a core are lighter and typically stronger than boats built with the same thickness of solid fiberglass.  For this reason, sandwich core construction is a popular method of building fiberglass boats. However, water intrusion can rot wood cores or delaminate the sandwich structure and weaken the hull, posing a potential problem with this type of boat. Some builders have compromised by building the section of the hull below the water line with solid glass, while taking advantage of sandwich core building techniques above the water line and in decks to minimize the problem. In some boats, such as race boats where weight and strength are still paramount, sandwich core construction prevails throughout.

Foam Core is serated on the left to conform to curves while on the right is the material on the backside that holds the sheet together. End Grain Balsa core also comes in flexible sheets

Core material can range from different types of foam to lightweight processed woods, such as end-grain balsa or plywood, and even in some applications, aluminum honeycomb.  In this blog, I’ll explain how core damage can happen and in future blogs I’ll explain how to repair minor core damage with the more common core materials, foam or wood.

Water can enter the core around through-hull fittings like speedos and depth transducers and more typically through deck fittings like chain-plates, winches, and stanchions–basically, anyplace you drill a hole in order to mount hardware.  Builders have different techniques for sealing cores around hardware, but none of them can prevent damage to the core from collision or accident after the boat is built. Even when bedded with caulk, fittings for anchor windlasses and such tend to rock under load; the caulk breaks down and eventually water gets in.  This water intrusion is what marine surveyors are looking for when they use moisture meters.

With popular lightweight wood cores such as balsa, once the water gets in, the biggest problem is rot.  The second problem is freezing and the separation of the laminate sandwich. Either problem will ultimately cause the loss of structural integrity.  Even with foam cores, such as Klegecell or Airex, plywood inserts are often used under high-load areas like winches for increased compression strength, leading to the same wood/rot delam problems.  Of course, if your boat’s core is wicking up water, the boat is far heavier than it should be, even before any structural breakdown happens.

Cutting away the fiberglass skin exposes rotten balsa core. Note all the test holes drilled to determine the extent of the problem

The simple solution to core breakdown is to open up the affected area, remove any water, rotted or delaminated core, and epoxy in a replacement core that re-establishes the laminate strength and structure.  The more advanced solution is to do it in such a way that the problem does not return by also sealing the core from future water intrusion. For more on these procedures, see Rotten to the Core: Fiberglass Core Repair, Part 2.

Do You Need a Marine Surveyor?

Some years ago, I would have always advised anyone buying a boat to have it surveyed by a professional certified marine surveyor.  That is no longer the case based on my own experience as both an owner of many boats and a yacht-repair-yard manager. Basically, we hire surveyors to confirm that a vessel is structurally sound and mechanically in good working order as portrayed by the seller.  We expect them to uncover and report any defects that could affect our decision to buy, or end in an adjustment to the price of the vessel.  And in fact, if you are financing the vessel, the finance company may require a survey.  This does not guarantee you a boat free of defects, however, and there are a few exceptions where you might consider NOT hiring a surveyor.

A marine surveyor inspecting a vessel on land has a limited ability to test all systems
A marine surveyor inspecting a vessel on land has a limited ability to test all systems.

Uncover is the operative word here because the defects to mechanical systems and structural integrity are often unseen. Obviously, surveyors will start with visual clues that lead them to believe there might be more problems than meet the eye: rust stains, leaks, broken ribs or fiberglass damage etc…  Let’s say that visually there are no telltale problems.  The surveyor will move on to actually try the mechanical systems, run the engine etc…  Obviously for a boat out of the water, the surveyor will note in the report that these could not all be tested.  That is why you should always insist on a sea-trial, with the surveyor present, when buying a boat.  The prospective buyer typically pays any expenses related to sea-trialing a boat.

If you are going to buy a boat on dry land without a sea trial, I wonder if you really need a surveyor.  A surveyor would only state the obvious in the report, since the engine or systems can’t be tested, and you can visually judge for yourself if there are any evident hull imperfections. So, If you insist on buying a boat on the beach where the engine(s) haven’t been run, you are running a risk.  A report from a certified mechanic attesting to the condition of the engines, including compression test results, or an explicit warranty from a boat dealer may suffice in lieu of a surveyor’s report.

Structural deficiency may be even harder to detect.  Damage from grounding or collision are the main concerns—and these can be covered up or imperfectly repaired. With fiberglass boats built with core material, water intrusion, particularly in climates that freeze, can cause delamination and the weakening of the hull structure.  Surveyors will use moisture meters and “tap” the hull of fiberglass boats looking for water intrusion or structural voids. These are skills that border on art form and you should query any potential surveyor as to their experience with this type of vessel.  Depending on what kind of material your prospective boat was built with — wood, metal, or fiberglass — I would find a surveyor experienced in that particular construction material or not bother.

In general, I think the relatively small cost of a survey is warranted.  Surveyors don’t guarantee your boat is perfect; rather, they try to give you a realistic assessment of the vessel as is, so read the surveyor’s report carefully and ask questions.  However, if you are not going to give the surveyor the opportunity to check all the systems or they don’t have direct experience with a given type of boat, you may be better off saving the money and foregoing the survey.  Better yet, find the right pro and let them do their job, but be mindful that you’re not getting a guarantee. Boat yards deal with a lot of surveyors and can most likely recommend the appropriate pro for your type of vessel.

Grooming Your Boat to Sell

With the backlog of boats on the market, it is essential that your boat stand out from the crowd if you want to sell it. Put yourself in the buyer’s position. If you were looking for a used boat to buy, you’d likely want one that is in good shape and that was well taken care of by the previous owner, right? So if you are about to sell your own boat, it makes sense to give it that same cared-for appearance that would appeal to you or any would-be buyer. First impressions of a clean, tidy, and well organized boat will expedite the sale.

I have a friend who recently bought a 24-foot SeaSwirl powerboat. He was comparing two identical boats, one local and one thousands of miles away in Florida. The local boat wasn’t very clean, and a little bit of mold and less than pristine condition had him buying the dealer’s boat in Florida that had been professionally detailed, even though it cost him a few grand more to transport the boat home after the sale.

Getting and keeping your boat in Bristol fashion will make it easier to sell.

Here are my 8 tips for selling your boat:

1. De-clutter, remove excess equipment and all personal effects.

2. Remove, wash, and store all canvas biminis and enclosures—keep boat open and minimalist

3. Repair any obvious mechanical or structural defects that a surveyor would find.

4. Oil or varnish any seriously distressed bright work

5. Clean, wax, and detail, inside and out, make it odor-free, even if you have to pay someone.

6. Organize, chart tables, lockers, and equipment, coil lines etc…

7. Provide a detailed equipment list.

8. Provide documented maintenance details, including engine hours and service records etc…

I know this all sounds like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t seem to care as much about their boat once they decide to sell. Prospective owners are going to look in the bilge–you know you would if you were buying, so make it clean and dry or at least oil free. It may actually take more work to get your boat in sellable condition than you have previously invested. However, If you want top dollar and a quick sale, your boat must be shown to its best advantage.  Good luck.

Cover Frames for the DIY Boater

If you follow my blogs, you’ll have read that I’m a big believer in covering your boat during the off-season (see “5 Winter Lay-up Tips for Your Boat“. In this week’s blog, I’ll give you some tips on building a sturdy frame that should last for seasons to come. Whether you choose to cover the frame with shrinkwrap or an inexpensive plastic tarp is up to you.

I’ve built frames from wood, galvanized conduit used for wiring, and PVC pipe. In a pinch, I’ve even built a simple strongback for a sailboat out of sawhorses and the boat’s mast laid fore-n-aft. The key to building any frame is to create a strongback or central ridge that will not only support the cover but also withstand wind and snow loads.

Wood frames are the easiest; some two-by-fours,  strapping, a little plywood, wood screws, clothesline, a few scraps of rug, some duct tape, and a screw gun and voila, you can build a frame in an afternoon. If you mark it carefully and take some care when removing it, you should get 3 or more seasons out of it.

Frames don't have to be pretty. This one being installed on my current project boat is an adaptation from a much bigger boat's frame and a fancy Fairclough Sailmakers cover. Notice the generous space over the cockpit.

The nicest frame I ever built was made from 3/4” galvanized electrical conduit known as EMT. I bought the standard length pipe, a pipe cutter, hand bender, and some flexible connectors known as Kover Klamps that are easily found on the web. That frame  not only lasted many years, but also was a customized enhancement and it increased the value of the boat when I sold it.  The unique part of that frame was how I connected it to the boat by removing the lifelines and using the boat’s stanchions as supports. Rather than the more common method of lashing the legs of the frame to the stanchions with line, l was able to slide the EMT right over the tapered stanchions. I used a little rigging tape to keep from scratching the stanchions and to take up some space on the tapered end so the frame sat tight—easy to install and remove.

You can also build a sturdy long-lasting frame from PVC. If you simply dry-fit the pieces together without glue, you’ll be able to disassemble this frame easily for storage when not in use. However, this type of frame doesn’t stay together as securely as screwed wood or clamped metal frames do. On boats with very high cabins or hardtops, it is sometimes possible to simply build the strongback and not build side ribs since the sides are already so steep that snow and ice can’t collect there if the cover is tight enough. On lowprofile boats, like sailboats, it will be necessary to build ribs from the strongback to the rail every couple of feet on either side—strapping or line can be used to fill any big gaps. I also recommend you build the strongback high enough that it will not only shed snow easily, but will also allow you to stand up in the boat’s cockpit for better winter work access.

Carefully mark the frame with colored rigging tape or permanent marker once it’s built, so you know how to quickly and easily reassemble the frame for next season.  Use carpet squares to keep the cover from tearing or rubbing excessively on the frame.  I like to secure the frame to the boat’s rails but not secure the cover to the frame. Instead secure the cover to or around the hull. Good luck building your new cover frame and feel free to contact me with any questions about your project.

Relax Afloat, Before You Pull the Boat

Summer boating has its own vibe—groups of friends, rushing off for the vacation, a rendezvous, packing the kids onboard, and, if you’re like me, competitive sailing and racing and all that entails. One way or another, it’s a logistical rush to get from one event to the next.  The season is short and perhaps we push ourselves to get out there. But you know the feeling, in some ways it is almost a relief when it is time to put the boat away.

Some of the over 60 boats that participated in this year's annual fall Sail for Hope charity regatta make their way down Narragansett Bay's west passage. Photo by Jenna Roy

Fall boating, on the other hand, tops my list of enjoyable times on the water. It’s time to kick back and relax..and maybe you don’t have to put the boat away that soon after all. The water is warm, the breeze is crisp, and you have the seas mostly to yourself. Neither looking forward to winter, nor back on a hectic summer, you have no destination in mind, you’re just out for some quiet time on the water—you’re in the moment.

Besides the slower pace, there are a lot of other things that favor boating in the fall versus any other time of the year. For example, along most of our coast, nature is putting on her annual foliage show. Low-key charity events are popular for socializing and for giving back. With nobody else competing for dock space, marina folks are truly glad when you pull in. You even get to wear all that fancy boating gear you bought without breaking into a sweat. You have all winter to recharge your intensity, so, as the song says, “as the days dwindle down to a precious few”, I recommend taking time this fall for just a few more trips on the ocean blue.

Engine Starter Woes or Click, Click, Nothing!

It is the middle of the night, and we’ve been sailboat racing offshore for 14 hours so the batteries are draining down. We decide to start the engine to charge them up—click, click, click, uh oh!  That dazed feeling that you might be in trouble begins to set in, and you try to figure out what is wrong.  It’s just two of us aboard in this year’s annual double-handed distance race out of Newport, Rhode Island—the Solo/Twin.  We are in the open Atlantic Ocean, miles east of Block Island.  Fortunately, this is a sailboat, so we aren’t marooned, but we do need batteries for all our navigational instruments and running lights, and we don’t have much juice left.

Small diesel engines like this Yanmar are often found in cramped quarters on sailboats, making access the biggest deterrent to maintenance or repair.

I stay on deck and continue to sail while my buddy Jeff pops below.  “Try it again,” he shouts—click, click, nothing.  We start shutting down all the non-essential electronics, just like Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13, until only the masthead running light is left working off the backup battery.  We can hear the click and see the lights dim when I hit the starter button, so we’re thinking it’s either too low a battery, a bad solenoid, or maybe even a fried starter.

Out comes the battery jumper pack, nothing. We open the compression valves on the engine and spin it by hand, so we know the engine isn’t frozen, but still we can’t get it started.  I’m remembering all those horror stories of people breaking an arm trying to start a diesel by hand as the handle spins out of control, especially in our cramped sardine-can-sized engine compartment, and I’m thinking how much worse this might be if one of us were injured on top of our present dilemma. Jeff starts banging on the starter with a winch handle as I try the starter button again.

We finish the race about dawn, still with no engine, so we sail the boat right to the mooring and tie up.  Exhausted, we try to think through all the possibilities of the engine problem once again.  We had spark but were afraid of trying the age-old solution of touching a screw driver across the contacts of the solenoid, due to the confined space and having a hand in the engine compartment if it did decide to fire.  So we go ashore in search of a new starter and solenoid, sure that one is the answer.

After a shower and a short nap we return with a brand new starter/solenoid and install it, click, click nothing.  But we’ve also brought a jumper wire from Jeff’s basement that sparks enough for him to pull his hand out of the engine compartment super-quick.  The problem turns out to be the contact starter switch.  A $9 part at the local Auto Zone.  We re-install the old starter and return the unused new starter before picking up the contact switch.

Jeff has since admitted that he had been having problems with the switch for over a year; previously you had to push it just right to start the engine. It was making contact, just not enough to kick the starter over. Ah engine maintenance! Left alone, a simple $9 switch will wait to cause trouble only when it can create an adventure for you.

End of the Season Cheap Boats

Fall can be a very good time to buy a boat, and not just for the new boat buyer who is taking advantage of the fall boat show discounts, but also for the used boat buyer as well.  Yes, sometimes it’s hard to take on all the burdens of boat ownership when your new boat will be sitting on the hard for much of the winter, but there are advantages to buying in the fall that you should consider.

Most boat sales do happen in the spring, but bargains can be had as current boat owners find it harder to balance using and maintaining their boat now that their kids are back in school, and pretty soon it’ll be time to haul it. Avoiding the logistics, work, and cost associated with storing a boat for the winter is another compelling reason that pushes people to sell.  One boat owner’s busy fall schedule and anxiety about the inevitable hurricane threatening the coast, or the longer term winter weather on the horizon, can be a buyer’s opportunity for you.

Another advantage to a fall purchase is that it should be easy and cost free to sea trial the boat. It also could afford you some glorious Indian summer days and the fall foliage season to enjoy their new boat, without the hassle of commissioning and launching the boat; it’s already afloat, go ahead and enjoy it.  As a bonus, you also might be able to assume its mooring or dock slip for next season. Finally, a little experience on the water with your new boat can refine your winter maintenance plan and give you time to address what’s important.

Old wooden boats can give pleasure even when sitting still for admirers. Owning one can be even sweeter if you can get a cheap boat deal.

Make sure the discount price you will pay now would cover those loan or storage charges typically incurred during the winter season.  Any experienced owner who is thinking of selling will recognize these expenses and be willing to negotiate, especially if you are willing to accept the logistics and work of storing a boat.

Autumn boating has provided some of my favorite times on the water over the years.  So, if it’s time to restock the woodpile and keep an eye open for school buses, it might also be the right time to look for a good cheap boat.

Author’s Note: If you missed my earlier blogs on the boat-buying process—and you found this one useful—“Choose a Home for Your Boat” and “Focus on Use When Buying a Boat” may also be helpful as you narrow down the type of boat you should be pursuing, at any time of year.

Your Boat Ownership Love Affair

There is an old adage that says the two best days in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys and the day he sells. The statement combines all our dreams and ambitions of boating with the cost and hard-work reality that boat ownership entails. I’m not sure what it says for folks like me who’ve owned many boats — maybe we just like to enjoy those two best days over and over again?

This Soverel 33 is a boat I wish I still owned, especially after putting hundreds of hours of labor and thousands of dollars in equipment into upgrading the boat

I’ve sold a few boats that I still mourn selling and wish I’d hung on to them; my emotional attachment is that strong. They are generally boats I put a lot of work and effort into and although I was happy to cash the check when they left, I still look back wistfully.  I think of some fond boating memory like teaching my son to sail or a family vacation to the islands, and the boat has a place in my heart.

My boating buddy, Jeff, told me of some friends of his who are trying to sell an old boat they’ve grown up with over the past 15 years. One indicator that they haven’t let go emotionally yet is that they put way too high a price on the old girl, almost guaranteeing it won’t sell.  Their problem is, they have already bought the new boat.

Now that seems to me the definition of the worst day in a boat owner’s life.  They’ve reconciled this by cruising with the new boat and racing the old one, but I can’t fathom this relationship — seems like either the new mistress or the old one has to go.

My poor marital analogy aside, here are a few suggestions on parting ways with the old boat.  Hopefully, they will make your new-boat love affair go much smoother. (You do know buying another boat is going to happen again, right?)

First, obviously, ALWAYS sell the old boat first! And to do so, set a realistic price.

But then, be sure to sell all the equipment that belonged to the old boat as extras in the sale, right down to the dinghy and tools—be really ruthless about this.  Set the price for the boat and negotiate the extras as a package deal they can’t refuse.  Don’t worry, the boat you haven’t bought yet has a complete package of equipment that its owner will be willing to sell you, too, just so everyone can start fresh.  Make your boat buyer a deal so they have to take all the old equipment belonging to the departing boat out your basement.

Why is this so important? They will need most of that stuff anyway, and your home, heart and yard will now have space for your intended to move into.  Trust me, there is something emotionally awkward about tripping over old boat parts, triggering memories of a lost love.