or Let the Buyer Beware
by Sherwood Heggen
Have you been thinking about buying a project boat. Have you held back because you aren’t up to speed on identifying problems that plague a wooden boat and are worried you would make a bad buy? Can you spot dry rot, bad decks, or do you know the areas where expensive problems typically can be found, sometimes only after you start tearing things apart? Determining the condition of the wood on an old boat for purchase is a major issue in checking out a boat. Fixing the problems is time consuming, often difficult, and expensive. There will always be surprises but hopefully this Gadgets and Kinks will give you some ideas about what you should be hunting for to be able to make a “safer” buy.
First off, start with a pessimistic attitude about the condition of the prospective purchase and expect the worst. Remember, if you are buying an old wooden runabout, utility, or cruiser, you are buying an old bunch of wood that has been exposed to multiple climate cycles, has been stressed by pounding through wakes and waves, and possibly has been in the hands of someone didn’t have a lot of respect for what they had. What kind of shape do you suppose it would be in? Unless the boat has been sitting on a factory cradle in a museum for the past few decades, it is going to have problems of some kind.
Where do you start looking for problems. Start with the bottom on the outside of the boat. Go to the transom end of the boat and sight forward along the keel. Is the keel flat from the aft end forward to about one third the length of the hull. If not, the hull may have been poorly blocked during storage allowing the weight of the engine to distort the shape of the hull. Not good. This can loosen up frames at the keel, pull frames away from the chines, break screws and bolts and generally create a leaky old tub, regardless of how nice the decks look. How do the bottom boards look? You should see flat boards that are tight to the transom base, chines, keel and stem with no cracks. Where the boards are screwed to the framework, check for plugs that have popped out of screw holes indicating broken or loose screws. Take a screw driver and turn the exposed screw to see if it is solid in the wood. If the screw turns without getting tight, there are problems. The frames could be split, rotten, or the screws are broken.
If the boat is dry, you can expect a gap between bottom planks. If you see caulking stuffed in the gap between the planks, someone is telling you that the boat leaked in the past and it won’t get any better. Though the boat may stop leaking for a while, caulked seams only aggravate the problem. As the boat swells up when back in the water, the planks expand against the caulking. The expanded planks plus the added dimension of the caulking forces the chines away from the ends of the frames even more The fix is not more caulking, but a new bottom which could include partial or full framework to make it sound again.
Now get inside the boat and start digging for problems. Poke at the keel, chines, transom, and bottom frame ends with an ice pick or similar tool to see if the wood is soft.
If you can push the tool into the wood, it is obviously questionable and should be replaced. Good wood is hard and crisp, but not brittle.
If it is possible and you have permission from the owner, pull up the floor boards and seats to check the stringers. Often water from rain or wet rides finds its way through openings in the floor boards to the top of the stringers and remains there. Water easily gets in but does not dry out readily creating a spot for rot. While down there by the front seat under the floor boards, check for soft areas around the butt block that ties the fore and aft topside chine planks together. This is a spot where water can migrate into the butt joint of the planks and get behind the butt block to start the rot process. This joint is at the water line and is exposed to air and sunshine creating a perfect warm and wet place for rot to fester. A similar condition can exist at the stem and transom where the topsides are fastened. To find the rot, you may have to remove the cutwater and transom bands to expose the ends of the planks. Probing the ends of the planks with an ice pick will reveal soft areas. Places where rot can’t be seen is between the chine and the topside chine plank. Here, too, water can collect between the chine and plank and never really have a chance to dry out creating again a prime place for rot. The transom base is similar to the chine as it too can trap water between the planking and the base and cause rot.
Is the bilge clean or is it oil soaked? Oil present in the bilge not only makes a mess of the wood but also hints that the engine may have leaks/problems.
Move your sights to the internal framework on the topsides. Check the batten/ sideframe joint by poking at it with the ice pick. Here water can collect and begin rot behind the joint. The joint may have a chalky appearance which is a hint the rot is present. Poke at the bottom of the frames with an ice pick to see if they are soft. At mid-ships, check to see that the bottom frame and the side frame have a clean matching joint. If there is misalignment, the bottom is spreading and there is a serious problem suggests a new bottom
How old is the boat? Is it pre-war? If so, it is likely that the framework was assembled with steel screws. You can be assured those screws are now iron oxide and the upper framework is held together by very little more than the screws fastening the side planks and deck boards. By the way, those screws are likely brass and, having lost a lot of their strength, should be replaced with silicon bronze. Replacing these screws may require disassembly to remove the steel screws and drill out and plug the old screw hole. At this point you are probably thinking one would almost have to destroy it to restore it. Well, you are not really destroying it, because disassembly assures that there are no questionable fasteners to create problems after re-assembly.
Go back to the outside of the hull and inspect butt joints for rot. Check out the topside chine plank joint and the sheer plank. The sheer plank is the upper most topside plank. The butt joint below the windshield area is notorious for having rot. You can spot deterioration or rot under varnish by pressing with a hard object such as the blade of a screw driver. If you can feel it give slightly, the wood is soft and questionable. Yellowish or peeled varnish at butt joints is a sign of deterioration because water has gotten into the joint which is backed with a butt block. Rot again is possible.
Check out the decks. Keep in mind that any place water can get in and migrate into a spot where it can’t readily air out, rot is likely. If seams are cracked and joints are open, suspect problems below. Sometimes the decks tell you by their cupped appearance that the screws have released their hold from battens that have become soft from rot. A typical spot for rot on the aft deck is at the transom corners. Moisture
condenses on the inside of the aft decks and runs down to the tops of the transom frames keeping the area wet. Warmth inside the hull from sun or engine creates conditions for rot. Unfortunately, the exposed surfaces of transom frames usually look and test good. The real damage can be exposed only after the transom planks are removed to reveal what is hidden from view. A telltale sign of trouble in bad cases, however, is a gap between the transom planks and the ends of the topside planks indicating the screws holding the transom planks are losing their hold.
Let’s consider the finish for a bit. Does it appear deep and shiny or is it dull and scratched looking? It may appear shiny, but if you look at it closely in the proper light, you may see what appears to be fine spider webs all over the surface. This means that the varnish is drying out and is in need of two or three coats of varnish. These fine spider webs will grow to cracks if the varnish is left to continue to dry out. Heat and UV rays are the culprits that have done the damage. If the varnish is peeling off, the finish should be stripped and new stain and varnish applied.
Also important is the condition of the engine, upholstery, and chrome/instruments. Checking the condition of the engine is a subject in itself, maybe for Dr. Motorhead to discuss in a future article. Upholstery condition is perhaps a less serious matter. Even though it is tattered and torn, it doesn’t make the boat run any better or worse. The same goes for the chrome on the hardware and the working condition of the instruments. Obviously, any amount of deterioration affects the value accordingly.
The above are general problems that can be in any wooden boat and are not limited to that which is described. Any where rot can grow, there it will be, given enough time.
The reason for going through the exercise of checking all of this out is to establish the value of the boat and to be alert to the issues necessary for
making it a safe attractive boat. If the boat is in deplorable condition, consider the value being that of the hardware, engine, and a pattern to build a new boat, or best offer considering the make a model of boat. If that is the case, maybe it shouldn’t be your first time project. If it is a mint, turn-key, proven show winner that turns heads wherever it goes, the price goes up according to what the market can bear. If you can bear the cost, go for it. If the boat is somewhere in between, consider the expense for restoration and the asking price of the boat against the typical market value of that make and model boat in prime condition.
Above all, let the buyer beware. Good luck!