Boat Frame Repair

or You Can’’t Run With Broken Bones

by Sherwood Heggen

So, you are at a boat show and you see all of the shiny wooden boats at the dock. The chrome and varnish gleam in the sunlight and the upholstery has a welcome “sit on me” look. The stylish shape of the boat is taken for granted. If one were to think more deeply about the great looks of the boat, the framework would be the first thing to consider. Well, of course, no one looks at the beauty of a boat and says to the proud owner “ nice framework.” But without a properly constructed and faired frame, the boat would have poor lines, uneven surfaces and could be subject to structure failure. When we restorers pursue the task of bringing a ragged, rotten boat back to life, it is very important to pay attention to the framework to get a quality end product. Everything you see on the outside of the boat depends upon the frame to stay in place and have fair lines.

Let’s consider some conditions that can exist in the framework of the topsides and decks which might compromise appearance and strength of the boat and a few fixes that can be done.

Your boat has gone through some tremendous punishment over its lifetime and can’t be expected to be structurally as sound as the day it was built. Picture this: an anxious, heavy-footed teenager jumps from the dock onto the deck of the boat to catch a ride. A resounding crack is heard. You can bet that was the sound of a deck beam giving up under the sudden load. You didn’t see that incident happen way back when, but you might see the results of the event in a sagging deck or by realizing the deck gives under load. Repairing the broken beam is usually an easy task after you remove the deck planks. Once inside, glue and clamps applied to the crack is sufficient to take care of the problem. If you are lucky, you might have access to the cracked frame from inside without removing planks. Work glue into the crack and jack the crack shut with a sturdy stick that is a little longer than the space available. With the crack closed under the pressure, install a couple of screws to insure the crack will remain closed. Check for sagging deck beams due to loose or broken screws. Here you might have to do some disassembly to get at the repairs. If you have a 30s Chris Craft and possibly other boats of that era, you are likely to find the steel screws have rusted away and the frame has held together by force of habit. Often these frame members need to be replaced because of what is referred to as “iron sickness” which destroys the wood as effectively as dry rot. Be sure the replaced frames are fair with the rest of the boat before replacing the planking.

Check out the butt joints on the covering boards or similar areas. Does the wood appear soft, the varnish yellowed and peeling, and are the bungs loose? It is likely the framework below is worse off. Water has migrated into the joint and has not been able to get out. You can be sure there is soft, rotted wood below. No screw is going to hold well in that. The deck will have to be removed and the framework below replaced as is obvious in the picture below.

Check out the live seams on the deck and on the topsides. (Live seams are the ones between the edges of planks.) Are the boards cupped a little or is there a crack in the caulking where water could get in? Push on the plank on one side of the seam and see if there is any give compared to the adjacent plank. If so, there are problems of some kind. It could be the boat is dried out or the batten is not doing its job of holding onto the screws. Things start to get involved here, but you gotta do what you gotta do if you want a solid boat. You can’t really tell what the condition of the batten is by looking at it from inside the boat. You have to look under the plank. You will have to remove the bung to get at the screw holding the plank. If you do that, you will have to replace the bung which means applying a finish to the new bung after the screw is replaced. Carefully remove the bungs in the suspect area and check the tightness of the screws. If they turn a quarter turn or so and snug down solid in the batten, it is likely the screws have just worked loose over the past 40 or 50 years. Snug them down and they should be OK. If they continue to turn, you have to do the obvious; remove the plank and replace the batten. You will need white oak and a table saw to make new ones. It isn’t that hard to do except you have to disassemble a lot of the boat to get at the trouble areas.

Once you have deck planks off, you might also find deck beams that have cracked lengthwise from the deck screws wedging them open. These cracks can usually be closed with epoxy worked into the crack and a sufficient number of screw clamps to close the crack tight. Make sure the epoxy gets deep into the crack by applying a little heat with heat gun. The heat will thin the epoxy and it will run deep into the crack. Too much heat will kick off the epoxy and make it cure much quicker, so be careful how much heat you apply. Also plug any existing screw holes with three eighths inch bungs to provide new wood for the screw. Where else do you look for trouble spots. They are where they are and often give an indication of there presence by loose planks, discolored varnish or wood, or just plain parts falling off.In conclusion, do your due diligence before you invest in a boat, or if you own the boat, before you go to the work of varnishing it. The above ideas are a part of the philosophy of “don’t destroy it; restore it”. Often, the long way home is the better, happier trip.

Got any questions? If you are new in wooden boat restoration, or if you just have a restoration problem that has you puzzled, don’t be afraid to contact me at  or 715-294-2415. I will provide you an answer from the sources I have available to me. Take the easy way; ask a question.I look forward to hearing from you. Good luck on your project!