Selecting the Design
To me, one of the most pleasurable aspects of building a boat is selecting the design. The internet has made a huge amount of info available to anyone seeking it. Looking at design catalogs, build logs, and experiences with finished boats can really help define what you like, and help envision how you’ll use it. Constant second-guessing is a natural part of the process. I arrived at Michalak’s AF4 by deciding that I wanted:
- The “most” boat I could tow with my Kia Rondo 6 cyl vehicle.
- Barebones camping accommodations for overnight cruises
- Capacity of 4 adults
- Economy of build and operation
- Simple to build, but good-looking
I started out looking at quite a few different designs, and began whittling them down. Strong contenders were:
- Stambaugh’s Redwing 18 (too complex/heavy, but what a beautiful boat!)
- Adam’s Skiff America (not towable with current vehicle)
- Bolger’s Diablo Grande (no cuddy with stock plans)
- Michalak’s Dorado (cabin too small for 2)
I eventually reached a state of “paralysis by analysis”, and decided that the most bang for the buck would be the AF4. An order was placed with Duckworks, and the plans promptly arrived. Time to get off the pot!
With plans in hand, it was time to start gathering materials. The “economy of build” requirement ruled out marine plywood (of both the Occuome and Fir variety), and Mahogany. Those materials don’t fit in with the spirit of the AF4’s design anyhow. I didn’t want a disposable boat however, so I decided that the ¼” sides and decking would be made out of premium Baltic birch 5ply from my local Menard’s. It has exterior glue, 5 equal thickness plies, and no voids. I had used it for some other projects, and was confident it was a good choice. Menard’s also supplied the ½” MDO I decided to use for the bottom and a bundle of 2x4s for framing and rubrails. Some online shopping yielded a 3 gallon kit of epoxy, some fiberglass cloth, and some stainless steel ring-shank nails.
Construction began by building the various frames and bulkheads. This work could be done in the warmth of my basement over the course of our long winter here in Wisconsin. The 2x4s were ripped into framing sticks, and plywood attached with a combination of nails and Titebond III. The plans were easy to follow. Ironically, the 2 projects I built as “warm-ups” (a Glen-L sea kayak and a Bateau NC16 pirogue) ended up being more difficult overall than the AF4.
When warmer temps allowed, it was out to the garage to layout and cut side panels, butt them together, and begin going 3-D. The construction was really pretty simple, you just have to think a few steps ahead, and correct the inevitable mistakes as you go. Attention to detail, and the overall alignment of the boat before you lock it together with the bottom is crucial. A crooked or twisted boat isn’t a good thing. The bottom was applied, nailed down, and trimmed back with a pattern bit in the router. The bottom had a layer of glass cloth and graphite impregnated epoxy applied. Time to flip her over!
Once right side up, it was time to begin fitting her out with the deck, gunwales, rubrails and windows. I decided to (mostly) stick with the plans for all the various details. I found that I was at a point where it was time to paint. All along I had been mulling color schemes, and it was time for the final, difficult, decision. A trip to my True Value, and I had a gallon of Benjamin Moore Alkyd all purpose primer, a gallon of red oil based porch and floor enamel for the hull, and a quart of very light blue for the topsides. I wanted some bright wood, so the rubrails, gunwales, and slot top rails were masked off, and the paints rolled and tipped off. The masking was removed, and all brightwork received several coats of spar varnish.
With the boat getting ever closer to completion, thoughts turned to transporting it.
A new trailer was never part of the equation. After several months of watching ads on Craigslist, I saw a possibly suitable trailer. An inspection, an exchange of $150, and it was in my driveway. The first order of business was some rust removal and a fresh coat of Rustoleum primer and top coat. Bunks were fashioned out of pressure treated construction lumber, and covered with indoor/outdoor carpeting. Some work on the lighting, the hubs and wheels, and it was good to go.
I’ve never owned a powerboat or outboard motor before. My knowledge of what to look for in a motor was nil. This much I knew: a new $3k whatever was completely out of the question. As I began researching my options, I kept coming back to Max Wawrzyniak’s essays, and eventually purchased his book “Cheap Outboards”. Wisconsin has a very active boating culture, with seemingly everyone owning a boat or motor. This makes for lots of stuff changing hands. Eventually, I found myself bidding on, and winning, a 1964 Johnson 18hp on Ebay. She ran good, but like anything that age (myself included) needed a little TLC. New fuel lines, spark plugs, recoil spring and rope, and she’s turned out to be a good investment.
On the Water
The day of maiden launch eventually came. We are fortunate to live about 5 minutes from a rather nice lake on the outskirts of Milwaukee. The shakedown cruise revealed a few things to fix, and my ineptitude at starting motors! But one thing was clear, the smile on my wife’s and son’s faces, not to mention mine. We were now owners of a homebuilt boat, and all the joys that brings. The feeling of accomplishment and pride in creating something most people wouldn’t even consider. If you don’t want to talk to people, don’t build a boat!
Over the course of the first couple years, I’ve found lots of stuff to “mess about” with. A basic electrical system, with stereo and running lights was installed. Cleats were moved and added. A bimini top was added for some shade. Various ways to store stuff are always being thought about. A swim ladder proved to be a very popular addition. I really enjoy the problem solving aspect of the various modifications and additions.
I’ve had the AF4 out in a variety of conditions, and it’s a very capable design. Being a flat bottomed sharpie, she’ll definitely pound when things get a little rough. This boat is designed for sheltered waters, and excels at that. As a platform for picnicking and swimming, she’s superb. My son and his friends love climbing up on the decks, and diving off. She’s very stable when they re-board, and the motor well is a great place for them to drain off before they jump up forward to do it again (and again). Fishing off of her is quite enjoyable, although she’ll never be as good at that as a dedicated fishing boat. The bimini uprights tend to get in the way; the sides are a bit high, and anyone fishing forward needs to stand. Still quite usable for a casual fishing situation though, and we’ve done quite a bit of fishing off of her. Those high sides do make for quite a bit of windage, and when combined with the very shallow draft, she’ll really blow around easily when the wind picks up. Again, this boat is at home in protected waters, and isn’t intended to be out there slugging it out with whitecaps.
So how does the AF4 measure up? She has met and exceeded all the reasons I chose the design to begin with. She was inexpensive to build and outfit, and she’s very inexpensive to operate. She’s an excellent family boat, kids and elders feel quite safe in her with the high sides. She’s roomy, yet lightweight. Building her was really enjoyable, Michalak’s design is very well thought out. She gets many comments on her good looks.
Of course, after using her for a while, we’ve got a little list of things we’d like in our “next” boat. After building 3 boats, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that as long as I’m able to build, there will always be a “next” one...