The Building of Muy Fragil

or How Not to Build a Boat - Another Nut Building Boats in His Backyard

By Paul Cook - Las Cruces, New Mexico - USA

I was reading through some of the archive issues of Duckworks and I came across Bill Moffitt’s article “That Was Horrible”. I showed my wife some of the pictures of his construction of Embers Watch and my wife said, “That just looks too familiar, so you’re not the only nut building boats in his backyard.” My reply was there are a lot of nuts building boats in their backyards. I had to admit though, that some of his construction pictures with sawhorses and parts stacked on his patio looked eerily similar to the parts and pieces stacked on my porch when I was building my puddle goose. (Except my porch looked a lot messier!) I did a little of the work in our living room, but my wife banned me from using the piano as a stand for my circular saw.

I built the puddle goose, Muy Fragil, so that I could take five people on the river for Raft the Rio. The previous year my wife, my sister, and her two boys all rode in the puddle duck. Two grownups in a puddle duck is really about the max it was designed for, with my sister’s boys , ice chests, umbrellas, etc., in there as well , the water line was probably a little higher than it should be. That being said, there are no rapids or rough water areas in this part of the Rio Grande, so it really wasn’t an issue. I figured with the boys growing every year it might become an issue, but the real driver for building the puddle goose was that my son and his girlfriend wanted to have their own boat to do the race in. (And I still wanted to participate!) We built a small raft for my daughter to ride on by herself (Tide bottles float really well) and I was riding on our bucket raft with my son and his girlfriend. They really wanted to go fast and try to win, and I just wanted to have a good time. By building the puddle goose, I was able to ride in the bigger boat with the other crowd and let my son and his girlfriend take the puddle duck. That made everyone happier.

Close up of the bow and stern panels.
Sides clamped for sanding.
Here is a shot of the side where I inlayed some strips to fill voids.

I started the puddle goose by cutting out rectangles for the sides, splicing them together and then tracing and cutting out the profile. I don’t remember if I started framing the sides right away or if I cut out and framed the bulkheads first. It took me a while to frame the sides though, because I had to rout grooves in the framing pieces to fit over the butt joints. When I did the butt joint for the hull pieces, I attached the largest hull piece first and then glued and screwed the butt plate on. I let that cure before attaching the second hull piece, gluing and screwing that to the butt plate. Since I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t use any fiberglass on any of these joints. The butt joint for the hull pieces fit inside the framing on the sides, so I didn’t have to rout any special grooves for that. I used ¼ inch exterior grade plywood for everything and I used Titebond II for gluing all of the framing pieces and gluing the hull to the sides. Since I purposely chose to use plywood crate pieces for the stern and bow, I’m not sure those are actually exterior grade. I’m willing to live with that though.

Close up of the starboard side.
Close up of the port side.

I used epoxy to fill cracks and to seal around the butt joints and the seams of the hull to make sure nothing leaked. I caulked all of the inside seams with PL Premium Concrete Blend before I put the decks on. I picked up the PL Premium Concrete Blend in Albuquerque. I never could find it at any of the local places here. When I built the puddle duck, I caulked with regular PL Premium. As far as I know I don’t think any of the seams have ever leaked on that boat either, but those seams were a lot messier. I think I spent around 250 dollars building the goose, but I haven’t added a sail, mast, leeboard and fittings to make it sail yet. I bought four deck plates, three sheets of ply, a few 1 x 2s for framing, screws, PL Premium, epoxy, and several bottles of glue. I already had some scraps for framing. I was going to use a sheet of ply from a shipping crate for one of the bulkheads, but I used the wrong measurement for the length of the panel and cut it too short.

A close up shot of the bulkheads installed.

Bulkhead being painted.

When I built the puddle duck, I used some specially coated, exterior grade screws that looked kind of like gray colored drywall screws. The threads were great for pulling pieces together tight, but the smallest size I could find at the hardware store was a little big and I split a couple of pieces of wood in the process of building, even though I predrilled holes for the screws. I didn’t want to take the time to pull the screws out and fill the holes (I know I’m lazy) so I just left them all in, filled any cracks with epoxy, and painted over them. I had no real expectations about how long the boat might last anyway. I decided I might want the puddle goose to last a while, but I still didn’t want to pull screws and fill holes. I ordered some square drive, silicon bronze boat screws to build the puddle goose. I don’t remember what they cost. They were a little expensive for something that was supposed to be a cheap boat. Unfortunately I didn’t order quite enough, so I ran to the hardware store and supplemented them with stainless steel sheet metal screws.

A shot of my messy porch with the bulkheads installed.
A view of the boat looking from the stern end to the bow end.
This is not a great shot, but it shows the extra brace I had to glue and
screw onto one of the chine logs because the butt joint broke twice while I was working on it. Fortunately this happened before I glued the hull on.

It probably would have been cheaper and easier to remove the screws and fill the holes. The screws worked great on the puddle goose though, and I didn’t split any wood. When we went to flip the hull over, I was glad we had the screws in there. The boat made some horrible popping and cracking noises when we turned it over. This was after I had let the glue set. I was convinced that I had all sorts of broken seams and the boat was going to have huge leaks. Just to be on the safe side, I filled any small voids or cracks I saw along the entire outside edge of the hull on both sides with epoxy. I guess it worked; we didn’t get any leaks at all when we took it on the river. I opened the deck plates after we got back and everything was dry inside the air boxes as well.

The hull painted before we put the decks on.
A shot of the hull after priming.

Raft the Rio encourages people to use recycled materials. I came across a plywood shipping crate at my wife’s office and decided to use it for the puddle goose. It wasn’t enough to do very much, but at least give me a few pieces. I started the project a few months before the race thinking that would be plenty of time to get done (free evenings and weekends when we didn’t have other things going on). Life and weather have a way of conspiring against you when you’re trying to finish a project. In my rush to finish at the end, I caused a couple of problems that could have been avoided.

Inside primed, bow.

This is the inside of the hull primed with the
deck plates installed.

I didn’t notice the first problem until I got the decks glued on. I was hurrying so much that I didn’t pay as close attention to a few measurements and how square (or not) the bow and stern panels were. I had cut them from a shipping crate because they had the labels that gave the boat its name. In order to use them I had to cut metal strips away from the sides. I used a square to mark them and cut them with a circular saw, but that’s just not as good as squaring something up on a table saw for someone who’s not a great carpenter. Unfortunately, the boat has a twist in it. It works fine, at least for going down the river, but that twist in it really bothers me. One of my measurements to the stern bulkhead was slightly off. I had marked them before I put the framing on and clamped the sides together to sand them the same. I should have measured and checked them after I finished that sanding process. But that’s what happens when you get in a hurry. I just kept thinking that If I didn’t finish the boat my sister and her boys wouldn’t be able to go on the river. And I didn’t want to disappoint those boys. I really didn’t want to use the bucket raft again either because it’s way too heavy and I don’t like lugging it around.

Here is the Puddle Goose making good time.

Muy Fragil getting umbrella up.

The second problem was from painting the outside of the boat too close to the day of the race. I was still painting about three days before the race. Even with our 90 and 100 degree temperatures, that wasn’t long enough for the paint to cure well. After the race was over some of the paint was so soft it just rubbed off on things. When everything dried out, I had a bunch of tiny cracks appear in the wood and exposed places with bare wood. So now I have to sand that all down, fill cracks with epoxy and repaint. I should have just epoxied the entire hull to start with. The places where I epoxied over the butt joints and cracks that were in the plywood to start with survived just fine.

The top of Low Tide
Low Tide on the water

That brings me to another point. The plywood I bought from the store for this boat was terrible. Even after sifting through several sheets to get some “good ones”, I discovered several bad cracks in part of it. I epoxied over those before I got to painting to make sure they didn’t cause a problem. Some of the pieces were twisted so badly after I cut them out that I had to lay bricks down on part of it to hold it straight enough to glue the framing on. You can see the extra little board across the framing close to the bow. I had a butt joint there that broke twice while I was building. That was where the plywood was twisting the worst. I probably should have made scarf joints or half-lap joints in the framing pieces as I glued them on the sides, but if I had done that, I would still be building the boat. I didn’t have these kind of issues with the plywood I bought for the puddle duck, and it was supposed to be the same kind of wood.

This is my daughter's raft, Low Tide, made
of course from laundry detergent bottles.

The vertical stripes that appear on the side of the boat were from voids that were in the plywood. When I cut the side pieces out, I found two voids that went all the way through the middle ply. There were only three plies in the wood. When I looked through them, I could see daylight from one end to the other. I rigged a clamping guide up and routed out the outer layer so I could inlay a solid strip in the voids. Murphy struck again and my clamping guide slipped while I was routing. When I got done, one end of the groove was wider than the other. So then I had to shim some super thin strips of wood into the fat end to fill the gap. When I finished, I epoxied over the inlays to seal them. I clamped down the ends of my clamping guide with additional clamps when I did the second one so that I didn’t have the same problem. All of those kind of problems really annoy you when you’re out on your back porch late at night in the summertime, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes while you’re trying to get all your cuts marked out straight and wondering if your neighbors are going to report you for violating the noise ordinance when you turn your saw on because you’re working so late. Well, you get the picture.

This is the bucket raft after it was rebuilt for three people.

I glued four rub strips on the bottom of the goose to keep the hull from flexing. I didn’t get pictures of the process of gluing them on, but I wish I had. I used about two hundred bricks to clamp them down until the glue set. I didn’t have enough small bricks, so I threw a few cinder blocks on as well. It was quite a site! That curve in the hull really does give it a lot of strength. I used some solid pieces of ¾ by 1 inch pine for the strips on the goose. When I built the puddle duck I ripped some narrow strips of redwood bender board and laminated two layers for each strip. The strips were about ¼ inch thick, so they were easier to glue on than the single pieces I used for the goose. When I build the next puddle duck, I’ll go back to using thinner layers and laminating them. My wife put several coats of spar varnish on the bow and stern and did most of the painting of the rest of the boat. She has much greater skills at that than I do.

I mounted a couple of conduit brackets at the bow and stern bulkhead panels to hold two big umbrellas that we put up when we started the race. I don’t have any pictures of the boat with the umbrellas up. The wind picked up really bad about half way through the race and one of the umbrellas was broken and swept out of the boat. We had to turn around to go fish it out of the river. We took the second one down before it got broken. We caused such a stir that one of the emergency boats came over to make sure we were ok. We were ok; I was just embarrassed that I didn’t take the umbrellas down when I should have. At one point before that happened, the wind was blowing so hard the umbrellas acted like sails and the boat got blown backward, even though we were paddling with the current of the river. That should have been my clue to take the umbrellas down right then, but I don’t always learn things the easy way. (If only I had reefed!) The shade was nice while it lasted, but when the wind knocked over one of the umbrellas, it mangled one of the brackets, as well as breaking the umbrella.

I didn’t know anything about making hatches when I built the boat (or anything about building boats for that matter!). I put these nice big air boxes on for positive flotation and used a couple of six inch deck plates to access the boxes. That will keep things nice and airtight, but if I had built a hatch along the center line, I could have had a lot easier access to all of that space. You can see from the photos that I put lots of small braces on the underside of the deck lids. I think that might make it a bit difficult to go back and put an access hatch in the top of the deck at this point. I still need to get a sail, mast, rudder, and leeboard made for my puddle duck and the goose so I can try sailing them. It would have been nice if I had put a motor well on the back end in case I wanted to put a small motor on. But I wasn’t thinking about that when I built the boat. I haven’t managed to get either of my boats rigged to sail yet (unless you count sailing backward on the river with umbrellas!) because of other home projects and some health issues that have gotten in the way. But I have vowed to sail in at least one of my boats by the end of this summer. After all, I’ve already ordered plans for Michalak’s Ladybug. I want to have done at least a little sailing before I start building the Ladybug. I won’t be rushing the construction on that one though.



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