A builder who’s wedded to wood

Posted on 01 October 2010 Written by Eric Sorensen
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39_wood_01Dick Pulsifer fashions functionality and beauty based on century-old tradition in his Maine shop

We're all, to a degree, products of our environment, and that is certainly the case with Dick Pulsifer, a wooden-boat builder from Brunswick, Maine. Dick grew up listening to the rhythmic sound of one-lunger - or single-cylinder - gas engines pushing small wooden fishing boats along Maine's New Meadows River in the wee hours of the morning. Think of the movie "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," and you'll get an idea of the clattering cacophony the engines produced.

The inshore fisheries these boats worked were Dick's world as a child, and that's why he's spent decades building the boat that captivated him at an early age - a tried-and-true hull design that has served New England for well more than a century. Known as a Hampton-type boat, Dick's Pulsifer Hamptons are built to haul lobster traps or to take the kids out for a day on the water. Building strip-planked wooden boats is an art form, and it's gratifying to me that Dick is keeping it alive as he handcrafts a few 22-foot Pulsifer Hamptons each year.

38_wood_01It takes 450 hours to build a Pulsifer Hampton, and just a few years ago when things were booming Dick had five- and six-boat years. However, the market has thinned for these $47,250 boats given the economy and the erosion of discretionary income.

I had the pleasure of visiting Dick at his workshop earlier this year, and it was a bit like taking a step back in time. The man and his boats are emblematic of the wooden-boat building tradition that is so much a part of our maritime history, and I'm happy to say he is hanging in there despite the tough economy.

"The boat in the back shed, the one I'll be taking to the Portland boat show, was built on spec, and so is this one I'm working on now," Dick says. "[Business] will pick up again, but right now it's very frustrating. However, it still pays to buy in volume, so currently I have $5,000 tied up in shaft logs and shafts, which I get from Ron Thomas in Franklin."

Ron does beautiful work, according to Dick, who describes the shaft log as a piece of art. The shaft log is very heavily built, as you can tell as soon as you pick it up and swing it around the shop a bit.

The man behind the boats

You might say Dick stumbled into building traditional wooden boats. Back in the early 1960s, Dick wasn't interested in being drafted into the Army, so he joined the Navy and served from 1963 to 1967. When his enlistment ended, he went home to Brunswick, Maine.

Friends at Bowdoin College had come across an old one-lunger that had literally shaken the dory it was in to smithereens, and Dick acquired the engine and looked around for a boat to put it in. What he found - this was in 1969 - was a Hampton launch, which, as it transpired, served as a perfect platform for the engine.

39_wood_02He ran that boat for 18 years while building boats for a living. By 1987, the Hampton launch had given up the ghost, so he built himself a Pulsifer Hampton of his own, hull No. 27, specifically for the one-lunger. (That was one lucky engine, if you ask me.) The original Hampton's galvanized fastenings were gone, and he didn't want to fiberglass the boat, adding insult to injury, so he consigned it to the graveyard.

"It had archaeological value as a locally built boat [that] was never lobstered," Dick says. "The original owner messed around with some tuna fishing and general putting around, and he helped Charlie Gomes build it."

Charlie Gomes was one of the best-known builders in the Casco Bay area for years. As far as Dick knows, Charlie built his first Hampton-type hull in 1902 and continued building them into the 1950s. The Hampton-type hull was around before, of course, but Charlie made them famous in Southern Maine. For Dick, his old Hampton was a piece of history that he wanted to preserve, or at least not disfigure with fiberglass.

"You can't refasten strip-planked boats, since the planks are edge-nailed and you can't get to them," he says. "Some people fiberglass those old boats, which I guess is OK for them to do, as it keeps them going, but I sure won't do it."

Dick is stickler for tradition, and he's a bit of a throwback in other ways. If you want to communicate with him, you'll have to write him a letter or call him on the landline. He has no personal e-mail address or cell phone, though you can reach him via his website, a necessary nod to modernity. He does own an AM-FM radio, however, which was playing classical music when I walked into his workshop to see him shine in his element. "I listen to classical music on NPR all day long," Dick says.

40_wood_01Dick loves the lobstering exhibit at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. "It's the fishery I knew as a child - wooden boats with automotive engines," he says. "It puts you in touch with boats as they were, not these huge plastic boats you see today."

Along these same lines, Dick recoils if you associate his 22-footers with picnic boats. "The Pulsifer Hamptons are made to fish; haul lobster traps, firewood, dogs and camp supplies; to swim from; tow kids on floats; or to just cruise around," he says. "They're not picnic boats."

Dick mostly works alone, but once in a while he gets a little help building his boats from Bowdoin College students. The college is located quite close to his workshop. "I run a sort of daycare for the students," Dick says.

His building philosophy is to use whatever materials are available. (He's actually more selective than that makes him sound.) At least this is how the original builders, who fished boats they built themselves, operated. "There weren't professional boatbuilders," Dick says.

From the 1860s to the early 1900s there was an identifiable hull type for these inshore New England fishing boats, which originated in the area of Hampton, N.H., hence the name. The hulls were fitted with sailing rigs and were double-ended to better take following seas, but when there was no wind, you had to row. By about 1915 the Hampton-type boats had switched mostly from sail to one-lungers, and that meant the fishermen could go out farther and catch more fish. Engines opened up range and increased profits. They also influenced the hull design.

"A fellow named Sennet on Bailey's Island built a square-stern Hampton so he could carry a couple of traps back aft," Dick says. "The boat just evolved."

Dick says he builds wooden boats in part because he doesn't know how to work with fiberglass. "I repaired a snowmobile cowl 35 years ago and that was it," he says. "I like the tradition of working with a material that's been used to build boats around here for hundreds of years. It's already too easy to make something ugly. Canoes used to be pretty boats, and then fiberglass came along."

A versatile sea boat

The Pulsifer Hampton is a Down East design with a fine entry, round bilges, a hollow (built-down) keel, plumb stem and flat buttocks aft to provide the lift needed to plane. The built-down keel is produced by a radius in the ribs, so the hull curves down to meet the bottom half of the keel, rather than ending at a hard angle at the garboard. This adds buoyancy down low that reduces the hull's immersion at the bilge and adds weight-carrying capability.

Though the boat's full keel resists the rudder in a turn, it stops several feet forward of the stern, diminishing its propensity to keep the boat going straight ahead. At the same time, the round bilges provide little resistance to the rudder in a hard turn, letting the stern slip sideways more easily than a hard-chine boat would, a handy attribute for a boat working traps. Built-down boats are known for their seaworthiness, if not their speed.

The other popular Maine-style hull is the skeg design, which has a hard inside corner where the garboard strake meets the keel. This design planes more efficiently than a built-down hull since there is more bottom-lifting surface.

41_wood_01The Pulsifer Hampton has a modest beam, which helps make it an efficient and comfortable sea boat. The Hampton-type design differs greatly from the designs of more modern boats, which are often not as fuel-efficient and easy in a seaway. As Dick says: "The wide barges they're building today drag along half the bay with them." (I knew I liked this guy!)

Riding a semidisplacement hull with the center of gravity farther forward, the boat can run comfortably at any speed up to its 13-knot top end. There's really no hump speed - the boat will just slide along a little faster each time you nudge up the throttle. The round bilges, modest beam/length and fine ends give it a comfortable motion.

"The rudder is balanced, so [the boat] steers easily," Dick says. "You can back it any way you want once you have a little way on, or leave the rudder hard over and back and fill." Dick makes the barn door rudder from 1-1/8-inch-thick oak, drifted together with 3/4-inch silicon bronze rods.

Power is a 290-pound, 29-hp Yanmar diesel with a deep 3.22-to-1 gear turning a 1-1/4-inch stainless-steel shaft (that's one heavy shaft for 29 hp) and a 17-inch-

diameter by 16-inch-pitch four-blade Michigan DQX wheel. "[It's] a marvelous blade shape, with no cupping," says Dick, who finds the props work well right out of the box.

The boat, which weighs 2,200 pounds launched, gets on plane easily at about 11 knots and, as previously mentioned, does just over 13 knots wide open. Fuel consumption - this is the good part - maxes out at 1.5 gallons per hour.

Part of the secret to reliable running is clean diesel. "We suggest that [owners] fill a container with fuel, let it settle out, then pour the contents into the tank," Dick says. "Too often they get a slug of sludge or water in the fuel if they fill [the tank] directly from the nozzle."

As to average running time during a season for these boats, Dick says 100 hours is about the norm, since most owners don't launch their boats until the middle of June. "The water is just too cold," he says. He adds that the engine will burn around 20 gallons of fuel in 60 hours of running time.

Lately, many owners have been young families with children. The design lends itself to practical functionality and to playtime with the kids, depending on the desire of the owner, Dick says. "One of my boats is owned by a real boat nut in Bainbridge, Wash., and he uses it year round. Now his kids know how to run an inboard boat," he says.

The makings of a Pulsifer

When I visited Dick at his workshop, I got a clear picture of just what goes into making a quality wooden powerboat, and I want to share that view with you here. Although you may not be familiar with some of the more esoteric lingo, just a glimpse at the building process will show you a tradition that reaches far back in time, a tradition I, for one, value immensely.

All of the wood that goes into a Pulsifer Hampton - white pine, cherry, cedar, and red and white oak - is local, and a good bit of it comes from Dick's 25-acre property on the water. The stem, knee, keel, deadwood, horn timber and sternpost are all of good-quality red oak. Dick likes it because it's porous and soaks up wood preservative like a sponge. He built a boat with a white oak stem a few boats ago, but the wood was a real bear to work with - hard and gnarly.

Dick knows wood better than most people, of course. "Cedar is very stable with varying moisture content. Pine is fine, but it dries up more," he says. "As soon as the weather permits, we leave all the doors open in the shed so the wood doesn't dry out. All the wood is air dried on sticks for a couple of years. Cedar doesn't need to be dried for very long, but pine does."

Dick also knows how to run an efficient operation. He builds six stern sections (transoms) at one time to get some economy of scale. The transom has a piece of cherry across the bottom and oak across the top and on the sides - all steam-bent to shape. He also planes and strips a lot of pine - for 18 months worth of boats. "So we make a big mess only once in a while," he explains.

The strip planks are ripped from clear, knot-free pine boards to ensure that the planks will curve reliably. This is important because the strip planks initially serve as battens, as we'll see. All the wood is cut and air dried before use. "We get the wood winter cut when the sap is out of it," says Dick. "It's already partially seasoned when it's cut. Half of the weight of hardwood is the moisture."

41_wood_02As is typical of building wooden boats, the backbone is bolted together, temporary molds are set up, the transom is built and braced in position, and then the planking goes on. Dick has a piece of plywood that's marked for the location of the keel bolts, molds, floor timbers and frame pockets (the notches in the keel that the ribs mate into). He starts with the stern, keel and deadwood, which are made from 3-1/2-inch oak. The building process then involves work on the sternpost and horn timber, which are made from 4-1/4-inch oak to give them more strength, and the rudder post that goes through the horn timber. Once the keel is bolted together, he cuts a rabbet to receive the planking, manually cutting it from the sternpost forward to the stem.

Next, he starts fitting the knee to the stem, the horn timber to the sternpost, and the sternpost to the keel. He shapes the deadwood to improve water flow to the prop and rudder, and he beds (bonds) it all together with 3M 5200 death-grip adhesive. There are five half-inch keel bolts in the deadwood, two in the stem and two more in the keel for the knee. All are back-bored and bunged. There's also a pine stopwater between the stem and the keel.

The oak members do not swell very much, unlike pine. So he takes a 3/8-inch block of pine, planes it into an eight-sided plug, sands it smooth and round, and then drives it through a heavy mandrel to make it a cylinder. This gets dipped in pine tar and driven through the 3/8-inch hole where the knee, stem and keel join together. When the boat is in the water, the pine swells up in the hole, creating a watertight joint.

Once the boat's backbone is assembled, Dick sets it up on the building stock, or foundation, on the shop floor. The horn timber is fixed in place, the stem set vertical (using a 4-foot level) and braced to the overhead, and then the sternpost is set vertical and braced. Next, he fastens the stern section to the horn timber, making sure it is level side-to-side and that it's even fore and aft, using a tape measuring forward to the bow nail.

With the keel, horn timber, stem and stern in place, the No. 1 mold (a temporary form shaped like the hull in section) goes in. It is fastened to the keel and to the ceiling of the shed; the No. 2 and No. 3 molds go in later. Dick uses little molds initially that allow him to strip plank out a foot or so from the keel, while making it easy to get in and out of the hull as he's building it.

"Then you start stripping," he says, referring to the planking process that starts up around the turn of the bilge, which is the first waypoint. Each strip is beveled on the bottom while it's still on the bench to conform to the edge angle of the last strip. Then he comes up around the turn of the bilge and goes out 12 strips away from the keel.

At this point, Dick sets up the big molds because he doesn't need to be climbing in and out of the hull anymore. The strip planks are edge-nailed to each other with silicon bronze ring nails (ring nails hold pretty much like screws), and at every fourth or fifth plank they are also nailed to the ribs and floor timbers.

"At the turn of the bilge we nail every two or three planks, since the bend is tighter and the wood is stressed more," Dick says. The nails are bent over or clinched on the inside.

Once the hull is planked far enough out from the keel, the oak floor timbers go in. They are fastened with 2-inch-long by No. 14 silicon bronze screws and 3M 5200 adhesive. Once the planking is up to within a foot or so of the sheer, he puts a sheer batten on to mark out a fair curve. He then continues planking right up to the sheer, adjusting the width of the pine strips so the last one meets the sheer evenly. Dick then removes the molds, except mold No. 1, which is used to hold the hull's shape until the deck is framed.

He sands the interior of the hull and nails the steam-bent oak ribs in place. The ribs follow the curvature of the planking and are 1-1/2-inch by 3/4-inch good-quality oak that is straight-grained and clear, with no knots. As with the strip planks, this is important so that they will bend fairly around the molds; a knot would put a crease in the bend. Once the planking is completed, the sheer clamp goes in and is molded to follow the shape of the hull at the gunwale.

In addition, the process requires the mechanical installations in the bilge, including the shaft log, and putting in the big deck beams, the knees in each corner, the side deck beams and the side deck. The deck beams go in forward, with the king plank notched into them, and next comes framing the foredeck and stern deck followed by the king plank and side deck planking. A knee in the midships area under the coaming is used to stiffen the side deck. There is more to it than that, but you get the idea.

"Before the cockpit sole goes in, we start filling and finishing the hull," Dick says. "The decks and washboards go in with countersunk screws, and there's lots of bunging to do with the cedar and pine. We fill all the holes on the outside of the hull and fair it up. We take half a day to Bondo - it's actually Evercoat lightweight autobody filler; we call it Hampton in a can - and another half a day to sand. Then we grind the outside of the hull with 24- and 36-grit paper to fair everything up, which gets rid of the excess Bondo and high spots. Then the secret process of raising the grain occurs."

The "secret process" Dick is referring to involves spraying the hull and decks with 5 gallons of hot water to "relieve" the grain. The water raises the grain back up to where it was originally if it was compressed by a hammer or clamp. Then Dick sands again with 40- and 80-grit paper. There's a lot of sanding involved in building a wooden boat.

Still to come is the application of four coats of primer thinned with Penetrol and turpentine, installing the rubrails, the engine beds, the oak spray rails, and so much more, including the cockpit sole. The sole is made of pine boards 18 inches wide, with edge boards screwed directly to the floor timbers. The other ones are screwed down with exposed heads so you can get them up, and then there are large hatches for bilge access as well. Finally, the console and running lights go in.

Dick uses several coats of Epifanes Oyster White 24 oil-based enamel as a finish coat on his boats. He says the bottom gets Hydrocoat Pettit, which is water-based so it won't "stink up the shop."

Tender loving care

Like most wooden boats, Pulsifer Hamptons will last for decades if they are taken care of. "The first boat I built in 1973, called Walrus, is still in good shape," Dick says. "If they're in salt water and reasonably well looked after, which means keeping them salted, they will last and last. It's the freshwater boats that are a worry or the boats that just sit. Boats rot from the top down."

"Salted" means keeping a layer of salt on the boat while it's in use during the season, with the salt acting as a preservative. "Keep the boat salted," says Dick. "Use a 5-gallon bucket full of salt water to wash the boat off, not a freshwater hose."

Preventing rot is a key reason why Dick doesn't glue the strip planks. Not gluing allows the salt water to wick up the hull between the plank seams, while the adhesive would act as a moisture barrier. He says it's critical to allow lots of air circulation in wooden boats, which is why there's a triangular hole in the top of the bow spray dodger that acts as a chimney. The venturi vent back on the stern deck also helps pull air through. The cedar deck hatches have beveled edges and gaps, so there is plenty of space for air to circulate.

The bilge coating is a recipe that Hamilton Marine calls "schooner deck finish" because it's used on the decks of schooners in Penobscot Bay. It's a mix of pine tar, turpentine, linseed oil and a little Japanese dryer. You buy the ingredients and mix it according to the recipe. Dick lathers it on as he builds a boat, an open pot always at the ready. A final coat of wood preservative goes on right before the deck goes down. The wood preservative goes right through the schooner deck finish.

The Pulsifer's deck is right at the waterline, so water drains directly into the bilge, which means the bilge pump has to pump the water overboard. The outer sections of the deck are screwed and bunged in place, but a series of hatches in the middle of the deck and around the engine box give good bilge access. Ventilation is provided by air gaps around the deck perimeter, as well as the vents and hatches, as previously mentioned. The aft deck is made up of wide, tapered cedar boards that are sledgehammered into place, so the deck itself is as tight as a drum once completed.

If you're wondering how much work it takes to maintain a wooden boat such as a Pulsifer Hampton, it is interesting to note that Dick maintains 50 of the 107 boats built to date. He refinishes the boats and then brings them to the storage shed for the winter so they're ready to launch in the spring. The fall treatment usually consists of a fresh coat of paint on the hull bottom and topsides, and a clear Armada alkyd coating on the side decks, interior and transom, producing a natural wood finish.

For wooden-boat lovers, Pulsifer Hamptons are great little 22-footers easily pushed along by a fuel-sipping diesel, so if they take a little more work to maintain than a fiberglass boat of the same size, that's OK. They'll last a long time, given proper care, and they're versatile, enabling owners to use them as workboats or as a boat the family will enjoy. Perhaps most important of all, they're beautiful creations built in a traditional way. And did I forget to mention that the boat is also perfect for teaching your kids about life on the water? Last I knew, Dick does not offer iPod connections or flat-panel televisions on his boats, so your kids will be away from the video games and loud music for at least a few hours at a time.

For information, contact Dick at (207) 725-5457 or visit www.pulsiferhampton.com.

Eric Sorensen is a consultant to boat- and shipbuilders and to the government. He was founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of "Sorensen's Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance." A longtime licensed captain, he can be reached at eric@sorensens guide.com.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.

Comments (2) Comments are closed
2 Wednesday, 13 October 2010 01:25
Anne Maurer
What a wonderful, informative article on my brother-in-law. I'm passing it on to my girls and others.
1 Tuesday, 12 October 2010 20:37
Jen Pulsifer
Mr. Sorensen, thank you so much for taking the time to craft such a beautifully written tribute to my father-in-law and his life's work. We all have such a profound respect for Dick and the Hampton and I appreciate you sharing his story with your readers. I'll add that Dick welcomes interested boat buyers to his shop to take a look around. Just be warned that he may put you to work!