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Spiffing up your pride and joy

There are a host of projects you can tackle to make your boat safer and more enjoyable

Part 1

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Given today’s economy, more and more of us are holding on to our boats and investing in upgrades. Anything that can be done to streamline maintenance, increase safety, or make the boat more visually appealing will make your time on board more enjoyable and, as a bonus, can increase the boat’s value.

See Part II - "The project boat: Are you up to the task?" May 2009

Or maybe you’ve decided your current boat is no longer the right size or configuration for your needs, but you don’t want to take the plunge for a new boat. In that case, you might consider purchasing a boat that better suits your needs, but requires some work — at a reduced price.

I consider most work done on my boats to be an investment, whether routine maintenance or an ambitious system upgrade. This month we’ll look into the project/upgrade process with several examples. Next month we’ll look at a specific project boat that’s lined up for me this spring, using what I’ve discussed here to work up a project plan.

A new mahogany console was fabricated to match the one it replaced on this 1968 Boston Whaler Nauset. After many coats of varnish, it is ready for the installation of switches, wiring, controls and electronics.

When evaluating projects and upgrades, don’t immediately dismiss anything as too complex or time-consuming. Begin by evaluating your own skill level, available time, budget and desire to invest sweat equity.

If you are interested in a specific product or option that seems overwhelming at first, talk to others who have already done the work. You may find that a big job is within your reach with a bit of guidance. You’d be surprised at how many boaters, especially sailors and cruisers, have practical experience with installations and maintenance. I’ve also found that suppliers and manufacturers can help guide you through processes, as everyone benefits when your project is a success.

Depending on your mechanical ability and dedication to the project, many improvements can be made with simple tools and several hours of your time. There are a few basic skills that are required for most of these projects, the main difference being the level to which they must be applied.

Relocating the battery installation to beneath the console changed this boat's center of gravity and incorporated all wiring that might be prone to corrosion in one safe environment.

There obviously are tasks that are best left to a professional, and keep in mind that you might be able to barter for labor around the dock. In tough times especially, there is plenty of quality labor available at reasonable prices. Just remember to check your marina policies regarding outside contractors.

Also, many marinas will offer labor discounts for projects done in the offseason. Most will work on any part of a project that you’re unsure of and leave the rest to you.

Before you drill

Planning a project is as important — and enjoyable — as doing the work itself. Look at other boats and take notes, either mental or written, of what attracted your attention to them. Many details from sportfishing boats, for example, can be incorporated on other boats, even if they are a completely different style. Simple things like dock line storage, rod holder placement, cooler mounting, even where and how the boat pole is stored can be enjoyable upgrades.

Upgrade to a digital helm compass, add a domestic water system pressure accumulator, or install a device to monitor the boat’s battery system, such as the Xantrex LinkLITE or the BatteryBug Capacity and Lifecycle meter that I’m currently evaluating — the project list can be as long or short as you choose.

Take photos of anything you’re considering. With digital photography, you can have a library of ideas at your fingertips without investing a lot of money. Just file them away for future use. You’ll eventually develop a great collection of project ideas for your boat. I walk the aisles of boat shows and my local West Marine store with an eye toward what might improve my boating experience. Then I go back to the boat and figure out what I really need.

The writer used his metal- and woodworking skills to build a new aft seat for his 1972 Boston Whaler Outrage 21. He made the curved sections using the old seat as a form.

When approaching the newly created list of projects, tackle a few easy ones to get your feet wet. However, even the simplest project will benefit from a systematic approach. Ask yourself a few questions. If you’re planning on mounting something — electronics or other accessories, for example — will it fit without interfering with anything? Will it look and function the way you envisioned? If you’ll be drilling holes, be sure the mounting area is strong enough to support the potential loads. A grab handle obviously will require through-bolting, whereas a drink holder may not.

Determine where the accessory will be installed, and check what is behind it (in the next compartment). Are there wires or plumbing conduits in the area? Is it accessible for tightening fasteners? Will the fasteners protrude into an area where someone may get hurt on them? Will you be drilling through core material or solid fiberglass?

Make a list of tools and materials, and try to have everything on hand prior to starting. As for fasteners, my rule is if I need four, I buy at least six. It’s easy to lose one or two, and any that are left will come in handy another day — if they’re stored and organized. Cover the mounting area with masking tape to protect the surface and make it easier to mark where you will drill. Mark the mounting hole locations on the tape, and hold up the accessory to confirm placement.

Whenever drilling multiple holes for mounting accessories — or cutting any holes into the boat, for that matter — I use a template. Manufacturers often include them with their products. If not, I make my own from brown craft paper. Trace the product mounting configuration, cut it out, and check that everything fits as planned. Templates can be taped directly to the working surface, allowing you to make precise markings for holes or cuts. Working with templates also allows you to play “what if” with the layout.

Flush-mounting instruments, electronics and switches requires proper positioning for easy operation, not to mention aesthetics. The template can be marked and cut up as needed to work with different combinations until the most suitable is found. Tape the chosen template down and carefully cut the openings.

Value-added projects

A good example of adding value to your boat would be applying an epoxy barrier coat to help prevent osmotic blistering. There are many good sources for product information, but I often find myself consulting manufacturers. The major suppliers of paint and epoxy offer slightly different products that will accomplish the same task. Each will use proprietary epoxy resins, catalysts and additives, with specific timetables and application guides.

Companies such as System Three, MAS Epoxies and WEST SYSTEM, of course, want you to be successful when using their products and provide written guidelines along with technical support. I have used products from all three manufacturers, and they all work very well, though they often require different procedures. Be certain to look into the variables, and work with the product that enables you to do the job within your environmental and time constraints.

When the top section of this console is attached to the bottom, all of the boat's new wiring will connect in one convenient location.

A project that made an immediate impact on a friend’s trawler was replacing the interior headliner. The original cloth covering had been damaged by leaking water, had rust stains, and was pulled away from the overhead structure, making the interior look shabby and neglected.

The source of the leak was located and repaired, followed by the installation of 1/2-by-6-inch-wide Azek beadboard (wainscoting), which replaced the headliner. The owner used a combination of screws and PL premium adhesive to fasten the Azek, a cellular PVC with a workability that parallels wood but never rots. It has a mat white finish that doesn’t require paint, though it does accept a good grade of latex acrylic.

The cabin took on an updated look that still blended in well with the trawler’s traditional teak interior. A few hours of labor resulted in a bright, clean appearance that changed the ambiance of the saloon.

Lighting upgrades are relatively easy and can improve a boat’s function and safety, in addition to being visually dramatic. At a marine industry trade show last fall, John Kujawa, president of Lumitec Lighting, demonstrated how recent advances in LED technology provide energy-saving improvements — for example, retrofitting recessed or surface-mounted interior lighting, lighting under arches and Bimini tops, and simple courtesy lights under the gunwales or companionway steps. High-tech, energy-efficient navigation lights are worth considering, as well.

Anglers and divers will appreciate the newest advances in both cockpit and underwater LED lighting. Underwater HID lighting has also grown tremendously. I’ve worked with products from such companies as Lumitec, Imtra, Hella and Innovative Lighting to replace outdated dome lights, and cockpit and courtesy lights aboard my trawler and center console. LED fixtures are typically compact and shallow, providing many mounting and installation options. Again, contact companies directly when looking for ideas and guidance. They’re usually glad to help.

The list of potential projects that can make life aboard a bit more enjoyable is almost endless. If you can think of a way to make boating safer and more fun, there’s a product out there to help you accomplish it — and you can probably install it.

Next month, I’ll lay out the initial plans for our project boat, and you’ll be able to see the materials, tools and techniques that can turn a boat that you might pass by into one that you will stop and look at.

Frank Kehr is a technical writer for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.