Saving tired, old wooden boats from the scrap heap - Soundings Online

Cut to the chase at Cutts & Case

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Vixen, a 39-foot, Ralph Wiley-designed Tancook Whaler sloop from 1955, sails for the first time after being restored at Cutts & Case Shipyard.

Vixen, a 39-foot, Ralph Wiley-designed Tancook Whaler sloop from 1955, sails for the first time after being restored at Cutts & Case Shipyard.

An Eastern Shore boatyard is using its patented boatbuilding method to save tired, old wooden boats from the scrap heap.

Tucked away on Town Creek in a cozy corner of Oxford, Maryland, is Cutts & Case Shipyard. The place is peppered with rickety, charming red clapboard boat shops and storage buildings, every inch teeming with boat parts and yachting artifacts from days long gone. Scattered around the grounds and buildings is a fleet of beautiful, old wooden boats. Some are pristinely restored, and others await the right owner to fix them up. It’s a boat nerd’s nirvana.

The unlikely duo of yacht designer Edward Cutts Sr. and IBM executive and computer innovator John Case founded the yard in 1965. The pair bought it from famed yacht designer and builder Ralph Wiley, who built many boats here. The mid-1960s seemed an odd time to start an outfit specializing in designing, building and maintaining wooden boats — fiberglass was coming onto the boating scene with viral popularity — but the pair persisted and built more than 20 wooden boats over the years. Cutts died in 2009 at age 82. Today, sons Eddie Cutts Jr. and Ronnie run the yard much the way their dad did.

Vixen’s new hull was faired smooth before it was sealed with several coats of epoxy and a final barrier coat. 

Vixen’s new hull was faired smooth before it was sealed with several coats of epoxy and a final barrier coat. 

Cutts Sr.’s boats, sail and power, were at once whimsical and graceful, conceived without the help of a computer. He preferred half-hull models and hand sketches. Each boat has her own personality and aura. Sturdy and well built, many of his creations survive in excellent condition today. While some were constructed using conventional wooden boatbuilding methods, others were built using a technique that was and still is revolutionary. Cutts Sr. called it the “Cutts Method” and eventually patented it.

Though Cutts Sr. might have disagreed, the Cutts Method feels as if it is a bit of a spin on traditional cold molding, a boatbuilding process in which layers of marine-grade plywood are tortured in complex shapes over a jig and then sheathed in fiberglass laminates. But the jig — or mold, as Cutts Sr. called it — is where the similarities end. The Cutts Method utilizes closely spaced stations to which wood planking (generally Atlantic white cedar) is fastened and glued with epoxy to form the shape of the hull. This is the first layer of a double-planked system.

Next, vertical grooves are cut into the planking along the entire length of the boat with a routing tool. Holes are drilled where the groove patterns meet the stem rabbet, rudder post and keel. Epoxy-soaked Kevlar cord is then reeved through the channels and holes, and locked into place with a putty made of epoxy and high-density filler. The hull is then faired. This essentially completes the first layer of planks.

The second layer of Atlantic white cedar planks is glued with epoxy over the first; temporary screws hold the planks in place until the epoxy cures. The fasteners then are removed, and the screw holes are filled with high-density filler. The hull is sanded clean.

Lastly, two or more layers of epoxy and a barrier coat are added to seal everything. What’s left is a boat without any bones, so to speak; the Kevlar cords act in place of conventional oak or fir frames. Missing are metal fasteners that can deteriorate under water from electrolysis, leaky butt blocks and seams, and frames that weaken and crack over time.

Having seen a handful of Cutts Sr.’s boats that were built this way, I can attest to their strength and longevity. As it turns out, the Cutts Method also is a great way to save old traditionally planked boats with deteriorating hulls.

I happened to be on-site when the yard was restoring Vixen, a 39-foot, Ralph Wiley- designed Tancook Whaler sloop from 1955 that had recently been sold to new owner George Sustendal.

“I first saw this boat in this yard in 1966,” Sustendal says. “She was carvel-planked with Atlantic white cedar — some of the old-timers call it juniper — and framed up in oak. I think it’s important to save boats like this; they’re part of our history. That’s why I decided to have her completely redone.”

Inside one of the boat shops, Vixen’s original wood hull was planed smooth, her seams cleaned up and imperfections filled with high-density filler. Next, the Kevlar channeling was cut; holes were drilled at the keel, rudder post and stem rabbet; and epoxy-soaked Kevlar cord was laid in place with high-density filler. When the epoxy was cured, the hull surface was faired smooth. “This initial step stabilizes the existing structure before the final layer of planking is glued on,” Cutts Jr. says. “The Kevlar braces the planking and makes the structure stronger than it was new.”

Long strips of Atlantic white cedar buttered up with thickened epoxy went on next, held in place with temporary fasteners. The epoxy was allowed to cure, the fasteners were removed, and the screw holes and imperfections were filled.

“The boys go through a mess of sandpaper next,” Cutts Jr. says. “We fair the whole surface and then seal it up with two to three coats of epoxy and a final barrier coat. The hull is better than new at this point.”

Sustendal calls the process an “interesting intermingling” of technology and traditional boatbuilding skills. “These guys, the history of this yard, it’s all great,” says Sustendal, who intends to sail the boat to New England this year in time for a rendezvous of old wooden boats. “And as long as we’re preserving these great boats instead of pitching them in a dumpster … that means we’re really doing something special.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue.