Trimming Out a Boat

Finish carpentry and cabinetry are a whole different game when you're working on a boat. December 8, 2010

Iíve been asked to build replace some miscellaneous boat items and cabinets. I have never done any boat work of this type. I am wondering if there is a source for pre-curved Teak (or mahogany) boat trim in various radii and anything special I need to think about as far as the cabs are concerned. As I understand, plumb and level are theories that don't really apply. How does one fasten to a boat? Where do I get info on finding how this boat is constructed in order to understand how to fasten to it, etc? This is a 30' sailboat. Any info will help.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor J:
If you're replacing something, then you should be able to see what it is you're replacing? Go down and look at the boat and figure it out. Full size patterns or templates are typical. Cabinet work and trim are generally fastened to existing interior bulkheads or hull liners (just don't screw anything through the hull) If you need additional support then you can fiberglass some wood backing or blocking in place. There are a lot of good books on the subject of yacht joinery and fitting out. As a professional (or amateur) boat wright or carpenter, you might want to get yourself one. Be aware that boat carpenters have a bag of special tricks and joints that distinguish them from regular house carpenters.

As a general rule though, everything is glued, screwed and plugged. Don't use any steel fasteners (other than stainless) and bronze is even better (this means no regular nail guns or staples). All cabinet hardware should also be non-ferrous. "Plumb and level" is indeed an educated guess on a 30' sailboat, but factory bulkheads are supposed to stand plumb. Any symmetrical interior points of reference can also be used as "guidelines".

If the vessel is floating, you might ask the boat owner to be sure that the boat is trimmed properly (not listing to port or starboard) before any cabinet installation. This usually requires an empty bilge, along with either full or empty fuel, water and holding tanks. After all you can do though, even the position of your body on a 30' boat will send the level bubble scurrying one way or another.

As for factory plans or specifications, the only thing that is usually available on any production boat, are the hull/deck and sail plan. Interior layouts are also included but unfortunately, there is almost nothing in the way of specific construction details. As a liability and safety issue, the position and size of designed water/fuel tank-age should not be altered without the assistance of a professional marine architect. Do not build any cabinets capable of trapping either air or water (they will only be wet and smelly).

All drawers need to "lift-up and pull out" (otherwise they spill out). All doors need positive latching (not little magnet catches). The interior of galley cabinets should also include plate and cup racks or retaining rails of some sort. Counter/table tops need raised edge trim to minimize spills and/or retaining galley rails. Grab rails are also handy and can sometimes be incorporated into the designed trim. I could go on and on here but I seem to be re-writing one of the books I have on my shelf. Some pre-manufactured teak trim including louvered doors, drawers and other galley trim are available through regular marine supply outlets.

From the original questioner:
By the way, is there drawer hardware to make a drawer lift up then pull out, or is this accomplished through the "slop" of the slide and a lip on the drawer box/front?

From contributor J:
Drawers are usually installed without any sliding hardware. The bottom of the drawer sides are notched (just behind the drawer face) and sit "locked" on the horizontal face frame.

From contributor E:
If you're just replacing parts, they can be removed and copied in the shop. Any new work will mandate the time honored skill of spiling. This is usually something that takes years to do well, at least until a journeyman level. Certain methods of construction that you may think look sound may horrify a shipwright.

From the original questioner:
I didn't realize building can be so vastly different. Perhaps I should have my client go to a shipwright instead.

From contributor D:
My comment is not to discourage working on boats, but to encourage boat knowledge. It is always a shame when someone thinks they can handle something with no experience that takes someone else years of established work in the field. I encourage you like I said, to simply replace or repair existing components, to the highest level of quality you can.

But it would be irresponsible to not have a copy of this year's ABYC standards on hand if any modifications are to be made. Boats are a myriad of complicated systems these days, designed by naval architects and marine engineers down to exactly what type of screw or wire or material thickness should be used, and where. Galleys, heads, and engine compartments have very strict regulations. If you think your local building inspector is tough, try a marine surveyor on for size. If this boat is being upgraded with the intent for resale, you could open yourself up to potential lawsuits if any work is not up to snuff. I think good woodworkers can indeed do good work anywhere, but spiling and knowing what is allowable where can get complicated without experience. Building your own boat in many ways is actually easier than working on other's boats, with all these regulations.

From contributor D:
Spiling is a skill where you employ calipers and battens to create templates. Basically it is used in planking carvel hulls, but it is also needed in order to fit parts into anything that has compound curves, like a boat hull. If you do a search you can get some visual aids, and while at first it may look fairly easy to learn, it takes a long time to be able to do it with any efficiency.

From contributor U:
Spiling is a technique used pretty nearly exclusively for planking where you encounter surfaces twisting away from nearly flat to nearly vertical in the length of a hull - a fun and challenging process but without too much relevance to building a galley or installing a chart table. As for fastening cabinetry to a hull - the hull is more often the back of your cabinet and so an easy system is to apply cleats to the hull and then your cabinet sides and tops are screwed into the cleats. You'll need a band saw! The cleats will often begin as 1x 2s or 1 x 3s in order to get a 1" surface to screw to as your cleat is sawn to fit the hull from top to bottom. For extra rigidity tabs of fiberglass can be set to reinforce the cleat to the hull.

Sounds like you aren't redesigning but just adding a few upgrades. Just remember that doors and drawers must stay closed when not in use and the boat is underway - so catches and stops are in order. Not all marine hardware is created equal. Don't be scared but do some homework.

From contributor C:
Thank you all for your replies. I am a pretty capable woodworker of almost 20 years experience (none boat). Considering my careful nature, I am sure I will be fine. I will research everything extensively before work begins and in the end probably seek (at least) a verbal blessing from a boat artichoke (or whatever they are called). The boat interior looks like it was fabricated with 1/2 a heart (as it came from the manufacturer). So I am sure it will be an improvement no matter what. I will check my screw sizes/type and maybe even use lighter weight materials (such as the foam sandwich between two layers of composite). Again, I will research it to make sure this is a good idea.