Restoring a half-model

The half model of my old Wianno Senior had collected dust for years on the wall of my grandfather’s boat shop. The hull was scratched , gouged and dinged and needed some attention to bring it back to rights. but I never got around to it and gradually ignored the sad boat despite the twinge of guilt I felt when visitors would notice and ask me who made it.  With a need to do something during the isolation of the pandemic I decided last summer I’d learn how to carve a half-model of my own. I read everything I could find about half-models, and in my searching I discovered a YouTube channel featuring Malcolm Crosby, Jr. of Osterville carving and painting various half-models.

The series was filmed by Malcolm’s daughter — Betsey Crosby Thompson — and show, step-by-step ,how Malcolm designs, carves, and finishes his models. They are beautiful objects that command high prices at auction, but as Crosby says several times over the dozens of episodes, the old-timers knocked them together for a practical purpose — to help them build a full-sized version — and slapped on a coat of paint without too much concern for perfection.

All fall I watched the master artisan transform stacks of lumber into perfect embodiments of classic Cape Cod boat design, taking notes as he shared the secrets of his craft. Every episode taught me something new. I’ve worked on wooden boats ever since my father handed me a sheet of sandpaper and told me to start sanding the spars of my Cotuit Skiff. I thought I knew how to varnish a spar or paint a hull, but after watching Malcolm Crosby turn a stack of basswood, pine and mahogany into a piece of maritime art made me realize I have a long way to go and far more to learn.

As well it should, for Malcolm ran the varnish and paint shop at the Crosby boatyard in Osterville for 40 years. He has boats in his blood, growing up in a clan of shipwrights and boat builders legendary for their designs and craftsmanship. Watching Malcolm wield a spoke shave to get the perfect curve in a catboat, noting his tips on how to apply masking tape, to finally achieve enlightenment as to why so many coats of varnish are necessary (each coat fills the wood grain a bit more,and when sanding in between coats one looks for the bright spots to indicate where the grain still needs to be filled), how to minimize brush strokes, to keep paint from bleeding into rub rails….. . I started watchingBetsey’s videos with a notebook in my hand, taking notes before going out to the boat show to applying the lessons on my own models.

Maiden voyage of the Snafu III, May 1967, taken from the dock at Crosby’s

After building a model of an 19trh century cutter last fall — the Madge — from plans sold by WoodenBoat Magazine, I carved a Cotuit Skiff from templates I made myself working from a set of plans. Both of those first two efforts were varnished, or finished “bright”, but I was confident from watching Malcolm Crosby on YouTube that I could tackle a painted model.

I really hated to touch the original, damaged as it was, worried my surgery would be a disaster that killed the patient. Eventually I found the courage to unscrew the hull from the mahogany backboard. When it came off I saw Malcolm had signed and dated it in October 1979.

My father had commissioned an earlier half-model of the family boat, the Snafu III,  for himself in the early 70s  not long after Malcolm started carving models of local boat designs, selling them at a gift shop on Osterville’s Main Street.  One summer in the late 70s, as I got ready to return to college, I thought my dorm room would benefit from the presence of the model so I  smuggled the model out of the house and took it to school.

Tony Churbuck in the early 1960s

My father realized it  was missing and asked me  if I knew where it had gone. Of course I confessed and brought it back  home, hitchhiking with it in my duffel bag as I held up a cardboard sign  that read “Home to Mom.” I showed the model  to  the drivers who picked me up. The bag couldn’t contain the three-foot long piece of wood but flashing the yellow hull made  me more visible to potential rides. Some  of the drivers marveled at the flawless workmanship, especially the paint job, which made it shine like a candy apple.

At the  Christmas of 1979 my dad  presented me with a Malcolm Crosby model of the Snafu III of my own. Until I decided to restore the model I had never remembered it was mine and that the other model my brother owned was the original I pilfered from my father.

Standing in the  shop a few months ago, reading the inscription on the back  — “From ACC to DCC, Xmas 1979” —  I grieved for him again as it occurred to me I was holding the last gift he  gave me before he died three months later in a car accident in Mashpee in the winter of 1980.

Malcolm’s signatue next to the pencil station marks on the back of the hull.

So the restoration took on more sentimental significance.  I doubted myself and wondered if I should call Malcolm Crosby and ask him to do it.  As I pulled out  the screws holding the hull to the backboard and the scuffed-up yellow banana of painted carved pine separated cleanly from the keel and centerboard Malcolm had glued to the backboard 41 years ago, I realized I was committed.

I decided to repaint the model in the colors she had when I owned her after my father’s passing, the same white bottom she had when she was launched in 1967, but with the green boot-top I added in the 1980s. That was the same paint scheme as her namesake, the Snafu¸ II. the family’s Cotuit Skiff my grandfather Henry built after WW II. Yellow boats were a family thing, starting in the 1950s when my colorblind grandfather couldn’t pick my father out from the rest of the fleet during its races on Cotuit Bay. For some reason yellow stuck out for him,  so my grandmother, a graduate of Mass Art in Boston, broke out her oil paints and tinted some white marine paint a vivid shade of yellow.

The old salts used to say there are only two colors you can paint a boat: black or white…..and only a fool paints a boat black. That’s fine for the hull, but a white boat bottom is pure vanity. Like expecting a brand new pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars to stay white while roofing. A week without scrubbing will see white turn to brown, an embarrassing sign of nautical ineptitude whenever a gust of wind filled the big gaff-rigged mainsail and tipped the boat l over to give the people watching from on the beach definite confirmation that a slob was sailing her. My father got rid of the original white bottom almost immediately for that very reason, and for the first ten years he sailed the boat, she had a green bottom.

Leave it to me, ever the traditionalist reactionary and hater of change, to change back to a white bottom in the 1980s. I keep a reasonably ship-shape boat but I’ve never been obsessive about it, and with my phobia of jellyfish and spider crabs and convinced by the filming of Jaws across the Sound in Edgartown I would meet my end underwater as shark food, I hated to go swimming, let alone hold my breath and try to swim under the boat wipe the sea slime off its white bottom.

My further conceit, similar to the owner of a Vega painting racing stripes and a big number on the doors, was my decision to paint the boat’s hull number – 140 – under the turn of the bilge to let other boats racing in the fleet know who to hail when claiming right of way as I charged towards a windward mark with the lee rail buried and the boom sheeted in. That was a courtesy to other races, except we never raced the Snafu III after my father’s early frustrations on  the race course when he first got the boat in the late 1960s. A better seaman than a racer, he could knock out a long splice, back splice, short splice and eye splice while opening quahogs, tie a Matthew Walker knot, sing an obscene sea chantey and charge a boat through a seething rip without knocking the ash off the butt hanging off his lip. My brothers and I preferred to load the 26-foot sloop up with our friends and take them for long  booze cruises to nowhere, mooning the Hyline ferry to Oak Bluffs or the Ostervillian in a biplane who buzzed us one day and who, offended by our lewd behavior, wrote an indignant letter to the race committee of the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club complaining about the uncouth barbarians who couldn’t keep their shorts on aboard on the yellow Wianno Senior with the convenient green 140 painted on its bottom for races it didn’t race.

Approaching the restoration, I briefly considered stripping off the original paint down to bare wood, filling the scratches, gouges, and dings, then sanding and priming before applying two or three coats of the new color scheme. That meant losing the waterline as Malcolm had painted it, but it would be easier to go from a dark green bottom to a white one if I could prime the green first with a good primer. The problem with that plan was that the keel and centerboard were glued, maybe even epoxied onto the perfectly finished mahogany back board. It was too fragile to try prying off but it was dark green and would need to be completely covered in white like the hull.

The damage from forty years of neglect, trips to college, and acts of God

While I thought about the best way to approach the color conversion I went after a few gouges in the yellow topsides of the hull with some 330 grit sandpaper, taking the paint down to the bare wood and opening up a bare patch around each flaw about the circumference of a nickel. I used a pungent smelling filler called “Swedish Putty” to fill the gouges. Swedish putty is used by commercial painters to get the glossiest effect possible when painting doors.  Also known as a “knifing compound,” or “Enduit” by the French; Swedish Putty is some ancient Scandinavian concoction based on  varnish,  linseed oil, and  finely ground titanium dioxide and silicates. It comes in a flat, round can wrapped in tin foil, swims in amber oil and smells gloriously of things that are bad for you. It also costs $50 for a little can on the stuff.

Sanding down to the wood

I used the putty instead of a general wood filler because I knew the putty was meant for glass-like finishes and would fair out into the rest of the hull without contracting or expanding and interrupting the perfect curves Malcolm had carved over 40 years ago with no humps or depressions. I applied tiny dabs of the stuff onto the scratches and dents with a thin plastic spatula, letting it dry before knifing on another layer until I was sure all of the dings were completely filled. Then, wearing a hardcore respirator to keep the silicates out of my COVID threatened lungs, I sanded the repaired patches until I was satisfied.

Then back to YouTube to re-watch Betsy Crosby Thompson’s gift to would-be half-model builders (and restorers), as Malcolm went through the ritual of straining his paint through paper filters, conditioned it with 333 Interlux brushing thinner, wiped the surface with a tack cloth and some rubbing alcohol and picked up a small nylon artist’s paint brush and began painting. I masked off the hull from the bottom, headed out to the paint shed, found an old can of Petit Yellow, brought it inside, and let it come up to room temperature before cracking it open, stirring it thoroughly, and then filtering it into a small paint cup.

Everything sanded, underlying grain of the pine showing, masking tape being applied to preserve the waterline during repainting

In all I gave the hull three coats of yellow. The first I thinned  down way too much, and the repaired patches showed through the transparent paint. The second I painted full strength but suffered sags, as the thick paint drooped while it dried and had to be sanded back before the final “goldilocks” coat that was just right thanks to Malcolm’s painstaking process of wet sanding in between coats with ever finer pieces of wet sand paper, soaked with soapy water to help the abrasive sheets slide smoothly over the paint. (Malcolm’s tip on how to fold a half-sheet of wet sandpaper was a revelation in itself).

Because Malcolm’s eye for waterlines is the best around, I respected the line of green paint below the yellow and masked it off with parallel strips of tape to form a stripe that broadened under the tuck of the stern where the waterline meets the top of the rudder. An even-width stripe on the side of a boat looks wrong, and should be elongated to present someone admiring her the optical illusion of two parallel lines, when in fact a boot-top strip that is two inches wide amidships at the middle of the boat, can grow to eight inches wide under the transom. I did my best to pull off this effect with masking tape, preserving the uppermost edge of  Malcolm’s original green before painting the rest of the bottom, the keel, and the centerboard white.

It was all yellow.

                I mentally prepared my sense of patience for a long, frustrating series of coats thinned out enough to level out the brush marks but thick enough to get the job done, followed by wet sanding which remove some of the previous coat, only to repaint and be repeated again with finer sandpaper and more paint. Then Malcolm, in an aside he made as he rummaged through his paint table, held up a little four ounce yellow can of One-Shot Sign Painter’s Paint and said while impossible to find at the hardware store, and a challenge to get at a professional painter supply store, One-Shot was extremely concentrated and could do the job in … one shot.

Masking off the backboard to keep the white off the varnish. Semi-success

                Off to Amazon, where I dropped $25 on four ounces of One-Shot white. Eventually it arrived and I stirred it up, and with faith in Malcolm, started brushing it over the dark green bottom paint. It worked beautifully and completely covered the bottom with two coats.

                There are so many brilliant insights into finishing a boat delivered by Malcolm over the course of the dozens of videos filmed by his daughter that I keep going back to the episodes just to remember things like what brand of paper towel he recommended for wiping down after wet sanding (Viva is the softest and won’t scratch the paint). The result, while flawed to my eyes, was good enough to invite the admiration of my wife and the suggestion to hang the refurbished hull on a prominent spot in the kitchen. And no, I didn’t paint the number 140 on the bottom.

Finished except for filling the seam between the keel and garboards

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write View all posts by David Churbuck

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