Spiling the Whiskey Plank


Spiling the Whiskey Plank
By Shawn Payment

The 13th annual San Diego Wooden Boat Festival was held June 14-15, 2003 at the Koehler Kraft boatyard. (See: www.woodenyacht.com) The event featured a variety of classic wooden boats and offered seminars on a variety of boat repair and maintenance techniques. (Click HERE for Shawn's article about the show)

For me, the highlight of the weekend occurred late Saturday afternoon when they held a "Whiskey Plank" ceremony. The "Whiskey Plank" is the final plank required to complete the outer shell of a wooden hull. This is considered to be a major milestone in the construction of a wooden yacht.

Fellow boat builder Joe Millard and I pester a
shipwright with questions before the ceremony

Tradition dictates that two things occur once the Whiskey Plank is attached. First, the owner of the newly constructed hull is obligated to buy whiskey for a toast to the shipwrights who constructed the hull and second, a substantial "progress payment" becomes due.

On this occasion, we were celebrating the hull completion of Pacific Class #16. Pacific Class yachts were first designed and built in San Diego at the Kettenburg Boat Works in the late 1920's. (www.kettenburgboats.com) Over the next 30 years, a total of 83 Pacific Class yachts or "PC's" were built. These boats proved to be fast and able one-design racers which were ideally suited to San Diego conditions.

PC hull #16 awaits her last, a.k.a. "Whiskey", plank

In the last decade, Koehler Kraft has restored several of these classic wood hulls with modern epoxy encapsulation methods of reconstruction. Hulls that would otherwise be destined for the scrap heap are not only being saved but also returned to active sailing service. By the day of the festival, PC #16 had already been almost completely re-planked in ¾" Philippine mahogany (except for the whiskey plank, of course). "Before" pictures playing on a nearby television monitor showed that she had previously been in pretty sorry shape.

Before the Whiskey Plank could be attached however, it needed to be "spiled". "Spiling" is the art of determining the precise shape that a plank needs to be to fit into a particular space. This has always been one of those magical bits of the boat building art that has completely escaped me. I have read dozens of descriptions of how to "spile" a plank, but I never truly understood the process until I watched the process in action.

Shipwrights gather to spile the whiskey plank

The shipwrights began with a pile of thin plywood door skin strips about 2" wide and 3-4 feet long. They had screwed these flimsy strips to the frames all along the length of the hole where the "Whiskey Plank" was destined to go. Each strip overlapped another by a few inches to create one, long, continuous strip of wood.

Creating a pattern with plywood strips, tabs and hot glue

At this point in the process, I'm pretty puzzled. It was obvious that this mish-mash of hastily assembled plywood bits were not even close to the shape of the required plank. However, a few moments later, it would all become clear. But first, a shipwright appeared with a hot glue gun.

"Hot glue?" I thought, "You can't build a boat with hot glue!"

Working swiftly, he glued together all of the overlapping strips of plywood. Then he pulled out a handful of thin plywood tabs, each about 1" x 3". These he began gluing to the central strip every 6" or so-first butting up against the top edge of the hole and the next butting up against the bottom. It was quickly apparent that the central strip was the "backbone" of the pattern and each little tab was a "rib" defining the top and bottom limits of the plank.

Minutes later, the hot glue had set, the screws holding the completed pattern to the frame were removed and the entire assembly was flopped onto of a new plank of Philippine mahogany. I immediately realized that all that was needed to produce a correctly sized plank was to "connect the dots" between all the tabs.

"This is the most important thing you need to plank a hull," said a shipwright while showing us a long, narrow 1"x 3" mahogany plank. "A batten that bends fair."

The mahogany batten was screwed onto the soon-to-be whiskey plank in line with each of the tabs on the top side of the pattern. A circular saw was run along the batten and just like that, the top edge of the plank was cut. The batten was then shifted to the bottom edge of the plank and with a second pass of the saw, we our Whiskey Plank was ready for a test fit.

The cut plank is clamped for a test fit

It slipped into place like a puzzle piece. Only a few tiny gaps existed between the Whiskey Plank and the plank below. This was due to the curvature of the hull and would be corrected by beveling the plank. "Beveling" refers to shaving a plank's edges to ensure a tight fit against it's neighbors. Since the plank was near the shear, very little beveling was required. The shipwrights simply made a quick mental note of where the gaps occurred, took down the plank and used wood plane to quickly make the necessary adjustments.

The moment had come to affix the plank to the hull. Using the a process and materials familiar to anyone who builds stitch and glue boats, the shipwrights coated the whiskey plank, frames and neighboring edges with epoxy resin. Then they mixed up a large batch of epoxy thickened with cotton fibers and troweled it onto the adjacent plank edge and frames. The Whiskey Plank was clamped into place and then screwed to the frames with screws covered by mahogany plugs. Excess epoxy squeezed from the joints was quickly scraped and toweled away.

Epoxy is applied and the Whiskey Plank is clamped into place

The Whiskey Plank is finally screwed to the frames

At long last and with great ceremony, owner Rish Pavelec was called upon to install the very last screw and plug. With a hearty cheer, the whiskey was served and all were invited to raise a glass in honor of the newly planked hull!

Owner Rish Pavelec installs the last screw

A demonstration of the planing process still to come

Koehler demonstrates use of an adze to fair the hull

Although there is still much to do before PC #16, can return to the sea, there was a fine example of what the finished product will be. Koehler Kraft had recently completed a restoration of "Wings", PC #8, which was originally launched in 1931. This gorgeous little sloop looked better than the day she was born. By the time PC #16 is completed, it should look every bit as good.

"Wings" - Pacific Class (PC) hull #8, recently
restored, PC #9 in the background

In retrospect, it seems odd that the "highlight" of the an entire wooden boat festival would be the installation of a single plank on a 70-year-old hull. But as you can tell, I learned a great deal about the boat building process and the traditions associated with it from this one simple event. Who could ask for more?