How to Build a Stage Boat, or, How NOT to Build a Stage Boat, or most accurately: My Journey Building a Stage Boat. Living most of my life in software, it was a leap to volunteer to build a stage boat for my kid’s school, but I did it anyway, and here’s the story.
Choir Teacher: Would you like to build us a stage boat?
Choir Teacher: We need a boat for the performance in a month, but right now all we have is these cardboard boxes taped together on this piano dolly.
Me: I don’t know that I’m the right person for this.
Choir Teacher: Are you an engineer? You could do it.
Me: SOFTWARE engineer. I’m definitely not a mechanical engineer (or wood engineer) or whatever it takes to make a boat.
Choir Teacher: Okay, well we have the cardboard boat.
Later that day it kind of hit me. I probably could build a boat. Here’s how the conversation went with my brain.
Me: How would we build a boat?
Brain: EASY!!! 3 days, tops. A day of cutting wood, a day of attaching wood and casters, and we’ll pad it with a day for finishing touches.
Me: No way, you’ve said that before. Engineering hindsight tells me there are unknowns and we’ll have to at least double that, maybe triple it. 9 days, we could do it in 9 days.
Brain: That’s plenty of time. It’ll be fun, let’s do it.
Reinventing the wheel is a big pet peeve of mine, so I hit up YouTube. Holy cow did it look easy. Apparently, bending wood is common practice to make the unique boaty shapes of boats, and even that looked straightforward.
Buckle up. Or, um, put on a life jacket.
Some quick sketching to get started.
Step 1: bend some wood into a boat shape because those drawn angles aren’t going to be very much like a common boat.
There were a few methods on YouTube to “steam bend” wood. The simplest method wrapped wood in plastic, attached a steamer to the plastic, and steamed the wood for a while. Everyone said basically the same version of “the rule of thumb is 1 hour of steaming per inch of thickness” and then every single YouTuber put in wood that was 1/8″ thick and said, “okay, this has been steaming for about 2 hours”. I’m no Isaac Newton, but I can tell you the math sounded bunk.
Oh well, let’s do it. The wood is about 3/4″ thick, it shouldn’t take too long. I’ll try a really quick version first, so I took a thick, black trash bag, sealed it up, attached our little clothes steamer via duct tape and plastic sheeting to the bag, and steamed for like… 5 minutes.
Then it turned out this setup was completely ineffective in cold, windy, and now rainy weather. Let’s move this operation indoors, we should be done in a couple of hours anyway.
Hmm, that plastic bag is getting REALLY hot in a few spots, but some parts are cold. My visions of steam filling the bag like a gentle balloon were deflated when I realized the little steamer was pumping out barely enough steam to make me think it could actually work. It didn’t work. At all.
Idea: that flat bottom isn’t allowing for airflow, let’s put it on something that will let the steam explore the space!
There we go. Go explore the space you steam vapor. It didn’t explore anything. It sucked the bag to the wood as you can see in the photo above.
Okay, this plastic bag thing isn’t working, let’s go with YouTube’s next level-up: a homemade steam box using PVC pipe.
It seems appropriate to reiterate that software is my specialty. So… bear with me.
At the hardware store, I find the PVC pipe, but right next to it there’s something that looks just like it but is a fraction of the weight. The clerk tells me that’s sewage pipe and it’s ridiculously cheap. I’ll take that! He cuts it down for me, and we’re back on track.
Back at home, I drill a vent hole, plug up the ends, attach a proper steamer (so I’m not refilling the tiny clothes steamer every 8 minutes) and let it go to town. Look at that puppy steam, I wish I had taken photos, but I always think photos are going to jinx it. Spoiler alert: the photos wouldn’t have jinxed it any more than it already was. Within 20 minutes, the whole steam pipe was melting before my eyes. How sad. I took a photo of it later on, here you go:
Pfft. Okay, fine, I’ll use the PVC pipe like everyone else. Back to the hardware store to get the clerk to cut some PVC. Back to the house to knock out a homemade steam box.
Drill a hole, add some end-caps, and presto!
While the wood was steaming, I worked on a frame to bend the wood.
Look at that frame, what a beaut. The eucalyptus hardboard on there isn’t what we’re steam-bending though, that’s just the handy bendy wood we cut down for side panels. This made it easier to visualize a boaty shape.
After a couple of hours, I had some bendy wood. Amazing. But let me tell you what the YouTubers don’t say. For smallish strips of wood, you need PRISTINE PERFECT WOOD to steam bend. If there’s a decent-sized knot in there, poof, it’ll just fall out of place. Or, at least it did in my case.
The heck with all this steam bending, I’ll just attach the wood and cut it into shape. Before that, here’s how I came up with the boat shape. Take the already bendy wood, block it with a box of cat toys and a partially full box of La Croix, clamp it down on top of some craft paper, and trace. I used this trace quite a bit!
Enter: the trusty 2-by-2. For as little as I do woodworking, I love 2-by-2s. They’re right up there with 2-by-3s. Such great wood. They’re really strong, lightweight, and easy to work with.
I didn’t take a photo of the 2-by-2s by themselves, but you can see I used wood glue to attach pieces of them together similar to how some cutting boards are made. And then, for the bow and stern, I pondered different options to connect the two curvy boat sides (note: those boards and casters are not attached in the photo above). You can also see that since it’s cold, windy, and rainy outside, I’ve moved into the garage, where 90% of the rest of the build will take place due to inclement weather.
Anyway, this baby is starting to look boaty, right? Or at least, like, a shadow of a boat.
I’m trying to maximize the amount of preexisting wood use, but never compromising sturdiness. People will be riding in this boat! So here we have those bottom frame pieces glued nice and tight to this 1-by-12 piece of wood. I’m relatively clueless about wood types, but it’s super strong so I think it’ll work. Then I carefully drew a ton of lines to match the pattern perfectly. Which one to cut? Not the ones with Xs, must be the ones circled with O.
Time for a break. We go for a walk, and the wind and rain are doing this.
Okay, we’re staying in the garage for this. Got it. But first, let’s get a bit more wood and stuff from the hardware/lumber store. I asked the clerk in the lumber area if they had any scraps or anything and he offered up a bit that would later become the beautiful top foundation for the boat.
Look at that top piece. I used the trace from a while back to outline it, and a jigsaw to cut it out. It’s the Dewalt 20V Max Cordless jigsaw, and cutting with it is dreamy, better than any meditation.
So the top is screwed down, and in the picture above I’m adding trusty 2-by-2s to strengthen it. I like to think (as people have said) that if you properly glue two pieces of wood together, they are now one piece of wood.
Wow! It’s practically done. I should take the night off. Look at that vessel. Bonus: you can see I’ve started butchering the wood bending frame for parts. the base became my new workbench, properly anchored (LOL) with a 60-lb. bag of tube sand leftover from Montana winter.
There’s also a cinder block in there, and let me tell you, I never move a cinder block if I don’t have to. Ever. But in this case, I needed something to gauge where the benches would go. How high, how far back, etc. This worked out fine.
So naturally, on to the benches! One of the YouTube videos had a guy making a lap joint bench in like 5 minutes. It didn’t take too long to figure out what a lap joint actually was (software engineer, not WOOD ENGINEER). Since this thing needed to be foolproof sturdy, there was no other option than lap joint benches. (Note: in hindsight, there are many other options, but lap joint is fun to say and uses the jigsaw; I have no regrets).
I had the idea to take a photo of the current state of the boat, lighten up the layer digitally, and draw what a bench might look like on top using Procreate. I would do this again in the future as much as possible since I have a hard time visualizing and I enjoy sketching.
Back to the trusty workbench, now sporting some of Harbor Freight’s famously inexpensive clamps (seriously, they’re like $3 each). These things were a godsend. They quick clamp down with the little silver bars and then fine-tune ultra-clamp with the screwy thingies. I have no idea if there are proper terms for what I just wrote, but if not, Websters is welcome to use what I’ve written here.
Look at those lap joints! How people get them perfect, I will never know. I’m guessing my cousin Mark knows (I sometimes see the amazing wood art he does at Alice’s Wonders in Maine) but he’s also over 2,000 miles away. Cousin Willis, too. Probably others, too, but I choose to stumble through it solo. But, the lap joints are going swimmingly and I’m getting in tons of jigsaw time, so #win.
I was proud of these, so I took a couple more photos. So nice.
The lap joint technique is pretty straightforward. If you haven’t made a lap joint, a basic method is: for the inner gap, drill a hole so the jigsaw blade will fit inside, and then go to town jigsawing. I waited for pockets of nice weather so I could jigsaw outdoors. The sawdust smell is divine.
But now we’re back in the garage, which is completely and utterly destroyed. I feel like Mark Watney in The Martian when he’s sitting in the HAB or whatever doing his VLOGs about how he’s going to survive, but instead of listening to his captain’s shitty disco music, I’m jazzing myself up with Weird Al playlists. Whatever works!
Now time to attach the benches. You’ll notice I planned out the bottom bar on the bench to rest nicely on the bottom frame. Sturdiness is still key. And I worked in triangles because I think everyone learns that triangles are super strong when they’re like 12 years old.
And now it’s dark out again, but the trusty garage provides light and rain protection. And yes, I see the gap in the top supporting bar too, it’s still really strong, but later I took care of it by trimming a custom sliver of wood and jamming it in there with glue and a ball peen hammer. Elegance is also key.
It took me a second to remember why I took this photo.
Finally, software engineering and wood engineering are having some similarities. When objects get more complex, they became more difficult to work with, especially with clamps. Above, I’ve clamped a wooden bar on top of the boat bench and down to the table with my ultra super mega long Irwin Quick Grips. I call them the big boys and bring them out for jobs like this. So handy. Hey, that’s a Weird Al song!
I have time to spare now, so I propped up those side panels to start to build in a natural bend. Note: I don’t think this did anything besides make me feel like I was making more progress while I was waiting for the glue to cure.
Back to the boat.
Umm, what are we doing here? Oh, attaching some vertical support beams on the sides. I know quick grips and clamps are not the same things, and that 90% of the time I use them interchangeably, but in this case, I just don’t have a really long clamp so this will have to do. In my head, I was just going to attach the boat exterior to all these vertical support beams, but it didn’t work out that way. If I were to do this again (HA), I would cut out properly-rounded exterior support beams.
It may look like it’s perfectly vertical in the photo, but I assure you it is not. AND, one side has a 2.25″ gap between the top and bottom rails, while the other has a 3.5″ gap. Oops. No matter, I can spend the next few hours figuring out how to cut the proper height of the support beam with near-perfect angles on each end. Time to math it up a little. After once again making the Bucksport High joke to my family that nobody thought was funny: “what’s the trig formula for Angle Side Side (ASS)?”, I sat down and did the math. P.S. there is no Angle Side Side formula. There’s side angle side, and maybe a couple of others. It’s a lousy joke, but we said it all the time in math class. Anyway, I digress. If I were to redo this, I would focus on making these distances the same and small.
One of the interesting things about boats is, at least in my experience journaled here, one can’t exactly test a boat until it’s somewhere close to done. I wonder if they built small-scale versions of boats like the Titanic or if shipbuilders follow some time-tested patterns.
Well, this ship is now in a place where we can test out the benches. I think this was supposed to be day 1.5 in my original plan. I clear out a room to make everything more comfortable, say a few Hail Mary’s, and take a seat. Upon sitting, my brain informs me that there are two options here, either this will work perfectly or everything is going to break all at once and we start from scratch.
It worked! I think I got one creaky sound and when my heart resumed blood flow, I realized I wasn’t on the floor. Both benches: total success.
Now I want to see if the casters (wheels with hinges) are going to be an issue, so those are going on next. They’re attached with bolts because I felt like they’d give finer control in the event I needed to add more support or move them or remove them while I do more boat work. Two on the stern, one on the bow. It’s a three-wheeler.
Now it’s time to take the boat skeleton and add the siding. I learned from YouTube that boat siding requires many clamps. Every boat siding project I saw was just an array of clamps.
Bonus, this is also the guy that steam bent the wood with plastic sheeting. Worked great for him. Link to his video.
We started by using just a couple of clamps to get things generally in place to highlight any issues with attaching the side panels. We could have easily screwed these on, but I didn’t want a bunch of screws on the outside of the boat, and I also didn’t intend to paint it, so wood filler on top of screws was more of a backup plan.
A couple of notes: first, the siding panels didn’t magically align with the frame, so I had to make some filler pieces. Second, I was sad to learn that this white coating on the panels was not wood glue-friendly. It popped right off. On the one hand, I never had to worry about getting glue on them because cleanup was so easy. On the other hand, my plan to glue the panels together was down the gutter.
And now, a trip to Clamptown, USA.
When you have any sort of an arc, it’s really about points of contact, and I’m thinking the more the better. Each side panel started clamped to the bow of the boat since I wanted to do the least amount of cleanup there.
Here’s where I ran into issues attaching the side panel to the side support beam.
So I used the miter saw to cut an angle on the 2-by-2 to work as a support beam wedge. It worked quite well, and I have a little gaffer’s tape on there probably because something kept slipping. Gaffer’s tape is like the caviar of tapes. It’s delicate, expensive, only used sparingly, has a decently strong hold but cleans up well.
Seriously, so many clamps. I even thought of a clamp joke during all this and then promptly forgot it because my brain decided it had no real-world value. Oh well. OH, but, take a look at the 2nd Irwin Quick-Grip from the bottom-right in the photo above. One of the filler pieces I cut out left an arc-sided & flat-sided piece of sturdy wood, so I used that to extend the clamp spread, and it worked well.
Because the panels wouldn’t adhere to the white part of the panels, I ended up adding thin spacers made from pieces of scrap wood so I could attach the panels to them. It was a LOT of waiting for glue to cure.
At this point, I’m delirious with the whole project.
I’m now streaming only Weird Al polka mashups, and find myself trying to clamp a panel in the middle of the side of the boat. Wait. Do they make clamps for this? I don’t even want to know, but I’m not sure how I’m going to attach it firmly, so I look online for how to adjust your current clamps to accommodate, and I find a handy tutorial, but it looked like a 2-day project to just make those as well as a few parts I don’t have.
So, here is one of my clamp alternative masterpieces.
Aside from “a tornado hit my garage”, what you’re looking at is a few clamps on the boat plus a 20-lb. steel dumbbell with a bit of tape on one side to give it some friction and an old winter hat on the other side to reduce any scratch marks. It worked.
You’re probably getting tired of all the clamps. So was I. But I also had to figure out how to stress the joints to attach the parts to the tip of the boat after one side was already attached. This is a more common trick I think, the key is getting the tensions juuust right.
You’ve got the big ol’ clamp set up vertically that is going to act as a stable bar for another, smaller clamp (the lil Dewalt black-and-yellow one). Another success.
You may have noticed I also wrapped up the casters with a bit of plastic wrap and a piece of gaffer’s tape to keep crud out of there while I worked on everything else. And this is a better shot of the arc-sided wooden clamp bar hanging out beneath the big clamp in the photo above.
The last few panels were added similarly to the other side, and all that remained was attaching the back panels, adding a mooring/docking ring at the bow, and some finishing touches. Let’s roll.
We’re back outside. The clouds don’t look forgiving, but I could use some fresh air.
At this point, I’m finally starting to get pretty good at measuring and cutting more specific pieces.
This might not look like much, but cutting a piece to snugly sit on another piece was the most rewarding thing of the day. I took it off and put it back on about 30 times thinking maybe I’m finally starting to figure this thing out.
And there’s a shot of the bottom panel. Look at that fit.
Time to attach the back panels. Bring out the clamps.
And now for my second-greatest achievement of the day. Clamping the final exterior board.
My faithful 20-lb. weight makes a return appearance.
And the cinder block, and my cutting board. The whole crew, all working together.
I did have a couple of sizeable gaps in the side panels, so I opted to fill them with foam filler, which I’ve never used before, but it got the job done. And for the wood sticking out from the bow, that could have been cut with a handsaw, but I opted to use a wood cutting blade on my old Dremel tool and that made short work of last-minute trims.
Wow. It’s finally done.
I left the top part unfinished and boasting the qualities of the scrap wood, I enjoy the rustic look.
I assume most stage boats would be used on a black stage, so with an idea from a YouTube video, I stapled on black landscaping fabric I got from a neighbor to cover the gap that the casters introduce. It should keep the audience from seeing wheels, feet, and light shining through the bottom of the boat. Maybe it’ll even look like waves up on stage.
At the beginning of this project and the end of this project I told my better 9/10ths the same thing: it probably would be (would have been) easiest to cut a giant chunk of redwood and carve the whole thing from scratch.
I stand by that statement.
The boat made an appearance twice in a Disney medley performance last night and it held up well. I noticed everyone that sits on the bow bench first seems to tip the boat a bit due to it being a three-wheeler. Though anyone that’s climbed into a small boat knows that wobbly feeling all too well, for the stage, stability is a more desired quality. Next time I would add 2 casters on each end, even if they were attached on the bow side-by-side to keep it nimble and boat-like when it’s moving.
Safety Glasses (Harbor Freight)
Work Gloves (Harbor Freight)
Dewalt 6″ quick grips (Amazon)
Irwin medium-length quick grips (Amazon) – I didn’t mention these or the 6″ quick grips specifically above because they’re so standard in anything I work on like this that I often overlook them. They’re the first thing I grab when I need to join two objects together.
Irwin 24″ “Big Boy” quick grips (Amazon)
Pittsburgh 6″ quick release bar clamps (Harbor Freight)
Dewalt 20V Max cordless jigsaw
Dewalt 20V Max cordless drill & compact impact driver
Windsor Design chisels (Harbor Freight)
Ball Peen Hammer (Harbor Freight)
Dewalt 12″ dual-bevel sliding compound miter saw with stand (Lowe’s)
Dewalt 12V Max cordless reciprocating saw (Amazon)