Starboard, the Teak Alternative
In a prior article, I had discussed the types, uses and fabrication methods for StarBoard® polymer lumber. I covered the different types of polymer plastics commonly used aboard boats along with some of the fabrication tips. I think the best way of demonstrating the versatility of these products is to cover a selection of projects that have successfully employed these materials, along with some additional tips and tricks used in their construction.
Getting on and off a boat tied to a floating dock can be a problem. My friend, Vince Purcell, built a boarding step that fit securely over the toe rail of his 34-foot sailboat. The step made boarding a snap, even for some of us “experienced” sailors with less than perfect knees.
Unfortunately, his version was made from marine plywood. After several seasons of use, the plywood began to deteriorate and eventually broke while he was visiting us. After inspecting his step and evaluating the problem, I developed an alternative built from StarBoard®. As I have mentioned, StarBoard® can “cold flow” or deform under pressure. To offset this tendency, I added a support under the front of the step and a higher toe kick on top of the back of the step. The step itself was inset into a shallow rabbet or groove.
The other point of concern was the narrow part of the step where it fit over the toe rail. I made the top of the side plates higher to provide more material to resist the tendency for the step to crack at the top of the toe rail opening.
All the fasteners were standard stainless steel self-tapping screws, installed in pre-drilled pilot holes.
I developed the proper size of the cutout for the toe rail using artists foam board. This product is available in most craft stores and is comprised of a thin layer of foam bonded between to sheets of thin cardboard. The resultant material is easily cut with a hobby knife but is rigid enough to hold its shape when developing the pattern. It was a cut-and-try iterative process until I had a final fit. The important thing was to develop a shape that would be secure when hooked over the toe rail yet could easily be lifted off.
Once I had the pattern made, the rest was simple. Most of the cuts were straight cuts. A table saw would have been ideal, but I made them using a battery powered circular saw. I made the rabbet using my router and a guide bar clamped to the side plate.
After that, it was a simple job of pre-drilling holes and screwing the step together. One additional feature I added after the photos was to tie a lanyard to the step that could be tied off to the boat. No sense in dropping the step overboard after going to the trouble of building it.
The drop board on my 20-foot project boat was made from plywood. I had laminated teak veneer to the outer surface to make it look better and preserve the plywood underneath. However, it still required at least an annual sanding and recoating with varnish to keep it looking good.
A friend happened to be marketing a foamed PVC material called Kleer. He offered me several samples to experiment with. He provided enough ¾” thick material for several projects, one of which would become this replacement drop board.
This material, having a foamed interior, is lighter than StarBoard®. I was a little concerned about the exposed edges of the material being weaker than the upper and lower surfaces. After inspecting the material, my fears were laid to rest; the surface of the exposed edges has a slight grain or porosity to it that is hardly noticeable.
The drop board in this boat is small enough that it can be made from a single piece of material. It would be a little on the heavy side if I were to make it from StarBoard® but this foamed material was light enough to make a single piece unit practical.
All the cuts were straight; the only complication was that the top and bottom cuts were beveled slightly. Luckily, I already had the plywood original to use to set the angle on my battery powered circular saw. I used a guide bar clamped to the PVC to ensure straight and accurate cuts.
The PVC material has the same propensity to cold flow as does StarBoard®. There was a remote possibility that a breaking wave or a person falling against the drop board could deform it enough to push it into the cabin. I decided that it would need some sort of reinforcing to guard against this possibility.
I decided to add two reinforcing bars to the back side of the drop board. These would be made from ¼” x ¾” metal screwed in place. My first ideal was to use stainless steel bar stock and I actually made one of the bars from this material. However, it was overkill as far as strength goes and was an absolute pains to cut and drill with the hand tools I had at my disposal.
I then switched to aluminum bar stock for the second piece. This was much easier to both cut and drill and was more than stiff enough.
I wanted the bars as smooth and seamless as possible. Using a ¾” bit in my router and a guide bar clamped to the drop board, I milled two grooves in the back of the board. These, of course, were ¼” deep and ¾” wide to accept the bars. I drilled four fastener holes in each bar. I didn’t want an exposed nut on either side of the board, so I turned to an old favorite, barrel nuts.
Barrel nuts are somewhat like bolts, with a head and a stem. The difference is that the threads are on the inside of the hollow stem instead of on the outside of a solid stem. These require a slightly bigger mounting hole but the benefit was a smooth head on both sides of the board.
I wanted some sort of a handle to make using the board easier. A quick trip to my local marine store resulted in a molded white plastic handle that was a good match color wise and style wise with the drop board.
I built this drop board from the PVC material as a long term test of its durability. After three years of use, it is still in excellent shape. The color hasn’t yellowed and the edges haven’t experienced any deterioration. It’s a keeper.
I decided to completely rewire my 26-foot project boat. That included changing the electrical panel location along with building a new electrical panel. The new panel would be slightly over 20” square and would have the panels and switches mounted on the front of the panel and terminal blocks and bus bars mounted on the back. I decided to use non-conductive StarBoard® for the panel.
My first thought was to make the panel from ½” stock, but considering the things I planned to screw to both the front and the back, I finally decided on ¾” stock. Besides, the number of cutouts for the various switches would have made the ½” stock somewhat flimsy.
I had used my computers’ CAD program to lay out the placement of the various items on the panel. After several iterations, I was able to print off a dimensioned drawing for the panel layout. King Plastics (the makers of StarBoard®) recommends using a china or grease pen to mark on StarBoard® as other markers may stain the surface or may be hard to remove.
I chose to cover the entire front surface of the panel with blue masking tape. That made layout easier to read and follow. Once all the cutout locations were marked, I drilled an access hole in each opening for the jig saw blade.
The accurate layout and careful cutting of the openings required very little follow up work on my part, the components fit where they needed to be and resulted in a neat looking panel.
Flare Canister Mount
Your flare gun is one of those things that you need to have aboard but never want to use. That being said, should the time come when it’s needed, you’ll want to find it quickly. That means having it accessible, not buried deep in some locker, somewhere.
I decided to mount my orange flare canister inside the cabin, just under the companionway opening. My first iteration was made from several pieces of mahogany. This unit performed well but, being made from wood, required periodic refinishing. In my quest to reduce varnishing to an absolute minimum I decided to replace it from one made from StarBoard®.
As luck would have it, I had enough scrap material left over from past projects that I didn’t have to buy any new material. This is a hint, don’t throw away your scraps, you never know when they’ll come in handy.
The backboard is a simple rectangle made from ½” stock while the cradles are cut from ¾” stock. A couple a stainless steel self tapping screws hold the cradles on the back board. A small hole in the bottom edge of each cradle accommodates a short length of bungee cord. The top of the bungee loop is held by a hammock hook, a commonly available part in most marines stores used to hold hammock style gear nets.
The flare canister is placed in the cradle and the bungee looped over the top and hooked onto the hammock hook. Adjust the length of the bungee hook to keep the canister firmly in place but loose enough so that it can be quickly released. I can reach inside the companionway and pop the canister out of its mount with one hand.
The wooden handrails on my 20-foot project boat required regular sanding and revarnishing. Years of doing this whittled them down to the point they were thin enough to be unsafe. Having been given some samples of Kleer, a foamed PVC product, I decided to see if I could use it for replacement handrails.
Those of you that frequent marine stores probably have noticed the StarBoard® handrails for sale. I spent some time evaluating them. I have two major problems with them. First of all, the bases are only ¾” wide, the thickness of the stock. This doesn’t provide, in my opinion, enough side-to-side stability for something as important as a handrail. Secondly, they aren’t available long enough or with the proper loop spacing to fit my boat. So back to the drawing board with the Kleer product in mind.
I already knew that simply cutting the handrail profile from ¾” stock wouldn’t give me the stability I wanted. I also had to contend with the fact that the handrails had a pronounced curve to them. To make a long story somewhat shorter, I decided to make the upper portion of the handrail 2” wide by the ¾” thickness of the stock. To get this rail high enough off the cabin top to be able to get my fingers underneath, I spaced the rail 1-1/2” off the cabin top with two layers of ¾” stock.
After removing the old rail, I taped together a length of card stock long enough for the pattern and wider than needed. I cut 2” diameter circles from the same cardboard and temporarily screwed them in place, using the existing handrail mounting holes. This located the mounting holes on the cardboard pattern and the circle defined the outside edge of the 2” wide handrail.
I used a flexible batten placed against the cardboard circles to outline the edges of the handrail. I then cut the pattern to the outlines and transferred it to the PVC. I cut the handrails out with my jig saw and drilled the mounting holes.
The next step was to make the spaces. I cut a series of rectangular blocks and center drilled them. I mounted them on a length of threaded rod and sanded all the edges even. A quick pass with a round over bit in my router gave the blocks smooth corners.
The nice thing about PVC is that it can be glued with standard plumbing PVC cement. I used the clear style to avoid staining the PVC and glued each support from two of the ¾” blocks. I glued the longer blocks to each end of the handrail and then sanded them to a smooth, tapered shape with my belt sander.
To mount the handrails, I thru-bolted them using stainless steel oval head machine screws and finishing washers on the top side. Inside the cabin, I used large stainless steel fender washers and acorn nuts. The acorn nuts provided a smooth, non-snagging and finished look to the project.
I left the handrails unfinished and can say, after three years in place, they look as good as new.
My daughter’s 34-foot sailboat had no propane locker and no convenient place to install one. After some jury rigging with cardboard a prototype, I found that I could build a propane locker to hold two ten pound cylinders that would fit up against the aft end of the transom.
Before making any type of propane locker, be sure to check the ABYC specs for the needed design details. Among those are the requirements that the locker be separate from any other compartments, sealed and have a drain located so as to drain any leaking propane overboard.
Making such a box using fiberglass would mean either making a complicated mold or doing a lot of finishing on a rough exterior surface. Neither appealed to me. I decided to make the locker out of ½” StarBoard®. The box would have a front and back, two sides and a bottom as well as a hinged top that could be sealed. The box would angle back to match the slope of the inside of the transom and the bottom would be raised several inches off the deck. I did this for two reasons; it would give me room to install the fittings for the overboard drain and it would allow access to the top of the rudder shaft so the emergency tiller could be fitted.
The locker is required to be sealed so no propane can leak out. I accomplished this by using aluminum angles in all the corners and thru-bolting the StarBoard® in place. I use 3M5300 sealant under the aluminum angles to provide a gastight seal. 3M5300 will not stick to the StarBoard® but once in place and compressed by the aluminum angle, it forms a good gasket.
To add a little more functionality to the locker, I added teak fiddles to the top so it could be used as a small cockpit table. The finished unit, while a little expensive, was still cheaper and quicker than a custom built fiberglass unit.
I hope these case studies give you a better feel for marine polymer lumber and some of the uses it can be put to. Unless you like varnishing a whole lot better than I do, it’s a much better way to go.