How to build a dinghy inside your family home
‘The Dinghy’ was constructed in 1967 largely of King Billy Pine and is a living example of the passion for and the longstanding community of excellence around boat building in the south east of Tasmania. Still in use as a family fishing boat, The Dinghy was built as a project by my father, Bruce Miller, with the support and guidance of master boat builder, Reg Fazackerley. It is believed that this 12ft clinker is the only Fazackerley-designed dinghy to be built inside a family home.
Bruce, who passed away in 2014, was an electrical engineer with the Hydro Electric Commission who, much to his wife Julie’s dismay, decided to build the boat in the sunroom of the family home. With two children still in nappies and two not yet started school, navigating the wood shavings, sawdust and array of tools and timber (not to mention the construction frame itself) was the sacrifice Bruce and Julie were prepared to make in the pursuit of Bruce’s dream. The sacrifice paid off as three generations have enjoyed The dinghy’s beautiful lines, stunning timber grains and seaworthiness.
Bruce told his story to a fascinated audience at the 2013 Wooden Boat Festival. In 1967, as a 28 year old engineer, he decided he wanted to build a clinker-dinghy and began looking at the various designs. He was very taken by Reg Fazackerley’s craft – the beautiful flare in the bow, the lovely curve of tumblehome in the stern. Being none too shy, Bruce visited Reg’s home in Sandy Bay after work to ask him whether he would provide instructions on how to build a dinghy to one of his designs. Reg was very polite and interested but when he found out that Bruce had no boat building experience whatsoever, he very quickly recommended that he build a plywood boat (a Tamar class yacht or similar that that can be rowed, motored or sailed).
Bruce was not deterred. He had sailed the Tamar class yachts operating out of Bellerive at the time and knew that was not what he was after. He was very clear in that he wanted a traditional clinker with that lovely shape and seaworthiness. In Bruce’s own words, “I wanted to instruct my young family in the arts of boating and I thought, what better sort of boat could you have?”
Reg advised that unfortunately he could not assist (not surprising since he was running a business and feeding his own family, there would have been little time to devote to amateur hobbyists!) but he happily showed Bruce through his workshop out the back since Bruce was keen to see the Fazackerley vessels under construction. Bruce remembered entering the shed by passing through a doorway shaped like a ship’s bulkhead and then stepping into a wonderland: “over the entrance into all these masses of Huon Pine and King Billy wood shavings all over the floor ... crikey the smell was magnificent!”
He surveyed the shed: “Everywhere I looked there were things happening, boats being repaired, new planks going into them ... All the craft you could see were just magnificent even though some of them had fallen into quite a bad state of disrepair but he was working on them and they would have been refurbished and sent out as almost brand new. Anyway, I had a good look all around and I was so taken by it all my mind was made up.”
Reg assumed Bruce had decided that — after seeing the complexity and work involved in building a clinker — he would go with a plywood boat. He was surprised when Bruce assured him, no, he most certainly would be building a clinker dinghy, now more convinced than ever.
And in the spirit of this community — lovers of beautifully designed and crafted boats — the master boat builder took this young, somewhat naïve but determined engineer under his wing. He told Bruce to come back and see him once he’d settled on the dimensions he wanted and the proposed uses (possibly thinking he’d never see him again!). Bruce turned up within a week to tell Reg he wanted the boat primarily for fishing and that he’d “decided on a 12 footer ... I didn’t have measurements but...I wanted it beamy, [with] a decent draft and ... fairly high in the stern so that I can run an outboard motor on it and be sitting in the stern and it’s not going along at 45° to the water.”
That was all Reg needed and he invited Bruce back later that week — he’d have something for him.
“So, I went back after work on Friday and here was this lovely little half model! One inch to the foot, so 12 inches long and layered — as you know they are, so that you can separate the layers, get the measurements and with dividers set it out and get the stations, dimensions and such, and run a curve.”
Reg told Bruce to prepare a plan from the half model on a piece of paper and then explained how, from that plan, you would identify the offset for each particular station. Again, Reg thought perhaps he’d never see Bruce again.
Not so, Bruce did exactly as instructed, made plywood templates and went back to Sandy Bay to see Reg. When he reviewed the plans Reg was instantly impressed with the young engineer’s attention to detail and thoughtfulness. He explained how to make the actual moulds or frames and set it all up.
Bruce went home and built a jig with a hardwood beam along the bottom, another at the top and vertical posts at each end and proceeded to set it up in the sunroom, nailed to the superb, five year old Tasmanian Oak floor! To help visualise this set up, imagine an ‘H’ shaped house with the sunroom being the horizontal connector between bedrooms at one end and kitchen, dining and living at the other. Superimpose on that four kids under six years old. Julie says, “My memories were of plenty of wood shavings on the sunroom floor as I negotiated bassinet with baby Roger from bedrooms to kitchen, nails being hammered, steam box steaming ... happy days!”
Bruce’s justification for working inside was that he “wanted to be able to work on it all hours of the day or night, to get it finished fairly quickly ... out of the weather. I didn’t have anywhere else to put it!” Eldest son, Chris, remembers attempting to sleep to the sound of hammers and saws, hoping each night it would be the gentle, soothing rasp of the saw and not the staccato crash of the hammer.
Bruce describes the process from there as instructed by the master:
“So the next thing was, he said, Get some old packing case material, join it all together, nail it together, put your offsets on it, cut them out with a jig saw or something. He used to use a keyhole saw. He hardly used any power tools — did everything pretty much by hand.
“So I did all of that, and I set up the stations then I asked, What do I do next? He said, Well get your planks, they’ve got to go in first, start with the garboard straight which is the one next to the keel and work your way up, one plank each side, one at a time and you’ll end up with a true shape that won’t be warped with too much stress on one side and not enough on the other to counterbalance.”
“So,” I said, What sort of materials do I need? He directed me to go a certain timber merchant in Argyle Street: He’s a friend of mine, I’ll tell him you’re coming and he will have all the materials on hand that you’ll need.
“I went there and introduced myself and sure enough he had all the planks. King Billy. I wanted to build it in King Billy which Reg told me was very good to handle, not as brittle as Huon Pine, easier to bend and if you bash it on rocks it would splinter but it wouldn’t fracture, and the boat would be lighter for handling.”
“So they’re all King Billy planks, half inch thick, and over 12ft long and about seven inches wide (Reg used to build his from seven inch planks). So I had all the materials and away I went. I built an electric steamer made of galvanised steel with a deep section at one end.”
Bruce recalls at this point that he thought Reg may have used a fire under a pipe for his steamer but being an engineer for the Hydro Electric Commission, the younger man was always going to go electric.
“He told me, You’ve got to plug up the ends around the plank or the steam will escape too easily and it won’t thoroughly heat the wood ... nothing less than 20 minutes, probably 30-45 minutes. If you keep it going longer it will come out like a limp, wet rag.”
Before beginning, Reg offered to obtain the Huon Pine stem, steam it and bend it to shape as he just didn’t think it would be possible in the sunroom. Bruce gratefully accepted the beautifully curved stem from Reg — two inch thick Huon Pine on the inside and two inch thick Huon Pine layers on the outside. The Huon Pine on the outside was smaller section than the inner section. Bruce bevelled it with a little plane that Reg had recommended he buy.
Then Bruce got to work on the planks, starting with a garboard straight. Reg had recommended the use of wooden clamps with pegs to jam them tight (wood recommended over steel to avoid bruising the timber). Quite a few clamps were needed. Bruce made every clamp by hand.
He kept working away, shaping one plank at a time each side, locking each in place using only the clamps and removing them each time as he moved up each side of the boat, “And you find you have to bevel each plank as you go to make it fit properly and you have to check where each one goes into the stern to keep it flat on the transom and you have to calve the bow stem so the planks fit in neatly into the stem… I found as you get towards the gunwale you need wider and wider planks to take up the curvature because Reg used to build them with a fair bit of sheer.”
Bruce altered the Fazackerley design a little. Apparently as Reg got further up the sides towards the gunwale he would cut the planks in half and join them together with fish braid. Bruce “didn’t really want to do that because I thought that sounded like a lot of extra work and might be tricky getting it just right. So I decided I would veer away from his design and buy wider planks. Incidentally Reg always used to build his vessels with seven planks each side for dinghies of around that length. So for the top two planks Bruce used nine inch and eleven inch planks. Reg said “That would be fine as far as he knew although he’d never done them like that. I thought it would be good.”
Reg explained how to join everything together with copper nails, rove the top couple of planks, the bottom ones, the ribs and then all the knees. Reg used ‘grown knees’ from the bush, lovely angled branches. Bruce went searching in the bush behind Howrah and found just the right shapes.
Reg wanted Bruce to have a decent ‘grown’ breasthook so he gave him a piece of Wattle root in an elegant elbow shape. Bruce cut it with a band saw and made one breasthook out of the lovely piece and installed it snugly into the bow.
The boat was finally complete. Bruce removed the double doors from the side of the house to get it out into the yard, carefully hoisted it onto the trailer and drove down to Sandy Bay to show Reg, full of trepidation as to whether it would pass muster. The keen-eyed, master boat builder walked around it slowly, examining the shape, running his fingers over the joins, inspecting the fittings ... every inch, Bruce sweating the whole time. In fact, after 10 minutes of scrutiny, Bruce was certain, “He doesn’t like it, I’ve done something wrong, it’s terrible ... he’ll say, I better put the axe through it.”
Finally Reg straightened up, looked the young man in the eye and said, “That dinghy is worth 12 pound a foot of anybody’s money.”
Bruce was jubilant. A man with a sharp eye for prices, he knew this was exactly the amount Reg charged for his own workmanship. He was grinning like a Cheshire cat, but most of all, hugely relieved.
Eager to learn, he asked the master if he had any criticisms. Reg smiled and said, “Well yes, I do. That bit of Wattle root I gave you for the breasthook — I’d have got three out of that and you’ve made one!”
He also thought perhaps the ends of the nails may have been a bit long, the one’s Bruce had clenched. Bruce explained that he was worried that the King Billy, being so soft, the nails might not hold so he’d left them a bit longer. Reg nodded and said, “There’s no harm in it and they’ll certainly hold ... and never mind anyway, it’s a great boat.”
Fitted with a four horse Johnson and a pair of cut down racing scull oars, The Dinghy became a much-loved fishing vessel in the Derwent at the Cod Hole (Punch’s Reef) or Tranmere and Droughty Point, Frederick Henry Bay off Cremorne, the east coast off Rheban and Orford. Buckets of flathead, cod, perch, ‘couta, gurnard caught on lines and plentiful trumpeter and trevally in the nets.
Every Spring Bruce would put The Dinghy on the front lawn and hook up the hose with a trickle of water, bungs in, to let it ‘take up’. It would be days before it held water, leaking through the gaps in the cold, shrunken planks, then timbers gradually swelling, breathing, coming to life again.
Recalled by the youngest of Bruce’s sons, Colin:
When I was very little I soon got bored of fishing and instead liked to simply sit in the bow or centre thwart watching Mum, Dad, or one of my older siblings haul in and land the ‘flatties’ flapping and bouncing on the deck, the more exuberant ones shimmying down between the bottom boards and the hull, or sloshing about in the stern.
I have very fond memories of sitting in the bow with the wind in my hair watching the water rush past with the white four horse Johnson outboard (and later redline six horse Mercury) propelling us to the ‘spot’. Under oar power – and sometimes I’d get to have a turn – was a different, more peaceful experience, with the gentle waves lapping around the hull making a sweet, tinkling timbre like a great big beautiful percussion instrument.
So many wonderful memories in this labour of love, a combination of the determination and natural talent of one young man, guided and supported by the expertise and wisdom of a master, in the grand tradition of the passing-on of knowledge and craft.