The case for wood - Yachts International

The case for wood

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In the past we have examined the advantages of using aluminum (Yachts International, June 2010) and composites (Yachts International, February 2010) in yacht construction.

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We now turn to the oldest material in the history of shipbuilding—wood. A few builders, taking advantage of new technology and materials, are getting back to basics, and there are several compelling reasons to do so.

To get a true feel for how woodwork has evolved you would have to take yourself all the way back to the first time a human took a chisel to a fallen tree. The desire for exploration and discovery—and the pressing need to catch as many fish as possible—pushed innovative minds to produce their best. Man experimented with hull shape and sail configuration until entire armadas crossed oceans. But the colossi that now ply the waters are usually constructed from metal. Even smaller boats once built in wood, such as classic runabouts, today often are built of composite, and only boast a wood finish. As is the case with most technology, people are attracted to what’s new and innovative. But, sometimes, a time-tested tradition—or in this case, the application of new technology to a time-tested tradition—doesn’t deserve to be thrown out with the rotary phones and the early Mac computers.

True wood construction has become a niche specialization in most areas, except perhaps Turkey, where there are still many craftsmen skilled in woodwork. Tuzla-based Logos Marine, a consulting and engineering firm as well as a custom boatbuilder, finds cold-molded wood construction to be the perfect way to address the needs of discriminating clients. Cold molding eliminates the need to shape the keel and hull frames using hot steam or boiling water, as was traditional in decades past, and instead binds multiple layers of wood laminates together with epoxy.

While Logos does not forgo the use of steel or composite, the builder is well aware of the advantages cold-molded wood construction can bring. One is the freedom it offers to build just about any size custom project, since, unlike composite, wood doesn’t require a hull form. Logos is not limited in what it can build, as its recent launches clearly show.

In 2008, Logos debuted the 114-foot (34.5-meter) Seya, a sportfisher, which—because of the possible single-, double- and triple-engine operation mode—boasts a speed range of 10 to 27 knots. Logos showed the impressive fishing machine at the Cannes Boat Show last year. “It has special meaning to us, because it is quite large for a sportfisher. And from A to B, it is a custom build, where the owner did not even want to hire an interior designer for the boat and where he really wanted to put his own touch,” says Cem Tunçyürek, founder and president of Logos Marine. Logos’ next launch, in 2010, was Meya Meya, a sleek and sporty 117-foot (35-meter) raised pilothouse yacht. A successful collaboration between London-based H2 Design, naval architect Ed Fry of Fryco in Tennessee and Logos’ in-house team, Meya Meya has two master suites, zero-speed stabilizers, a large bowthruster, swim platform, garage, electric biminis, a hot tub and a very sophisticated AV system that controls everything from the entertainment to the curtains. With her twin MTU engines, she reaches a top speed of 25 knots. In other words, she lives up to her name, which means “100 percent” in Arabic. Both yachts were built using cold-molded wood.

Vicem, which recently consolidated all of its operations in Antalya, is practically synonymous with cold-molded construction. It has been utilizing cold-molded construction techniques from its first yacht—a 62-foot (19-meter) sailing ship, launched 20 years ago—to its largest wood build, the Vicem 100, which debuted this year at the Monaco Yacht Show. Vicem President Sebahattin Hafizoğlu was one of the seven original employees when Vicem started in 1991. Although Vicem has now ventured into composite construction for some of its larger yachts, Hafizoğlu remains an eloquent advocate for the virtues of wood, which include its resilience. “The ease of shaping wood, combined with its stiffness and durability, made it an excellent choice for building fishing, trading and naval vessels,” he says. Turkey’s rich marine history is built on wood, as he reminded us. In 2009, workers digging a new subway tunnel in Istanbul uncovered the ancient port of Theodosius. An astonishing 34 wooden vessels dating back 1,500 years were found almost intact in silt and mud.

Turkish builders and designers are, of course, not the only ones to keep wood construction alive. Shipyards all over the world still build in wood, even in the techno-centric United States. The Hacker Boat Company based out of Lake George, New York has been building small wood boats since Henry Ford built his first car in 1908 (see full article this issue). For larger vessels, one of the go-to resources for cold-molded construction has been the Connecticut-based naval architect and engineering firm Donald L. Blount and Associates.

Founder Donald Blount did not set out to do just wood construction, but he has developed a bit of a specialty; he’s been designing cold-molded hulls for the past 23 years. “I almost always have a wood project going,” Blount says. One of his current wood projects is a 105-footer now under construction at Jim Smith Boats, Inc., a boutique sportfish builder based in Florida. Jim Smith Boats’ president John Vance and Donald Blount have worked together on numerous projects, including the design and build of the 95-foot Marlena, launched in 2010.

One of the primary reasons many designers and builders across the globe still build in wood is the advantageous strength-to-weight ratio, especially in comparison to composite. Hafizoğlu explained these advantages concisely: “The marriage of engineered wood with formulated resins yields a hull that is much lighter, much stronger and more durable than a traditionally built boat,” he says. Vicem’s cold-molding technique uses laminated mahogany—coming from managed forests—and a specific formulated epoxy resin to create the hull, decks and principal superstructures. This results in a stronger and quieter vessel with a smoother ride.

That is one of the reasons fishing enthusiasts also can be wood-construction enthusiasts. Because they are lightweight, these boats are also usually fast. The 95-foot Marlena, for instance, does 41 knots top speed and cruises comfortably at 38 knots, according to her owner, Sam Gershowitz. The power plant includes twin 16V 2,400 MTU Series 2000 M93 common-rail engines.

These aren’t the only advantages. Out of all possible methods of building a hull, cold-molded construction requires the least in the way of specialized, high-tech (and expensive) equipment. This means that, especially for new builders, the initial capital required is dramatically less than, say, composite construction. It translates into lower costs for the builder, which in turn allows a more competitive value for customers. Tunçyürek said that this could help custom boatbuilders, such as Logos, continue to cater to its clients even in a soft market.

Our various experts made an eloquent case. From start to finish, this construction form seems plenty attractive. Even excepting the low startup cost, it is possible to save months of build time and a sizable percentage of the budget on design and engineering, they said. Once the hull is complete, fit-out time is also usually shorter, because almost everything can simply be glued or bolted into the floor at almost any time during the build process. Time can be saved on painting, too; because the surface is so smooth, it requires very little fairing.

In a time when people are more conscious of the impact they make on the environment, using wood may raise a few eyebrows. But even ecologically, this method has its plus sides. Since builders can use any type of wood, as long as it is strong, dry and rot-free, they can get buy wood from renewable forests and preserve the more traditional—but also more endangered and more expensive—species.

If there is a downside, it is simply that, as Tunçyürek told us, the devil is in the details. You need skilled labor. Craftsmen are as essential as the quality and dryness of the wood, the bonding material and the epoxy or epoxy/fiberglass treatments that put the finishing touches on the layered construction. And in some areas, skilled labor may be hard to come by when it comes to working with wood.

Another downside is that, while the method offers plenty of flexibility, designers face a slight loss in internal volume due to the need for permanent frames. In a constrained space where every inch counts, this could make a noticeable difference.

Cold-molding also limits tank size since tanks are not integrated into the hull; they sit on the frames instead. Lastly, the resale value for wood vessels is not high. On the plus side, though, this point could change. If more builders start using wood construction and owners fall in love with the form, those resale values could easily start climbing.

Currently, cold-molded hulls are more common these days in smaller crafts, especially sportfishing boats. Is this because of the strength of the material and the fact that yards are not limited to a pre-molded shape or because of the longstanding lore that fish respond to the harmonics of wood hulls? The former is a definite benefit, but whether or not there’s truth in the theory of aquatic attraction, these cold-molded beauties are sure to attract attention.

A quick overview

Advantages

Low cost

Excellent weight-to-strength ratio

Lightweight

Flexible design

Good soundproofing

Little startup investment

Available RINA classification

Disadvantages

Some design restrictions due to frames

Tankage restrictions

Lower resale value

Scarcity of skills

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