May 012012


In 2010 and 2011, I had the pleasure of overseeing a deck restoration project on the Bill of Rights. The deck was original, making it forty years old. About twenty years into its life, it had started showing signs of deterioration, so the operators at the time decided to cover it with a material called Arabol to prevent leaks.

Twenty years later, the Arabol was far beyond the end of its life, and the deck beneath it was rotten and leaky. The rot was almost entirely caused by and surrounding the rusty steel bolts used to fasten the planks to the deck beams, so scarfing clean pieces in wasn’t a viable solution. We had to replace entire sections of the deck.

Complicating factors: I had limited carpentry skills and no prior experience with such a project, and it was my job to see that the deck got fixed; if you imagine the smallest budget you can, ours was far smaller; the deck had to be usable at the end of each week so that we could do weekend public sails.

So how did we manage? We had a whole team of old salty-dog volunteer boat-builders, carpenters and machinists who generously shared incredible amounts of time and knowledge with us. Add an enthusiastic and committed team of staff and volunteers, and a bunch of donated equipment and supplies, and we were half-way there.

At the end of it all not only did we have a leak-free deck, but I’d gained a level of knowledge and experience in the repair and maintenance of wooden decks beyond anything I’d dreamed.

Here is some photo-documentation of the project, with a few notes about process, materials, and lessons learned.

Removing the old worn-out airball deck covering.




1. Removing the old, worn-out Arabol, anxious to see how much of the deck was salvageable. A note about Arabol or similar coverings: this can only be used as a stop-gap measure to stop leaks until a proper deck repair or full replacement can be made. The Arabol WILL leak, allowing water in, but not out, and causing the deck to rot further.






After 40 years, all of the steel spikes had rusted, causing the wood around them to rot.


2. The steel spikes originally used to fasten the decks beams had rusted over the years, causing the wood around it to rot. Because they were rusty (and 6″ long), these spikes were painfully difficult to remove without shearing them off, and left gaping holes in the deck beams when you did.





Some of the planks were a little difficult to remove.


3. Removing planks was a multi-step process. First we drilled several holes large enough to fit the blade of a jig-saw, and cut the planks into sections, being very careful not to come anywhere near wiring below. Then small sections either fell away, or were removed by pounding them out with a sledge-hammer, as seen here. The hardest bits were around the spikes, where we basically had to see-saw the pieces out.




Hole in the deck!


4. Here is a portion of the deck with all planks removed, and one new plank already installed from the test-run repair we’d done in the fall.  We chose to use the pre-existing holes from the steel spikes for our new fasteners where possible to avoid turning the deck beams into Swiss cheese. This was a great idea in theory, but ended up creating a lot of challenges later on in the process.




Each plank went through the jointer, the table saw or band saw, and the chop saw to bring it close to its final dimensions.


5. Each plank went through the jointer, band saw or table saw, thickness planer, and finally the chop to bring it to rough dimensions before it was brought down to the boat. Before its final fitting, we put a bevel around the top of each plank, which would later form the seams between the planks.





Final dimensioning was done by hand for a perfect fit.




6. Final dimensioning was done with a hand plane to ensure as tight a fit as was possible.








1/2" x 4" zinc-plated hex-head lag screws were used to fasten the new planks, re-using the holes from the original spikes.

7. We used 1/2″ by 4″ zinc-plated hex-head lags to fasten the new deck planks. 1/2″ was overkill, but necessary to grab into the existing spike holes. Pre-drilling the planks in the exact right spot to match the pre-existing holes was nearly impossible, and led to many lags that became cock-eyed as they were driven in. In turn, this meant that our bung-holes had to be reamed out so the socket could fit at an angle. In the future, I would epoxy dowels of the same timber (in this case, white oak) into the existing holes, put the new fasteners elsewhere, and just accept that the beams will be less than whole.




With bungs cut and glued, the only step left before caulking, tarring and oiling is to trim the bungs.


8. Lags have been driven in, and bungs have been cut and glued in. Trimming  the bungs (a more delicate task than you might think) is the last step before oiling the new planks, and caulking and tarring the seams.








Finally, the planks have been oiled and the seams have been caulked with cotton and oakum and then filled with tar!

9. Finally, seams have been caulked with cotton and oakum, and filled with tar. We went a less than traditional route and used plain old roofers tar that works just fine. We were lucky enough to get a design for a really handy paying pitcher from a friend which we had custom-made by a local machine shop. The tool is basically a large cone with a hole in the end, a handle, and a piece of steel rod down the center that can be used to plug the hole when you come to the end of a seam. It seriously increases efficiency, and makes a normally messy process quite a bit neater.