I have been messing about on boats for more years than I care to remember, but it still never ceases to amaze me how many new things you learn when you restore an old boat. One example: who knew that the ceiling on a boat is not the ceiling at all? “Ceilings” are those wooden slats often fitted by manufacturers on cabin sides, most frequently in a fo'c'sle. The correct nautical term for the actual roof, i.e. ceiling, of a cabin is “the overhead.”
I learned these archaic snippets, (who's only value are in impressing fellow boaters), when I decided to renovate Britannia's forward cabin. It was still covered with 40 year-old faded foam backed vinyl, much of it in rotten smelly condition, and all the woodwork needed re-varnishing, some replacing completely.
Nautical expressions can get confusing when referring to slats which are really ceilings, and roofs which are overheads. So for this article I decided to use common landlubber terms. “Roof” means the underside of the glass fiber deck, which is the actual roof of the cabin and including the underside of the lower deck. “Slats” are the teak strips on the side of the hull. “side” means the sides of the cabin, both the lower slopping sides with the slats, and the upper sides with the port lights in them.
Teak slats might look nice, but they are extremely difficult to clean behind and between them, and harbingers for dust and mildew. I therefore decided to remove all twenty two of these 2” inch wide by 1/2” inch thick strips from the sides and replace them with easy to clean hygienic plastic sheeting. With six plugged screws securing each slat to the hull ribs, that was an awful lot of unscrewing, 132 to be precise! An immediate improvement was to make the cabin appear larger, even though it had actually only widened by a little over an inch.
I also cut out all the dirty vinyl covering on the sides and roof, which was glued and stapled to the glass fiber deck. I also removed three port lights, two on the starb’rd side and one to port, then temporarily sealed the outside with duct tape to try and keep any rain out until I could re-install them, after I had fitted the new plastic side coverings.
Everyone who works on boats knows it's usually much easier to strip things out than to rebuild them, and this project was no exception. After cutting all the dirty vinyl out, along with a few dead roaches and spiders, I then had to make templates by taping sheets of art-board together, then cutting and adding bits to form the exact shape of each side. Then I traced the template on a Plas-Tex plastic sheet on the marina dock. These sheets come in 4’ feet by 8’ feet sheets, about 1/16” inch thick. It is very pliable, waterproof and washable, yet easily trimmed with scissors and a sharp knife.
I glued the panels to each side of the hull using contact adhesive on the side ribs and the battens which ran along the top of the cabin. I used gel type adhesive because it is not stringy and doesn't drip like the regular sort. This is quite important when applying glue upside down. I screwed a teak batten along the bottom of the sheet which stopped it sagging between the ribs. With the lower panels in place I then made templates for the upper sides, which curved round the shape of the deck. These were larger than the lower sides and more difficult to glue underneath. Reinstalling the port lights helped to keep the large side panels in place. The largest and final piece of Plas-Tex had to be glued to the forward underside of the roof. I made the template by taping the art boards to the roof with masking tape.
After cutting a plastic sheet to shape I pre-glued the glass fiber roof and the plastic. Offering it up after about ten minutes was a delicate once-off operation, because as its name suggests contact adhesive sticks, on contact. I lay on my back while my wife slid the large sticky sheet over me, and I carefully placed it where I had made marks from the template. It was then a question of “push it up in place, and hope,” then holding it in place with arms and legs while the glue made contact. I then fitted props to hold the sheet in place while the glue hardened.
I trimmed had arranged the plastic sheets to overlap each other about 1/2” inch. This enabled me to score through both overlapping layers at the same time using a cutter with a sharp new blade. I then stripped of the top layer and inside layer away, leaving the two pieces with a perfect butt joint to each other that did not need any filler or trim. It was just a matter of cleaning excess glue with Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK) solvent. I cut other teak trim pieces from the slats I had removed, varnished them, then glued them to cover the joints between the sides and roof.
There were two sections which needed covering in the roof of the cabin, between the deck beams and round the hatch. For this I used the same tongued and grooved plastic boards I had used throughout the rest of the boat.(see New headliner). It is called Plank Paneling and is (PVC) planking, used as wainscot panels on house walls. It is reversible with different sides, one is molded with two strips and the other with three thinner strips. I decided to use the two strip side. An important benefit, particularly on a boat, is the rot and mildew free lifetime guarantee, along with the ability to wash it with soap and water. I had also found the thickness gave better thermal insulation from the hot deck compared to thin vinyl. I measured and trimmed these panels individually, to accommodate any unevenness between the deck beams, then slotted them into the previous panel and secret nailed them to the wooden beads which had supported the original vinyl.
I added a second 12-volt dome light and wired two 120-volt sconce lights into the boats ring-main, then connected both systems to a double switch mounted near the door. These are regular twin house switches which can be completely isolated from each other by snapping the bridging connection. I wired the top switch to the sconces and the bottom to the dome lights. This is a much more practical method than groping in the dark for the tiny overhead dome light switches.
These improvements made the cabin appear much larger than before, because the dark wood slats tended to bring the sides inwards. It is also brighter and much easier to clean.
There are two hanging lockers, one each side, which had been varnished with multiple layers over the years, and not very carefully either, because runs could be seen down the doors and sides, I removed both locker doors, along with the pinrails round the shelf tops. I also removed the cabin door and the chain locker door and framework, along with four sliding drawers. These were all taken to my home to be restored in my garage. The locker sides and tops had to be stripped in-situ with varnish remover, then scraped down to the original teak. This was then cleaned with teak cleaner and given two coats of varnish, which brought out the beautiful golden tones of the wood. The inside of the lockers were then painted white. Old varnish even had to be cleaned of the original brass reading lights.
I wondered what to do about the teak laminate shelf covering on top of the Sta’bd lockers. These were not scratched or damaged, because Formica laminate is very resilient, but they had lost their luster over time and no amount of polishing would bring back the slightest hint of a shine. After experimenting with a small section I decided to varnish them with clear gloss varnish. I cleaned the laminate with soap and water, then slapped a liberal coat of clear gloss on with a 2” brush. I then left the tops untouched for a week, so the varnish could thoroughly dry to a hard finish. It set to a fine smooth shiny finish, with the advantage that when it gets scratched, as it undoubtedly will, it will be easy to re-touch with a dab of new varnish.
I then re-installed the freshly varnished pin-rails round the edges of the lockers, but instead of square corners like the original, I made rounded corners out of spare teak. These look much nicer, but more importantly they are not as painful when you bump your arm against the corners when the boat rolls.
We had taken the foam bunks home, where my wife removed the coverings and machine washed them, along with the coverings on the seat between the bunks. When everything was replaced, we found ourselves with a pristine new double cabin. It had not cost a lot of money, if you don't count the effort, but that's supposed to be fun on boats.