SS Discovery

Project:  A boat – complete with a Plexiglas sea – for all the little tots in the Children’s Discovery Center.  This little display is intended to be a junior marine research station with lots of samples for the kids to enjoy.

Challenges:  The design concept for this display is simple.  Basically, it is a shelf for marine samples that provided me with an excuse to build a boat and wrap it in a Plexiglas sea.  The actual construction, however, posed two major challenges. 1)  I wanted to build the boat so that is at least had a proper bow and gunwale.  (An urge left over from my time in the Navy, no doubt.) 2) I wanted the “sea” that wraps around the boat to have a semicircular curve in the front insofar as I thought that would better echo the shape of the bow and would look far less clunky than a simple box.  This problem, in turn, precipitated two more sub-problems: A) Plexi does not like to bend into the small radius necessitated by the limited space, and B) the length of the wrap-around sea exceeded the length of a single piece of Plexi, which required that there be a join somewhere.

Solutions:  To make the boat with a proper bow, I used a rib and sheathing construction.  I made a free hand cut to form the curve of the bow, flipped it over and routed the other side to match.  Using this as a deck, I attached ribs around the curve of the bow, reinforced them with horizontal members which I cut to match the curve of the deck, and covered the entire skeleton with kerf wood.  After this, I hid the top edge of the kerf wood under the gunwale.  To make the gunwale, I cut short sections of poplar at the proper angles, biscuited them together, and attached them to the top edge of the bow.  Once in place, I attached ½ inch spacers to the hull of the boat under the rough-cut gunwale and routed the gunwale to match the hull. A little rounding-over, sanding, staining, and urethaning, and the boat was good to go.

 To make the Plexiglas “sea”, I made a small ocean bottom for the boat to sit in.  This was simply a three-inch-high platform that had a carefully cut out space into which the boat would fit.  I made another platform to sit on top of the first – wedding-cake style – and fit it around the boat, too.  After the platform was finished, I coated it with playground sand to give the appearance of the sea floor.  I accomplished this by applying a coat of urethane and sprinkling sand on it while it was still wet, then repeated the process after the urethane had dried.   I applied a total of four layers to get the desired appearance.  After the sand work was done, it was time to attach the Plexiglas sea.  The second layer of the “wedding cake” provided a strong attachment that allowed me to bend the Plexi into the curve you see in the picture.  What you see wrapped around the front of the boat is actually two layers of Plexi – one blue and one clear.  The ½ inch Plexi simply would not bend to this radius, and a single ¼ inch wall was not structural enough.  Since two blue sheets were to dark to allow proper viewing of the coral specimens behind them, I decided to use a clear sheet for the second layer.  I cut the tops of the sheets into a wave pattern and staggered the arrangement to give a sense of depth.

Original concept sketch

The final problem was that the length of the Plexi wall far exceeded the length of even a 10-foot special order sheet.  There is a saying in museum design that the reader may have seen elsewhere in this site: fix it or feature it.  I decided to hide the area where the sheets of Plexi join behind two “pier posts”.  I went to the trusty Home Depot and bought two fence posts for 50 cents each (they were literally throwing them away).  I sawed them in half lengthwise, stained them to look like creosote, put half inside the Plexi wall and half outside, and bolted them together.  This arrangement not only hid the join in the Plexi, but also added a great deal of structural strength that would not have been present in the original design.  This is what I refer to as a “happy accident”.