My intent in preparing and presenting this information on Batteau Construction Website is to create a resource which will assist future batteau builders and hopefully be informative and interesting to all who read it. I have provided within this section of the website, some information from Joe Ayers and others who were integral in founding the festival and who actually saw the boats in the basin dig in 19??. This document in particular is my personal experience and opinions based on my experience with the festival and particularly in terms of boatbuilding. I am not trying to portray myself as the sole source of authenticity and the correct building procedures, but rather give 1 person’s experience on the facinating experience of recreating the batteau of the late 1700’s.
At the time of the writing of this article, we have constructed 4 Anthony Rucker batteaux. The first boat was build in 1988, the second in 1992, the third in 2001 and the fourth in 2009. The third Rucker batteau is still active in the festival having been renamed the Morning Dew and crewed by a group of college age young men including my two sons.
In the fall of 2008 we decided to embark on the adventure of building our fourth version of The Anthony Rucker batteau. At the time we still had a batteau with several years of life left in it, but we had gotten the building bug and really looked forward to the construction. Our hope was to build a batteau in which we would address the mistakes and short comings of the previous batteaux we’ve built and which would provide us with the ability to enjoy the festival for the next 10 or more years. In its maiden festival year in 2009, the 4th Anthony Rucker surpassed even our most optimistic expectations. We may not be objective, but we felt the boat looked majestic in the water with straight lines and the absence of any hogging. It was by far the most water tight boat we’ve crewed, not needing to be bailed out during the entire festival as the evaporation rate was roughly equal to the amount of water leaking into the boat. The 3rd and 4th Ruckers are both heavy boats and this is noticeable in the river, but it was a conscious decision to build heavy and strong and we have no regrets.
Procuring wood is one of the first steps in building a batteau. While there is some debate as to what wood to use above the waterline, it is clear that white oak should be used below the water line and for all ribs and stem pieces. On the first Rucker built in 1988, we mixed red and white oak and there was a tremendous difference in the performance of the two woods with the red oak being clearly unacceptable in both strength and rot resistance. The reason for using other woods above the waterline is to save both weight and money. We chose instead to use white oak for the entire boat, with the exception of the walkboards which were poplar on the first 3 Ruckers and cypress in the 4th Rucker.
The quality of the wood most likely will be determined by the budget you have available. In a perfect world, we would have preferred no knots in any of the wood. In the real world we did the best we could to cull and work with the wood we had available. The materials list (attached document) is what we started with to build the Rucker which is 44 feet long and 7’2" in width. The dimensions of the boat you build will obviously determine exactly what wood you will need but starting with this list will be helpful.
Batteau can be constructed equally successfully using green lumber or air dried lumber. Green lumber is heavy and the water is hard on tools but in some ways is easier to work than air dried lumber. Ruckers ,3 and 4 were built from wood we purchased green and then let dry sticked for 2 or 3 months so I’d consider the partially air dried. Rucker #2 was built with kiln dried lumber because it was what we could find at the time. Using kiln dried lumber turned out to be a pretty serious mistake which shortened the life of the boat significantly. Using kiln-dried lumber made the construction of the boat easier, but the wood didn’t do well when exposed to the radical swelling and drying a batteau goes through during its life.
One factor, which will vary depending on the moisture in your wood, is the spacing left between the planking boards. Boats built with green lumber can have the planking boards nailed with no space between. The latest Rucker had lumber which had been air dried for about 2 months, and we left a gap of ¼-5/16 inch between boards. This calculation is crucial and will be different for each boat depending on moisture content and board width. If too much space is left, the boards don’t swell tight and obviously the boat will leak. If too little space is left the boards will swell tight, continue to swell and cause the boards to buckle. A couple of weeks prior to planking the boat, I cut several test pieces, measured them carefully then soaked them under water for 2 weeks. This has been done on each of the 4 boats we’ve built and we have reasonably accurately determined how much the wood will swell. In my opinion leaving either too much or too little space between planking boards and the worst miscalculations you can make on the construction.
MATERIAL LIST HERE
The tools and skills needed to build a boat can vary widely depending on the amount of fit and finish you want to have. After all, the original boats were likely built with chop axes and hand saws. We built the Ruckers striving for a fine finish, strength, and a boat which would be friendly to live in for the festival week. This saw us doing things like routing the edges on all ribs and exposed boards, not because it was more authentic or asthetically pleasing, but rather because we knew full well that at some point we’d be barefooted and kick the ribs while poleing.
Bandsaw – we used a 1.5 hp 18" Jet Bandsaw to cut out the ribs, gussets etc.
Hand drills- used to pre-drill holes to nail into white oak
Electric plane – used to flatten ribs where planking boards meet the ribs
Sawzall- used for a multitude of different operations
Skill Saw – used for a multitude of operations
As you can see, only basic tools are needed to build a batteau.
The first step in constructing the boat was to cut the rib arms, gussets, and rib bases. We created a new set of patterns trying to correct problems we experienced with the first two boats. We will gladly make these patterns available to anyone who is building a boat and would like to use them. They can be modified as desired but it is important to maintain the 5-piece rib design which really defines the appearance of an authentic construction.
The first 2 batteaux we built were tapered at the ends. This was accomplished by making the last 3 or 4 ribs each 2 inches narrower than the previous one. This was simple to accomplish by making the rib base narrower, no changes were made to the rib arms. The problems this taper created were in the planking stages. At the ends of the boats some of the planking boards which started on the bottom of the boat towards the middle, ran up on the sides as they approached the ends. This was a very difficult bend to make and in reality the boards should have been steamed. The new Rucker and most of the other boats which have been built recently have no taper at all. This means that all the ribs from nosecone to nosecone are identical and planking is much easier
The joints where the rib arms meet the rib base pieces can best be understood by looking at the pictures accompanying this article. The joint is basically a rabbet joint with the rib arm thickness removed from rib base to accept the rib arm. The material removed from the rib base to make the joint can be done by a number of methods depending on equipment available. A dado cutter can be used making multiple passes. A skill saw can be used making multiple cuts the using a chisel to clean up the cut, in the past we’ve also used a band saw to make this joint. It’s not important that you have a cabinet grade joint, as strength not appearance is most important.
Fastening of the gussets, rib arms, and base ribs is done with boat nails. Care should be taken when nailing to anticipate where other nails will end up and also to avoid potentially splitting particularly the rib arms where the grain inevitably goes across the rib to some degree. Because of the shape of the boat nail, there is a correct orientation when nailing. The nail in one direction has much more of a wedge like configuration which will be more likely to split the wood. A close examination of the nail will make this concern clear.
The rib bases on the new Rucker are made from a 3 x 6 and the rib arms from 2 x 6. The decision to increase the base ribs to 3" was based on the fact that because of the way the lap joint is formed between the rib arm and base rib, if you use 2" rib bases you end up with about 1 ¼ " rib arms. On past boats we have had a lot of trouble with rib arms breaking, a situation which the 3" base ribs has completely eliminated on boats 3 and 4. The down side obviously is the extra expense and weight of the 3" materials.
After the ribs have all been assembled, they are laid out upside down on some type of frame. In the past we have constructed sawhorses, for this boat we laid out cinder block columns and placed doubled 2 x 4 rails the entire length of the boat. On previous Ruckers, the spacing between ribs was determined by the length of our planking boards. These began at 12 feet but with checking we determined that we would be lucky to get 11’6" out of the boards. This left us with rib spacing center to center of 26.5". The 2009 construction we used 35 foot lumber for planking to eliminate but joints so the rib spacing could have been anything we wanted. The rib spacing in my opinion should be between 24" and 28" center to center. The actual spacing should be determined by what is needed to eliminate waste on the boards which will be used for planing the boat. The ribs should be spaced and squared as closely as possible, we used strings on the ends of the rib arms. We also placed some rocker into the boat by shimming the center piers 2 ". We also did this on the previous boats but after a couple of years in the water, the boat straightened out on it’s own.
The end rib where the nosecone meets the body of the boat is an area which has been problematic on the first three boats we built as well as many other boats in the festival. A 3" base and 2" rib arm provide plenty of width for most all nailing including where boards end and will butt the next board. However because of the angle of the nosecone boards and the need to angel part of the end rib, it is extremely helpful to have more width to work with on this end rib. Some boats have a double rib at this location to provide the needed width, but we found that a 4’ rib arm mated to a 4" rib base worked beautifully and eliminated much of the trouble found at this joint.
The rib arm and rib base are nailed together and held by the rabbet joint on one side and a gusset plate on the other side. Don’t underestimate the importance of having a secure joint between the arm and base.
The stem pieces should travel back through the first two ribs. There is some debate over how the stem piece travels past the first two ribs. One way will keep the nosecone from dropping down but doesn’t protect against it being lifted when a rock is hit hard, the other way visa versa. My major concern was the problem many boats have with the nosecones dropping down and drawing more water than the remainder of the boat. Therefore I notched the nosecone over the first rib and under the second rib. The way this rib was notched is shown in several pictures. We also notched the rib in such a way as to have the nosecone lifted slightly. Time will tell whether or not this will help keep the nosecone from dropping.
One mistake we made on the three earlier batteaux and then corrected on the 4th Rucker is in putting the planking on the body of the boat first, and doing the nosecones last. The cuts where the nosecones meet the body of the boat and at the end of the boat are both compound angles. It is much easier to cut the angle at the end of the nosecone and let where the nosecone meets the body run long. Also about half of the end rib needs to be beveled to accept the boards from the nosecone which are obviously coming back at an angle. Again it is clear that this is much easier to do if the planking for the body isn’t yet done. We did put the kingplank and sister boards on each side of the kingplank on prior to working the nose cones, this held the ribs together and didn’t in any way interfere with the nosecone planking.
Boat nails are used to fasten all planking to the ribs. These nails are available from a number of sources, Pleasants Hardware in Richmond and Hamilton Marine are both used by many previous batteaux builders. We drilled two separate holes for each nail, a pilot hole is drilled through the planking into the rib which will be at least the depth of the nail. The diameter of this bit will vary depending on the nails used but it should basically be the same as the width of the nail at the pointed end, measuring the smaller way. The second hole is just smaller than the diameter of the nail by the head and is only drilled the depth of the planking and shouldn’t go into the rib. This drilling concept puts the holding power of the nail in the rib not the plank and this is what is desired. Drilling the larger hole into the planking also reduces the chances of splitting the planking which is a significant problem, particularly on the ends. We used 3 nails per board on all boards which were 6" or wider, 2 nails on several boards which ended up being less than 6".
The length of the nails changed depending on whether we were nailing the bottom of the boat or up on the rib arms. The nails we used on the bottom of the boat were 4" and the nails on the rib arms were 3" and 2 ¾ at the tops of the ribs. Common sense dictates exactly where to change nail sizes, we changed when we got to the lap joint of the base rib and rib arm. The 4" nails were new to this batteau as we used 3 inch nails on everything on earlier boats. When the boats were constructed the nails had incredible holding power and when a mistake was made and nails needed to be pulled, it was essentially impossible. We would often end up grinding off the head or cutting the nail off with a sawzall. On the first 2 boats we used 2 ¾ nails for all boards including the bottom boards after several years of swelling and contracting, we noticed many nails which were loose and could be pulled out with your fingers. These boats were allowed to dry during the off season and the radical swelling and shrinking probably was the cause of the nails being loosened. This caused us to have to re-nail boards, a situation I hope we have avoided on this boat by using the larger nails and by leaving the boats in the water during the offseason.
When nailing, there is potential to do damage to the ribs, particularly the rib arms. A number of boats including previous Ruckers have ended up with broken rib arms as a result of pounding with 2 pound hammers etc. Although the boat is very strong, the rib arms have some potential for being broken as they are cut on a curve and therefore the grain runs across the arm to some degree. Care should be taken and ribs constantly inspected during nailing. When nailing at the top of the ribs we would have someone inside the boat holding a sledge hammer against the rib in an effort to protect it.
The cap rails are an extremely important part of construction as they provide much of the strength required in the event of a side impact. These are the only part of the boat which can be constructed by using some form of lamination. Previous ruckers have had caprails which had a joint which was not spanned by another piece as in the concept of lamination. At the joints there was a very weak area and looking down the side of the boat you could clearly see where the side of the boat would change dramatically at this joint. Some people have gotten strength from the caprail by placing a board inside the top of the rib at the top and having the joint staggered from the top planking board on the outside. They have then placed a board on the top of the rib and fastened it to the top planking board and this piece on the inside. This makes a strong caprail and also makes for a nice seat but isn’t considered as authentic as what we have done on this Rucker.
There is evidence to suggest that on the original batteaux, the caprail was a continuous thick piece with a mortice cut in it which would accept the ends of the rib arms. We accomplished the same appearance with increased strength by beginning with a 2 x 6 and making the cuts as shown in the pictures. We then ran a piece of this material on the inside and outside of the rib, creating a laminated effect for strength. This makes the caprail essentially an oak 4 x 6 which likely makes it heavier than the caprail system used on any other boat. I believe the strength we achieved is worth the extra weight we carry down the river.
One caprail concept worth considering is what Mike Neal did on the latest Rose of Nelson. He used a board which goes from nosecone to nosecone with no joints, a difficult piece of wood to find and pay for. But it provides an clean appearance and is probably the most authentic caprail in the festival in my opinion.
Although not an integral part of the boat from a strength standpoint, the walkboards are crucial from a livability and safety standpoint. The walkboards on the Rucker sit on the elevated part of the rib base so walkboard planning can actually affect the exact shape of the rib base. A lot of time is spent walking back and forth on these boards so don’t underestimate their importance. Some boats have elevated walkboards inside the caprail, some elevated walkboards outside the caprail, however we have always had walkboards which are inside the boat directly on the rib base. In my opinion this makes for a cleaner appearing design and if you don’t have plans for a canopy work fine. If you have plans for a canopy, then you will have to consider whether there is room for inside walkboards or if they will need to go outside the boat. Whatever you do, plan your walkboards as an integral part of your design, not an after thought. Also consider safety, there are inside walkboards which have space between the walkboard and the planking, a perfect place to have your ankle broken as you fall overboard. Also, there have been outside walkboards on some boats which I believe have had serious limitations from a strength standpoint. Other factors to be considered are that inside walkboards will block your access to the planking when looking for leaks and should be able to be removed on the river easily. Outside walkboards will also widen your boat which if you plan on venturing into some of the smaller areas behind islands may be a consideration. Walkboards are also your best source of emergency lumber in the event you have serious damage done to the boat while on the river. When planning walkboard design, be aware that you want to make your boat easy to live aboard without walking directly on the inside of the planking. Walking on the planking the first years of a batteau is probably something you can get away with, but as a boat ages it is asking for disaster. Boards have been pushed away from the ribs in on several boats in the past by individuals stepping on the planking. It has created situations which have required repairs while in the middle of the river, something which can affect your enjoyment of that day.
We have always chosen not to have a canopy on the Anthony Rucker. There have been days of 100 degree temperatures, or cold driving rainstorms when I wished we’d had one. But in the overall scheme of things, we continue to think the con’s outweigh the pros although many of the boats are currently equipped with them. A canopy makes walking around the boat and seeing from front to back or side to side much more difficult. A canopy also is a problem if you plan on skirting under the trees and around islands or under a low bridge or two on the river. Also, if you have a stiff breeze blowing upriver it is difficult to keep a boat without a canopy going downstream, one with a canopy is that much more difficult as you have basically a sail. If you are planning on having a canopy, you might want to discuss pros and cons with other boats which have them. However, you will definitely want the canopy to look period and not detract from the overall appearance of the batteau.
No silicon or synthetic caulk should be used on the batteau. Cotton or oakum is packed into the cracks and when the wood swells this fills any gaps which would have remained. It is remarkably effective and works better than any of the silicons which have been tried by individuals in the past. Since wood swells across the grain and not lengthwise, the caulking is even more important on end butt joints than it is on edge joints which will hopefully swell tight on their own. Experience has shown that butt joints along with joints where the nose cone meets the body of the boat are the primary culprits to be examined when the boat is leaking.
After building a boat there is the obvious need for a way to get it to the river and back. Most if not all batteaux trailers started their lives as mobile homes. The Rucker trailer was a mobile home which had been involved in a fire. It takes some metalworking knowledge and somebody good with a welder and in a weekend you can have a good trailer for almost no money. I would caution that different generations of mobile homes have different quality of steel frames. Lightweight frames will require significant strengthening and should be avoided. We’ve seen many vehicles used to pull trailers ranging from lightweight ½ ton 4 cylinder trucks, to tractor trailers. I personally believe that to safely pull and most importantly stop a batteau and trailer you should have at least a ¾ ton truck. Of course there is a significant difference in the weight of different batteaux and trailers which is a factor also.
Help from other Festival participants
The James River Batteau Festival is full of individuals who have built batteaux themselves and are willing and anxious to give help and advice. We hope and actually request that you allow individuals who have built boats to see the boat at various stages of construction. Whereas we don’t want to put unnecessary obstacles in the path of someone building a boat, it is important that certain aspects of the original batteaux are included in the modern day replicas. Currently there are about 20 batteaux still in service and while each is different from the other, they are all clearly identifiable as a close relative of the original James River Batteaux of the late 1700’s.
The subject of Authenticity is of obvious importance to a festival attempting to re-enact a certain period of time and certain type of watercraft. In the past it has been a divisive issue and one which volumes could be written about and the issue never really settled. My opinion is that a certain level of authenticity is important to keep the festival true to it’s goals and to avoid an ‘anything which floats" festival including floating bathtubs with styrofoam outriggers. But having said that I think authenticity should not become an unnecessary barrier to people building boats and participating in the festival.
We have lively discussions about the fact that there were many different designs of boats on the river during the late 1700’s which is clearly true. The Anthony Rucker is constructed in a way to be a reasonably authentic replica of boat #28 which was one of the boats found in Richmond when the original boats were unearthed and documented in the early 1980’s. I believe it would be easily recognized by Thomas Jefferson and others of his time as a copy of the boats which were hauling tobacco from Lynchburg to Richmond.
Boat Preparation and Storage
In the off season, some boats are stored underwater in ponds and some are dry on trailers. At different times, we’ve tried all approaches to the boat storage issue and found each to have serious pros and cons. Storing underwater seems to keep boats well but the boats become food for worms and quickly take on the appearance of driftwood. To take the new Anthony Rucker after all the time, energy and money spent on it and leave it in the water during the offseason seems criminal. However based on our experiences over the past 20 years, we reluctantly have stored the boat in the water during it’s first off season. The disadvantage of dry storage is that the wood dries out and shrinks so much and the wood moves so much that it is very hard on the wood, and nails. The 3rd boat was stored on the trailer the first several years and boards which were tight when wet had cracks in excess of 5/8 inch between them when dry. This shrinking had to have loosened the nails and we’ve seen evidence of this in terms of loose and bent nails. However if you choose to leave the boat on the trailer during the off season you will need to have the boat back in the water and submerged at least three weeks before the boat is to be used again. Regardless of how you store the boat, it will be an annual ritual looking for new leaks and packing oakum.
James River Batteau Festival
After building an authentic James River Batteau, the next stage of its enjoyment begins. The week long festival is a highlight of the year for many if not most of the participants. The fellowship among batteau crews along with the enjoyment of the James River as a wonderful natural resource make this week special to everyone. After participating in over 20 festivals I can honestly say no two have been the same and after well over 2000 festival miles on the James I still look forward to the festival each year.
This 4th Anthony Rucker batteau was constructed in the spring of 2009 by previous crew and friends. We basically worked on it for 2-3 months, a couple of night a week and occasionally on weekends. Some evenings we had 10 people working, more often it was a core group of 2 or 3 family and friends. Often it was more of a social gathering than a work setting. We certainly spent more time than absolutely necessary but we were enjoying working out situations which had created problems in past boats. Much of the fit and finish we worked hard to accomplish was unnecessary and disappeared after 2 weeks at the bottom of a pond. The new boat has logged 1 James River Batteau Festival comprised of 120 river miles. The 3rd Anthony Rucker will participate in the 2010 festival again having been re-named the Morning Dew. After 10 years in the festival it is certainly in its twilight years but still is a sound boat and if maintained still has several years of life left.Return to Construction Home Page