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The Sanding Queen

by Daria Blackwell
The work of the sanding queen mid-stream. What a mess!

I don't think I'd ever really used any power tools before this spring, and I'd used a sander only once before - on the wooden stairs at the back of our house last summer. I'd never dry sanded any appreciable amount of surface and I'd never wet sanded or even seen anyone else doing it. I hate taping, probably more than just about anything else I can think of. I'd never varnished before this winter. I'd never worked with boat paints - not one part or two part. I had no clue about thinners, and gloves, and masks. All of these combined sources of ignorance are what prompted me to undertake the most grueling work I have ever done in my life. Did I mention how much I hate taping? If I had known what I was getting into, would I have ever even started the project?

This was our second year of major boat projects.  Last year it was all the stuff under the floorboards; this year "WE" tackled most everything above the floorboards.  That means all the brightwork, and all the fiberglass above the deck; thankfully, the hull had recently been painted. When we talked to people about projects, they said things like “oh yes, we’ve intended to varnish the brightwork since the year before last and this year we’re really going to do it.”  But their launch date was long past and they were still contemplating how to start.  Somehow, it seemed to be yet another year of good intentions.

Not for me. I just dove right in.  I am not a procrastinator. I have often told people that when you look at a big job that seems insurmountable, they should step back and break it into parts that are manageable and think of each of those as a full job in itself. For me it was sanding, then painting times two: wood and fiberglass. Seemed simple enough. Last fall, as soon as we hauled, I learned how to sand. 

First, every door that I could remove came home for the winter to sand, varnish and polish the brass while Aleria was resting. It was good "practice". Then, I started on the "big project." I learned that circular sanders leave circular patterns in the wood (not a good thing).  I learned that random orbital sanders are great for major smoothing on horizontal surfaces when gravity is in your favor.  I learned they are painfully extortional if applied on a vertical surface when you have to absorb their weight and vibration. I learned that palm sanders are quite handy and good for fine smoothing. I learned what the different grades of sandpaper will do, and how to get around curved surfaces with a combination of devices that are gentler on the curve.

I learned that detail sanders are very useful lightweight buzzy things that can get into spaces the orbital sander can’t.  I learned that dremels are remarkably thought out practical and very dangerous devices that can eat a two-inch gouge in the wood or fiberglass in under a nanosecond, all the while sounding like a dentist’s drill.  Our friend, Ian, bought us a case full of attachments for Christmas and I was in child’s heaven trying them all out, singing “Sanding Queen” at the top of my lungs to drown it out.  (And by the way, I’ve been told I shouldn’t sing.)

Sanding the fiberglass coachroof and the wood trim (coaming, hatch boards, trim around lockers, etc), created the most god-awful mess throughout my winter of discontent. I learned to wear the clothes I had discarded into the rags pile, and rewear them until they failed completely. I learned to take Aleve before and Advil after. I learned to sleep in any position at a moment's notice. I learned what true physical exhaustion is all about. Who needs a treadmill when you have a boat to care for, eh?

In fact, some time during the course of that "off-season" I was dubbed “the sanding queen.”  I merrily went about dry sanding the bits that needed it (she’s been around the world) and wet sanding the bits that were in process of being varnished while humming to the tune of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”.  The sanding block was at some point permanently attached to my right palm. I also polished brass, scraped old bits, and measured out new fittings.

I learned that there’s nothing as fine as rubbing the last bit of roughness out of a piece of dry neglected wood by hand, then smoothing over it with your fingers to feel the sensuous grain. There is also nothing as disappointing as a bunch of bubbles rising to the surface as the varnish dries, or a fisheye forming in the most visible section, or banding of the varnish because of a heavy hand with thinner. There is also nothing more invasive than sanding dust. I am still finding coatings of dust on surfaces missed months ago. I am truly happy that "WE" did this all at once and did not spread it out over several seasons.

Thankfully, it has paid off.  All the doors below (companionway and cabinet) that were varnished during the winter are in place with beautifully restored solid brass hardware.  The terribly corroded ships' clock and barometer are gleaming statisfactorily. The new saloon cushions are in place and gorgeous.  The new spinnaker proudly sports our colors and personal signal - the giant white seahorse galloping down the Sound. The floors still need touch up but those will have to wait until the next season. 

Above decks, the teak trim – coaming, locker trim, hatchboards, handholds – has five coats of varnish and it is sparkling (needs a few more coats but that will have to wait for the next season).  The fiberglass coachroof has been sanded from a round-the-world chalky crazed and holed and repaired effect to a smooth surface, primed and painted. Needs anti-skid...but that will have to wait, too. Even the insides of the cockpit lockers have been sanded, primed and painted gleaming white - for the first time since she was built thirty years ago. 

Our friend came to visit and asked how we could possibly have taken on so much hard work.  I explained that it really wasn’t so hard because it was physical labor that focused the mind on the moment at hand.  Everything else but that dremel in my sticky little fingers was inconsequential.  And when it was done, the sense of satisfaction was nothing anyone had to confirm.  It was all there right inside me. She, a professor at Yale, understood the meaning of accomplishment that needed no outside affirmation, and she was a little jealous I think. 

And so it continues…

I am the sanding queen, strong and neat, standing five-foot three
Sanding queen, feel the heat from the powerful machine
You can sand, you can prime, painting for the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the sanding queen

(Sorry ABBA!)

But if I had know what it would take, would I have done it? You bet! On the other hand, I would never delay sailing for a project I could avoid! And so the final coats will have to wait until next "off season."

Post Script: Alex has a new set of boat admiration rules to share.

Rule 1: Anyone visiting a boat whose owners did all the work themselves is obligated to admire all and see no imperfections. Because that owner toiled so hard, you may NOT comment on drips, missed spots, fisheyes, bubbles and other imperfections. You may only comment on the depth of the reflectiveness, the richness of the tone, the beading of surface moisture, and the beautiful contrast of the gleaming dark wood surface against the painted hull.

Rule 2: To the contrary, if the owner paid someone else to do the work, you are obligated to point out every imperfection the professionals left behind as a sign of how difficult it is to get it right. It will either make them think that (1) if the pros made mistakes they couldn't have possibly succeeded thereby making them feel good about spending the money or (2) they should do it themselves the next time around to get it done right.

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