This was an almost complete re-fit that we did for a narrowboat in East London. We’ll largely keep to the pretty bits here, but there was some serious foundation work to do. The bilges had been ballasted with pea shingle, most of which was still in the bilge, and it all had to be removed. Once the floor was up and it was out the bilges had to be cleaned, treated, painted, re-ballasted and the new subfloor laid. See my Dan’s DIY Tips for more on cleaning and painting bilges
We also had the walls down to deal with sub-standard insulation and lining, so by the time all this was finished the innards of the boat were basically brand new! New ballast and subfloor, new insulation and new lining and trims, a lovely blank canvas.
To this empty shell, we added a lovely oak engineered floor throughout, to match the existing flooring in the bedroom. This had previously been re-fitted the year before by another contractor and we had built a wardrobe.
The crowning glory of the boat is probably the kitchen, as it is with many boats and homs that have a nice kitchen. This one is a Howdens Tewkesbury kitchen that we have customised in places to fit the space. An off shelf kitchen can work very well in a boat, I am hoping to add some thoughts and tips on Kitchens in our blog posts. The worktops are oak butcher’s block which we simply added a bevel to the edge of the tops. The took a corner off the end of the long side for ergonomic reasons and the offcuts provided from the other side some neat additional shelving which we gave a matching detail.
The electrics were completely rewired by Katy Bartlett of Down to Earth Sparks. The workings of the electrics are hidden away in the corner behind a custom cupboard built with a combination of solid oak and oak veneer to match in with the tops. Katy regularly works alongside us on projects and did a beautiful job rewiring and upgrading the electrical system throughout
The stern steps we replaced with a solid oak set of open tread steps. The original plan was to build to a form to allow acces to the washing machine, but ultimately it was decided to just make a them light weight and easy to remove so full access was easily gained without compromising on the struture of the steps.
There are myriad little details and alterations I could list out from the works. We also did some upgrades to the bathroom and the bedroom, the wardobe having gone in the previous year. We ripped out the bath and replaced the floor beneath. The bath went back in and we re-tiled the area and added some custom cabinetry and a screen to the bath tub. If you would like to know more about options and possibilities for kitchens and bathrooms then why not get in touch. Or also check out my blog(s) on home/boat improvements in Dan’s Random Ramblings
I often get asked if we can come and replace or repair a patch of floor. Typically, something like, “Oh, there’s just a small spot that has gone a bit spongy. Just needs cutting out and a new bit sticking in. Could you help?”
always sets alarm bells racing. Why is a bit of the floor squishy? What is
causing it, and worse, what is now underneath? It would indeed be a small job
to cut away a little bit of board and replace it, but this is rarely what is
required. It is more often the symptom of a much more problematic situation,
one that I shall try and give you some advice on dealing with in this post
The reason that this is often such a costly job is not because of any great skill required in dealing with it, but because it is often a very widespread issue that will require a lot of time to resolve. Potentially moving (removing) many items and carrying out a lot of grotty and lengthy works. If you want to DIY it, you can save a packet. The work involved, for the large part, is not too taxing, just time consuming
break this down in to a few sections in order to make this guide as useful as possible.
Each section will contain an outline, some suggested steps, and some tips and
tricks on dealing with what you may encounter. They will be,
Finding the issue
Preparing for the work
Sorting the bilges
Disclaimer; We take no responsibility for any work you choose to undertake.
While I hope this will be of use to people anything you read here is purely
personal opinion and you should not undertake any work where you do not know
what you are doing. If in doubt get a professional! All boats are different and
anything written here should not be taken as universal
Finding the Issue
first question when anybody says there is a problem with damp is where is the
water coming from? This may seem daunting, but there are only so many places
that it can be coming from and we can trouble shoot our way through. We are assuming
here that your boat is designed with a dry cabin bilge. If it is designed to be wet then water in the
bilge will not be as useful of an indicator, though depending on certain known
factors, like the weather, you may still learn something if the level of water
is changing when not expected to.
For now we’ll assume that you’ve lifted some boards in the effected area and/or lifted inspection hatches (typically found hidden away in corners, sometimes beneath furniture) at the stern of the boat) and found water beneath. If there is a particular wet area, beyond just the bilges at the stern, then searching locally for the leak is going to be a good starting point. Water will run ‘downhill’, so things nearby or in front of this wet area are likely culprits.
might be wondering, is the water coming from the canal? Short answer, probably
not and if it is then this is not the guide for you. If your hull is
unsound, or you suspect it may be, get your boat out the water and get a professional
to advise you. It is rare that this is the case if you’ve had a survey,
though we have been working on a boat that has sprung a leak! If it is possible
to pierce the hull with a scraper or the like, then the hull needs professional
attention. As such, let’s just discount
this for now until you have excluded all other possibilities
coming from the plumbing? This is one of the major causes of a build up of
water. It can often lie unnoticed and rot away timbers and rust bilges unseen
until the problem has gotten much worse. An understanding of water systems on
boats will help you track down issues here, but we will run through some potential
areas that it could be
Water comes from your tank and is then put under pressure by a pump. Any utility using water will be connected to this pressurised system so we can tell if there is a leak between pump and outlets as the pump will come on when there is nothing being used. So, pump running when it shouldn’t be equals a leak in the ‘live’ side of the plumbing. Once you know this, then it’s a case of tracking it down and fixing it. It’s more often a joint than a straight run of pipe so check any connections. Pipes, particularly copper pipes, can split if left full and allowed to freeze in cold weather as well, though this would probably cause a more noticeable leak than just a slow drip.
could be the water is escaping from somewhere after this. Typical things to
check are shower and sink wastes. This might be identified by damp or mould local
to one of these. Drying thoroughly and then running water through with a paper
towel beneath will allow you to check for minor drips. Any joints in pipes
running from these should also be check, with particular attention paid to
anywhere there is negative fall as water will sit here and have more chance to
work it’s way through any weak points.
The skin fittings on boats are another week point. Integral welded steel
outlets on older boats may have rusted through with time, this happened with
the shower on my boat, a late 90’s cruiser stern
If in doubt you can eliminate the plumbing completely by isolating it (or draining it) from the boat and seeing if the problem persists. If it does then this would suggest that the water is coming from outside the boat. Again, we are assuming that this is an above the waterline issue. Is the problem worse in wet weather? Then it’s probably coming in through a weakness somewhere in the shell. The ‘weak points’ are anywhere the shell has been cut through, in particular, windows, mushrooms, chimney collars and other vents and outlets. Doors and doorways could also be to blame. Rust, damp or mould down the wall beneath the cladding might lead you to the offending article. It is worth giving the exterior of the boat a thorough visual inspection. I have also known water to get in from wet bilges, such as an engine bilge, when bulkheads have rusted through to the cabin bilge. While I am not going in to detail on how to fix the multitude of issues you might discover, I will perhaps cover some in future blogs, I will give a shout out here to ‘Captain Tolley’s creeping crack cure’. This can be a handy fix for certain hairline gaps on boat exterior, at least for a temporary fix.
I should also mention condensation. This gets put forward as a source of water
in the bilge and can be a problem, though I have not seen many cases where
condensation is creating a significant build up of water. It shouldn’t be completely disregarded, but I
would look for other culprits first unless you have a lot of bare and
uninsulated shell beneath the cladding.
Preparing for the work
You’ve found and fixed you’re leak. Now you need to assess the damage and decide on a course of action. You should be able to dry the bilge, and have it stay dry. If not, then you may still have an issue. It could be that you have an area of flooring/woodwork that has been affected and a rusty bilge. How much should you do? It is tempting to want to pull everything up and start again, but this may not be practical. Factors such as, how accessible is the bilge, the age and value of the boat, the state of internal fitout, the severity of the damage/mould/rust will guide you as to how much is worth doing.
looks awful, 1mm of steel becomes 10mm of rust! When you first look at a bilge
that has gotten wet it can be quite frightening. If you are in doubt, then seek professional
advice. A surveyor will be able to help you gauge what is problematic and
what is just cosmetic. Mould should be
dealt with as this can be bad for the health and residual damp and mould can
affect surrounding woodwork.
there is relatively little in the way of fitout and bulkheads it may be simple
to lift everything for access. If the
opposite is true you might find it very difficult to lift boards which are
pinned down by walls, kitchen, bathroom, tiles and all sorts of fitted
furniture and the like. Perhaps you can
cut out the rotten area and replace, then deal with the rusty bilge locally and
at the stern. If the rust is not too
bad, you can possibly just dry out the bilge and trust that it will remain
relatively dry in the future so that the rust will not significantly
Ideally you want to remove all rotten wood and clean, treat and paint any rusty sections of bilge (and walls of the shell if effected). In extreme cases this can mean removing the boats fit-out completely. If this is required then a dock with covered storage is the best situation, but it might be possible to deal with half a boat at a time and do it this way while on the cut.
If there is extensive remedial work to do then it is often as quick, and probably more sound, to remove whole panels of wall and floor and replace them. Cutting bits out and bodging them back in will likely leave a creaky floor and messy looking boat. Not to say it can’t be done, but by the time you have done a proper job of cutting out a piece of flooring, patching it and making good you may have been able to just take out the bulkheads and lifted the whole lot. This also makes it easier to support the flooring properly. I will cover floors, sub floors etc in more detail in other blogs
We are mostly dealing with bilges here, though the same techniques can be applied to other metal elements of the shell, so I will leave the woodwork to one side. The flooring, and subfloor will want to come up and then any ballast will need lifting. It is difficult to really get a bilge bone dry until anything is removed and it is fully exposed. Even then, if there are thick layers of rust this can trap a lot of moisture. You will want to dry out ballast before putting it back in, unless it’s pea shingle in which case bin and replace with slabs! Care should be taken when removing a boats ballast. Narrowboats are inherently pretty stable (wobbly, but unlikely to capsize), but do be aware that moving/removing ballast may affect your boat and it’s position in the water
tip: If you are going to remove sections of the fit-out, take lots of photos
and notes while you do. It is easy to forget how everything went together when
you come to put it all back later on
Sorting the Bilges
this point you should have full access to all the areas you want to deal with.
Like I have said, we are discussing the metal work here. Some of the carpentry
elements you will find dealt with in my other blogs, but the spectrum of work
is too wide to cover here satisfactorily.
mention again, rust can look much worse than it is, but if you are unsure of
the integrity of the hull then seek professional advice. The next step is to physically remove as much
rust as possible. Rust is an oxide of steel
and is unusual in that it flakes away from the surface of the metal where many
other metals’ oxides adhere to the surface. Take for example aluminium, a
highly reactive metal that is protected by it’s oxide coating. Sadly, this is
not the case with steel and rust and you will want to remove as much off the
loose rust as possible
purposes I would suggest starting with giving the entirety a good going over
with a scraper and then sweeping up the loosened rust. Be aware that dealing with
the rust is probably the messiest bit of the whole job and you should take care
to wear appropriate PPE, including but not limited to goggles, mask, and probably
a boiler suit.
area effected is large and the resources are available, then it may be
practical to mechanically remove the rust with a needle gun or with blasting. It
is best to seek professional advice if you want to do this so that you can be
advised on the suitability of these techniques.
the area has been scraped over then it will need a thorough brushing with a stiff
wire brush. This can be a hand brush or a drill attachment, either way it’s
dusty, horrible work to do so masks on! Sweep away whatever comes off and
hopefully you will have a surface that is beginning to look a little less
You won’t be able to remove all the rust (unless blasting of course) so the next step is very important and should not be skipped. A rust converter should be used on the entire surface. There are a few different products and it is to be noted you will likely want to order these in advance from the internet as they are not readily available in shops in useful quantities (you might try Halfords and Toolstation, but better to go online). Fertan and Vactan are both popular, though check whether the product you are using needs washing off after application as this adds an annoying and, I feel, unnecessary step. My personal favourite is FLAG rust converter and primer as this can be painted on and left and leaves a primed surface ready for topcoat.
All of these converters work in the same way, they change the red oxide into a black oxide which is stable and will remain stuck to the steel. Don’t ask me the science of it, I am sure that is available elsewhere on the internet. The idea is that you want a stable surface to apply your new finish too, otherwise rust underneath your paint might damage the surface and lead to water being able to penetrate and further rust the metal
could stop at this point, but I feel if you have gone to all the trouble then why
not future proof it? You aren’t going to
want to get back in the bilge any time soon and if you put a decent topcoat on
then you will have a much better level of protection should you have any leaks
in the future. My personal choice is
Manor Coatings Zinfos 340 WS. You can get this online or from many auto-motive
paint suppliers. It is one-part primer topcoat with a anti-corrosive. I like to
think of it as Hammarite for grownups. It is cheaper and can be mixed to any colour,
so why not. I like a light cream or grey, so that you can easily see oil, rust or
any other issues in the future, but whatever floats your boat (if you’ll pardon
coats of Zinfos 340 and your metal work should be fairly bomb proof (not literally
mind). After this you are all set to
replace the ballast and begin rebuilding/re-fitting the innards of your
boat. Assuming you have taken things out
with care and have good records of how it went together then this should be a
relatively pain free exercise. You’ll likely be replacing your subfloor in part
if not in whole, exterior grade ply here is fine but some people like to be
belt and braces and stick in marine grade. This is fine, though it is pricey
and very heavy.
you’ve finished. You might not be able to see you’re handywork but now you can
sleep soundly knowing that you’ve done a proper job. Why not relax from your
hard days labour and check out some pictures on our Instagram feed or see some
of our projects on our website. Until the next time