A Modern Narrowboat

                This project was a commission for a client who needed a London base for when life and work brought them to the capital. They wanted a comfortable and modern feel, relaxing and low maintenance. It helps that it is on a mooring, so electrics and plumbing are simplified by having utilities and facilities close at hand

White wall hung vanity unit with LED mirror and travertine splashback

                The boat had sunk under the stewardship of the previous owner and while the hull and engine were still sound, there was water damage to the floor and fit out so the whole thing needed starting from scratch.  We did a sizeable amount of remedial work to get to a point of having a blank canvas. This included, but was not limited to, removing the flooring from half the boat, drying and sorting the bilges, removing several bulkheads and removing the black water tank.  If you want tips on removing a black water tank, then you can read more in my Dan’s DIY tips section ‘It’s a S**t job’

                The brief was to make a contemporary and easy to care for space, as much like a modern flat as possible. This was to be a home from home while in London, not a CC’er or a holiday boat. The chosen finishes are all very modern, the colour pallet neutral and soothing. 

Light grey galley style kitchen with oak butchers block worktop and stainless steel sink in a narrowboat

                We fitted a Benchmarx kitchen, I’ll try do tips post on kitchen fitting sometime soon. This was given oak butchers block worktops, from worktop express. The oak tops are excellent value for money, though you do need to take a little care to look after wooden tops, but on the plus side they can be refinished where a laminate cannot. 

Quadrant shower on a narrowboat with travertine mosiac tiles and shortened glass (1700) glass enclosure

                The bathroom is tiled in a Travertine mosaic, with an ‘off shelf’ vanity and a quadrant shower cubicle from Wesley Marine Windows Ltd.  Wesley Marine are one of the few producers of ‘short’ shower units.  They do a range of them in 1600-1800 which lets you fit in a proper feeling shower enclosure within the restricted height of a narrowboat. You could have a shower enclosure made bespoke, but this would cost a lot more. 

                In the bathroom a bench style Thetford cassette toilet was chosen. It is very easy to use with its wheel along cassettes. This mooring has an elsan point on site, so a cassette toilet is a good choice. Read more about toilets in our toilet blog post! Essential boater reading matter. 

Bespoke matt white cupboard with drawers bebeath, an oak top with brushed steel socket set in to it and a dark grey door and frame to the side. Narrowboat bedroom

                For the bedroom we made a fully bespoke suite, with drawers beneath the bed for storage and a more drawers at the end with a hanging space above.  This little area also serves as a dresser with an offcut of worktop making up a dressing table, with a power socket set into it for easy use of a hair dryer or other items. The boat itself was chosen by the client to be wired up largely as a 240V boat, running off the shoreline, though it does also have 12V sockets and lights so it can be used away from the home mooring. 

Narrowboat salon, showing fold up table wth stools and sofa.  Light grey beneath the gunwale and qhit above. Multi fuel stove in the corner next to storage steps

                The colour scheme is a gentle grey and white, very popular at the moment and I think it is calming as well as elegant. Everything was painted by us, in an acrylic water-based paint. This is a good durable paint. It can be wiped clean of light stains and marks and has a certain degree of resistance to water and humidity.  A satin finish water-based paint will not be as durable as a high gloss, but it feels a bit more modern and is easy to work with and apply.

                In conclusion then, this is a delightful little boat that should hopefully serve the owner well for many years to come. It shows a narrowboat can be comfortable and modern, I hope this is a relaxing and pleasant space for the client and they enjoy it whenever they stay there. 

Country Kitchen, Narrowboat edition

Narrowboat bilge half filled with pea shinle. White wall in top left corner with a shovel leaning against it

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

Engineered oak floor in narrowboat salon with exterior ply clad walls wither side, trimmed in pine mouldings

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.

Narrowboat galley style kitchen.  White shaker cabinets with oak butchers block worktop and shelves. Glass fronted cabinet on wall above. Multi fuel stove in the fore-ground

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.

Narrowboat kitchen showing ceramic sink in butchers block top with window behind and blue glazed tiles

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

small wooden steps

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

Wheelhouse

This is one of our largest purely carpentry jobs to date as well as one of the most impressive.  The clients needed more space and wanted to turn the stern deck in to a useful, and beautiful, exterior space. It also had to be collapsible so that the boat would still be able to get through tunnels and under bridges when it left it’s mooring.  This meant all elements more than a foot or so above the boat cabin roof had to be removable with two people. We had weight limits and engineering challenges to consider

                After in depth discussion of specification and requirements we produced detailed drawings of the overall wheelhouse and the specific details. The way that the different parts would connect and how the piece would work as a whole. Working out how water would be channelled from the roof and how it would escape from inside, which would still be a exterior area at times

CAD drawing of a wheelhouse on a cross section of a red boat

                The roof was a challenge. It needed to be light enough that the two of them could remove it between them without assistance. It’s quite a big area and they also wanted it to be reasonably strong just in case somebody went clambering across (I can’t guarantee it’ll take the weight of a person but it’d stand a chance). We chose to split it into several pieces to make manageable weight, though even then at above head height the panels would be weighty.  It is constructed from Vekaplan, a lightweight closed cell plastic with smooth exterior, combined with a timber frame.  This sits on a skeleton timber frame with integral metal channelling to take water away

white curved ceiling with dark wood beams

                As to the overall construction material, the clients chose Sapele. It’s a West African hardwood which is relatively cheap, straight grained and very durable.  We needed about 2 cubic metres to build the whole wheelhouse.  It is a lovely timber and comes up a beautiful mahogany like colour once finished.  The fixtures and fittings are all solid brass so that they would be weatherproof even when the roof was down.  The brass goes nicely with the red of the timber too, so it’s aesthetically pleasing

pile of rough sawn timber, sapele

                They wanted as much light as possible, indeed we ultimately swapped out one of the lower panels for glass as well where it was originally timber that it wouldn’t block the sunrise on the back door. The upper panels are toughened glass and they let in lots of light. We made sure that there were several opening points so that on a hot day it didn’t become a furnace!

close up of the front of a wheelhouse showing a red timber with swirling grain

                To make it collapsible all the upper row are hinged on to the lower, fixed, panels.  This means once the roof panels are off and stacked on to the boat roof you can lower each of the panels.  They can also be removed entirely if required as the hinges are all lift off.  Speaking of storing the roof on the boat, the curve of the roof was based on the curve of the boat roof so as to produce a sympathetic line with the rest of the boat

corner of a roof wiith a curved timber detail protruding

                Sapele is a naturally durable timber, but to give it greater protection and to save it from discolouring over time it was given two coats of Osmo UV protect exterior hard-wax oil. This should protect it from water and sunlight, not to mention bringing out the beautiful colour and grain of the wood.  We could have varnished it and that might have been a more durable finish short term, but it is more difficult to touch up and repair/redo in the future. Oiled timber can simply be given a light rub down and a new oat applied. Varnish is a greater undertaking and so is oft neglected and can end up looking very shabby after time.

                The whole wheelhouse is mounted on a metal rail, which is two fold in purpose.  By lifting the timber off the floor it should have greater protection from rotting base up. It also gave us the capacity to put some easy drain points in should water get in to the area while it was open.  The lower wall of panels was then bolted through this rail in to the underside of the timbers so that it was rock solid

               We’ve done a few wheelhouses and parts of wheelhouses. A couple of the photos (the ceiling and the close up on the detail of the roof end support) are actually from another wheelhouse we built. This is because I didn’t have enough good photos of this one. The designs are similar and all is our work. However, of the wheelhouse work we have done this one is still hands down my favourite

So you want to build a wet-room?

It’s been decided that we are going to start blogging, and in an effort to do my part I’ve sat down and started typing.  We get asked about wet-rooms all the time yet rarely end up doing them. Why? It’s pretty hard work (read expensive) to retro fit a wet room and I am not super keen to take on the liability and stress of it leaking unless the price is right. Machiavellian I know, but it’s not a job you can rush and take chances on, which means high labour costs. That leads to the question, what’s the fuss about?

                Wet-rooms, when done properly, are a great solution for a  boat bathroom.  Sod trying to find the right size shower tray and screen then squeeze them in to place. Or, worse still, pay through the nose for a bespoke setup.  Instead, put all you blood, sweat and tears in to building a fully water proof room then simply spray water everywhere with gay abandon. 

                I will try and go through a little of; What a wet-room is, how it’s made and what that entails, why they are a bit of a bugger but also great, and generally that sort of thing. 

brown and grey shiny stone mosaic with grey grout

                Let’s start with the first and last point.  A wet room is a room that you can get wet…. Hm, true but unhelpful.  A wet-room is a room that has been water-proofed, often to make an open plan shower, but essentially an area that can get soaking wet without any of that troublesome water getting in all the places that you don’t want it; bilges, electrics, walls etc. They are amazing as you can have a great big shower of any size and shape, use the whole room really.  They’re pretty stylish and slick. They just sound cool, and all your mates will want one. 

Why are they a pain? Well, beyond the fact that plumbing is always a pain on boats (household and marine plumbing systems rarely making convenient bed fellows) and you have all the usual problems of getting the required trap and plumbing under the floor in a near non-existent gap. Beyond that, you’ve got to create a room that is completely waterproof yet still have holes for things coming in and out and if you bugger it up you’ve a lot of work to do getting it right. If your tanking is no good then those beautiful antique crackle glaze tiles are all coming back off the wall, and they ain’t gonna be coming off in one piece

corner of tanked shower unit with hole for waste

                The water must get out, so you have to put a hole through your carefully constructed tank.  You’ve got to seal all the floor and a good chunk of the wall up so good luck getting to anything that was below or behind that!

                Assuming at this point a wet-room still seems a desirous and glorious addition to your boat, how does one go about it? The starting point is first fix plumbing. Get all your feeds and all the parts of the drain and pump assembly in place. Where this all is will depend on the set up, previous and desired. It’s a pain to move existing things and best avoided, but not always possible. 

whale gulper in a white bilge of a boat

The big bit to get right is how to fit the drain.  You’re cutting a whole in your waterproof floor! That’s trouble but can be worked around in a number of ways.  There are formers available, these are composite boards that fit in or on the floor and can be tiled. As they have a pre made hole with a trap especially designed to go with them these are a good bet.  They also have built in fall.  You can make your own from scratch; ply, firrings, tanking kit and frustration (I know, I chose this path for my own boat).  Or you could use an available tray but build the floor up to match. Bit of a cheat but as the ‘off shelf’ trays are so cheap they can be useful and using them to make a wet-room gets you round the fact they are always too damn shallow. 

The walls will want something decent on them.  Maybe you already have the walls in place maybe you have nothing there, maybe you need to move what is there. Almost certainly there’ll be things to box out, areas to square off and tweaks that are required.  If putting walls in a then wedi board is ideal but a good quality ply is also a reasonable bet.  Both cement board and Wedi board need a frame so you can’t beat ply for keeping it trim.  I’ll let you decide if WBP, Birch or Marine is your cup of tea, I honestly think if you’re doing your tanking properly any of those three will be fine.  If you are cladding existing walls then cement board was the go too, but it’s ruddy heavy. Wedi board, a relative newcomer to the market, is a great alternative. Loads lighter, similar price, cuts with a knife, it’s hard to think how we got by before it. The clouds of carcinogenic dust created by grinding through cement board make me shiver in memory. 

part tiled shower enclosure with blue tanking showing beneath

Right, floor in, walls in, floor up again as the trap wasn’t in, floor back in, trap tested, feeds in wall for shower, sink, pump in accessible point to pump out said trap, sink waste in, great.  At this point I might mention that you don’t have to use a trap and a whale gulper, but, you’ve come this far so why muck about with anything else.  To my mind a sump and pump system, particularly one that uses the bilge of the boat as the sump, just doesn’t make the grade.  That said, a small grey water tank with a gulper with a float is great if you want to go that far Can I endorse products on here? Yes, this isn’t the BBC, I can do what I ruddy well like. Whale gulper, Wedi board and now time for our Mapei tanking kit (edit: I’ve been trying out Topps Tiles tanking kit too and it’s not bad) , easily available from Toolstation or Screwfix for around fifty squids (or pounds, if you are at a branch that doesn’t accept sea food as currency). 

The Mapei tanking kit is pretty good.  Cheaper than some rivals (Bal) and fairly comprehensive. I feel it does fall down on being a bit mean on the jointing tape they provide. I wouldn’t mind so much but as it’s £20 for an extra roll it seems a bit like a stealth tax.  Anyhow, read the bucket, tape it up, gloop that liquid waterproof membrane all over the wall! Maybe this is a good point to tally up the time spent on this little project so far….

  Hours
Job Easy Hard
Surveying and Design 2 4
Build/Move walls 8 24
1st Fix – Drain and Pump 2 6
1st Fix – Feeds, shower and sink 2 6
1st Fix – Sink Waste 1 3
Fit/Build Tray 4 12
Box out stuff 4 12
Clad Walls 4 8
Tank floor, tray and walls 4 8
Total 31 83

People are welcome to dispute these figures. As I have pulled them completely out of the air it’s hard to say if they are truly accurate. The way I produce numbers will be a subject for discussion in an upcoming blog on pricing and project managing.  I shall try and give some real world examples when we get there, but till then you are welcome to accept these figures or not.  Point is, you can see that even with a fair wind and a calm sea we’ve clocked up the best part of a week, If it’s been a right fiddle it could easily be more like two. 

grey brick pattern tiles with embossed patterns. white grout between

We’re ready to tile, hooray!  At this point I cross my fingers and hope I’m not going to be asked to fit metro tiles. My apologies to existing clients who have requested this, I have previously made my feelings clear so it can’t be a surprise and I am prepared to respect other people’s tastes and opinions being different to my own. For me though they are old hat, boring and dated. There are various brick tile alternatives, check out the Lampas tile range at Topp’s Tiles. They’re even on offer at the moment (no, I don’t get kick-backs).  If you are DIYing then silicone can be a good way to fit wall tiles on a boat. Takes a bit longer but does a good job, is forgiving and let’s you start and stop when you please. If you’re tiling like a boss then a cement based flexible rapid set adhesive (grey or white depending on grout line, makes your life easier) is your go to. Again, I use Topp’s Tiles own brand. I find it as good as Bal and it’s half the price.  Do clean your grout lines out before the adhesive goes off too hard, i.e. same day, and not with the silicone option! Take care not to damage the tanking as well. Don’t put the spacers in the actual corners of the tiles, this is truly schoolkid and should not be permitted. They stick in perpendicular to the wall and are removed after. You can thank me when you come to grout and you don’t have loads of stupid bits of plastic showing.

cracked glaze tiles in a mix of pastel hues, blues, yellows and whites, with no grout inbetween. Spacers sticking out, mid tiling

Another good reason to do them this way is it allows you to cheat your grout lines. It’s more important to have the lines running through well than to have a grout line that is always perfectly the same size. Not all surfaces, or come to it all tiles, are true and flat. You need to step back, check your lines and cheat them where required. I might do a ‘tips on tiling’ sometime soon. For now, when it comes to the outside wall, just remember Pythagoras!

Tiles on, get that grout in. Good, we’re really making some progress now.  I shan’t dally about too much longer and we shall assume at this point that everything has been done correctly and is working.  Second fix plumbing should be easy if the first fix was done correctly, if not be prepared to sweat and cry.  Stick in a vanity unit. We’d make you one but, to be honest, you can get them so cheap off the internet that unless you have very specific requirements then there is very little point shelling out for a bespoke item. There are always other things to spend money on in a boat.  You might still want a screen, a piece of custom glass is going to set you back a little, but peanuts compared to a full custom shower enclosure.  Really though, I think we are about there. Not so bad after all. Shall we have a quick tally of those last bits

  Hours
Job Easy Hard
Tiling 32 56
Grout 4 8
Silicone 1 3
2nd Fix Shower 1 4
2nd Fix Vanity Unit 1 4
Fit Shower Screen 1 4
Total 40 79

Again, we seem to have a week on the easy path, two on the fiddly one.  Assuming there was no electrics and no decoration (lies, damnable lies!!!) then we’re gravy.  You could have a wet-room fitted in as little as 80 person hours, or perhaps as many as 160.  I won’t crunch numbers too much here as that’s another blog but you can see it’s not a quick job. You’ll also have shelled out a fair wedge on materials, though if you DIY and don’t count your own time (or frustrations) then this could be considered a cheapish job to do. 

We had one client who opted to do all their own plumbing on a bathroom we did for them. Never done any plumbing before, no experience of that or any other trades, went in blind. You know what, they did a decent job. Took a little while and they had to rethink their plans at points along the way, but goes to show that if you put sufficient time and care in you can achieve most things. 

Moral of all of this; Wet-rooms are awesome, they are expensive but they are definitely worth considering if you have the inclination to upgrade your bathroom.  Be warned though, don’t cut corners or you’ll have made some a very expensive problem for yourself. Enjoy!

Sailability

Fore Sail/For Sale

Well, the less marine based puns the better, lord knows I don’t want to expose my shocking lack of knowledge of sailing. Carpentry, cabinetry, tiling, boat fitting in general. Of the many things I do know about I must admit that actual sailing, sadly, is not one of them.

This post is nothing to do with that so, moving swiftly on, today’s blog will be a little bit about readying boats for sale (not sail, if you go out in to open waters with a narrowboat then best of luck to you, but it is a seriously silly idea unless very well prepared).  I do hear people talk about flipping boats in the way they do houses, and you can probably make a few quid doing this. However, unless you are doing the labour yourself and can add value at a greater per hour rate than you’d earn doing your day job then I would be wary of looking at boat renovation as any kind of gold mine

That said, people will want to sell boats. Be it a project that has come to an end, moving on to a different boat or, heaven forbid, on to land, perhaps you’re going to move in with a partner and you’ve lost the coin toss and your boat is the one to go under the hammer. Whatever the reason, you may be looking at sprucing up your boat pre-sale to either add value or improve saleability. 

The most important thing is going to be the same as with any house or flat and that is declutter. We all know boats aren’t the mot spacious places to live so best to maximise what space you have. If it’s full of your junk, then it’s never going to look appealing. So, get us much out as you can, get it organised, get it clean and clear and you’ll be halfway there. 

The cheapest fix and the easiest, for those with less advanced DIY capabilities, is a good coat of paint. While I wouldn’t suggest trying to cover a boats problems with a layer of emulsion (for a start it’s a boat, let’s push it out and go acrylic ay?) simply repainting the interior can go a long way to brighten and revitalise a space.  The veneer throughout look can seem very dated and the yellow varnish and stained walls will often look great with a decent bit of redecoration. If the veneer and trims still look good then a wood and paint mix, e.g. panels painted and trims left or an above below gunwale split, can give a much more modern look but retain an aquatic favour

If you’re going to do further improvements, then I would suggest leaving the painting till last. You don’t want to ruin your good work with a load of other work going on. For my money then paint/varnish is the final thing, the icing on the cake. 

Look at how you’re using your space. People love some clever storage. What about some chunky floating shelves or a new cupboard to use a dead space? When I first moved on to a boat I was amazed at how my van load of possessions quickly disappeared in to the nooks and crannies of a boat. Again, if you’ve got cupboards and shelves a plenty, why not repaint tired old doors, keep it simple, or, add some colour. White and white is the rule for houses but I think that a bit of character sells a boat.  People aren’t looking for that same beige life experience that they want with a half million one bed flat in Hackney (75% now sold, buy buy buy!!)

For those of a more daring disposition then the real gems of a boat are often the bathroom and kitchen. Done well they really make a boat, if they are damp, mouldy and smelly then there is nothing surer to send a canny purchaser running for the hills.  It is a bigger endeavour to redo a whole bathroom or kitchen but there are some easier fixes if you don’t want to rip everything out and start again.  Replacing the kitchen doors, worktop and sink and you have a new kitchen. New tiles and a new vanity unit in the bathroom and it can look like a whole new room.

I do feel that if you are getting somebody in to do the work then you are unlikely to add more value to the boat than you are spending, it is just the same in houses. Good quality work is not cheap and while it will increase the value of the boat you shouldn’t expect to make a great net gain.  That said, what you can get is greatly improved saleability.  With the market in boat sales having taken a slump over the last year (anecdotal only, don’t expect me to back this view with evidence) then having something to make your boat stand out can help get it off the shelf.  The world and her wife are all in the boating game these days and the number of boats for sale in London and round the country seems to be increasing near exponentially. 

When I bought my boat I fell in love with the head room, the feel, the value and the ‘well put togetherness’ of it.  I looked at hundreds of boats online and tens in person before finding the one for me.  I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it, let alone sell it (edit: since writing I’ve made good progress, possibly helped by sharing her with a partner these days.) Should I sell I know I’ll never recoup the value of all the hours I have put in. I shouldn’t say, but at the end of the day I think a lot of us would rather sell to somebody who we think is going to love our boat the way we did, over the person who is going to pay the most.  Still, we do what we can to try and get value for what we are offering and boating is becoming more and a more a commercialized area. 

Final thought, pick your battles and make it stand out. Do what you can yourself, that which you can’t get an expert to do it well. Quality shows and people love boats in a way that I feel houses rarely achieve. We all hear the horror stories of people buying lemons but most people selling boats are decent and most people buying them are looking to love and own that boat for many years to come. A well looked after boat with a few stand-out features is always going to have value.

Happy boating!

Spongy floors and rusty bilges; a thankless task

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?”

                This 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

                I shall 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

Standard 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

                The 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. 

                You 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

                Is it 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. 

                It 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 feel 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.

                Rust 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. 

This boat was overplated, this is severely rusted!

                If 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 increase. 

                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

                Top 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

                By 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. 

                I would 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

                For DIY 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. 

                If the 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. 

                Once 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 shocking.     

                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

                You 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 the pun)

                Two 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. 

                Well, 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

Ta Ta for now