This article first appeared in Good Old Boat Magazine


by James Baldwin

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Recently repainted, new Harken furler, Mack Pack with full battened main, new dodger and bimini. The Nicholson 31 has a modified full keel, transom hung rudder with tiller steering.

Once embarked on a limited refit project on your classic cruiser, you will surely be tempted to carry on until she is finally transformed into the boat you dreamed she could be. Somewhere along that path, rather sooner than later, you come to comprehend that on an old boat, each seemingly simple job begun inevitably leads to three other more complex jobs.

An example of this effect happened when we pulled down salon headliners to access the fasteners to rebed leaking deck fittings. With the headliners down it was a good opportunity to install added overhead lighting and enlarged dorade vents. Then it seemed a shame to reinstall those old sagging, discolored, vinyl-covered headliners. Better to replace them while theyre down and the tools are out. If going for new deckhouse headliners, we might as well replace the other headliners under the decks and in the forward cabin to match. If were going that far, nows the time to add some storage lockers in place of that unwanted pilot berth since the new headliners under the side deck can easily be shaped to fit around the new locker cabinets.

Thus began, step by step, our interior overhaul project on a 1982 Nicholson 31 located in Brunswick, Georgia. Her new owner, Jeff Fletcher, who also works full-time running his mortgage company in Atlanta, initially asked us to upgrade the boats essential systems and get her ready for extended cruising vacations. As individual jobs were completed, Jeff found this was his best opportunity to customize Tarry G with features unavailable in the one-style-for-all reality of a production boat.

With the maintenance and upgrades work nearly complete on the rigging, sails, deck hardware, plumbing, electrics, and other mechanical systems, we moved on to some more creative work refinishing and customizing the boats interior. Working below also provided some relief from the swarms of stinging sand gnats that rise from Georgias vast marshlands to plague marinas along the coast on warm windless days. The only way to continue working on those days was to douse ourselves in repellant Avons Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard works best and work directly in front of a 20-inch box fan.

The owner of Tarry G originally thought the teak-faced plywood bulkheads and cabinetry were in such a damaged state with cracked varnish, holes, scratches, and discoloration that we should cover the majority of it with Formica laminate. Closer inspection after stripping and revarnishing some sample areas showed most of the teak veneer could be saved. Besides, covering all these teak surfaces in laminate would subtract from the interiors rich, natural look. It was problematic as well. The fine cabinetmakers at Camper & Nicholsons legendary yard made skillful use with what they had, but their extreme economy in using thin strips of teak trim glued onto edges of panels and doors meant removing it to fit laminate would necessitate breaking it apart and then replacing it all. The alternative of fitting laminate within the existing narrow bits of trim would not result in a satisfactory appearance. We ultimately worked out a scheme where we stripped and revarnished the navigation table and most bulkheads and replaced the teak plywood locker doors in the main salon with solid teak louvered doors backed by Formica-covered panels surrounded with generously thick teak trim.

Pilot berth becomes added locker cabinets

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Original pilot berth and port salon settee. Original headliner was sagging vinyl over particle board. Port salon settee refinished and teak louvered doors and lockers replacing pilot berth. Original varnish was stripped and replaced with satin urethane on bulkheads and gloss on trim.

Since the owner had no plans for bunking six people at a time (six people living on a 31-foot boat?), the pilot berth above and outboard of the port salon settee, which extends to become a berth, became an obvious place to convert to storage lockers. Unfortunately, the converging lines of the settee backrest, the cabin house sides and side deck, and the adjoining curved galley layout meant there were few right angles to work with. Using a cardboard mock-up, we worked out a simple yet attractive and functional cabinet layout consisting of three lockers behind a single vertical panel with a narrow shelf between it and the settee backrest.

To begin, we removed the pilot berth cushion, its plywood face board, and the berths canvas bottom, replacing it with a bottom of 3/8-inch-thick cabinet grade plywood covered on top with Formica laminate. Similar plywood comprised the new front panel cut to fit from the cardboard template. We ordered five sets of teak louvered doors and frames, sized 20 inches high by 15 inches wide, along with separate offset hinges, elbow latches and finger holes from and assembled them ourselves. Three of the doorframes were set in position on the front panel, traced, and their mounting holes cut out. Then the front panel was set in place and marked inside for the position of the locker shelves and dividers; one locker being left without a shelf for storage of bulky items such as pillows and blankets or as a video locker.

With the front panel again removed, the locker dividers and shelves were installed with 1-inch by 2-inch oak framing. Short pieces of oak framing were screwed onto the back of the front panel where needed for mounting support and then the panel was laid face down on the back of a sheet of Champagne Matte Formica. As with the locker bottom panel, we traced the Formica laminate roughly -inch oversize all around and cut it out with a fine-toothed blade on a jigsaw. Laminates are prone to chipping or cracking when cut like this unless they are well supported under the cutting edge. We set up a makeshift cutting table on the dock using a half sheet of plywood supported by boxes. Cutting the laminate oversize makes alignment easier during cementing and reduces the chance of chipped edges intruding on the finished panel. In any case, teak trim over all edges covers any corner chips or joints with less than perfect fit. When it was important that the edges of the laminate be smooth and straight, we clamped the laminate to a piece of plywood that acted as a cutting guide for a small router with a straight collared bit.

The face of the plywood panel and back of the laminate were cleaned with acetone-wetted rags and coated with contact cement. When dry to the touch, which took about ten minutes under the Georgia sun, we laid plastic Venetian blind slats on the dry glue of the laminate and set the panel in position on top of the slats. Then the slats were pulled out one by one beginning in the center and working out toward the edges. Dont try cementing laminates without slats or dowel rods because the instant tenacious grip of contact cement gives you only one chance to position it correctly. Once glued, the panel was turned over and the laminate locked in place by hammering a cloth-covered block of wood slid slowly over the entire surface. Following this, we cut out the locker doorframe holes and trimmed the laminate flush to the panel edges with the straight collared router bit. With care, a belt sander or 50-grit sanding disc on an angle grinder can also be used for this work.

All the interior locker plywood was given three coats of varnish to seal it and a 1 -inch-high teak fiddle glued to the front edge of the locker shelves. Then the front panel was screwed into place from the back to its frames. The exterior edges were trimmed in teak quarter round molding. The long narrow shelf between the settee backrest and the new cabinets received a -inch thick by 4-inch high teak fiddle rising 2 1/2 inches above the shelf counter. Varnishing of doors and teak trim was done together after all other projects were completed.

The other two teak louvered door sets were installed on the existing starboard locker cabinets at each end of the central bookshelves. The old cabinets plywood doors were less high but slightly wider than the new doors so we removed the hinges and latches, epoxy-glued the doors in place, ground the thin teak trim flush, and cut out the correct hole size for the new doors. Paper templates were made for the exterior surfaces of the cabinet/bookshelf panels, then traced onto the Formica laminate, which was cut and glued to the old plywood panels as on the port locker face using plastic slats as separators during fitting. All five cabinet doorframes were later secured from inside with aluminum brackets so they could be easily removed for varnishing. Again, the teak corner moldings were fit and tacked in place with brass finishing nails. The double bookshelf was given removable teak retainers as well as hooked elastic straps needed to keep books from sliding about in a seaway.

Working around a hull liner

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Original quarter berth shelf and more sagging vinyl-covered headliner panels. Old fabric has been removed from side of berth prior to replacing with formica. Quarter berth with Vinyl particle boards removed and side locker access holes enlarged for extra storage. Paper template being fit for formica pattern.
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New Icom 706MKIIG amatuer SSB radio installed in quarter berth locker seperate from radio control panel. This radio has two coax antenna feeds; one for HF and one for VHF and covers all marine and amatuer bands at much lower cost than a "marine" SSB. New panels installed in quarter berth. Icom SSB control panel is below VHF radio on instrument panel. See Icom reviews. A remote SSB speaker sits on shelf and can be moved to cockpit for outside listening. The Icom AT-180 auto tuner is in the lazarette under afterdeck.

Parts of the interior hull liner, such as the sides of the v-berth and quarter berth, were covered in a woven fabric resembling outdoor carpeting. In cold climates there is some insulation value in its thin foam backing. Some people apparently like its appearance and sound-deadening qualities and it is cheap and easy to install. Its also difficult to clean or dry and a terrific home for dust and mold and God knows what else. I try to avoid using it and was frankly relieved when Jeff agreed to have us replace it with Formica laminate. Once we removed the old carpeting and its disintegrating foam backing, the fiberglass liner surface was washed with acetone and abraded with a course sanding disc. Paper templates were made and the Formica cemented in place as described earlier. Bending the standard counter-grade laminate to conform to the slight curves on these surfaces presented no problem. The edges here were likewise trimmed with teak quarter round molding.

As someone who frequently refits cruising sailboats, I have a special loathing for those prefabricated fiberglass hull liners that save on production costs, but block access to vital areas of the hull. The way most liners are installed they make it impossible to reach many parts of the hull and extremely difficult to later add collision bulkheads within the hulls lower lockers where they are most needed. If boats were constructed with a combination of fully accessible lockers, collision bulkheads, and areas of rigid foam flotation between the liner and hull designed to increase access and reduce the risk of sinking, if not providing the boat with outright positive buoyancy, hull liners could finally be an asset to sailors and not just the builder.

The hull liner in this Nicholson formed a shelf outboard of the quarter berth. Under the shelf was a 6 -foot-long void with a small access hole and a narrow slot open to another inaccessible area behind the battery box liner. We converted this into a storage locker by cutting two large access holes in the top of the shelf and fitting them with removable latching doors and installing a plywood locker bottom. Inside this locker was an ideal location to install the new Icom 706MKIIG amateur radio. The radios low profile detachable control panel was mounted nearby on the instrument panel below the marine VHF.

A new headliner

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The owner wanted a less cluttered look with maximum storage areas and light Champagne formica headliners trimmed with teak. Main salon looking aft. All salon lights were replaced with Xenon bulbs on dimmer switches.
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Forward cabin with new headliner and gasket sealed anchor locker door. Old varnish has not yet been stripped in this area. Teak louvered doors installed above starboard settee in place of original smaller plywood doors.

The old headliner in the salon, forward cabin and quarter berth, was a textured vinyl glued onto a type of particleboard. These panels had deformed and sagged down in several areas. Rather than replacing it with more vinyl, Jeff decided on a Formica-faced liner with teak trim. Fortunately, we were able to purchase at less than half US retail prices, three ten-foot-long planks of teak leftover from the refit of a neighbors 60-foot schooner, which supplied all the teak for the projects mentioned here. A portable 10-inch table saw with an 80-tooth carbide cutting wheel made an easy job of ripping trim and moldings from the 1 -inch thick planks. If teak were unavailable, mahogany could have been considered as an alternative.

Some of the original overhead plywood battens supporting the headliner were still useable. Where more were needed, we added -inch thick (or thicker in places) strips of pine battens glued to the underside of the fiberglass deck and cabin trunk. The battens were cut short enough to easily conform to the camber of the house and deck and glued in with epoxy resin thickened with talc powder to a putty-like consistency. (West System 406 filler is a good alternative.) An adjustable support brace, using two pieces of 1x2 oak held together with two clamps works well to hold the overhead battens and panels in place while working. Dont forget to clean all surfaces with acetone before applying the epoxy.

The forward cabin headliner was fit in two pieces. The salon required four separate pieces to get through the companionway hatch, which we cut into eight pieces for easier fitting to the decks camber and to maintain maximum headroom for the boats 6-foot-tall owner. Two more panels went above the quarter berth and one each side under the salon side decks. The outside edges of the headliner screwed onto the lip of the fiberglass hull liner. Unfortunately, this edge was so uneven that we had to remove some of it with a cutting disc on an angle grinder. A tight-fitting respirator, safety goggles, and tyvek coveralls with hood were essential for this miserable portion of the job. At this point, a boat used in northern climates could be fitted with insulation material glued to the underside of the deck and cabin trunk between the battens.

The old vinyl-covered overhead panels were employed as patterns for the new panels, which were cut from -inch hardwood-faced plywood. With the plywood panels held in place and trimmed for best fit, they were then taken onto the dock and faced with Formica laminate cut slightly oversize in the same manor as described earlier for the salon side panels. The panels containing light fixtures or dorade vents now had those holes precut. The edges of the panels were given countersink holes for #8 flathead stainless steel self-tapping screws. The holes need to be close enough to the edge for 1-inch wide teak moldings to cover the screw heads. Backs and edges of the panels were then sealed with two coats of varnish. The finished panels were held in place with the adjustable brace topped by a small piece of plywood to spread the load. Pilot holes were drilled into the battens and the panels screwed in place. In places where screws needed to tap into the underside of the wood-cored fiberglass deck, a dab of polyurethane sealant was applied to the screw as it was driven in place. An extra electric drill dedicated to use with a screwdriver bit is useful here.

Once all the panels were in place, we measured for the teak molding trim that would cover all edges of the panels and their screw heads. Outside edge trim was cut from -inch thick by 1-inch wide teak strips and 1 -inch wide strips used to cover the more widely-spaced screw heads where two panels meet. To trim the many curved edges around the inside and outside perimeters of the panels required making paper templates and cutting the curved teak trim out of ripped -inch stock up to six inches wide. Considerable wastage there was unavoidable and needs to be taken into account when ordering your lumber. The exposed edges of the teak moldings were rounded with a router except where left square where they butted up against other trim. Countersunk holes for #8 brass flathead screws were drilled along the centerline of the trim, spaced as needed for the trim to seat tight along the camber of the panels. Where the camber was sharpest, the backs of the trim were thinned out with a router to allow easier bending. The brass screws that fell on the centerline between the panels needed to be 1-inch long in order to get sufficient bite into the battens to hold the trim firmly in place.

After the trim pieces were fit and their joints sanded flush, they were removed and numbered from behind along with corresponding numbers on the panel edges. Numbering the dozens of pieces before laying them out for varnishing avoids having an enormous puzzle to solve during final fitting.

The Great Corian countertops debacle

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Replacing the old formica top galley and aluminum fiddles with Corian and teak trim.

With everything going well thus far, it seemed only fair that we should find some challenging project to test our sanity. We found that test when Jeff said: While youre at it, lets do something with the galley. My wife would like to replace the worn Formica countertops with that imitation marble called Corian.

If I knew then the hassles that job would entail, rather than agreeing so readily, I might just have put my head in the galley oven, turned on the gas and breathed deep. Fortunately for Jeff, I had no idea what was coming.

Our first setback came at Home Depot where we were told that the pricey Dupont Corian was not available for do-it-yourself installation. No problem, the "specially trained" Corian installers would come to the boat and take care of everything. I prepared the two countertops by removing the oven, the faucets, and the grotesque factory installed aluminum galley counter fiddles. Then I raised the sink so that its lip rested flush with the existing countertop. Two weeks late, a woman came down from the South Carolina-based Corian installation company and made templates of the countertops. Another two weeks and the specialists came down to the boat with the precut counters. Well have this wrapped up in two hours, the boss of the three-man crew assured me.

Five hours later, they left me with countertops so badly misaligned I had to work several hours the following day cutting away and rebuilding the locker lids supports from under the countertops to match the misaligned cutouts. Now that the lids had supports again, we found the locker access cutouts on the Corian countertops had not been cut square so the lids had varying gaps along two sides.

Im not paying them $600 for this kind of work, Jeff rightly said.

The Home Depot rep agreed and two weeks later a different crew from the same company came down and spent two hours raising a Corian dust storm as they grinded through several lids with their belt sander. The first crew could not cut a straight line and the second crew could not shape a curved line. Ill have to send down our best man to fix this, hes a real artist - even worked on a boat before, the man said as he packed up for the three hour drive back to their shop in South Carolina.

A week later, the master craftsman showed up and spent the entire afternoon cutting subtly curved lids to fit the unnecessary slight curves in the countertop cutouts. And then finally, the job was finished to everyones satisfaction and I relearned the need to step back and relax when things are obviously beyond my control.

We then installed the counter lid ring pulls and the spout for the new galley foot pump that replaced the water-wasting pressure tap. We did keep the hot and cold pressure water system in place for the shower in the head and for a future owner to easily reconnect the galley sink tap, if desired.

The galley fiddles were cut from -inch by 3 -inch teak. The edges were rounded with a router then the pieces were epoxy-glued and screwed to the plywood under the Corian with bungs over the screw heads. Corner pieces with 45-degree joints were cut out of 1 -inch-thick teak stock. These fiddles had to be fixed in place strongly because they supported brackets for the heavy gimbaled propane range.

Once finished, we all agreed the Corian countertops were a huge, if costly, improvement over Formica and aluminum and may even have been worth the struggle and expense.

Some final touches

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Jeff Fletcher, owner of Tarry G., sailing on St. Simons Sound.

Among the shrinking list of jobs left to complete was to install a sealed door on the anchor chain locker. On deck, a self-draining recessed anchor locker held the windlass under a hinged deck hatch. The chain pipe below the windlass directs the anchor rode into the chain locker below. This lower chain locker had no drain or door between it and the forward cabin, allowing muddy water to splash onto the v-berth and the smells of the previous harbor bottom to permeate the cabin.

The existing cutout in the chain locker bulkhead made it simple to make a cardboard door pattern which was transferred to a piece of -inch plywood and cut to fit flush to the bulkhead. It was then faced with Formica laminate, and trimmed with 3/8-inch thick teak overlapping -inch all around. A rubber gasket was glued to the inside of the teak lip and the door secured with offset hinges along the bottom and a twist-latch door button at the top. At the bottom of the chain locker bulkhead we installed a mushroom thru-hull to a drain hose and shut-off valve accessible under one of the bilge access floorboards.

There are several ways to recognize an English built boat. Obvious give-aways are the sensible Lavac vacuum toilet and the curious color-coding of the electrical system. Another English oddity, regulated by law in many countries, is that deck hatches are installed backwards with their hinges facing forward. Several production and amateur builders around the world also install their hatches backwards; the idea apparently being that you scoop less water and have less chance of breaking the hatch off if a wave rolls over the bow and catches the hatch in a partly open position. We weighed these theoretical advantages against the real disadvantages of reduced visibility when looking forward through a partly open hatch and the reduced usefulness of a Windscoop while at anchor then we rotated the forward hatch 180 degrees. A similar hatch in the coach roof was left reversed since it provided better clearance for a vang in that position and would not be used to look forward or hold a Windscoop.

We stripped the old varnish from bulkheads, teak trim and handrails, using scrapers kept fine-edged on a sharpening stone. Where the teak was discolored we were able to restore its golden brown tone by light sanding or in a few areas with careful use of wood bleach. Screw holes from old fittings no longer used and other isolated damage was repaired by drilling out and inserting teak bungs or patching in small strips of teak veneer. All bare wood was final sanded with 120-150 grit paper and cleaned with acetone before applying a first thinned coat of varnish. We used several different types of varnish for different areas, including satin for bulkheads and two-part polyurethane for maximum protection on high chafe areas such as galley fiddles. Handrails and selected moldings were sealed with a topcoat of Cetol clear gloss. All teak was given 5-7 coats of varnish, generally with a light sanding between every second coat and before the final coat to fill the grain and get a smooth surface. The numbered moldings were set on battens over covered bunks and on the floor for varnishing and then reassembled by the numbers.

Jeff decided to remove the massive folding-leaf salon table to open up the main salon. He has the table at home and if they find they miss it, he can install it later.

Concluding thought

The several jobs described in this article were selected from dozens of individual repairs, modifications, and upgrades we completed on this boat over a period of several months. The question arises as to whether it makes financial sense to put this much work and money into refurbishing an old boat when you will not recover much of that money during resale. This would be discouraging if you were simply trying to make a profit or were pouring money into dressing up an old hound of dubious pedigree that will never suit your needs or make a capable and attractive cruising boat. If you are lucky enough to find a classic cruiser for sale that has already been refit in exactly the manner youre looking for, its worth paying a large premium to save the time and expense of doing the work yourself or hiring it done. Unless you are doing the work entirely by yourself and are an extremely resourceful materials scrounger, it usually pays to let the previous owner take the loss and go through the headaches of a refit.

Unfortunately, you may never find this ideal boat, recently outfitted exactly as you want. Or you may appreciate the satisfaction of working on your boat and gaining the knowledge and reassurance that comes with doing the job yourself. Often were committed to the boat we have for practical or emotional reasons. Tackling projects one by one as we can afford the time and expense is another sensible approach.

Like many other boat owners, the owner of this Nicholson 31 does some of the work on his boat himself. This included purchasing a sewing machine from Sailrite and teaching himself how to reupholster all his bunk and settee cushions. While tackling the difficult job of replacing the lexan in his salon windows, he realized he did not have time to run a busy mortgage business and simultaneously learn the skills to finish the numerous jobs necessary to get his boat set up for cruising in a reasonable time. In his case it did make sense to hire someone experienced in offshore cruising and boat building to speed up the process of getting cruise ready.

Immediately after completing this refit, we accompanied Jeff aboard Tarry G on his first cruise to the Bahamas. What we learn in this world should be passed on. Its always gratifying to help, even in a small way, someone new to cruising to realize his dream.


Echo at anchor in Marsh Harbour, Abacos, Bahamas, before the hurricane.


The new pushpit and SolarTracker solar panel mount we installed after the hurricane.

2006 Update: Tarry G, now renamed Echo, was caught in the path of a hurricane in the Abacos and driven ashore. Remarkably, the tough hull was only scratched, not holed. The bow of another boat in the anchorage ripped out the lifelines, solar panel and pushpit which we replaced after the boat returned to Brunswick.