The Paper Boats of Elisha Waters

(A 1949 Look at Composite Construction)
By John B. Ehrhardt
(Excerpted from Messing Around In Boats)
(click here for more information about MAIB)

One day in The 1860s, young George Waters of Troy, New York, received an invitation to a masquerade. There was nothing very unusual about that. Masquerades and young men have gone together since the dawn of history. However, this particular masquerade and this particular young man had a date with destiny and, if Mr. Waters had not had occasion to buy a mask, probably no one would ever have considered the zany idea of building boats of paper.

Mr. Waters found his mask. There were plenty of fancy masks for sale in Troy in those days. The only trouble was that their prices began at $8, quite an item in a young man's budget, even today in 1949 and more so in the 1860s when, we will remember, $500 per annum was not a bad salary for the head of a family. George Waters balked at the price. His father was a box manufacturer and he knew something of working in paper. Perhaps he could make his own mask. He could and did. History records nothing further of the masquerade and we must trust that a good time was had by all. But from his mask making young Waters learned that paper could be built up in layers to any form he wished and that the result was light, strong, and durable, just the stuff for boats, one would say, if only it were waterproof.

The boat idea took hold almost immediately. These were the great days of the oarsmen of America, single shell competitions, and the canoeing days of Rob Roy. Lighter and lighter, Finer and finer, were the cries that drove the designers onward. Single shells of cedar could be built down to a weight of 40 lbs. for a 28' boat of 13" beam. They were not very durable, one contact with a gravelly shoal could take the bottom out of them, but these cedar shells were fast. Still, could a 28' shell be lighter yet?

George thought so and his father Elisha thought the idea was worth a trial. The Waters bought up a disused cedar shell, set it bottom up to form a mold, laid layer after layer of manila paper over it, lapping the joints and bedding down in shellac as they went. When the formed paper was lifted from the mold it was provided with a pair of light spruce inwales and a pair of transverse bulkheads. This, plus the stem piece, was the only wood that entered into the construction. The paper was carefully waterproofed inside and out with varnish.

The finished craft weighed little more than 30 lbs. and presented a smooth, seamless, almost friction-free surface to the water. Its performance suggested definite advantages over wooden construction (it was leak-proof and tough enough to withstand beaching), and accordingly the firm of Elisha Waters and Sons, while paper box manufacturers, applied for and received American and Canadian patents on the manufacture of paper boats.

In the year 1867 the firm began large scale production of paper racing shells. The old cedar hull was discarded in favor of a solid wooden mold with rabbets cut to receive the wooden inwales and stem pieces. By this arrangement it became possible to set the wooden parts in place before the first layer of paper was applied and they could accordingly be incorporated in the paper skin, giving a true monococque construction. The adhesive continued to be shellac, but with constant refinements the weight of a single shell, 28' long and 12" wide, complete with sliding seat and outriggers, was lowered to less than 22 lbs.

Moreover the boats were strong. One Waters shell was placed on trestles 8' apart and a 140 lb. man was lowered into the cockpit which was midway between the trestles. The boat merely buckled slightly under his weight, 1/16" out of horizontal to be precise. The drive of competition soon conquered the oarsmen's inherent conservatism. By 1870 the paper boat was an established factor in all important races. Indeed, a single shell match that pitted one paper boat against a field of cedar shells was pretty much like the road races of the early 1900s when a steam car was entered against a field of gas buggies. It was essentially a contest among the cedar boats for the privilege of finishing second.

In 1876, for instance, the Waters' boats hung up the freshman and varsity Intercollegiate, the Saratoga International in singles, doubles, and fours, the national championships of the National Asseciation of American Oarsmen (singles, doubles, and fours), the world championships at the 1876 Centennial Exposition (singles, doubles, and fours likewise), plus the professional championship of the United States. By this time, it will be noted, the firm was building a complete line of racing shells plus at least one type of cruising boat. Comell had adapted the paper boats for varsity work and the Waters outfit was sitting on top of the world.

Probably their biggest boost came from the now forgotten Natty (Nathaniel H.) Bishop of Toms River, New Jersey), a leading sportsman and adventurer of the day. Natty had begun his career with a solo hike across South America in the 1850s. In the 1870s, no longer young, he made a solo voyage down the Mississippi in a 12' Bamegat sneakbox and another solo (in 1874, to be precise) from Troy, New York, to Cedar Keys, Florida, with one of Waters' paper canoes.

The stock paper canoe was something of the Nautilus model. The 1860s had seen the Rob Roy books with their impelling gospel of the kayak canoe. The slim, round bottomed Rob Roy had been tried here and abroad with varying favor. She was a canoeman's canoe, fast, easy to paddle, stiff to sail, but cramped and not too safe in the hands of the beginner. The Rev. H.G. Baden Powell (father of Scouting's Baden Powell) had developed a modification of the Rob Roy which he dubbed Nautilus. This design was standard with canoe clubs in and around New York City in the 1870s and was adopted by the Troy firm as their own.

The stock canoe was 14' long, 28" wide, and 9" deep amidships. It had a paper skin 1/8" thick (some of the racing shells had a skin 1/12" thick) and weighed 58 lbs. Nautilus had a leg o'mutton ketch rig as well as both oars and paddles. She was decked about one quarter the distance from bow and stern and was built with considerable sheer. Under ordinary conditions she was self-righting. It was one of these boats that Bishop took on its own bottom from Troy to Cedar Keys. He abandoned his sails at Philadelphia and rowed or paddled the rest of the way, using oars in open water, paddles in small streams.

From Troy he sailed down the Hudson River to New York, then through New York Harbor to the Delaware and Raritan Canal, which venerable waterway some yachtsmen not too grizzled today will remember with no fondness. This canal was more or less open to large cruisers as recently as 1933 and is .still passable by canoe in 1949.

From the Delaware and Raritan, Bishop went down the Delaware to Philadelphia and into Delaware Bay. Here he had his only mishap, a capsize in a squall near the capes where the bay is almost 16 miles wide. The paper canoe righted herself and floated, though swamped. Bishop got his boat and gear ashore, though the paper skin took quite a pounding on the oyster shell beach before the craft was hauled clear of the breakers and emptied. The next day the skin was examined but showed only a few scratches which were promptly filled with shellac. Bishop remarks that his light 300 lb. all wood canoe would have been reduced to matchwood under similar conditions.

From the Delaware he proceeded to the Chesapeake, thence through the Dismal Swamp Canal and Hatteras Sound and (with some portages) by inland rivers to the Gulf of Mexico at Cedar Keys. He had consumed five months on the voyage, the paper boat had never been out of water more than three days at a time, and its paper covering, barring a few chips and scratches, was as good as the day it had left the factory.

Bishop's writings in the contemporary press and in his published books (a favorite Sunday School prize in those days) gave the Waters firm a further boost. The year 1876 was their high spot, but it was also the year of doom. We have seen the number of trophies won in competition that year. The same year saw Bishop's boat exhibited at the Centennial, and many boat clubs along the Hudson River had 30 and 40 paper boats on their racks. But in the same year the factory at Troy burned. There were attempts to revive the industry after the fire but the firm did not long survive, and since the Waters family still held tightly to their patents, the process languished and sank into oblivion.

Several things must occur to the modern yachtsman as he reads this. For one thing, the advantages of lightness and strength, freedom from corrosion and ease of repair offered by laminated paper construction are still valuable features. For another, we have better laminating adhesives than shellac today. Modern plastic chemists tell us that shellac was the first modern plastic. Its use was known to Europeans as early as the 13th century (much earlier to Orientals) and it is reasonably waterproof. However, shellac gets lazy with age and its properties are likely to vary from batch to batch. Our modern phenolic resins have none of these troubles and are cheaper as well.

This writer has been experimenting with paper laminates and, while the first boat is still unfinished, the preliminary experiments will be of interest to the amateur builder. Test panels of phenolic resin bonded laminates were made up before actual construction was started and the results with these have been amazing.

The standard test panels have been 12" x 12" all made up of one ply of 1/32" bristol board overlaid with six plies of .012" manila paper. Laminating resins tried have been L.W. Ferdinand's Stanzall, Borden's Cascophen, and Weldwood glue. Results with all three have been equivalent, though we found Cascophen by far the easiest to handle (the mixture is never lumpy). The completed panels weigh 8 oz. after coating both surfaces and all edges with three applications of spar varnish. This weight of 1/2-lb. per square foot means that a 14' canoe, a 12' duckboat, or a 10' dinghy can be built over a wooden frame to give a completed weight of less than 50 lbs.

The test panels were soaked in water for 30 days with no delamination. Next we gave them a month of soaking and drying on alternate days, still with no delamination and no warping. Finally we allowed them to weather for three months, at the end of which time there was no change in physical properties.

For strength we tried them with a 3 lb. axe. The ax, swung against the edge of a panel, crushes but does not split. Swung against the flat surface of the panel, it punctures but never makes a hole more than 3" long. The punctures can be repaired by pushing out the dent (the hole all but seals itself) and then pasting two layers of paper over the damage at either side. For this, shellac (the kind sold as rim and gasket cement) must be used. Resin glues will not make a durable repair since the setting of the laminating adhesive in the paper destroys its porosity and makes the further use of synthetic resins impossible.

It is obvious, of course, that this method of construction offers no advantages in cheapness, lightlless, or durabilty over the plastic, plywood, or aluminum boats now available. Its one advantage is that it is the only type of seamless monococque construction practicable for the private builder.

Since the Waters technique of a solid wood mold is undesirable in home construction, we settled on a light wooden frame similar to the kayak frame though, since the paper skin adds stiffness which the canvas covering of the kayak lacks, some of the longitudinal members may be omitted. The mold to which the paper is applied serves also as the permanent frame of the boat. Over the frame we place a layer of 1/32" unglazed bristol board, set in waterproof glue and lightly tacked to the frame. We use the glue sparingly, we cannot permit the pores of the bristol board to become completely filled. When the frame is fully clothed with paper board we are ready to apply the manila paper.

The paper must be laid up all at once since, as we have seen, additional plies cannot be added after the first glue line sets. First coat the bristol board with glue, then lay down the first layer of paper parallel with the keel. Avoid paper wider than 18" since it is difficult to handle. Lap the paper generously at keel, stem pieces, and chines and press down firmly with the hands. It will stick as quickly as a postage stamp.

Next coat again with glue, lay up the next ply athwartships, lapping fully at bow, stern, chines, and keel as before. The next two layers should be laid up diagonally from the keel, the final two most anyway that is found convenient. No pressure other than firm hand pressure is required in smoothing down the plies. There is no need to weight the plies while the glue is curing. Why lay up the layers in different directions? Because paper (machine made paper) has grain the same as wood. By laying the grain in several directions we achieve maximum strength.

The finished hull should be allowed to cure for 48 hours before filling with paint or varnish, then give it three coats inside and out. The paper can then be sanded the same as wood. Slight cockling of the paper near the edges of the outer ply may be observed. This can be sanded down without materially affecting the fabric.

The arithmetic of a 14' canoe is roughly this: plywood and spruce frame (with fastenings), about 25 lbs. and $20; Bristol board and paper, about 17 Ibs. and $6; Resorcinol glue (Cascophen) about $10. Therefore, a seamless leakproofboat of 50 Ibs. costs about $40.

This method of building seems to be the answer to Mr. Herreshoff's very valid objections to ordinary kayak construction. The frame does not stick through the covering like the ribs of a starved puppy, the paper covering adds stiffness and strength and, quite as important, it adds buoyancy. The test panels floated for several days before they absorbed enough water to sink and Bishop's boat, we remember, floated even when swamped. The method seems thoroughly practical for canoes, yacht tenders, duckboats, and sailing dinghies, for any boat that must be light, strong and leakproof. We cannot recommend it for boats that will remain in the water for long periods of time. In a few days the paper will absorb close to its own weight in water.