Replacing a fabric interior hull covering with oak-on-cedar strips transforms a V-berth.
Manufacturers of many good old boats of the ’70s and ’80s were looking for time and cost savings on their assembly lines, which had the great benefit of producing boats that were affordable and enabled many of us to get on the water. But the trade-off sometimes came in the interior finish, where production details were somewhat lacking.With the exception of bulkheads, builders seemed to favor the quick and neat cover-up of fabric or carpet glued over open-cell foam to cover unfinished interior surfaces. They added zippers at the hull-to-deck joint to allow access to those fasteners, but in most cases, these zippers are long corroded to the point of being seized. And as the years passed, the stained and faded fabric sagged away from disintegrating foam backing, or simply lost its visual appeal.
All of the above was the case aboard Natasha, our 1978 Islander Bahama 30. It was time for the fabric to go. The question was, what to do once we ditched it? Sanding and painting uneven surfaces and sharp edges was a marginal improvement, but the bare fiberglass hull sweated profusely in our damp Pacific Northwest environment.
I decided on oak strips attached to cedar ribs — a traditional ceiling used originally in wooden ships to cover the inboard sides of cabins — over closed-cell foam insulation. And, I decided to try this project first in the V-berth.
I started by removing all the original fabric from the V-berth cabin sides. This exposed the mold-encrusted open-cell foam glued to the fiberglass hull in 1978. Scraping this material away proved difficult in the cramped space, and so I turned to an angle grinder with a sanding disc attached. This was effective but created an intense cloud of fine foam particles and fiberglass dust. I addressed this by isolating the forward cabin with plastic sheeting and wearing a proper respirator and safety goggles.
Once I’d removed the foam and cleaned the mess, I measured, cut, and tapered 1 x 1-inch cedar boards to conform to the curve and bumps of the hull; these would be the ribs on which I would attach the oak strips. To attach these ribs, I cleaned the hull with acetone, thickened West System epoxy using 403 Microfiber Adhesive Filler, and troweled the thick paste onto one side of each rib, as well as onto the hull, ensuring a solid bond of cedar to fiberglass.
For areas where the hull wasn’t too curved, I simply put the ribs in place and allowed the sticky epoxy to hold them until cured. Where I needed the ribs to bend a bit to conform to the hull, I cut multiple grooves across the back side of the ribs to let them bend more easily without cracking. For these ribs, I used bracing to hold them in place until the epoxy set.
I installed the ribs at two-foot intervals, a total of four ribs on each side and one short rib on the star- board side above a locker.
With the ribs in place and cured, I brushed the fiberglass hull sides and the new ribs with white primer. The closed-cell foam is a bit translucent, and since this area would be visible through the thin gaps between the oak strips, I wanted a clean background. I finished the area at the top and bottom of the hull sides, along with the face and edges of the ribs (also visible after the oak strips were installed), with enamel matching the original hull color.
For insulation, I selected ½-inch white polyethylene closed-cell foam from a local craft store. It was easy to cut with scissors or a knife, and I glued it to the primed fiberglass hull using common contact cement. I selected closed-cell foam to prevent moisture absorption. If I were living aboard this boat in this climate, I would choose a more effective form of insulation, but the ½-inch polyethylene is sufficient to keep the hull from sweating during summer cruises.
Then came the most satisfying part, creating and installing the new wood-strip ceiling. I chose 1¼-inch-wide x ¼-inch-thick oak. These dimensions allowed the strips to flex to accommodate interior curves. After cutting the oak to the desired dimensions — and long enough so that no joints would be required — I sealed all sides with thinned varnish. I finished the interior-facing sides with three additional coats of satin varnish. This was much easier to do in a shop than it would have been in the V-berth once installed.
Installing the new ceiling was straightforward. In case I might need to remove the oak strips later to access areas behind them, I attached them to the ribs with wood screws with finishing (cup) washers, no glue. I began at the bottom horizontal strip parallel to the berth base and worked up from there.
The trick was ensuring that the fastening screws lined up in a straight vertical line on each rib; I found this somewhat difficult to attain. I made sure the ends of the strips formed a neat, finished line against the fore and aft bulkheads, but I could have been less precise and later covered this joint with trim.
Finishing near the overhead also posed a challenge, as the deck rises toward the bow. To finish this joint neatly meant tapering the strips to conform to this rise, but I also left a narrow gap here to allow access to hull-to-deck fasteners and encourage ventilation.
I’ve since completed this same job on a few other boats, using only simple carpentry tools: a table saw and router to form the wood, a cordless drill-driver, a hand miter saw, a tape measure, and a sliding T-bevel to measure angles. I’ve used mahogany, oak, maple, and ash.
I’m not a finish carpenter by any stretch, but any boat owner handy with tools and a bit of imagination can follow my lead. The V-berth looks warm, inviting, and nautical, and it no longer smells musty. Now, it’s on to the main cabin and the vinyl headliner.
Bert Vermeer and his wife, Carey, live in a sailor’s paradise. They have been sailing the coast of British Columbia for more than 30 years. Natasha is their fourth boat (following a Balboa 20, an O’Day 25, and another Islander Bahama 30). Bert tends to rebuild his boats from the keel up. Now, as a retired police officer, he also maintains and repairs boats for several non-resident owners.