Dec 06

How many people does it take to unscrew 62 bolts?

Tag: boat workjonny5waldman @ 8:08 am

How many people does it take to unscrew 62 bolts?

It’s a trick question, of course, requiring a bit of a story…

For the last couple of months I’ve been on a mechanical crusade to make sure everything screwed through the deck of our boat is screwed through the deck properly. By properly, I mean in a very particular way, which I’ll get to. But first: the deck is sandwich-like, in that it’s made of two pieces of fiberglass with a layer of balsa wood in between. It’s like a sandwhich made of matzoh and cream cheese. This design has its ups and downs. One down is that if you apply a lot of force, it’s not too hard to squish the sandwich, which weakens it. Another down is that if you drill through the sandwich and don’t seal the hole just right, water that leaks in ends up rotting the balsa wood (further reducing its strength) before it leaks all the way into the boat. It’s strange, but if you have a leak, you want it to actually leak.

So the proper way to drill a hole through our deck is to drill a much bigger hole than you need, and then to scoop out a bunch of the balsa wood around the hole. Then you put a piece of tape on the bottom of the hole, and pour in a big glob of thickened epoxy, which is about as thick as peanut butter and about as strong as, well, modern plastics. Then, once the epoxy hardens, you drill a hole through the middle of it. This accomplishes two things: it provides some support (like the little plastic thingy that keeps the pizza box from collapsing all over the top of the pizza), and it protects the soft, wooden core of the deck from rotting if it ends up leaking. As you probably guessed, there are lots of things screwed through the deck: a dozen stanchions (aka fence-posts around the edge); a 6" disc covering a 5" hole for a chimney flu; hardware for flying the spinnaker; the liferaft cradle; the dingy cradle; the fairleads (pulleys) that keep our lines in order; our new rope clutches; 9 chainplates that keep the rigging tight; and two 10-foot tracks that the jib cars slide along. Most of the items on the list are held in place by a few screws, presenting minor challenges — and so far we’ve fixed everything but the stanchions and… the jib car tracks.

I’ve been dreading the task of re-bedding the jib car tracks because they’re a little more committing. Each track is 10 feet long, and is held in place by 31 screws — one every 4 inches. Why so many? Because the jib car (aka pulley) that slides along the track has to be able to withstand the huge forces — thousands of pounds in normal sailing conditions – generated by the jib. To keep the track from ripping out of the deck, those 31 screws are bolted to a similarly shaped 10-foot backing plate beneath the deck. I was dreading the project for two other reasons. First: because it was an all-or-nothing job. To fix the leaks, I’d have to get the whole track off (without breaking or damaging it), and to get the whole track off, I’d have to get all 31 screws out. There could be no stopping half way. It would require commitment. Secondly, it was a bold move — I’d be opening up 62 holes in the deck — a can of worms if there ever was one — and hoping that it wouldn’t rain in the middle of my efforts. I’ll be the first to admit the project made me nervous.

Here’s the fun part: remember the leak Matt found in the engine room (over the batteries and his new wiring), and that other leak I found in the quarter berth? It turns out those leaks are coming from the jib car tracks — through more than a few of the 62 holes that were drilled straight through that matzoh sandwich. You can tell just by looking at the deck, which is obviously warped where the screws go through it. There are at least a dozen divots in starboard deck, and at least two dozen in the port deck, and, early in the morning, when there’s dew all over the boat, you can tell something’s wrong by the little puddles that form in them.

After many cups of coffee, my friend Liz agreed to come over to the East Bay and help me work on the boat. I was optimistic, since working with someone else is so much more fun than working alone. I grabbed the 1/2" socket, and removed seven nuts on the bottom of the port track. Then I grabbed the largest slotted screwdriver on the boat, and the largest wrench, and kneeled down at the front of the port track. As I pushed the screwdriver down on the first screw, Liz used the wrench to get as much rotational toque as she could. It didn’t budge. I ran back in, and grabbed the chisel, which was slightly larger than the screwdriver. Still no luck. Actually, it chipped the chisel. Hmm. It was time to get a bigger screwdriver.

Liz and I hopped on our bikes and rode over to Home Depot, which is about 2 miles away. On the way, I told her about the 5 steps of screw removal, which, depending on the severity of corrosion, range from quick-and-easy to laborious-and-achingly-slow.

step 1: try a screwdriver, using wrench for extra torque

step 2: apply PB Blaster or Liquid Wrench or some other chemical to dissolve corrosion, then repeat step 1

step 3: apply heat using a handheld propane torch (a la creme brulee), then repeat step 1.

step 4: drill a small hole and use an extractor bit to remove the screw

step 5: with a cobalt bit, drill out the screw until head pops off.

I told Liz that I desperately hoped we would not need to run through all of these steps, as I had in the process of rebuilding the furler. (Four of the tiny stainless steel set screws holding the aluminum extrusions wouldn’t budge, so after drilling them out I ended up tapping new threads and installing slightly larger set screws. It took way too long.)

At Home Depot, we headed for the eft side of the tool corral, where we bumped into an employee in one of those orange aprons. This conversation transpired:

me: (Holding up a 3/8" slotted screwdriver) Is this the largest screwdriver you have? (I really wanted a 7/16")

HD: Yeah. Nobody makes screws bigger than that.

me: I beg to differ. Got any other bright ideas for getting screws out?

HD: Well, you could try an extractor…

me: (Recoiling at the thought.) I could, except that I have 62 screws to remove.

HD: Ah, yes, i see your point.

me: Well, thanks for your help.

So I bought the 3/8" screwdriver, and prayed a little bit. I sorta felt like I was returning empty handed.

Back at boat, we sprayed Liquid Wrench on all of the screws, and tried loosening one. No luck. We tried another. No luck. We were very dismayed. Such a simple task! Remove a screw! And yet we were failing. For some reason, we tried one more — and it worked. It was teamwork, and it was glorious.

Liz sprayed Liquid Wrench on the bolts again, and we spent the next five hours removing the screws — reveling at each one. I crawled into the tool locker, the wet locker, the engine room, and and cockpit locker to remove the nuts on the back. At one point, I lay down on a cutting board on the stove, and reached into the galley cabinet with a headlamp in one hand and a socket wrench in the other. When that didn’t work, I used a pair of vice grips.

In a couple of hours, I removed all 31 nuts from the starboard side, and 12 from the port side. I couldn’t find the motivation to remove the ceiling panels in the quarter berth, which I’d need to do to get at the final 19 bolts.

One-at-a-time, while I pushed down on screwdriver and Liz torqued it with the wrench we removed the bolts on the starboard side. At one point, Liz leaned over and got a little puddle of Liquid Wrench — which pretty much smells like a gas station — in her hair. As we neared the last few, beers were raised, cheers were exclaimed, and music was turned up. It was late at night by the time we finished, and it was one of the sweetest victories I’ve known yet in all of the work on the boat. Afterwards, many cups of tea and cookies were consumed before we called it a night.

The next morning, after removing the ceiling panels in the quarter berth, and removing the 19 nuts, I attacked the 19 remaining screws in the port track. I got all but 4, and felt like a genius. But the last four wouldn’t budge, so I went and sought help.

I went straight for the big Mainer on the steel boat — the guy who’d dispensed so much wisdom before. I found him about to leave for lunch, and begged 2 minutes of his time. Together, we loosened two of bolts — leaving only two. I was so close!

Then the Maine Guy offered more wisdom.

"You need an impact driver," he said. "You know what that is, right?"

"Of course," I said. "Um, no, maybe not. What is it?"

He told me it was shaped sorta like a screwdriver, and that you hit it with a hammer to loosen screws that are stuck. He told me to go get one at an auto supply store — and that for about $10, I would not regret my purchase. I knew I could count on him.

Before heading out, I texted Matt: "two screws left but they won’t budge."

Matt texted me back: "hammer from below?"

I responded: "already tried that." But I tried again, just for fun. No luck.

I hopped on my bike and rode to Berkeley, in search of 62 new bolts (5/16", philips, 2 1/4", stainless) and nylock nuts, and an impact driver. My first stop was an auto parts store didn’t have one. My second stop was Bowlin, the screw distributor that ranks among my favorite stores ever. They didn’t have the screws I wanted in stock, but ordered them for Monday. After that, I swung by a big hardware store (OSH), and they didn’t have an impact driver either (though one of the employees said a lot of people had come in asking for one lately.) From there, I rode two blocks, to a tool supply company (Grainger) that also didn’t have an impact driver — not even in their phonebook-thick catalog. An employee there recommended another hardware store (Truitt and White, back near where I’d started), and called them, and they didn’t have an impact driver either. I told him about my quest, and how nobody — not Home Depot, not the auto parts store, not Grainger, not OSH, not Truitt and White — had an impact driver. He recommended a place 25 miles south, in San Mateo, called (and I’m not making this up) K119. "That place has all sorts of stuff nobody else has," the guy swore, as he wrote the K119 on a yellow sticky note. Alas, I wasn’t eager to go 25 miles for a $10 tool. Not quite willing to give up, I rode across the street to Ashby lumber/hardware, where, yet again, I didn’t find an impact driver. Only 2 bolts left and totally stymied! Somehow, though, one of the guys behind the counter heard me say the words "I’m looking for an impact driver," and told me, matter-of-factly, "they have ’em up at Pastime, in El Cerrito." My thought then was: Where, where? (By now, as I’ve said before, I thought I was familiar with every hardware store within 20 miles.) So the guy called Pastime, and handed the phone to me, and lo and behold, I confirmed that the tool existed there. I was so close!

Pastime, apparently, is the oldest hardware store around. It’s 75 years old, and on the site of the old blacksmith shop started by Wilhelm Rust, a German immigrant who landed in a small town north of Berkeley that became the home to many fleeing San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. The blacksmith shop grew into a hardware store, and by 1917 the little town was named after Wilhem, and incorporated as Rust, California. (It was later changed, perhaps more appealingly, to El Cerrito, in reference to the steep little hill in the middle of town.) At any rate, I’m a big fan of old hardware stores, with real tools and parts instead of kitchen items and birdfeeders and other gimcrackery, so I headed up there even though I was tired of this hunt-for-an-impact-driver game.

Pastime had aisles and aisles of stuff, much of it in glass cases, museum-like. I wasn’t really sure what an impact driver looked like, or where it’d be, so I asked for help. The cashier suggested aisle 6. There was no such thing there. A customer service guy tried aisle 5. There was no such thing there either. By now I was getting kind of annoyed, because the guy on phone had assured me it was there — had, in fact, been in his hands — and that it cost $12.99. So I walked into the office, and asked the assn’t manager. He knew exactly where. Lo and behold, across from aisle 4, on the bottom shelf, sat an impact driver, in a black plastic case, about the size of a walkie-talkie. It cost me $12.99. Brilliant.

By now the afternoon had worn on, and the sun was just above the horizon. I pushed the pedals a little harder, and got back to Syzygy just a the sun had gone down, while the sky was still glowing. I opened up that impact driver like it was the best present ever given on any Christmas, and went to work on those last two bolts. It worked, sorta. I loosened them enough that I was able to go back to step 1 — screwdriver + wrench, with the help of Gregory, another neighbor at the marina — and voila, I had the track removed. I took a deep breath, did a little dance, and grabbed a beer. I felt I’d earned it.

So, how many people does it take to unscrew 62 bolts? Four, provided they have access to 6 hardware stores, 2 new tools, and 1 amazing chemical.

One Response to “How many people does it take to unscrew 62 bolts?”

  1. Hardy says:

    Now that is a blog post. I dont think I would have the patience to attack all those screws. Also, that video from the masthead is great.

Leave a Reply