OXFORD, MD. -- A yacht designer and builder widely admired for his old-time craftsmanship has found a way to build a better wooden boat with a material used in today's Army helmets and flak jackets.
His new process has been called a major development in boat construction and has prompted a flood of excited correspondence from builders and devotees of high-grade wooden yachts.
The breakthrough came because Edmund A. Cutts, 60, president of Cutts & Case boatyard, turned a deaf ear to those who urged him to abandon wood in favor of fiberglass.
"A lot of my friends said get out of wood," says Cutts, a former Long Islander. "There's no future in it. Get into plastic. I said, 'No way.' I won't mix a boat up in a pot.
"We stayed in it and it didn't die. So we had the old technology, which a lot of people had forgotten, and used it with the best new technologies of the day."
Walking through the red wooden outbuildings of the Cutts & Case boatyard, which Cutts and his financial backer took over 23 years ago, there are few signs of the modern solution he has found to an age-old problem for builders of wooden hulls: how to keep them together.
Visitors seeking to learn more about Cutts' discovery are taken into one of his workshops, where he plucks a tightly strung 3-foot-length of cable glued at one end into two inches of softwood.
"It's been on there three years, and look," he says, "it still hits a middle C."
The cord is made of Kevlar, an organic fiber developed by Du Pont Co. that is both lighter and stronger than glass fibers. By weight, Cutts said, it has 11 times the strength of steel.
The Cutts method of hull construction works like this: After the first, or inner, layer of wood is on, small grooves are cut a few inches apart in the planking from one side of the ship to the other. Epoxy-saturated Kevlar cord wound to Cutts' specifications is then installed in the grooves before a second layer of planking is glued over the first, sealing the cord in between.
The method enables the boat builder to forgo the use of frames, rivets, fasteners, caulking and other materials normally used to keep a hull together, all of which add weight and take up additional space. Without metal, there is no problem of electrolysis corrosion.
Cutts says that building a yacht by his method requires far fewer materials and less special skills and labor, and produces a boat with seamless hulls that is lighter, stronger, faster and roomier than a wooden craft constructed in the traditional method.
"It is a beautifully simple way to build a boat," he says.
"I think it's a major development because it allows you to build a traditional hull with the weight and buoyancy, the substance and feel of a wooden boat, without the clutter of interior framing," says Jonathan Wilson, editor and publisher of the magazine WoodenBoat.
There are few people like Cutts capable of both designing and building high-grade wooden yachts, Wilson says. Cutts & Case can hand-build everything that goes into a boat except the engine and the winches.
Cutts, who first began learning the trade at the age of 15 when he entered New York's Maritime Vocational School, has built about 80 boats over the years -- about 25 of his own design.
Cutts built his first Kevlar-ribbed boat -- a rowboat -- six or seven years ago and received a patent more than four years ago. The rowboat is still in flawless condition and "there's no reason it shouldn't last 100 years," he says.
He has spent the years since conducting dozens of tests on his new method, submerging panels underwater for long periods of time and doing extended tension experiments with the cord.
Cutts is working this winter on a 27-foot yacht that will be built with Kevlar cords. As a long-term project, he has begun preliminary work on a 65-foot, commuterlike yacht that he said will be the biggest boat ever built in Oxford and the lightest boat ever built its size.
"We know what we are doing now very well," Cutts says.