OXFORD, MD. -- A boat 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 boats.
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 Fiberglas.
"A lot of my friends said get out of wood," said Cutts, a former Long Island resident. "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.
On a recent day in this historic town that once was Maryland's largest port, Cutts' two sons and the rest of his crew quietly went about their jobs as a gaggle of geese drowned out the occasional sound of wood being confronted by sandpaper and saws.
On a sleek yacht of Cutts' design, one of 60 boats at the yard for the winter, a worker was erecting a frame of two-by-fours to support a winter cover. Nearby, the peeling and scarred bottom of a run-down cabin cruiser sitting at the end of the yard's underwater railway was getting a much-needed sanding. Back in a giant storage building, a member of the yard's crew readied a rack for spars.
Visitors seeking to learn more about Cutts' discovery are taken into one of his workshops, where he plucks a tightly strung three-foot length of cable glued at one end into two inches of softwood.
"It's been on there three years, and look," he said, "it still hits a middle C."
The cord is made of Kevlar, an organic fiber developed by the 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 system of 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.
Cutts says that building a yacht by his method requires far fewer materials and special skills and less labor, and produces a boat with seamless hulls that is lighter, stronger, faster and roomier than a wooden craft built in the traditional method.
"It is a beautifully simple way to build a boat," he said.
"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," said Jonathan Wilson, editor and publisher of the magazine WoodenBoat.
"What is remarkable about Ed is his tenacious commitment to making wood work. And it is not because he is a romantic, although to a certain extent he is. It is because, rather, he believes in it. As deeply as he regards tradition, he is not afraid to experiment."
There are few people like Cutts capable of both designing and building high-grade wooden yachts, Wilson said. Cutts & Case can hand-build everything that goes into a boat except the engine and the winches.
Cutts, who can trace family involvement in the boat-building business back to the mid-1600s, hopes and expects his sons, Ed Jr., 31, and Ron, 25, to stick with the trade. "They have to. It's patriotically important," he said. "This country was built by sweat, but we're just a paper-moving country now. Forests are going through computers instead of making things we need."
Cutts, who first began learning the trade at age 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 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 commuter-like yacht that he said will be the biggest boat ever built in Oxford and the lightest boat ever built its size. If built according to traditional methods, its weight would at least double.
"We know what we are doing now very well," Cutts said.