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Thread: cotton canvas sails

  1. #1
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    I have a cat ketch with 85 & 69 SF of sprit-boom sails. Any ideas on what weight canvas would have been used in the old days for this size and type of sail. You can get Egyptian colored natural cotton canvas for painting in various weights and it is really cheap. Around $75 to do my sails. Would cost over $500 to get egyptian dacron. I know there are big advantages to newer materials but as one who would like to take a stab at sailmaking, the canvas seems like a good way to get started. Any thoughts?

    Also, are there any good books on traditional sailmaking that I should be looking at besides the sailmakers apprentice?

    Also, anyone know about dying or treating for tanbark color?

    Thank you in advance.

  2. #2
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    I have a canvas yankee on IVY.

    I dunno what wieght it is , but it's heavier than dacron would be.

    There is a blurb on tanning sails in one of my books, but I can't remember which one.

    I'll try to find it tonight.
    \"There is a joy in madness, that only madmen know\"<br />-Nietsche

  3. #3
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    One way to get the info you need might be to check your local library for old sailmaking books, and see what they say. Since the advent of synthetic materials it's not as easy to find specs on cotton canvas.

  4. #4
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    If they could find it in a tight enough weave, the preferred weight of natural cloth would probably have been about seven ounces. These days, much of the light canvas is pretty pouous and stretchy. If you want high quality canvas you may have to go with 10 oz. Sunforger (used to be called "Vivatex"), which is a little heavy for the job but which has the kind of thread count that you need for sails. In Dacron, the main could be made from cloth in the 5-6 oz. range and the mizzen could either be built from the same fabric in order to match nicely or out of 4 oz. to save weight, which is strong enough for a 69 sq. ft. sail. It also might not be out of the realm of possibility to dig around in fabric stores and find a tightly woven polyester/cotton blend fabric that would be in the right range and tightly woven.

    Canvas is not the ideal fabric for sprit-boom sails, since the boom system puts a fair amount of stretching force on the leech and especially on the foot and it's self-vanging capability, which only works well if stretch along the foot is kept to a minimum. Letting the yarns of the fabric cross the foot's edge on a bias would be a big mistake and that pretty much eliminates the use of cross-cut construction. It would be more work, but much better to use a mitre-cut to keep the weave square to both the leech and foot edges. Here is a plan for a similar, but slightly larger sail. The narrover-than-full-width-off-the-bolt panels also help control stretch.


    The easiest barking formula is probably a mix of pine tar and turpentine, but I'm not too keen on the flamability that it will add to the sails. You could try actually boiling bark or some sort of tea and see what you can get without introducing solvents, but I haven't tried it and don't plan to any time soon. I might be more tempted to try RIT, possibly followed with something like Canvak for water and mold resistance.

  5. #5
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    Boy, Tom's response was impressive. Take it to heart. I'd only add that if you are thinking of cotton only because you want to make your own sails and/or save money, it is a false economy. As Tom said, it is very difficult to find proper sail canvas these days. They don't make it much. Very little demand for tightly woven high quality cotton. There are SOME modern technological discoveries that have improved on traditional methods and sail material is surely the number one example. You can now obtain dacron sail cloth in any number of weights, colors and hands. In fact, there are a few now specifically made to mimic the look and feel of traditional cotton.

    I have lived with a few cotton sails, made by hand by long dead sailmakers and with proper sailcloth. They cannot hold a candle to modern materials. Hey... they ROT. They CHAFE and WEAR. They TEAR. They MILDEW like crazy. They really soak up moisture when salty and stowed below. They STINK. Want more reasons?

    I don't own stock in Dow, but I would urge you to check out Sailrite (mail order sails, kits, and sailmaking materials) or any decent local loft. In the long run, your dacron sails will last ten times longer than cotton, even if you give it the best of care. Figure over time, the dacron will surely be cheaper. Don't go making sails for your nice boat out of bedsheets!

  6. #6
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    .
    The only book you want is The Sailmaker's Apprentice: A Guide for the Self-Reliant Sailor, by Emiliano Marino (you'll get a minor surprise if you discover his original name,) ISBN: 0071376429 (paperback) or 007157980X (board.)
    .

  7. #7
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    Polytarp sails are in your budget range, and give you the gratification of messing around with sailmaking. Don't know how durable they are.



    Polytarp web page

  8. #8
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    I second Bob's comments about cotton sails. I had a cotton sail on the first boat I built (Cotuit Skiff,a 14' flat bottomed catboat) and the sail stretched badly, mildewed easily and didn't perform well at all.
    “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs."

  9. #9
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    I have lived with a few cotton sails, made by hand by long dead sailmakers and with proper sailcloth. They cannot hold a candle to modern materials. Hey... they ROT. They CHAFE and WEAR. They TEAR. They MILDEW like crazy. They really soak up moisture when salty and stowed below. They STINK. Want more reasons?
    Ahh, one of my favorite soapbox topics. Couldn't many of your objections apply to wooden as well? It is certainly true that cotton sails are not appropriate for everyone. But neither are wooden boats.

    I had Egyptian cotton sails furnished by Nat Wilson for a boat I built. They were wonderful! They are soft to the hand, much quieter than plastic sails and have that beautiful creamy color! Nat Wilson's work was first rate and a perfect compliment to a classic boat.

    Modern sailmakers will tell you that it is the height of foolishness to want cotton sails. My guess is that their advice has more to do with the standards of their work and its profitability.

    Isn't it strange that most traditional boat owners will go to get length to have a boat constructed of rare woods, built by expensive craft work, finished to a very high degree, yet this boat will have a cloud of petrochemicals above?

    Natural materials are perhaps not for everyone. Certainly cotton sails are not. However, for someone who is willing to understand the care of the material (which is not too extreme), some people would be rewarded by looking into cotton sails.

    The original poster was evidently looking for the cheapest way to get a suit of sails. That person should know that well made cotton sails are more expensive than dacron.

  10. #10
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    Agreed, as long as the owner is fully aware of what he's getting into, what kind of care the sails need and that skimping on it for any reason may be expensive. If I could find a source for high-quality Egyptian cotton in about the five ounce range, probably one third of the sails that I make would be cotton. Unfortunately, I don't really need a container-full of the stuff and have struck out repeatedly in trying to locate small quantities of fabric at a price that both my customers and I can afford.

    In the mean time, Egyptian-colored Dacron will have to do and the really premium stuff really is excellent fabric which will generally outlast cotton, even if it is a little "hard" by comparison.

    I think I just set some sort of new record. I just finished a little mainsail, full-Junk-style, Chinese Lug, laced-on battens, parrels at each batten, two reefs, and leech grommets for trying out a bridle-style mainsheet if desired. Sixty-one pieces of fabric and 85 spur grommets - ON A 30 SQ. FT. SAIL! The 15 sq. ft. mizzen that goes with it is almost done, though it only has 37 pieces of fabric and around 55 grommets. Talk about tedious!


    Here's the original plan where you can see how the battens and spars will work with the sail.


    [ 02-13-2003, 05:07 PM: Message edited by: Todd Bradshaw ]

  11. #11
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    No question that cotton sails are "traditional." Indeed, they do have their attractions and I don't think a "classic" boatman who hasn't handled them can really call hisself "experienced." I think, however, that on balance, synthetics have proven their superiority over the forty-five years or so they've been around. The point about wooden boats above is well taken. However, it boils down to how "traditional" you are. That's up to the individual. I will add that when the first synthetic sails and line became available, it was enthusiastically embraced by the racing fraternity. I remember one of the crew on Bolero, a big ocean racer of the day, and a contemporary of Baruna and Orient (from whence came, thanks to Bob Keefe, "Bar-ient" winches), that the new dacron stuff produced a marked improvement in performance, but, correspondingly, developed humongous strain on the hulls and rigs. No sooner had they bent on the dacron sails and sheets than the things were getting away from them. They couldn't control them and ended up developing more powerful geared winches (Hence, the Barient line) to manhandle the gear. It ended up pulling some of the boats apart, because, of course, they were designed for the loads generated by cotton sails. Still, if for no reason other than price, and on anything other than a museum quality replica, I think the modern sailcloth made to look and feel like traditional canvas is a darn good compromise on a traditional boat.

  12. #12
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    Pcford, do you have a source of good sail cotton?

  13. #13
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    You might try Nat Wilson of East Boothbay, Maine.

    He used to specialize in natural fiber sails. Presume he still does.

  14. #14
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    Nathaniel Wilson developed a very nice "synthetic cotton" called Oceanus. He's kind of the "gold standard" for historic/replica, and traditional sailmaking. He lives in E. Boothbay ME. no web page, I guess.

    Here's the Oceanus dealer.
    http://na.northsails.com/North_Cloth/oceanus_cloth.html

    Here is another very good sailmaker interested in traditional applications.

    http://www.gambellandhunter.com/
    Hey! It's MY Hughniverse!

  15. #15
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    I don't think Nat Wilson "developed" Oceanus, though he may have had some input as he built some of the first sails from it. I believe I was told that the major player in it's invention was Robbie Doyle of North's Cloth Division. It is all Dacron and a combination of filament and spun fibers.

  16. #16
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    I appreciate everyone's comments. As far as wanting cheap fabric goes...since I have never made sails before I wanted to start with something that isn't sold by the gram. I do want to stay traditional looking. I have looked into having sails made by a traditional maker with Egyptian dacron. If I dont make the sails myself, that is the way I probably will go. The sailrite route seems like a rip off to me. It would cost almost as much as having sails made by a professional...all in the name of "self relience". I can figure other ways to be self relient.

    Ultimately its not just about money. I would like to learn as much as possible about the ways things were done before the days of dacron. It seems that those days are soon to be forgotten.

  17. #17
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    Old Salt, check the little ads for used nautical booksellers in the back of WoodenBoat. Call a couple and see if you can find an old copy of "Make Your Own Sails" by Bowker and Budd. If they have one, it will probably be $12-$15. There are a couple versions as it was revised. The newer versions have more stuff on what was new technology at the time, synthetic fabrics. That info is dead now, but the rest of the book is about cotton sailmaking. It's worth owning in addition to Marino's book.

  18. #18
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    Well, well, here's one of life's little reversals - Cleek advocating the modern plastic cheap and also nasty, whilst I am firmly of PCFord's point of view and much prefer cotton and flax sails on a proper boat.

    Lets look at the durability issue. Mirelle's working canvas was made by Gayle Heard in 1986 out of a cotton/polyester mixture - each cotton thread has a Dacron core - with 9" panels, mainsail and staysail vertical cut, jibs Scotch cut, and of course proper patches and roping.

    The cloth was dressed in the bolt and will require re-dressing in a year or two. They were made with double sewn seams on the basis that the third row of stitching can be added when they need it.

    I've just had them checked over by a competing traditional sailmaker who would love to make me a new set and there is nothing wrong with them.

    Yes they cost a good deal more. Yes I am careful with them; I don't leave the Wykeham Martin jib hoisted and rolled when I am off the boat, I don't put the sail covers on when the mainsail and boom staysail are wet, and I doubt if I leave them stowed wet (but uncovered) more than once or twice a season. Yes they are much heavier, BUT...

    1. No horrid scratching flapping and banging noises - they lie much quieter.

    2. Much easier to stow, because the flakes tend to stay where you put them.

    3. No mildew (because they are dressed, and because I am careful).

    4. I think I win the durability argument.
    IMAGINES VEL NON FUERINT

  19. #19
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    I'd say you're doing very well on the durability argument, but you still have a long way to go before you win it. I still get a lot of Dacron cruising sails from the '70's and '80's in for check-ups and minor repairs and some of them are in surprisingly good shape. The dacron main on my Star was almost 30 years old when I got the boat. I pulled the boltrope out because the rope was shrinking, pulled in a new one and went sailing. You do win the arguments for quiet fabric and ease of flaking, etc. though. On a couple of occasions when I've built new Dacron sails to replace old ones I've actually warned the owners before making their new sails that most modern Dacron is very hard stuff and that the sails will be much stiffer and noisier to handle than their old ones.

    In any case a sail that's well cared for should last a long time and one that is mistreated may be ruined in a couple seasons, whether it's cotton, flax, Dacron or Kevlar.

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