Terry Jason Tells Historians About Fiberglass Boat Building

By Terry Hussey

Steuben boat builder, Terry Jason, told members of the Milbridge Historical Society about the process he uses to build a fiberglass boat at the Society’s June 13 meeting at the museum.

Jason came to Maine from Long Island, New York, where both of his grandfathers were boat builders.  He started out building wooden boats, and he used to be a lobsterman.  “I miss being on the water,” said Jason.  He does a little recreational lobstering now, just to get out on the water again.

Jason starts by building a prototype, a plug, of wood.  He then wraps the plug with layers of fiberglass cloth.  He uses eight to 15 layers of this material, often with a layer of balsa core in the middle for added strength.  Each layer is sprayed with gel coat.  The thickness of the fiberglass varies, from about an inch thick on the bottom of the boat, near the keel, to only about a 3/8 inch thick high on the sides of the boat.  This centers the weight on the bottom and makes the boat ride better.

When the fiberglass is just as he wants it, he then uses a crane to remove the wooden frame, and what is left is a fiberglass
mold.  That mold can be used to make many more boats.  “In the time that it takes me to make the wooden plus, I can make eight more boats,” he said.

The cabin of the boat is made the same way.  When complete, it is glued to the bottom section of the boat and bolted in place at six-inch intervals.  “I’ve done this for 20 years, and I’ve never had a leak, so I’m going to keep doing it that way,” he said.

Building the Plug Is the Hardest

  “Building the plug is the hardest part by far,” said Jason.  “We try to make them perfect.  The smoother they are, the easier the mold comes off,” he said. The boat is waxed with paste wax to make it release easily from the mold.

 If the owner wants any color other than white, the color is inserted into the last coats of gel coat.  “Most of the boats I build are white, but some guys want green or black, he said.

“Pound for pound, fiberglass is as strong as steel,” said Jason.  “You couldn’t shoot a 45 caliber bullet through it.”  He said that three men working on one fiberglass boat could complete it in about three months.  Three men working on a wooden boat would take about a year to complete.  And the cost would be about 20% more.

When asked about his constant exposure to caustic fumes, Jason said he and his crew do all that they can to protect themselves from the fiberglass.  They wear Tyvek suits, rubber surgical gloves, respirators, and goggles.  A 48-inch fan runs constantly in the boat shop.  “It smells pretty bad,” he said.  “Fiberglass fumes don’t rise,” he continued.  “They lay on the floor.”

 Jason said the boats he is building are getting bigger and bigger.  “It’s what people are asking for,” he said.    He said that most of the boats he builds now are pleasure boats, many outfitted with all the comforts of home.  “Some have air conditioning, computers, you just wouldn’t believe how they are finished,” he said.  The furnishings are identical to those used in motor homes.  They use the same refrigerators, stoves, water pumps, all the same things.

Jason said he usually has three boats under construction at once in his shop off the Dyers Bay Road in Steuben.  He can complete about 12 boats a year. 

Jason has a crew of seven men most of the time.  “It hard to get and keep good help,” he said.  “I’m lucky to have a great crew right now.”  He said that the boat schools teach students to make small boats and how to use fiberglass, but “they don’t teach them the building of bigger boats.  That’s what they need to know to go into business.”

“You have to match the engine to the boat,” he said.  A 35-foot boat would have a 250-350-horse power engine.  A 28-foot boat engine would have 150-200 horsepower.  “There’s no worse test for an engine than driving a lobster boat,” said Jason.  “Full throttle, then stop, all day long.”

“Business is booming,” said Jason.  “Every boat builder I know if booked up for a year or more ahead.