Material Choices

written by Jeff Schionning

Our designs are based on cored composite construction techniques using West System epoxy resin and knitted fabrics. But given the range of today's composite technologies, which solution works best for catamarans and why?

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Resin Choices

We use West System epoxys for their high strength and adhesive values. It also fully protects the boat against water absorption and it can not develop the dreaded Osmosis. We choose ATL Composite's resin systems for their superior quality, reliability and value for money. Having worked closely with the ATL Composites team and their products for many years, we know we can stand by their material solutions, and rely on great service should something unexpected happen.


Cloths

We prefer Colan brand cloths for their quality and low resin absorption, custom made for Schionning Marine at six (6) stitches per square inch for easy wet-out and rounding corners. This may not seem important but when working with a material for an extended period of time, the small things make all the difference.

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CORES - Which one to use?

The core choice is usually quite confusing. Cores have different capabilities and properties, and their benefits I feel are utilized fully in our catamaran designs. A quick look at their abilities:


Balsa end grain (150 kg/cubic metre) has exceptional qualities including very high compression strength, extremely good sheer capabilities and fantastic sheer stiffness.

Compressive strength is the resistance to collapsing when pressure is applied perpendicular to the surface as when pushing directly onto the material with the point of your finger. Balsa is far stronger than Foam (80kg/cubic metre) in compression. Foam is stronger than honeycomb type cores, both the paper and the plastic.

Balsa is also far better than foam or honeycomb in sheer. This is when the core sample is held flat between your hands, one hand slid one way and the other slid the opposite way, when the core tears through the middle the core has failed in sheer. The amount of stretch you feel before the core shears is shear stiffness. To compensate for sheer weakness the core is made thicker. So 13mm Balsa may be equal in sheer to 19mm Foam.

Paper Honeycomb (50kg/cubic metre) is very efficient and lighter than the other core choices. This can be used for external use but needs extreme care to prevent water penetration. Ideally it is used for all internal furniture and smaller bulkheads. Should water get into the core you lose 50% of its values. It can be suction dried and restored back to full strength, though this can be a long process. Paper Honeycomb has similar strength and sheer ability in the vein lines and about 80% across the veins compared to Foam.

Our hull skin thickness is quite thin, we therefore find the core works harder and it's stiffness is noticed in the finished structure (sheer stiffness). Generally a balsa or WRC shell is noticeably stiffer than a foam boat using equivalent laminates.

  • End-Grain Balsa - 150kg per cubic metre
  • Superlight Balsa - 94kg per cubic metre
  • Foam - 80kg per cubic metre
  • Paper Honeycomb - 50kg per cubic metre
  • Western Red Cedar - 360-380kg per cubic metre
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Balsa has very good values and we can produce a shell using a very light laminate. It will be very stiff and very resilient to fatigue.

Foam 

There are many boats sailing that are built from foam so even with its poorer values it works well. Initially one would expect this cat shell to be lighter as it is ½ the weight of Balsa. We do have to compensate for its weaknesses and will then add at least double the reinforcement on the outside to spread that compression load over more core and need a triaxial type weave to compensate for the veneer content that runs fore and aft on the Durakore. Secondly, we need to increase the Core thickness to compensate for the shear value, usually neutralizing the weight advantage. Thirdly, foam absorbs a lot more resin into the open surface cells than timber and so increases weight. Fourth, foam is an inert type material tending to follow the surface and not naturally stay fair, fairing usually uses more bog and again adds weight. Fifth, because of the inert characteristics, foam requires a much more complex control mould, this takes a lot more time and is slightly expensive.

The end result using Foam in my experience is always a heavier shell with less stiffness. Professional builders can achieve a good result but usually use vacuum bagging and very good molds to achieve this.

The Wilderness 1230 has a foam option. It weighs 200kg less than the Balsa version.

Honeycomb needs to be much thicker and needs much heavier laminates which makes it a silly choice for cat shells. (Nomex excluded)

Western Red Cedar has all the advantages of strip Durakore, but has a real weight penalty because of its higher core weight.

These are the reasons we prefer Durakore and Duflex Panels for our home built designs. 

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Secondary Issues


1. Water penetration into the cores

Balsa can absorb water. It needs extreme neglect to rot (very unusual). Water soaks along the end grain quickly. It travels very slowly across the grain. We use balsa under the waterline especially because of it's high compression strength for beaching etc. any core type must be sealed. Damage to all cores results in the same sort of repair. Notice a damp spot remaining when drying out to anti-foul… simply grind back the surface glass exposing the core, dry it out and re-glass - it's that easy.

2. Cost:

Timber cores are cheaper than Foam in most cases.

3. Resale:

A light, high tech cat returns a far better (often 2 - 3 times) re-sale than lower tech materials. Often saving $10,000 on materials initially, loses $200,000 on re-sale - a serious reality.

Our boats can be built using Balsa, Foam or Western Red Cedar. Combine strength, stiffness, lightness and cost, with ease of use - it just makes good sense!