Catamaran Construction – Hulls, Laminates, and Composites

It’s a given that catamarans are more sensitive to weight and loading than monohulls. Catamaran builders strive to build the lightest boats they can without sacrificing strength and stiffness, and have adapted new building techniques and materials to meet this target. Cutting weight allows more passengers and gear without sacrificing performance.

And the marketing materials reflect it–they load every review and website with polysyllabic technical jargon describing the design and production choices each builder made to deliver the best boat they can.

But when you’re reading a brochure and you come across phrases like “hand laid bidirectional GRP” or “vacuumed bagged e-glass with vinylester resin over a Divinycell core” do you know what that really means?

All modern production catamarans are made with “FRP” construction (for Fiber Reinforced Polymer). Composites aren’t new–it’s just using materials together to strengthen the whole assembly. Straw was added to bricks centuries ago, and steel reinforced concrete is a staple of construction over the last century. For boats, it’s the use of stranded fibers and cured resins which make FRP different.

The term “FRP” doesn’t get into the technical detail of which fibers and which plastics, and how they’re put together to build your hull. There’s a wide variety of fiber types which can be stranded, woven, chopped or sprayed in a varied of patterns then combined with several types of resins to make hulls with different characteristics.

Some FRP techniques produce lighter, stronger shapes, while others are quicker to build and less expensive to produce. The choice of technique is a function of many factors, from the number of hulls and parts to be built, the type of parts, the budget for the project, and many design specific requirements for weight and strength.

FRP Basics

The principle behind all FRP construction is the same – you lay our fibers in the shape you need, then saturate them with resin, removing all the air and voids you can. Resin is left to cure, then the piece is ready to finish and use.

The reality is more complex, since building a boat isn’t like making a flat board or a simple door. You’ve got a complex shape with a designed set of curves to build. “Tooling” is the set of shapes to make the boat parts; molds to cover with fiberglass to get the right shapes.

That’s what makes FRP so effective – you can make almost anything out of it. But to do so requires a lot of choices about what you need for the project at hand.

There isn’t a “best” all around material or technique choice for all jobs, and sometimes a lower cost technique or easier to work with material may be the better solution to the problem.

Fiber types

Fiber choices in the last few decades have expanded past the glass fibers used in the first mass produced boats in the 1960s. FRP construction wasn’t new even then, they built the first composite boats using modern fiberglass in the 1940s.

The major fibers used in marine construction fall into three categories – glass, aramids, and carbon. The primary differences are in the strength to weight ratios of the fibers, durability, elasticity, and cost. Some construction may use blends of fiber types to combine performance characteristics.

Glass – the most common material still, because of its low cost and versatility. The most common variety used in GRP (Glass Reinforced Polymer) is “E-glass” which refers to its strand size and mineral content. Other grades have different and sometimes better mechanical properties, but may be more expensive and less appropriate for boat building use. Fiber sizes run 10 to 25 microns for E-glass, though other grades may be smaller.

Brands like Leopard, Lagoon, and most higher production volume builders use E-glass.

Aramids – this includes brand names like Kevlar, Technora and Twaron. They have higher tensile strength than E-glass, and resistant abrasion and punctures. Kevlar is a common choice for bullet proof body armor, and can built a tough, lightweight hull. The materials can be difficult to work with, as it is very tough to cut the cloth. It is often blended with carbon fiber or other materials – Catana is known for using Twaron blends in hull construction.

Carbon – the ultimate in lightweight, strong construction material. Carbon fiber is the most expensive fiber, and is available in a variety of weights, grades and strengths. Fibers are smaller than glass – down to 5 Micron.

The lightest, most expensive hulls are made from carbon, but a catamaran builder may use carbon in places other than the hull to add strength and stiffness. Carbon boards, rudders, and reinforcing structures can enhance performance without driving the price of the boat beyond reach. Carbon is the fiber of choice for many custom builds, racing cats, and Gunboat.

Mats, Strands, Roving, Direction, and Weights

Fibers are woven into matting and cloth for construction. Depending on the application, different weights of cloth and cloth patterns and weaves may be more appropriate for the job.

Cloth weight refers to the weight per square yard (or meter) of the cloth. A square yard of nine ounce cloth weighs nine ounces. The heavier the cloth, the stronger it is in a laminate.

Fibers carry loads along their length, so cloth weaves have directionality to their strength. Most builders use several layers of cloth with different orientations to give good universal strength to hulls. Specific FRP applications with strict load-path requirements may have more unidirectional fiber layering – for example, a chainplate manufactured from carbon fiber may use unidirectional fiber.

Cloth – fiberglass cloth is commonly used on outer layers of composites. Cloth may have unidirectional or bidirectional strength. Bidirectional cloths have maximum load strengths in two perpendicular directions. Variations on weaves like a modified twill allow a more flexible cloth for better shaping around complex molds.

Mat – is omnidirectional strands of fiber compressed into a cloth. This is often held together with a resin soluble glue, which makes mat great at conforming to mold shapes without folding and bunching as it collapses when wetted. Because the strands do not align, fiber strength is the same in all directions.

Woven Roving – a heavier cloth made from larger bundles of strands. Woven roving allows for quicker buildup of material and strand weight.

Most FRP layups include multiple layers of different cloth and mat. Finished layers may be finer cloth over courser cloth, over woven roving and mat.




Resins

Three primary resins are in common use in marine construction – polyester, vinylester, and epoxy. All resins have materials safety concerns and require care in their use and handling.

Polyester is the least expensive and requires breathing protection because of the VOC emission (Volatile Organic Compounds…nasty, smelly fumes). It doesn’t have good bonding/gluing capability, and should only be used with glass fibers for structural building. Some polyester resins are referred to as “isophthalic” resins.

Vinylester is chemically similar to a hybrid of polyester and epoxy, and performs best with fiberglass. It shouldn’t be used in high strength applications with carbon or aramid fibers. It has some adhesive qualities which polyester lacks, it shrinks less during curing, and has better impact resistance.

The added strength of vinylester coupled with increased water resistance makes it an attractive option for many catamaran builders. It costs less than epoxy, but still has better performance than polyester.

Epoxy is the most expensive, but is three times the strength of the others. It offers the best adhesion and the only resin for building structural elements with carbon and aramid. It resists water intrusion better than the other resins, resists blisters, emits no VOCs, and shrinks less. The major drawback is it is more brittle if it takes an impact.

While epoxy is “the best” in terms of strength and ease of building, there are many applications where other resins are appropriate. Budget is a big driver – a boat made from E-Glass doesn’t need epoxy resin, and considerable cost savings to meet a construction price target may drive the choice.

They can build quality boats from all material combinations, but price and performance will drive materials choices to keep some boats more affordable.

Cored Construction

What’s the best way to make fiberglass strong? To a point, you can make it thicker. As it gets thicker, it gets heavier. A hollow shape can take more compressive load than a solid one of the same weight, and the same principle applies to fiberglass construction.

Consider an I-Beam used in building construction. It has the same strength (or more) as a solid rectangular beam of similar mass. The compressive load on the beam is supported by the outside edges of the material, the metal in the middle doesn’t contribute much to the strength. So we can remove metal to get the “I” shape while still keeping those sides rigid, making a lighter girder with less material.

The same principle applies to cored construction with fiberglass. Making a sandwich of two layers of fiberglass with a light core between them allows for the greater strength with weight savings.

There are drawbacks – the biggest risk is damage which breaks the skin, which can let water into the core. Earlier cored construction used materials prone to saturation and rot if they got wet. Some builders opt to do cored construction above the waterline and solid below to minimize some of these risks.

But the advantages in weight savings and increased stiffness offset the drawbacks, and there may be a few other side effects like sound and temperature insulation. Like resins and fibers, core materials offer distinct advantages, disadvantages and price points.

Most builders have adopted a hybrid approach, building solid hulls below the waterline, and cored hulls and decks above. This gives a balance of weight and safety.

Balsa Core

Balsa is light and inexpensive. The first cored construction used balsa, but it has the disadvantage of being wood. As a natural material, if it gets wet it can rot and break down. Builders use “end grain” balsa – shorter cross cut sections – to prevent wicking of water if there is an intrusion.

Foam Core

Closed cell foam cores give good strength to weight savings while minimizing water intrusion. If you get water in the core, it won’t spread very far. Divinycell is a popular PVC foam core, though there are several choices with different densities and compressive strengths.

Some foam cores are not suitable for heat treatment, but infused or vacuum bagged boats like the Outremer and PDQ do well with it.

Honeycomb

Honeycomb cores are often the most expensive, but also give some of the best strength to weight ratios. Honeycombed cells made from resin cured aramid papers are some of the best, but also among the most costly. They offer good stiffness, but can be hard to shape. Aluminum and other resin-infused papers are other core materials builders can choose from.

Construction and Resin

When building a hull, there are optimal ratios of fiber to resin saturation for target strength and weight. Too little resin and you may not have enough strength (or worse, voids and gaps), and too much, and you’re just adding weight without adding strength. Resins are also a significant material cost in building the boat, so over application not only increases weight but adds cost.

There are many ways to assemble the cores, fibers and resins to build a finished laminate hull – we’re addressing the most common in boat building. Each approach has strengths and limitations, and an impact on the bottom-line cost to build the boat. Any voids or air pockets in the laminate can be disastrous; these techniques have been developed to increase saturation and reduce the risk of voids.

Hand Layup / Open Molding

As the name implies, this is the application of resin by hand to cloth as it’s laid into a mold. Wetting is done with a brush, and the laminate is rolled out to remove any air pockets and voids. This is the simplest way to lay up fiberglass, but also the least precise and consistent and will use the most resin.

Skilled craftsmen have built some of the finest vessels in the world this way. Though it’s more popular with monohulls, which are less sensitive to weight, many catamarans built with hand layups on open molds are still out cruising and performing well.




Spraying

Using chopped-strand fiber mixed with resin, a “chopper gun” can spray the mixture into a mold to lay down the composite. A consistent thickness can be difficult, but this is a low cost construction technique which makes a very resin-rich laminate. Using sprayed fibers gives lower strength in all directions compared to meticulously laid down mat and bi-directional cloth. But it is a quick technique popular with mass produced, smaller boats.

It is an excellent technique for parts with complex geometry where weight is not an issue, but you will not see it often in catamaran construction. It’s heavy with resin without any resultant increase in strength.

Vacuum Bagging (Wet layup)

When an open molded component has been laid up and wetted with resin, vacuum bagging takes the process a step further. After the wetting is complete, air tight plastic bagging is secured around the wetted area, and the air is pumped out of the bag. The vacuum pulls excess resin out and collapses air pockets.

The goal is to get thorough wetting and produce as strong a laminate as possible without excess resin. Knysa and Leopard are two builders that use vacuum bagging on their hulls to reduce weight.

Resin Infusion

For resin infusion the cloth, matting and core is laid in place dry, then sealed in an air-tight bag. A vacuum pump attaches to one side of the bag, and on the other a feed for resin. The vacuum sucks the air out of the dry cloth stack, then pulls the resin through the stack, infusing and wetting it.

Resin infusion, when done right, gives the lightest, strongest laminates with no voids and the minimum resin weight for maximum strength. SCRIMP is a variant of the resin infusion process used by some builders, including TPI which build many early Lagoon cats.

Pre-preg

Using pre-preg (for “Pre Impregnated”) cloth for your laminating gets rid of the resin bucket. They manufacture cloth with a partially catalyzed resin pressed into it, then it’s chilled or frozen to stop the curing process. There is no need for seperately mixed resins, and there’s no worry your resin might “go off” and harden before you’re done wetting the cloth. Instead, the cloth is assembled, vacuumed, then heated to kick off the curing process.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to using pre-preg for your laminate work. The big disadvantage is the cost; it is most expensive material to use. You also need to chill and store the cloth until you need it, though some can be at room temperature for a couple of weeks without kicking off. And you need an oven which requires some clever tricks if you’re building a forty or fifty foot boat.

But the strength to weight ratio will always be perfect. High tech honeycomb cores are best suited to pre-preg lamination, and without racing against resin cure times, you can ensure perfect cloth placement and precise layout in the build process.

The primary use for pre-preg in boating is high performance race boats. With catamarans, pre-preg may be used high load parts, like Gunboat does for foils and rudders.

Industry Examples

Across the catamaran building industry you’ll find almost all the above techniques and materials used, though some are less common. You aren’t likely to find chopped strand sprayed layups in ocean going cats, and hand layups can lead to heavier hulls than weight sensitive catamaran designers prefer. Most manufacturers have moved to vacuum bagging or resin infusion, with a few of the highest end boats using pre-preg for key components.

Leopard

Built by Robertson & Caine in South Africa, the hull material is vacuum bagged, end-grain balsa-cored E-glass with polyester.

Knysna

Hand laid, bagged vinylester over an Airex foam core in the hulls.

Prout

Earlier Prout catamarans like the Snowgoose 34 featured hand laid solid FRP hulls and decks. Over time they switched to foam or balsa cores for decks and above the waterline.

PDQ

Older PDQ boats were made from vacuum bagged vinylester – solid below the waterline and cored with CoreCell foam above the waterline and in decks. Newer PDQ models switched to epoxy resin.

Manta

All glass is vacuum bagged. Below the waterline is solid E-glass and vinylester. The rest is unidirectional, bidirectional, and triaxial cloths over a Nida-Core polypropylene honeycomb core with isophthalic and vinylester resins.

Gemini

The Gemini cats are built with a solid hand layup of woven roving and fiberglass mat and polyester resin. Decks are cored with end grain balsa. The Gemini 3200 introduced vinylester resin into the layup to prevent blistering.

Lagoon

Older Lagoons were SCRIMP infused vinylester with and end grain balsa core above the waterline and in the decks.

Newer Lagoon catamarans use polyester and vinylester resins, also infused with balsa cores above the waterline and solid below.

Catana

With a carbon fiber inner skin, Catana also uses Twaron aramid fibers in the sandwiched hull over a foam core.

Fontaine Pajot

Primary hull construction is resin-infused vinylester with a balsa cored hull and deck.

Outremer

Beneath the waterline, Outremer uses a single layer, solid vinylester laminate for safety. The hulls and deck are vinylester with a Divinycell foam core. They stiffen certain components with carbon for rigidity and durability.

Gunboat

Gunboat hulls are epoxy infused carbon fiber with a Nomex honeycomb core. They build dagger boards and other high load components with pre-preg carbon.

BJ Porter

By BJ Porter

Owner of Hallberg Rassy 53; world explorer.

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