The Stasha ‘Tweed’ Nesting Dinghy uses Flax

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The Woodenwidget Stasha ‘Tweed’ special edition lightweight nesting dinghy.

The Stasha lightweight nesting dinghy from Woodenwidget has been around now for a few years and I used the prototype for three years as my yacht’s tender. In many ways it’s the perfect dinghy for the Pacific Seacraft Dana, after all it was designed to fit on one! It is easy to stow and launch but more than that it is a fabulous little boat. It is a joy to row and it sails superbly too. When the prototype was showing signs of wear I thought about just putting a new skin on but in the end decided to do something a bit different. And so was born the Stasha ‘Tweed’

The biggest difference between a standard Stasha and the ‘Tweed’ is the fabric. The standard Stasha uses a thin and lightweight heat shrink Dacron covering which is then coated. The ‘Tweed’ uses a Flax fabric woven in the UK. It is specially woven so that it ‘drapes’ well and can conform to a curved surface such as a boat hull. It is normally used with a bio resin that cures with sunlight but I did not try this method deciding to use epoxy resin instead. Not because I think it is better or anything but simply because I had been given a load leftover from another job. If it wasn’t used it would soon be of no use so by using it I avoided buying something and stopped it being wasted.

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Close up of the cloth at the bows. It wasn’t even necessary to overlap the cloth leading to a very tidy look. The fine trim was added to cover the join between the cloth and the panel. This wasn’t entirely necessary as the join was fairly neat but it does lend a pleasant finished look and may even protect the bow panel from damage.

I will be discussing using this material later in this post but if you’re interested here is the link to the site where I bought the Flax fabric. It is the Hi-No twist fabric at £22-50 a metre. The roll is 1.38 m wide so for the Stasha it meant laying it across each section to get enough width to cover in one piece.

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Close up of the raw Flax fabric before epoxy.

One of the problems about using epoxy is that it is brittle and without modification would lead to a fabric covering that could be punctured too easily. In order to make the epoxy a little flexible you can add Benzyl Alcohol. About 2-3% is plenty. It’s a simple and cheap way to do it.

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The test bed for the fabric. This is the finish after the first coat of epoxy. As you can see the finish is very rough so needs sanding and further coats of epoxy.

The fabric is 400 grams a square metre which makes it twice as heavy as the Dacron before the epoxy is even added so using epoxied Flax is not a light option. However the standard Stasha proved to be so easy to stow and use on the boat that it wouldn’t really be a problem if it was a bit heavier. Especially considering that the boat is in two halves so it’s already easy to handle.

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This is how the fabric looks on the inside after epoxy. The finish is much smoother on the inside but far from flat and smooth.

The other difference between the original Stasha and the ‘Tweed’ is that it is made entirely of teak, not ash. Again, this was wood left over from another job and so it would be a shame not to use it. I didn’t know if it would be possible to bend the ribs using teak as it is a much stiffer wood than ash and not known for its flexibility or bending qualities but it wouldn’t hurt to try. If the worst came to the worst, I could always have ash ribs and teak stringers. That would have looked ok.

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Bending the teak ribs in required planning, patience and lots of spare wood. The extra stiffness of teak makes this a very hard job. Ultimately successful however. Wood is an amazing material.

As it happens making the ribs bend was certainly possible but required a lot of patience and spare pieces of wood as the breakage level was high. In a couple of areas I was not able to make ribs in one piece so had to scarf two pieces together. This was no problem but did add time to the build. The orientation of the grain was crucial as well, the slightest run off and the ribs would split. I soaked them before hand for a number of days and kept them wet while I was teasing them into place on the strong back with the hot air gun. It took a very long time to do the ribs and the teak was so much stiffer that the ribs would have a tendency to force the stringers away from the strong back. Ultimately I succeeded but it was not easy.

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One of the wooden rings cut out using two blades in the hole cutting saw. This was then cut into 4 and used to trim the plywood end grain.

Another difference is that every piece of plywood on the ‘Tweed’ has been capped with solid wood so that there is no end grain showing. This is a surprising amount of work, especially where the two sections join as the cutaway has rounded corners. The quickest way I have found to do this is to use two blades in a hole saw and cut out a ring of wood. This is then carefully split into 4 with the grain orientated and then it is glued to the plywood. One of the things that takes so long with adding trim to plywood is the care that you need when trimming it down level.

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Here the plywood end grain trim is being glued on. They will be planed down flush later.

The best approach here is to simply glue on a piece of trim that is slightly wider than the plywood. When it has set, use a hot air gun on the lowest setting, warm up the excess epoxy so it becomes soft and scrape it off using a sharp scraper. This is a very gentle operation. The epoxy will come off very easily with a little heat and a little patience. Once the epoxy is removed it is time to plane down the trim flush with the plywood. Remember that most plywoods have a top veneer of a half a mm or less. You cannot afford to cut into it at all. So a very sharp block plane is needed and also lots of care. Gradually plane down the trim until it is flush. Then use a block and some 180 sandpaper to clean it up.

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Gluing on the inner trim. This is something the standard Stasha in its never ending quest for weight loss never had. It adds a little weight but gives a very sleek look on the finished dinghy.

The last great difference is the addition of inner trim pieces to cover up where the stringers are glued into the end panels. It adds a ‘finished’ look to the boat and also strengthens the glue join. These take a long time to make and fit too as they need to be very neatly made. The quickest way I found was to make a cardboard template for each piece.

The seat used to scratch the varnish on the Stasha so now there are pieces of wood that will remain unvarnished instead. The seat is now made from slats of unvarnished teak rather than a single piece of plywood.

If you were thinking of building a Stasha ‘Tweed’ then I must warn you it’s a lot of work and it demands more skill than for a standard version which is very easy and fast to build. It will weigh about 50% more. With floors and seat it weighs about 17 kilos which is about 5 more than the standard boat but as I said, because it’s in two pieces not one section weighs more than ten kilos.

Asides from weighing a lot more it takes about three times longer to build and uses about five litres of epoxy and two litres of varnish!

The end result is a lightweight but virtually indestructible hard nesting dinghy. It is also extremely nice looking.

The finished fabric is almost two mm thick  so a rebate needs to be cut out of the exterior edges of the panels so that the fabric fits flush in the end.

Also, because of the extra thickness of the fabric it is necessary to remove a couple of mm from the sides of the joining panel on the rear section or it will be too wide to nest without scraping the varnish.

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The varnished front section with panels rebated a little to allow for the thickness of the fabric. The standard Stasha uses much thinner Dacron that doesn’t need to be rebated.

Here’s how the fabric is fitted: The fabric is not wide enough on the roll to fit from one gunwale to the other but it is wide enough to cover from front to back. I bought 4 metres of fabric and didn’t have much left over.

One of the great advantages of this system is that you do not have to rush or panic. You will epoxy only when you are happy with the fitted fabric. It is worth taking your time to get the fitting of the fabric correct because when it is epoxied and varnished it is translucent and any kinks or jumps in the weft or weave of the fabric will be very noticeable.

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The fabric draped over the framework, tensioned and stapled in place.

The fabric needs to be stretched tight before epoxying or it will sag with the weight of the resin. The problem is, how to get the fabric tight when it is such a loose weave. If you pull on one part, it pulls the weave out of line. I used staples to hold the fabric tight. It took a long time to pull it all tight while still keeping the weave straight along the keel. It took a lot of putting staples in and then pulling them out again as I tightened first one side, then the other all the time keeping tension fore and aft as well. This is quite tricky to do as you need as much tension as you can get but without pulling the weave apart or distorting or pulling the weave out of line.

However there is no rush so you can take as long as you like to get the fabric laying right. I found that the fabric lay well over the entire front section if I pulled the aft corners aft first. Then by the time I got to the front, the fabric was able to cover the whole shape in one piece without kinks or pleats. I was particularly impressed that I managed to get the fabric to follow the bow section without having to cut any fabric out.

To make working on the dinghy easier, I varnished the entire framework (except the outer surfaces) with three coats before fitting the cloth. Varnishing the framework is a complete pain in the arse, as is sanding between coats. The plan was to do three coats on the framework and then two entire coats inside making 5 coats for the woodwork and 2 coats for the fabric.

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This is what the front section of the dinghy looks like after its first coat of epoxy. The colour is good but the finish is very rough, far too rough for a boat. It will need sanding smooth and more epoxy then two coats of varnish before it is finished.

The epoxy is brushed on liberally. It is amazing how much epoxy the thick fabric will soak up. I did a test piece first to judge how to apply the epoxy. In the event it was very forgiving and I had no drops of epoxy come through the cloth despite a heavy application. The ideal is to have enough epoxy to wet out the fabric but not so much you are adding weight for no reason. The trick to getting the folded corners to stick down is to apply epoxy to the wood underneath it first, then dab the fabric down with more epoxy.

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The finish on the outside after three coats of sanded epoxy.

Once the epoxy is set it needs to be sanded smooth. If you have applied enough epoxy you will find that even with some quite violent sanding (I used 60 grit on a random orbital) you won’t go through to the cloth. In a couple of places the cloth was visible but that was OK as it needs another couple of coats, each one sanded down smooth. Then the whole surface was sanded down with 120, then 180 and finally 240 grit. Then it received a further two coats of varnish. The varnish is needed as otherwise the epoxy has no UV protection.

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Almost finished varnishing. Four coats on the wood and one on the cloth. It will receive one more coat all over. Note the trim around the stringers where they fit into the front panel. A small touch but makes a large difference to the looks. The epoxy used to glue in the ribs had teak dust blended into it to darken it making it very hard to see it.

The end result is a thick yet slightly flexible and extremely tough skin for the boat. It looks fantastic with the light coming through it. I am happy that I took so long laying the cloth so that the weave was even.

Conclusion:

Not for the faint hearted. Sanding epoxy is a thankless task and varnishing to that level is also soul destroying. If you have 120 plus hours spare then all you need is a set of Stasha plans from Woodenwidget.com and this article and you too can have a splendid looking lightweight nesting dinghy like the Stasha ‘Tweed’.

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View from the inside with the light coming through.

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Raymarine EV100 Tiller pilot review

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Borrowed this pic from Raymarine. It shows the colour display and the EV 9 axis sensor.

Today I sea trialled the EV100 Tiller pilot and although I have only so far tested it on a flat sea under motor I have to say I am hugely impressed. It was a real joy to see the wake behind the boat which was straight as an arrow. This is the first time I have seen this on Doolittle. In the same conditions the TP30 would still have the boat weaving slightly. What else is good? The drive arm hardly moves. This is a massive improvement over the TP30 because one of the things that always annoyed me was the amount of unnecessary movement it used to make along with an annoying noise. The EV100 hardly moves and even when it does it is very quiet. The wireless remote is a fine accessory. I sat at the bows and happily changed course with it. Obviously this is hardly a comprehensive review but what I have seen is very hopeful.

Long gone are the Gain and SeaState that we’re used to. Replaced by a simple choice of three settings, Leisure, Cruising and Performance. I tried all three but I found that the Leisure setting held a near perfect course only deviating a couple of degrees. In Performance mode the pilot was a little more active and the course was held to within one degree which is pretty damned impressive. It will be interesting to see how this works with wind and waves. At one point we had some swell to deal with and the boat was rolling quite a lot yet despite that the tiller never moved. That kind of thing would have upset the TP30 for sure

No longer do you need to do a compass calibration by going round in slow circles although you can if you want. If not, the unit just does it itself automatically. You can lock the calibration later so the pilot doesn’t try to do it again. Right from the start the display was showing a compass reading which seemed almost bang on compared to the ship’s compass. I wasn’t expecting the compass to work straight out of the box with such accuracy. There is a dockside wizard which you need to run before seatrials but that is all. All that does is push the helm one way and ask you if it pushed it the right way and if it did you press ‘continue’ and that’s the pilot set up! In my case it didn’t push the helm the right way as I have the drive arm on Stb where as it should be on port. You could switch the polarity on the motor if you wanted to swing it around but since it is so easily done in the display I did that.

The drive arm is the same one that Autohelm have used for years. They no longer offer the GP unit which had a better (Swiss made) motor for longer life but you can still get your standard drive arm modified. To do that it has to go back to Raymarine. I was quite keen to do this until they told me how much it would cost. A shocking £1000!!! So I don’t think I’ll bother. Not quite sure how they justify such an enormous sum unless the motor is gold plated and studded with diamonds.

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The same old drive arm that Autohelm has sold for years. At least getting spares for it should be easy enough.

I don’t know how important it is but adjusted the rudder angle (the angle of the tiller from one side to the other) which default setting was 30 degrees. I reckoned it was actually about 33. I also adjusted the hard over time from the 4 sec default to 5.4 seconds which is what I timed it at. This is all in the instructions. It probably would have worked just fine on the default settings but I can play with this at a later date and see if it makes any difference to anything. There are settings for Sail boats, fast sailboats, motor boats etc and you can change the characteristics of the pilot by selecting a different type of boat. But for now I have followed the instructions to the letter and told the pilot it is steering a sailing boat.

The display is very nice with a very bright colour screen. The interface is pretty straightforward and simple to use. The display has a few settings for viewing with different colours, red for night time and of course the screen can be dimmed as well. You need to cut a big hole (about 3") to fit the display which is a bit of a shame. I fitted the display in the engine instrument panel. When I ordered Doolittle I asked Pacific Seacraft to fit the engine panel as far to one side as possible. I’m glad I did because there was JUST enough room to fit the display next to it. I also managed to fit the TWIST shower and two sockets, one for the new pilot and a 12 v supply which also powers up the TP30 which I shall keep for when/if the EV100 dies. Although they offer a 2 year guarantee which is extendable to three years for free if you register online. Not bad.

The installation was made much easier by the fact that the EV Unit (compass) can be placed anywhere above or below decks. I installed most of it (computer, wireless base station etc) behind the engine panel in a space which is used for nothing else. The EV unit lives in a locker far from electrical or magnetic interference. All the components are waterproofed but putting them somewhere that is always dry can’t hurt either.

The wiring up of the components is not straightforward although Raymarine have attempted to simplify the system with colour coded connections. The problem comes from wanting to have the wireless remote and an NMEA 0183 input to the pilot. Perhaps it is harder on my boat because I do not already have a seatalk system, only a Tacktick system (now owned by Raymarine but not seatalk) so it requires some complicated additions to make it all work.

The EV100 uses Raymarine’s latest protocol the SeatalkNG system. The wireless is Seatalk1 so one must buy a converter block ($100). It’s easy enough to wire up as the connections simply plug in to it. The NMEA is a bit more complicated as it first has to be converted to seatalk before it can work. This also requires another interface to do that ($200). I wired it all up on the table before installation to check it worked and also to get a better feel for how it goes together. It was quite shocking to see how many wires, cables and connectors there were.

At first I could not get the thing to work so I called Raymarine in the UK who were extremely helpful and we soon discovered why it wasn’t working. If you have not plugged into a blue socket you must fit the special blanks instead. Once I did this it all started working. So, not the simplest system to wire up since you need three power supplies, one for the NG converter, one for the Seatalk connector and one for the computer. But it was all made much easier by the fact that I could stick it all in the same place at the back of the boat. No need to dismantle the boat to feed wires through impossibly small conduit! Bonus.

Next I’ll have to connect up the NMEA Interface and feed the pilot with that info. They suggest that the pilot is fed with speed info from the log or at the very least SOG from the GPS. It helps the pilot to know what speed the boat is doing. It makes sense to me. Also the display can be programmed to display any number of NMEA info, from wind speed to depth so that’s useful too.

Next a sea trial with wind and waves and then I want to try and get it to steer to the wind as well. I’ll update this report when I have done that but I’d like the boat to be clean before I do that and since I didn’t haul last year it most certainly isn’t. I might even try one of the many steering patterns that are built into the EV-100 such as a figure of 8 or a cloverleaf just because I can!

 

Update July 2014

 

Well I finally got to try the EV100 in the real world. One thing is certain, the EV100 holds a fantastically accurate course. In fact it’s too accurate! What I mean by that is the pilot is working very hard to keep the boat on course. And this is on the lowest ‘leisure’ setting.

When it’s working hard, the drive is also noisy. Much noisier than the Simrad TP30. If it didn’t work so hard it probably wouldn’t matter but with its constant back and forth it gets extremely annoying and in fact if you are near it you cannot hear someone asking you something. It’s that loud. It’s a bit of a disappointment to be honest.

On day two of our sailing trip, headed downwind in 20 knots of wind, waves building the drive suddenly burst. So we put Dave (our ancient TP30) on instead and were amazed at how much quieter he is than the EV100. A very large difference. Maybe the Raymarine is ten times louder than the TP30. Is this just because the TP30 uses a belt drive whereas the Raymarine uses cogs only? Or maybe there was a problem with the Raymarine drive and working hard brought it to light.

I wrote to Raymarine of course and heard the usual, ‘We’ve been selling these units for 15 years and they are very reliable’ etc. Well the EV100 is supposed to be automatic. It is supposed to calibrate itself and set its self depending on the sea state and as I was already on the lowest setting I didn’t see what I could do to slow it down. The instructions are not very helpful and in fact had no mention of the fact that if you manually turn on the Calibration lock setting you get further menus where you can in fact adjust the rudder damping! I wish I had known that before. I only found this out from the very helpful chap at Raymarine. Who also explained why changing the hard over time can also affect the performance.

Here’s what he said: The hardover time will influence the  rudder gain and increase or reduce the amount of rudder for a given off course error, changing the damping will reduce sensitivity and switching between Leisure and Racer will affect the response levels.

The manual simply says this:

After setting your Hard Over Time, observe your autopilot’s behaviour and if required, make small adjustments to the Hard Over Time value until a satisfactory result is achieved.

As you can see that is not very helpful at all. It’s almost as if the people writing the manual didn’t know how it worked either so decided to be vague and ambiguous instead. Perhaps for most people the new system works perfectly and doesn’t need any adjustment. However, I am not most people and it is extremely rare when a product works perfectly right out of the box.

When the drive burst it was working a lot but there was very little pressure on the helm so even like this I would not expect a drive designed for boats much bigger and heavier than mine to explode after just 12 hours use, certainly not when you consider that the TP30 costs half as much and Dave is ten years old and has steered the boat for 2000 hours even for 24 hours as we ran bare poled before a gale and right across the Atlantic Ocean. As I said I was disappointed when the new pilot turned out to be noisy and then burst, but not altogether surprised.

When I took the drive apart I immediately noticed that the four (plastic) cogs that fit around the motor’s brass drive cog had all been ruined by their pins smashing through them. The nice man at Raymarine has promised to send me some replacements to a friends and we will collect them from there in due course.

Now that I am able to change some settings I have hope that I will be able to get the system working properly and only moving when needed and not all the time! I don’t suppose there is much I can do to shut it up. I could try an insulated cover but I think there may be a problem with the drive. When it fell apart, the recirculating nut came unscrewed from the shaft. It may have been this that caused the problem in the first place. Maybe it just wasn’t tightened enough at the factory?

Also the casing does not align properly. Maybe this is not enough to effect the arm going in and out but it could mean that the O ring is not sealed correctly all the way around and it may mean that it is not completely water tight. I will probably send it back after the season and get them to replace the whole unit.

A comment or two about the display and its interface. The display is very nice and it is excellent to have extra info on another screen. But there is no easy way to adjust the screen for night time use. Yes, there is a red/black setting for using at night but the display brightness does not dim. That has to be done manually. So not only do you have to change the display once to get the night time setting but it needs adjusting again to lower the brightness. It just seems very clunky to me.

Also, another thing I did not discover until it was explained to me is that there is an option under diagnostics called ‘about pilot’ when you select this option it shows just what you would expect, the Version number and the serial number. But in fact this page can scroll and stupidly enough, once you select the up/down button to scroll the page, a small tab appears on the right! Now if that tab was always there, one would know that the pages scroll. I know it’s a small thing and I know that had I studied the instructions more carefully I would have learned this but it just stops the interface being intuitive.

The overall feel that I am getting is that this product needs some serious refining. It’s a great idea and I’m sure that they have got the basics right but it is crude, the interface is clunky, the instructions vague with far too much emphasis on the system just working perfectly straight away. Also having to use NMEA to seatalk to seatalk NG is just daft.

I’ll update this again soon and hopefully by then I will have some more positive news to impart! Until then…

 

Update Aug 2014

The nice man from Raymarine sent me a few spare planet gears to fix the drive. I used Loctite on the shaft so hopefully the drive won’t burst again. I also used plenty of silicone grease when I assembled the drive in an attempt to make it quieter.

The good news is that the drive is working fine and I have a working autopilot once more.

Since rebuilding the drive I have had plenty of opportunity and some good varied sailing conditions to really test the EV 100.

On the plus side, the EV 100 is able to steer my boat at high speeds whereas with ‘Dave’ the Simrad I always had to reef early or he would be unable to keep up and have us weaving all over the place. This is very welcome and encouraging. Admittedly the pilot still works hard and is still very noisy.

Although the pilot is supposed to learn the boat and adapt I do not feel that this has been happening. Even turning down the rudder damping all the way to its max setting of nine has not stopped the pilot working hard when the sea is up a bit. That said the boat steers a good course.

One can supposedly adjust the hard over time to help as well but despite trying a lot of different settings none seemed to make a difference as far as I could tell. So the only real settings you can change are the rudder damping and basic response modes.

The pilot seems to work best on the lowest ‘Leisure’ setting. with the rudder damping set at 9. However this setting is no good for sailing on a flat sea as the boat drifts way off course before making any adjustments.

There are some very annoying things about the EV 100 and one of them is that you cannot adjust the parameters without putting the pilot into standby! So someone has to take the helm while you adjust the pilot. This is hopeless. Even my Simrad allows on the hoof adjustment of all the important settings.

Even more annoying is the brightness adjuster. The short cut button to access this is actually on the standby button itself so if you want to adjust the screen brightness, something you might want to do a lot, you will first put the pilot in standby. So you will need to get back on course afterwards and press auto to re engage the autopilot. Brilliant.

So where am I? Luckily I still carry the Simrad tillerpilot which is quieter and still works better than the EV 100 in most conditions. The EV 100 is great for when it is rough and windy as it can keep the boat on course and of course one minds the noise a lot less when it is noisy and windy.

One day sailing with 15 knots of wind, all sail and a flat sea the EV 100 was able to hold a steady course but I had to set the rudder damping at 3 and despite being set on ‘Leisure’ would insist on small movements the whole time although the boat would probably sail itself in those conditions anyway.

I’m not sure what is to be done. My man in Raymarine is on holiday for a while. Maybe the software needs updating. Maybe there is some way to adjust the rudder damping to suit my boat better.

I also feel that although the EV 100 is supposed to recognise roll, it does not seem to. Sailing upwind on a flat sea, the pilot doesn’t move much if at all but when a passing boat makes waves and we roll, the pilot goes crazy when all it has to do is NOTHING. Maybe the ‘roll’ sensitivity can be modified in the software. This would also help when it is rough as most of the movement is roll. The boat tracks extremely well with its long keel so it’s not as if it is coming off course as it rolls.

So to date: It works well though moves far too much and is way too noisy but can cope when conditions are rough and windy. This is already a massive improvement on ‘Dave’ but it needs more refinement and adjustment. The interface is a big let down. Not being able to access important settings when in Auto mode is hopeless.

I will update this in the weeks to come and I try to get the EV 100 working quietly in all conditions.

 

Update 11 August 2014

 

Yet more exciting sailing to gain more knowledge of the EV 100. Again it has steered us downwind with a reef in the main and the staysail poled out in 25 kts with no trouble at all. That said it does this with a lot of fuss, almost as if the pilot is trying to justify itself by moving so much.

There seemed to be more roll however and that I believe is due to the fact that the pilot is over steering the boat. A boat travelling at 6 knots will change direction fast and it will heel over, then when it goes the other way it will do the same, each time adding to the roll. A curious thing happened at one point.

The pilot crashed. It brought up an alarm saying the speed data had been lost but in fact all the fields were replaced with dashes so something serious had gone wrong. What was amazing is how the pilot just stopped making noise, we started to roll less. In fact the drive was hardly moving at all, just making small gestures every now and then and yet it kept the boat on course. This was in 25 kts of wind from behind and fairly large waves too. It drifted about 7 degrees off course either side but that is more than acceptable under those conditions.

What it does prove is that the boat is capable of being steered in a straight line, even over waves with very little input from the rudder. So why is the pilot working so hard?

Personally I’d like to see a special menu that contains adjustments for all the parameters such as sea state, rudder gain and damping, roll, pitch and yaw. Then the three modes (leisure, Cruising and Performance) would make perfect sense.

I have since been in touch with Raymarine who have asked me for info on the version I have and the deviation (5%) how this will help I do not know but one has to be patient in these cases.

Also I tried the autotack function but cannot make it work at all. The boat turns initially well but then straightens up so barely manages to come through the wind. As far as I can tell the boat did not turn an equal distance from one tack to the other. My Tack Tick wind indicator on the top of the mast appears to be set correctly, with no more than a degree or two off so it seems unlikely this is it. I tried this a few times, on both tacks and with the same result. I thought it was because the rudder damping was set so high but I tried other settings with the same result. Also it seems the auto tack option is only available in Wind mode. I suppose I am meant to use the Autoturn function instead when steering to a compass course. In an attempt to simplify things it is actually more complicated.

This dumbing down of interfaces is all well and good if the system works as intended but when it goes wrong there are no adjustments to be made.

Although I think changes should be able to be made to the pilot without having to go into standby first the man from Raymarine thinks it’s safer not to. I think it’s ridiculous myself. An autopilot that can’t be adjusted on the hoof? That must be a first. I guess they’re working on the assumption that the pilot will just work and that there’s no need to address this issue.

So that’s where we are at the moment. Conclusion: It works better and quieter when it crashes but I have not managed to discover how to make it crash so until it happens again I can’t experiment further. When working normally it over steers regardless of the setting, rudder damping etc and because of that it wears the drive unnecessarily, makes noisy, uses more power and makes the boat roll. That said, it does hold a good course, even if the boat is over powered or badly trimmed. This is good although it comes at a price.

I’m really not sure what Raymarine can do but even if they can’t make it work any better I will be able to live with it. I can use Dave for most of the time but if it’s windy or rough and I need more power and better course holding then I can use it. I’m thinking a good compromise would be to buy another TP30 and wire the motor direct and let the EV100 power that. At least it would be quieter!

Surely more to come soon….

14/8/14

Some more thoughts.

 

It always amuses me to read about a new product. Here’s what Raymarine say about the new EV100 pilot:

No calibration required!

Engineered for simplicity, Evolution autopilots eliminate the need for complicated set up and calibration. Once Evolution is installed, getting started is as easy as switching the autopilot on.

Thanks to the intelligent EV sensor core, the autopilot automatically evolves and adapts to your vessel’s steering characteristics without any user adjustments.

Well that’s not been my experience. Nice idea though. Or rather, maybe it has evolved and adapted to my vessels characteristics, it just hasn’t done it very well!

Evolution AI™

The culmination of Raymarine’s 30 years of autopilot expertise, FLIR Systems research and development, and advanced aerospace guidance technology, Evolution AI™ control algorithms deliver a new level of accurate autopilot control.

This innovative breakthrough in autopilot intelligence enables Evolution autopilots to perceive their environment and then instantly calculate and evolve steering commands to maximize performance. The result is precise and confident course keeping, regardless of vessel speed or sea conditions.

Hmmm…

I have recently discovered that the Interface Raymarine use in their displays is called LightHouse. Well it needs work. It could do with a way to reduce the brightness without having to put the pilot in standby first, or having to navigate through the menus to find the option that way. Then there needs to be a ‘Home’ button so that you don’t have to press ‘back’ five times to get back to the main screen.

Also it seems I may not be able to update the pilot, ecu and display as I don’t have any other Raymarine displays and it seems that you need one to be able to update. I hope that this isn’t the case but I won’t be at all surprised if it is.

 

Update 21/8/14

 

Oh dear. The man at Raymarine has asked me to compare the various compass readings on the pilot against a fixed one. I did this but frankly don’t see what good it will do. The deviation was small on all points. He also asked me for all the info regarding the settings I have used but it is getting boring now. Clearly there is something wrong.

I decided to try and reinitialize the pilot. This can be done by restarting the compass. But in my case it simply says ‘task completed’ and seems very pleased with itself even though it has managed to come up with a deviation figure of 188 degrees.

Then I tried a factory reset to no avail. The same deviation figure comes up each time I try to restart the compass. So now I have no working pilot.

The man at Raymarine has been very patient (as I have) but he now suggests I call in an engineer to sort the problem. Funny this: I have been here before and after that last time I vowed never to buy another Raymarine product as long as I lived. Will I never learn? That was on my old boat. The engineer came and he was about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. He had no idea why the pilot wouldn’t work and I suspect the engineer that will come this time will be none the wiser.

Either I have been supplied with a dodgy unit or the EV100 won’t work properly on a Dana unless one accepts a lot of unnecessary movement and noise. Now I have to waste more time with an engineer on the boat while we go through all the obvious stuff all over again. I suspect the man at Raymarine thinks I am an idiot and have poorly installed the pilot. Despite that he has at least offered to pay for an engineer to visit even though I installed the pilot myself. So full marks for Raymarine’s willingness to solve the issues I have been having.

The saddest thing about all this is that had the pilot worked well from the start (as it should have done if their blurb is to be believed) I probably would never have started to look closer and discovered an almost endless host of issues.

It has been an education fitting this pilot. Until it starts working properly on my boat I cannot recommend it at all. Had it worked I might forgive the limited adjustments, the poor interface, the noisy drive and the three different NMEA protocols and their associated wiring and converters. Far too complicated.

 

Update Sept 14

 

The software has been updated. The engineer came with a Raymarine chart plotter that he had to wire up and use to get the updates onto the EV.

Then I was told to turn off the calibration and compass lock, make sure the speedo is working and turn at at least 4 knots through a 3 to 4 minute circle. Yeah right. I can see them there laughing at the thought of me driving round in circles. Like I haven’t got anything better to do with my time. Emails back and forth. Waiting for an engineer. Staying in expensive ports while waiting. I am getting very bored with all this.

So I went around in circles for half an hour and nothing has changed. Still just — marked for the deviation and if I try a compass reset it comes back straight away to the 188 degree variation.

Then I got a call from the French engineer who came. The fact that the deviation is 188 degrees is no problem. So long as the light in top of the sensor is green and constant it’s fine. Well it is but Raymarine UK say that it is not fine and should be replaced.

 

Update 22/9/2014

This morning a new compass arrived which was duly fitted. Straight away the pilot seemed to work better with very little movement and fairly quick responses to what wind and wave there was. It is impossible to tell with so small a test if the pilot will work better in more severe conditions but it proves one thing and that is there was a problem with the EV compass sensor.

This explains a lot. If the compass is sending dubious information, the best autopilot in the world won’t work well. There’s no reason why the EV won’t steer my boat especially as it is an easy boat to steer by hand in the first place.

So apart from the drive exploding, the compass unit failing, the strange interface and inability to change certain parameters while in auto mode it seems to work well. Raymarine have been very helpful and got to the root of the problem eventually.

I’ll update this blog sometime in the future after the EV has had a proper work out in all conditions. What I can say is that on a flat sea under motor it works very well. For the rest you’ll just have to wait.

Foldavan lightweight folding bicycle caravan

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The Woodenwidget ‘Foldavan’ bicycle caravan. Here it is in ‘Road’ mode. At just 30 kilos it is easy to tow.

For all of you out there who love bicycle camping but don’t like the discomfort or the hassle that goes with it will rejoice in the news that Woodenwidget have just released the Foldavan folding bicycle caravan. No more struggling to find a flat stone free surface to pitch your tent. You can stop practically anywhere in a caravan. If you’re thinking that towing a caravan sounds like hard work well think again. The Foldavan’s pretty tear drop shape is aerodynamic and it only weighs from 30 kilos. The caravan also acts as a trailer and can carry 75 kilos with ease. To make it really effortless, use an electric bike and put a larger, long-range battery in the Foldavan.

If it’s going to work in the real world, a bicycle caravan needs to be small enough to be transported easily and yet big enough for real comfort. Yet it mustn’t be too big or you won’t be able to get anywhere with it. It would also be nice if it was cheap to build, was aerodynamic and light so it was easy to tow. And wouldn’t it be great if you could fit in a sailing dinghy and take that camping as well. Well you may not believe this but the Foldavan does all this and more.

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In full ‘Camping’ mode the Foldavan offers extremely comfortable and spacious comfort for two. Here it is shown with both sides unzipped to take advantage of the sunny weather.

You can’t buy a Foldavan but you can buy plans that will tell you how to build one. The Foldavan has been designed to be easy to build and thanks to Woodenwidget’s ingenious step by step illustrated instructions there is no reason why you couldn’t make one for yourself and there is an important reason for doing so apart from saving money. You will achieve a great sense of satisfaction from building a Foldavan and you will revel in the pride that comes when you tell your impressed on lookers that you made it yourself. And when you think about how you used to rough it in a tent you will smile all the more.

Not everyone is going to start their biking holiday from their home base so it is imperative that the Foldavan can pack away small enough so it can be easily carried to another destination. The Foldavan compresses to just 210 mm wide and will fit on most car roof racks. It may even fit inside some estate cars. Another advantage of this narrow ‘Stow Mode’ is that your Foldavan can be safely stowed away somewhere indoors without it getting in the way when you’re not using it.

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The Foldavan with wheels off, compressed down to ‘Stow’ mode and lashed to a roof rack.

On the road, the Foldavan opens to 60 cm. This is about the same as the width of most handlebars. If you can pass with your bicycle you can probably pass with the Foldavan. It has a low centre of gravity so it is able to negotiate even quite rough terrain (especially when laden) If it is windy you can unzip the sides to let the wind pass through and stop it from getting blown over. With a trailer you can carry a lot more stuff than if you only had a bicycle. This increases your comfort levels.

When you arrive at your chosen camp site it takes less than three minutes to put the Foldavan in ‘Camping Mode’, a full metre wide and over a metre of headroom. The thick mattress is in two pieces and ensures extreme comfort and jealous looks from your neighbours. You can camp in places where you wouldn’t be able to pitch a tent. You don’t have to worry about stones poking you in the back, rough terrain, insects, damp ground, sudden rain etc. If you would like a slightly wider version you can even build a Foldavan to be a wopping 1.2 metres wide.

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The Foldavan in ‘Stow’ mode. With the wheels off it is just 21 cm wide.

The concise illustrated plans cost just £30 and contain a wealth of information for the first time builder or the experienced alike. Lots of advice on where to find the materials you need. How to work with tools, advice on alternative building options, how to finish your Foldavan and lots more. Even if you’ve never made anything like this in your life, if you are prepared to have a go and have a few basic tools you can build yourself a Foldavan and personalise it in any way you like. You could change the fabric, cover it in a camouflage fabric and use it as a hide or just to blend in to nature better. You could have a pink one or have zebra stripes. You could do you own paint job on it. The choices are almost endless. The materials needed to build a Foldavan are all easy to find almost anywhere in the world in varying qualities to suit your budget. You could make a Foldavan for next to nothing using reclaimed timber and secondhand parts. It takes about 50 hours to build a Foldavan.

The Carbon Footprint of a Foldavan is small because all the materials are easy to find and can be sourced locally. As if this wasn’t already fantastic enough Woodenwidget will plant 5 trees on your behalf when you buy plans. And if you buy the Foldavan/dinghy combo deal you save £10 and they will plant ten trees on your behalf. Plans can be bought on line and downloaded in a matter or minutes at www.woodenwidget.com

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The Foldavan in ‘Stow’ mode.

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There’s even room inside for a Woodenwidget folding dinghy. This is the Fliptail 6

Update 4/1/14

Some of the comments on various sites make interesting reading but what is becoming clear is that many people are quick to dis the Foldavan as a toy. These cynics have obviously not taken the time to find out more which is a shame but there will always be doubters even when the body of evidence is overwhelming.

Many people seem to think that it’s going to be easier to carry a tent. Maybe this is true but the beautiful thing about a Foldavan is that you don’t need to find a suitable surface to pitch your tent on. There is nothing worse that a stony or rough uneven surface for trying to get a good night’s sleep. Having a Foldavan opens up a whole load of new environments that were previously unavailable to tents.

The advantages are massive. Apart from the divine comfort that having a full mattress allows, you are less affected by insects or sudden rain and uneven or hard ground.

I suspect that the same doubters that think it is better to carry their stuff on a bike rather than tow something. What may surprise these people is just how easy it is to tow a trailer with the added advantage that you need to brackets or panniers on your bike which means when you get set up at camp you can use an unencumbered bike to get about and explore on.

Another comment that seems to be fairly common is that it will blow over in the first bit of wind. Well, first of all if it’s windy you probably won’t even want to ride a bike, let along tow a trailer but again these cynics have not bothered to either think about this or look further. It’s very simple. Just unzip the sides and the Foldavan is now extremely stable. Only 20% of the weight is above the base. It is a surprisingly stable trailer.

I hear the same comments about the Woodenwidget range of dinghies. Because they are light and made with fabric people simply assume that they must be unstable but I can tell you than a well designed light dinghy can easily be much more stable than a badly designed heavy one.

Obviously the Foldavan is only for those people who want to carry a lot of stuff and be extremely comfy when camping. Not everyone wants to rough it. The Foldavan is far from being a toy. It is far more sensible and practical than most people realise.

However I am not discouraged. They used to think the world was flat. Opinions change once the cynics and doubters have had their say. I do not know why people are so dismissive of new ideas. It’s very simple really. If you don’t like something. Don’t buy it!

Splinterbike Haibrid Wooden Bicycle

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The Haibrid from Splinterbike. Wooden frame, wheel rims and handlebars.

Recently I made a promo video to promote the Foldavan bicycle caravan and I thought it would be a good idea to borrow a wooden bicycle so I got in touch with a few companies who made them. I didn’t have much luck but I kept trying. Then I came across the Haibrid made by a very interesting fellow called Michael Thompson who you may have heard of from his previous project, the SplinterBike, a bicycle made entirely of wood which currently holds the world speed record for an all wooden bicycle. He kindly agreed to lend me his demonstrater for a week.

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Here you can clearly see the quality of craftsmanship that has gone into the T section frame.

The Haibrid is a different beast altogether. This limited edition is made from sustainably sourced American black walnut and European birch wood and is an elegant looking machine. Obviously a bicycle made completely from wood just isn’t practical for every day use so the drive train is metal but the frame, wheel rims and handlebars are made of wood.

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Even the detail on the wooden handlebar ends is considered.

Most of the metal parts are made by Sturmey Archer and they are very high quality. I particularly liked the ‘handbrake’ option on the rear brake. This is an essential option for any bike because it removes the chance of the bike falling over when you lean it against something. The brakes are in the hubs which helps add to the very clean look of the Haibrid.

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Sturmey Archer three speed hub and brake. It has a very smooth action.

There are three gears in the rear hub and the system is very smooth. I felt the bike could have done with a tooth less on the rear sprocket but this is something that is easy enough to change at some point.

The seat post and handlebar attachment is pretty standard and the Haibrid has a lovely Brooks titanium saddle fitted finished with copper rivets. I found it a bit hard but a Brooks saddle takes many weeks of use to become comfy. The handlebar grips are also made by Brooks and are leather with a metal end. Very smart and nice to grip. No expense has been spared on the gear on this bike, it’s all top notch stuff.

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Wooden rims and fat brown tyres is a unique look. Gives a comfy ride too.

The wheels are made of birch by August Wheelworks and are really quite something. Fitted with brown fat tyres for a very comfy ride they really look the business. There are many wooden bikes out there but few have wooden wheels. It’s a nice touch.

As a boat builder and someone who works with wood I can appreciate the work and detail that has gone into the bike. Michael tells me that 2500 hours of development and testing went into the Haibrid. I can well believe it. The frame is made with a combination of steam bending, vacuum lamination and CNC machining.

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What’s it like to ride? I prefer to sit a little more upright but that is just a personal opinion and in any case a change of handlebar would sort that out. Otherwise the geometry is good although the high cross bar might not be to everyone’s taste. Michael tells me he is working on a Ladies bike with a lower cross bar. It is a comfy bike to ride and very smooth. The brakes were a bit unfeeling but effective for all that. Gear changes are smooth and seamless.

All in all the Haibrid is a very sweet bike. It’s not particularly light but neither is it heavy. As one French mate said, it’s an ‘honest’ weight. I would say that sums it up about right. Michael tells me the frame itself weighs less than 3 kilos. The wooden wheels are about 40% heavier than metal rims.

This kind of exclusivity and craftsmanship doesn’t come cheap, nor should it. Each Haibrid takes 200 hours to hand build and finish in a special UV lacquer. The price of £6600 reflects that. Michael is working on bikes using other woods such as Brazilian Mahogany, Santos Rosewood and English Ash. Splendid.

Contact Michael Thompson at Splinterbike for more info or to place your order!

Woodenwidget launch the Fliptail 9

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The Woodenwidget Fliptail 9 (2.75m) Stable, spacious and fun. Rows, sails and planes!

This is the biggest boat that Woodenwidget have ever made. It’s huge and it exists because customers kept on asking for it so here it is. Nine feet long or 2.75 metres long. It’s a little bit taller and a little bit wider than the Fliptail 6 and 7 and it has a slightly more pointy bow. It’s a nice proportion and is already proving popular.

It weighs about 23 kilos which is extremely light for such a spacious boat. It has three handles for carrying it so that one or two people can carry it. It is practically the same as the other Fliptail models but has an extra pair of floor and hoop supports otherwise there’s really not much in it. The Fliptail 9 is also able to sail using a full Optimist sail unlike the other smaller Fliptails which need the sail cut down a little.

The Fliptail 9 rows, sails and motors and it does all three extremely well indeed. With just a tiny 4 stroke 2.5 hp engine it gets up on the plane very quickly and flies along at over ten knots. It rows well and because of its extra length is quite quick. With an Optimist rig attached it also sails very well and slips along in the lightest of breezes.

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Room for all the family. Here is the Fliptail 9 in sailing mode.

It is a bit more complicated to make than the Fliptail 6 or 7 foot versions as it is harder to get one piece lengths of wood to make the hoops so it means joining shorter pieces of wood together and this adds time to the build though not so much really.

Plans are available for just £35 and Woodenwidget will plant a tree for every set of plans sold too. The plans are very comprehensive and walk you through the entire process in an illustrated step by step way. There is a mass of extra information included and a load of Internet links to help you find the materials and tools you need.

It takes about 50 hours to build a Fliptail 9 and that includes varnishing (or painting) so why not have a go and build yourself a family sized folding boat that weighs very little and goes perfectly on the roof rack of your car?

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The Fliptail 7 fits easily inside the Fliptail 9.

 

Fliptail 9 on the plane with just a 2.5 outboard

 

Fliptail 9 under sail

www.woodenwidget.com

Smart Roadster Coupé

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Ten years old but looking very tidy. The Smart Roadster Coupe hard top in Champagne Remix colour scheme. It’s a lot of fun.

Sports cars these days are amazing but ridiculous at the same time. As beautiful as an Aston may be, in the real world it’s just a headache. Too big and hard to see out off in most towns and way to fast for the roads. Maybe some years ago you could have had such a powerful car and actually get to use it but now with speed cameras, mobile radar, average speed cameras, parking restrictions and congestion charges it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Not to mention the envy created in others by owning a car that costs as much as a house.

You could do a track day I suppose but if you had the kind of money that would allow you to buy an Aston why wouldn’t you have a race car instead? Why use just a road car? You can’t use its full potential on the public roads, that would be just foolhardy and could only end in tears. You would be forced to occasional bursts of power when the rare opportunity arose. Personally I couldn’t own such a car and only use its power and performance so liberally. I’d want to push it and if I did, I would either crash or lose my license. Or both.

This is all academic. I can’t afford an Aston and even if I could it’s the last car I’d actually want to own. I would feel too guilty driving it. I would be constantly reminded that I was far better off than 95% of the world and that I clearly don’t care about the environment. I have never cared what other people think but I do care about how I think so I need to have a more realistic and PC approach.

Enter the Smart Roadster. An expensive (for what it was) car when it was launched in 2003. Today prices start at about £2500 which for a car that cost 6 times that just ten years ago is amazing. True to say that a lot of eager initial Roadster buyers lost out when they came to sell.

Mercedes also lost out as they had to pay about £3000 per car in warranty claims to right the leaks on the cars. Not every car was affected but they got a bad reputation that remains to this day. The other criticism is the gearbox which is slow and sometimes annoying.

That said, there is a lot to recommend a Smart Roadster. Now that they can be bought for a much more realistic price, they offer cheapish and fun motoring, the like of which you though you would never see again.

Forget all the problems. This car is just such a laugh to drive and lets face it, if you were interested in practicalities you would not be looking to buy a tiny sports car with only two seats, limited luggage space and a car so low that you run the risk of looking a complete tit as you struggle to get out in and out of it.

There are some things that are important buying a Roadster, one is that it is better to buy a higher mileage version because it means it has been used. If it is being used it suggests that it must be reliable. A full Smart service history is the other essential. If it has always been serviced by Smart, the chances are that any issues have long since been dealt with. The Roadster has a highly tuned engine which needs more care and servicing that most modern cars. It needs an exact type of oil and has 2 spark plugs per cylinder. It is a complicated little car that needs understanding. This is why a Smart dealer service history is so important. Even a Mercedes dealer service history could be suspect. Word is that Mercedes didn’t care for servicing these cars and lacked proper understanding.

I bought my roadster on line from a garage selling left hand drive cars in the UK. The idea was to drive it to the south of France where it will become my everyday transport and weekend toy. It had 60,000 miles on the clock and a full Smart service history. I could tell from the pics that it was a tidy car. The guy at the garage said that everything worked. That is true, despite having heated seats, cruise control, electrically heated and adjustable wing mirrors and gawd knows what else, everything really does work.

Really I think that is quite impressive. No ten year old car that I have ever owned can say the same. Will it prove reliable? There is no way to know although I can say this. I have just completed a 2500 mile trip around the UK and then to the South of France in it and it never missed a beat, as happy on the B roads or in the rain on the motorway.

I may feel different once I have had to replace a few parts but I’m not unrealistic about owning this car. I know it will cost me money. Cars do. But even if it does go wrong and cost me money I frankly don’t care because it is just such fun to drive.

There have been a lot of comments on various forums and articles slagging off the gearbox and because of this a lot of people have been put off owning one. Or perhaps they were looking for a valid excuse not to buy one knowing that as much as they wanted one it was too hard to justify for many reasons so it was better to say that you would have bought one if only the gearbox was better.

The funny thing is that I think the gearbox is a stroke of genius. It’s a clutchless manual 6 speed box that can be an auto as well. The best of both worlds. who wants to be using a clutch in the traffic that we see these days? Not me. I have wanted an automatic car for a long time but they are so drab that until now I have not been able to do that.

The car must be learned. I think it took about 1000 miles of all sorts of driving before I felt I had the measure of the car and the gearbox. You cannot do certain things because the car won’t let you. Fine. All you have to do is learn to drive the car within its limits and when you do you will discover that it enhances the driving experience. It keeps you more focused as you drive.

There are lots of tricks. They say that an engine remap often speeds up the gear change. I tried that but couldn’t notice the gear change being any faster. Still it was worth a try and has made the Roadster even more fun to drive. The adjustment of the clutch actuator is critical. If there is too much play the clutch action takes longer and since the gears cannot change until the clutch has done its thing it slows every thing down.

Using the Auto option also slows the gear change down. At low speeds or in town the gear changes are very smooth and imperceptible it’s just when you take the engine to the redline in every gear that the changes are slow and snatchy. However if you change gear manually you will find that the changes are much faster. If you can get it so that you change just before the redline it helps too.

But what helps the most is letting the car warm up properly before thrashing it. This is good for the turbo in any case but like an old Fiat it just gets better and better the warmer it gets. Once you get the hang of the gear change it is not really so slow at all. I would say it is like a leisurely change gear in a normal car. The reality is that this is quite fast enough for the road. Perhaps on a track you might lose a fraction of a second with every change but what most people fail to point out is that you don’t need to change gear as often as you think.

On the road once rolling you don’t change gear much. The little 700cc turbo engine is remarkably torquey and pulls like a train from 3000 rpm to the 6000 rpm redline which means that blasting down a country lane you are mostly in 4th gear. You can accelerate from 40 to 70 very quickly in the same gear.

The 0-60 time is misleading because it changes gear just a few mph before 60 which spoils an otherwise respectable time. Most decent remaps allow more revs in third gear so that it changes after the car has reached 60mph and this makes a huge difference to 0-60 times, I’m guessing about 8 seconds which is quick enough in the real world. There are a few methods for a faster get away. There is a switch at the bottom of the throttle pedal that speeds up the get away by raising the revs to 3000 before releasing the clutch. There’s also a way of using the ignition key to get the revs up before the clutch is released. It takes some practice to get right but does make the Roadster rocket off like a scalded cat but I doubt it would do the clutch much good.

Unless you’re drag racing the slow gear change is not a problem. On the road, in the real world the Roadster can hold its own against most challengers. This is where the Roadster shines. It has a low centre of gravity and a 45/55 weight distribution and ridiculously wide tyres for such a small and light car so it sticks to road and is beautifully balanced. I read somewhere it can generate almost 1 G which is astonishing.

The problem with the Roadster is not that the gearbox is pants it’s just that you can’t drive this car as it was an ordinary car. You have to rethink what you are doing and drive it as it dictates and then you will understand it’s charms. Sure, sometimes it seems a bit slow or snatchy but I’ll take that over a clutch. 99% of the time the gearbox works just fine so long as you stay within the confines of the system. No doubt this kind of thing disturbs the purists but the fact is cars have been taking over many functions from the driver for years now and no one complains about that. Things like auto choke and ABS for example. In the future, cars will do more and more for us so you might as well get used to it.

The technophobes of this world will always diss a new or different way of doing things. For years now Airplanes have not had mechanical systems to operate the wing flaps. It is all done by wires and servos. Yet planes are more reliable because the Human element has been taken out of the equation. No one doubts this because we still get on a plane and expect to arrive. The Roadster has no throttle cable. It too is ‘fly by wire’ and that seems to scare people. The simple fact is that electronics will rule our lives more and more. For those not afraid of technology the Smart Roadster is a great toy. To those pessimistic technophobes I say; Build a bridge and get over it. Even if it breaks down it’s not the end of the world. RAC membership and a mobile phone will get you home. Not like a plane that simply falls out of the sky.

The steering is direct and it changes direction instantly with no roll. It is only marginally affected by cross winds and passing lorries at speed. I don’t know why the Roadster has power steering but it does and it does make town driving a doddle and since it is speed sensitive you don’t really notice it. The steering wheel needs a fair bit of movement but maybe this just adds to the experience as you have to move the wheel so much. A bit like a kid with a toy car wildly swinging the wheel and making screeching sounds. The only thing that is missing from the Roadster experience is squealing tyres which it just doesn’t do. The standard wheel is quite large but you can fit the Brabus version which is a couple of cm smaller but it’s no prettier than the original wheel. The horn is operated by buttons on each side of the wheel but they are never to hand when you want them. I would prefer that the centre of the wheel operated the horn.

The handling is amazing. It just sticks to the road and seems completely unfussed how you drive. You can change direction mid corner, you can brake or accelerate. It just goes round the corner so easily. Perhaps it’s being so close to the road and since the centre of gravity is so low there’s practically no roll at all. I have not noticed much understeer and the back end seems firmly planted too. My guess is that if you really do push it it will be the back that goes first. I have yet to do much driving in the rain so I can’t really comment on what it will do if you over do it. In theory the ESP will take over the car and sort it out. The system is able to control the throttle, clutch and the brakes. It can even brake individual wheels to help the car back on line.

The ESP can be turned off but in fact it only allows wheelspin, it will still take over if you over cook it. That said despite some fairly spirited driving the warning light has yet to come on indicating that the system is taking over. Sometimes if you go over a bumpy road too fast the light can come on but I was not aware of the car taking over in any way. From what I have read it seems that even when the system operates it is never intrusive. I think the only way to tell is to do a track day and see where the limits are. On the road it is hard to know that.

The brakes are good. They are not sharp and require a fair bit of pressure but the car slows quickly. I tried braking hard from 70mph and it pulled up straight with no drama at all. A tiny bit of intermittent squealing could be heard as the ABS cut in and the car nose dives a little but the way it stops is very impressive. How they will cope on the track I have yet to find out but on the road I have not experienced any fade.

The motor is a fabulous creation. Three cylinders means it sounds like half a Porsche and the turbo waste gate makes a delightful chirruping noise when you change gear. You’re so low to the ground that you really think you’re going faster than you actually are. This is a good thing and is why I would rather have a Smart Roadster to drive than any of the latest Supercars out there. You can drive it like a nutter and still have a good chance of not having your licence taken away. What is maybe even more extraordinary is the fact that over that 2500 mile journey on all sorts of roads I still managed to average an amazing 45 mpg. Considering how much I was thrashing it that is a remarkable figure.

The Interior is a nice place to be. Once you have ‘fallen in’ to the car. It’s all a bit plastic and the switch gear isn’t the smoothest but it’s still cosy and yet spacious. Water leaks into the windows when you lower them as there is no roof gutter. But it’s a sports car. One expects some compromise. The answer is simple. Don’t open the windows when it’s raining! The sun visors are hysterical being tiny and unable to move to the side. Actually they work fairly well but clack back shut noisily. There is very little reflection from the dash and the instruments are easy to read although the speedo over reads but this just makes you think you’re going faster than you are.

The stereo in my car is the CD version by Grundig. It’s not bad. It’s easy to use and the sound is good. What is pants are the speakers so I changed them for some high quality German ones. Not cheap but the sound is excellent and the mounting tabs correctly placed for the Roadster, often people install a normal speaker but cannot screw down all four tabs and this leads to vibrations. The Stereo Koncept speakers come with tweeters which are supposed to be fitted below the speakers in the doors but since my car already had tweeters in the dash below the windscreen, I simply swapped them for the original ones. I also added some tape to the tabs that hold the speaker grills in place to stop them buzzing. The speakers are very small but they have a surprising amount of bass and sound very good. Just loud enough to listen with the top down.

The seats are firm and comfy but I find they lack lumbar support for me. Three hours driving is fine but after that you really fancy a stretch. The seating position doesn’t really work for me. I find that when the wheel is in the right place I can barely touch the pedals so I have to be closer to the wheel than I would like. I also find myself a bit low being a short arse. I raised the seat about ten mm and that has helped enormously. There’s plenty of headroom. The seats grip you well in the corners so you’re not constantly being thrown about by the considerable G this car can produce. The seats have metal backs and protect in the event of an accident which is a comforting thought and they have side airbags in their tops. (at least on my car).

The passenger seat folds down but the driver’s one doesn’t. The driver’s seat can be reclined but the passenger’s is fixed. Getting the passenger seat to fold is a two handed operation but that is because the seat has to be massively strong and needs two clips to lock it in position. I dare say Smart could have made a single lever system but the seat is not often folded so it’s no big deal.

Visibility is good considering although it’s impossible (for me) to see the front nearside of the car. The rear screen has no wiper but then it doesn’t need it as it just doesn’t get wet or dirty. The windscreen washers have 4 nozzles and do a great job of washing the windscreen. Side mirrors are electrically operated on my car and that can be helpful when reversing against a curb.

Air conditioning works well as does the heater and heated seats (ridiculous) but since my car has them, maybe one day I will be grateful for them. I used the aircon almost all the way on the last 2500 mile journey in the UK and France in July. It was hot and I was glad of it. Basically the car works just fine and most people when sitting in it for the first time are surprised at the space and the coolness of the interior.

What surprises most people is just how quiet and smooth the car is on the road. My car has 15” wheels which must help a lot. I can’t imagine what the 17” Brabus rims are like. Must be horrible. The Roadster handles bumps and potholes as well as you could expect for such a low slung and sporty little car. What surprised me most was the mellow way it deals with speed bumps. That is a helpful trait for any modern car what with so many speed bumps about. Passengers always comment on how quiet and smooth the car is. I guess having the engine behind helps to keep the noise behind you.

On the motorway the Roadster works brilliantly. My car has cruise control which is essential if you do a lot of motorway driving. I find that the throttle pedal is not well placed for me and if I didn’t have the Cruise Control I suspect that my foot would ache after a while. There is a fair bit of wind noise at 80mph but it’s not terrible. A strip of insulation tape along the front edge of the hard top cuts down the noise dramatically. But the Roadster is not a motorway car and any excuse to get off and find a B road is welcome.

There is a boot at the front that is quite commodious and for the overspill there’s always the rear boot which is 180 litres. The only down side is that it ruins your rear vision. The hard top stows in the back too so that cuts down the space you can use. That said this is a surprisingly practical car which can carry a lot of stuff considering its size. The power steering and auto box make town or traffic far more tolerable.

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A great looking little car. The wheel base is the same as a Porsche 911. These are the 15” standard wheels.

My car has the hard top roof only. It takes a couple of minutes to remove or replace. It’s very easy. It is a joy to drive with the roof off. It really transforms the car. For a start you can’t hear the creaking from the roof panels as the chassis flexes slightly. It’s so nice to have that open air right above your head and it is very nice to be able to thank other drivers by raising your hand out of the roof. Although you will not be popular with your passenger especially if she has long hair as the wind does buffet around in the cabin although it’s not too bad. There are two small plastic ridges on the top of the windscreen surround which may be there to cut down on wind noise or deflect air away. I can’t think what else they could be.

The outside of the Smart Roadster is clever too. All the panels are replaceable and made of plastic. So you could have two sets of panels and change the car’s colour in a couple of hours. One of the best things about plastic panels, apart from the obvious lack of rust is that they do not dent like metal. My last car was perfect except for a line of small dents down each side where people had been opening their doors on it in car parks. The Roadster might get the paint chipped but the door won’t dent!

The roof hinges are far too large and the paint flakes off them. I don’t know why they are so big. In my opinion they spoil the looks somewhat. The door handles work well and the doors open and shut easily and with a nice noise. Maybe they shut too easily and can get slammed by people used to much heavier doors. The electric windows are fast, quiet and smooth and although I prefer the switch on the door it’s not terribly hard to reach to the centre consul to operate them. Most of the switch gear is within easy reach.

Parts are available from a number of places and don’t seem too badly priced. I think the secret with the Roadster is careful and preventive servicing and maintenance. Only time will tell how reliable the car is and how often it needs parts such as clutches, brake pads etc.

There are also a lot of good sites with how to articles about all the aspects of the Roadster and that really is very helpful. When these cars came out they had a dedicated and keen following. Loads of companies offer tuning parts and wheels for the roadster. You can even buy doors that lift up when you open them just like a Lambo. The question is not what do you want to do to your Roadster buy how much you want to spend.

You can even buy active woofers that fit in the passenger foot well. The look a bit bulky and must surely take up some legroom but with the seat right back, there’s plenty spare. You can get chrome trims for the instruments and lowered suspension and uprated brakes. Quite a few companies make exhausts too. The one I keep coming back to is the Janspeed Stealth. Just like the original exhaust, you cannot see it’s exit hidden as it is behind the rear valance. The Brabus versions have a central exit that requires a new section of the valance.

The roadster looks great to me with it’s bulging arches and smiling face but some don’t like it at all. It’s true, the back end isn’t the prettiest and a centre exit exhaust doesn’t even help. In my opinion, the less you draw attention to the back end the better. The first cars had sections of dark grey plastic for the headlights and a part of the rear valance. I guess in a way to reduce visually the large area of paint. Some owners colour code these parts but I think it makes the car look a bit cheesy. Although the dark plastic bits aren’t too pretty they offer a good contrast to the paint. Despite that the Roadster is eye catching and unlike anything on the road today. It offers a welcome antidote to the majority of modern cars which are hard to tell apart.

It’s amazing how many looks the car gets. Kids love it especially and it’s always a treat to see another on the road. There are not many cars left that always flash and wave when they see another one the same. Just the other day I stopped alongside a Portuguese Roadster exactly like mine. The guy was so surprised. He was touring Europe with his girlfriend and having a great time. There are not many Roadsters on the road but if you keep your eyes open they are around.

There are problems with the car being so low is that it seems less visible to other road users. Or maybe they see a car and assume it’s as big as a ‘normal’ car and thus further away than they think. But I think it’s the fact that it has a very angled and small frontal area that’s just hard to see unless you’re looking and sadly today not everyone does look. However with good brakes and quick steering you should be able to stay out of trouble no matter what everyone else does.

There is also a cheeky aspect to the roadster, with the roof off, windows down you can change lanes and nip in front of people without upsetting them, a hand waved through the roof in thanks is all that is needed. No one has hooted me yet! Though I have been flashed at when overtaking sometimes. The car coming the other way just doesn’t realise how quick you can overtake and over reacts.

My conclusion is this: Who cares about all these details really? The one question you need to ask yourself is do you want to have fun when you drive? Do you want to enjoy the journey or do you just want to arrive? The Roadster is not for everyone but for those who want to let their hair down and simply have a laugh without losing their license or spending too much would be wise to consider the Smart Roadster.

The Smart Roadster has competitors. There’s the Mazda MX5 and the Toyota MR2 to name but two. Now I haven’t driven either of these and I’m sure they are excellent cars which are super reliable and quick enough to excite but I’ll bet they won’t make you smile as much as the Smart Roadster will. It’s not for everyone but if you want to have a laugh for not much money then test drive one. Bear in mind what I said about learning the car before you judge too soon.

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Update: After 10,000 kms

The roadster has yet to let me down but it did develop some faults. The first problem was a slipping clutch. It came suddenly so I suspected the actuator. My local friendly Smart garage greased it up and adjusted it, first by pulling the actuator towards the clutch using a special spring balance. Then the actuator is fixed in that position. Then the car must be attached to a computer which then adjusts it. This seemed to help.

Then on a long journey the car would accelerate in a weird way and the turbo boost gauge was not steady. Some quick research on the Internet and it soon became clear that the Turbo was knackered or the manifold was cracked or both. In any case the solution was a new turbo. It comes ready assembled on the manifold. Prices vary but I got one for about £400 which isn’t bad really. The Turbo is so cute, smaller than a donut with tiny little vanes. It seems impossible that so small a fan could boost the power on this little engine.

So while the Turbo was being replaced I also serviced the engine, changed the gearbox oil, replaced the two belts and even a broken front engine mount and the entire sump. Many roadsters have rusty sumps which can start to leak. I bought a plastic replacement which even has a drain plug, something the standard Roadster doesn’t have. Oil is extracted via the dipstick, a poor and inefficient way of doing things. I also replaced the aging actuator with a new one.

At first the car felt a bit underpowered and the boost was not rising above 1 bar. I thought for a while that the remap had been overwritten by the garage when they reset the gearbox and the actuator. Not so, after a few more miles the boost started to climb and now tops out at just under 1.5 bar. It never managed that before so I guess that the Turbo was getting tired even when I bought the car. No worries, now the Turbo is new it should last a few years.

Then the clutch started slipping again. One of the reasons for changing the actuator was so that if the clutch still slipped it would rule that out once and for all. A slipping clutch could only mean one thing, a worn clutch that needs replacing. So I ordered a clutch and release bearing and while I was at it, a new oil seal for the crank. It can leak and cause a slipping clutch though my Smart man thinks it unlikely. In any case since I ordered the clutch (about £250) the current one is working just fine again. In fact the car has never driven better. It is up on power, the gear changes are crisp and the throttle response excellent so for now the new clutch will stay in its box until needed.

Then today I booked the car in for an MOT and driving away the handbrake button popped out of the handbrake so the handbrake no longer locks. Most annoying. Here’s a fault I had not yet read about. In order to remove the handbrake it is first necessary to remove the carpet. In order to remove the carpet, you must first remove the stereo to get access to the bolts that hold the facia in place. Remove the seats (first disconnecting the battery because of risk of explosion from side air bags) and the gearlever, shaft and tunnel. It seems like a ridiculous amount of work just to remove the handbrake but actually it wasn’t too bad at all. I don’t suppose it took an hour and this was the first time I did this so I can only get faster. Having the carpet out was the perfect opportunity to wash and scrub it as it was not smelling so nice. Maybe from a leak that was since fixed. The car was immaculate under the carpet however.

The problem, and here is a classic example of why Smart failed with the Roadster. The ratchet that holds the handbrake is connected to a plastic arm with a hollow in it to catch the rounded top of the ratchet piece. Being plastic and poorly designed and engineered, it was only a matter of time before this happened. To have done a proper job with this piece might only have cost a few pence more but Smart decided to go with plastic and for moving parts it’s a poor idea.

Unfortunately the handbrake is not only hard to remove because of the aforementioned other dismantling that has to take part first but it is also NOT designed to come apart being riveted together. It is pretty nasty. I could buy a new handbrake for £100 but have decided to repair it by adding metal to the plastic to reinforce it. That way it will not happen again. Amazing really when you consider how much work it is to remove the handbrake why they used such shitty plastic that was bound to break one day.

So that is where I am today, with the car in pieces, seats out and handbrake in pieces. But I am not disheartened. The Roadster is such a clever car in so many ways that despite the failures here is a car which can go on forever because the plastic panels don’t rust and the Tridion chassis is very well painted and protected by plastic. Unless you prang the car it could go on for decades slowly replacing all the mechanical parts as they fail. In the future the Roadster would make a perfect donor car for an electric vehicle. Yes the car has cost me money but it has not stranded me and the pieces I have replaced are things that would need replacing one day anyway. So, until the next exciting episode. What will break next I wonder?

 

Update Nov 2013

A very amusing day was spent at a local race track. Most of the cars were Lotus and Porsche and I am pleased to report that the Roadster was not the slowest car by any means. The single seat racing cars were doing a circuit in about one minute. The Roadster managed a respectable 1.12. It scores well in the tight corners and corners which change direction quickly. It also scores on stopping, being able to brake ridiculously late.

It was let down by two things, one being the lack of outright acceleration although to some degree this was mitigated by not really needing to brake in the first place! The second thing that was a bit frustrating were some of the gearbox ratios. There were a couple of corners that required third gear but at the exit the revs just passed 6000 rpm so the gearbox would change into 4th when it should just stay in third. It was only a matter of a few hundred revs but enough that I had to back off the revs slightly so that it didn’t change. This happened again at the next set of bends where I needed forth but if I didn’t pay attention it would change to 5th and mess up the next set of bends. That said, this is true of any car on a track, gearbox ratios will often to finely tuned for particular circuits and corners. It’s a minor gripe but made more noticeable because of the Roadster’s gearbox.

What I did discover is that the Smart Roadster is a fantastically well balanced sports car with an astonishing level of grip and a very forgiving stance even on the limit. I found that even with the tyres screaming their protest it was still possible to change direction, exaggerate a slide or reduce it just but playing with the steering. Many sports cars rely on throttle response to change the car’s attitude in a bend. Not so the Roadster. It doesn’t have the power for this so it’s just as well that the basic chassis is so well set up and allows you to do this. I was very impressed.

I was surprised at how far I could push the car. The tyres, which never squeal on the road were quite vocal on the track. It might have been something to do with the surface which certainly seemed considerably more grippy than your average road surface. Maybe it’s the surface itself, or maybe just the rubber that has been laid down over the years or maybe it was the fact that I was driving it like a maniac.

I tried many different styles of driving to get the best lap time and the fastest was achieved by driving like a lunatic with tyres complaining on corners and ABS cutting in under heavy braking but it doesn’t seem very skilful so I tried a more elegant approach but times dropped by a couple of seconds. Most interesting.

The ESP was turned off and this allowed me to do 4 wheel drifts through corners. On the occasions that I forgot to turn it off I did notice it take over the throttle and stop the drift and in doing so slowed the car down enough to ruin a good lap time.

Under braking the car is so balanced and composed. I was in company with a French guy with a Lotus Exige who was about 6 seconds a lap faster than me and he was surprised how late I was braking at the end of the straight. From 100 mph to 30 mph in no time at all. He was braking before the 100 metre mark and I was braking well after it. Now, how much this has to do with the fact that although I was doing 100 mph at the end of the straight, he must have been doing considerably more so perhaps it is normal that he had to brake earlier than me. What I do know is that many of the slightly faster cars all used the hard right hander at the end of the straight to pass but with such late braking they were frustrated every time.

What surprised me most was that my lap time was about the same as the bulk of the Elises. I would catch them in the bends and they would catch me on the straights. The cars were well matched. In the end I let them go so as not to slow them down but would always catch them up again and they would let me go past. This alone is quite amazing that a car with just a 700 cc engine is able to hold its head high against some of the best sports cars in the world is very impressive. Remember also that apart from a remap, my Roadster has completely standard suspension, brakes, wheels and tyres while most of the Lotus have upgraded everything including special soft tyres.

What I have realised from this track day is this. If you want to have a laugh on the track for not very much money you would be hard put to do better than buy a Smart Roadster. Lots of other drivers commented on the handling of the Roadster and were surprised at how quick it was.

Just a couple of hours driving round a small track with quite tight bends took its toll on the tyres and they were all beaded up and torn although not as badly as some of the other cars I saw. It is a light car and so well balanced that although the tyres wear it’s not too bad. In any case brakes and tyres are bound to wear at a much higher rate on the track and of course this needs to be costed in. Track days are expensive all in all. The actual track only costs a couple of quid a lap but the wear and tear on the car, brakes and tyres will probably double or triple that figure.

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The result of over cooking it. The car ended up beached a surprisingly long way from the track.

Then there is also the chance of damaging the car, the paintwork and the windscreen. And of course if you push too hard and and end in the gravel traps then the wheels and lower bodywork will take a beating. That’s what happened on my second outing after about 15 laps. For no reason at all I lost it after a corner and I don’t know why. Probably the simplest solution is that I was going too fast but it didn’t happen again. It remains a bit of a mystery really but it does prove that it is definitely possible to spin a Roadster even with the ESP which never turns itself off completely.

The track day was a useful experience which has given me so much confidence in the car and its handling. There is no way you could drive like that on the road but it’s nice to know that even at good speeds the Roadster is well planted, offers excellent grip and handling. Powerful brakes that are undaunted by uneven surfaces. It does nice 4 wheel drifts and if you over cook it that turns to understeer and then if you really over do it, oversteer.

All I need to do now is polish out the marks made by the gravel in the bodywork and see if the wheels will polish up. If not, they’ll need to be resprayed. If I was going to do this more often I suppose the best would be to get another set of wheels and put racing slicks on them and change them at the track. Of course then the suspension and brakes would need upgrading. Then I’d probably start thinking it would be nice to have a bit more power. I think the standard Roadster is brilliant and can be used with much effect even completely standard.

Why I won’t be buying a Leica M/M10/type 240

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It’s hard to believe that’s it’s coming up 4 years since I have had my M9 but time flies and now Leica have brought out the M9’s successor, the M or as most people are calling it, the M type 240 or even the M10. It’s all a bit confusing. Leica always go their own way and I’m glad they do or the M9 would never have been made! However I do feel like they have shot themselves in the foot by simply calling it the M. It’s never easy to understand the thinking behind these things but you can be sure of one thing, if Leica chose it there will be a good reason behind it.

The name thing could turn out to be a very clever move. Consider this: The M 240 is surely the last evolution of the M3 which first came out in the 1950s because there is no where else to go with it. The screen is as big as it can be. The viewfinder now has led frame lines. Any big changes they make will turn the M into something else. So with this in mind Leica can upgrade the M 240 without needing to introduce a new model in the future. The sensor could be upgraded and with firmware updates the M 240 can be kept fully modern. If this is the case, I like it. We live in such a disposable world these days that it is a nice thought that one could buy the M 240 and keep it for decades while never losing out on the latest technology.

When the M 240 was first mentioned I was excited. It sounded perfect. Like Leica had taken all the things that annoyed M9 owners and fixed the lot but I suspect I was just being swept along by the positive reviews and comments. Unlike many others I quite liked the idea of being able to do video and to use R lenses but now that the novelty has worn off I am not so sure.

To work out whether or not I was being objective I went back to the reason why I love my M9. I love it because it is full frame and compact. The M 240 is 10% bigger and 10% heavier. That might not sound a lot but I consider the M9 to be at the limit of what constitutes a light and compact camera so that extra 10% in size and weight will be noticed by me. It is a real shame that Leica have not tried to reduce the size of the M 240. Every evolution of the M seems to be bigger than the last. Just hold an M6 in your hands and then handle an M 240 and you will realise just how much bigger and heavier the Ms are getting.

My original idea was to buy an M 240 and put the 21mm 3.4 on it. That way I can use the extra ISO ability to compensate for the lenses lack of speed. I would keep the 50mm 1.4 lux for the M9. I wouldn’t have to change lenses and that would keep dust off the sensor. But the reality is that I would never use my M9 again as my most used lens is the 21mm. So if I wanted two lenses I’d have to carry two bodies. That’s just silly. For me, the whole point of an M camera is that it is compact enough to be carried on my person at all times. (here’s how I carry my M9) I have another small pouch that carries one lens and it goes on the same belt as the camera.

All this talk of high ISO seems to me to be rather pointless. How quickly we have all forgotten how we would be happy with a film of 100 ASA with no chance to change it yet now even the M9 can take perfectly good pictures at 1000 ISO, already three stops better than we were used to. But the bottom line is that photography is about light. If the light is so poor that you need 3200 ISO then chances of getting a good picture are slim anyway. Maybe many use the extra ISO to allow a faster shutter speed but that has rarely bothered me with an M camera as a steady hand can easily allow shots taken at 1/15”. What I am saying is that I think the extra ISO is overrated and not reason enough to buy the M 240.

The new M is weatherproof. Well, from what I have experienced and heard from others the M9 had no problem being outdoors in the wet (within reason obviously) and after all Leica have long said that their cameras will work in any conceivable situation that you find yourself in so a bit of dampness has never been a problem and it is rare that I find myself taking pictures in the rain so again, this is something that is nice to know but has yet to be a problem for me with the M9.

The video option is certainly intriguing but again reality steps in. For much much less than a M 240 and lenses there are a lot of purpose built cameras that can do much better than the Leica. Many of which have image stabilisation and other clever features like zooms. Of course one could use the R adapter and use it to make video but for that kind of money it would be possible to buy some really choice video equipment.

The R adapter is another feature that seems helpful but that would mean having the lenses in the first place or buying them if you don’t. More expense and for me, the simpler the camera and the fewer the lenses the better. Anything that stops you taking pictures should be avoided.

This brings me on to one of the main reasons why I won’t be buying an M 240. It takes almost two seconds to boot up. This is ridiculous. The M9 boots up in a flash and can take pics almost immediately. If you want to miss the moment get a camera that doesn’t boot up immediately. I know because the Digiliux 2 I had was the same and it was extremely annoying. For this kind of money this is very poor.

Then there’s the max shutter speed of just 60 seconds. This is useless. Even the M9 can manage 4 minutes and often that is not enough either but it’s a lot better than 60 seconds. I love taking long exposures at night so with the M 240 I won’t be able to. Like the time it takes to boot up, it’s another situation where the M 240 has gone backwards.

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With a maximum 60 second exposure time, shots like this with lines made by the movement of the stars will no longer be possible.

Personally I care nothing for the bigger screen or live view. These are just toys which distract you from taking pictures. With decades of practice I can focus an M while another photographer is still deciding what kind of auto focus would be best for the situation. If Leica removed the screen and the menu I would be quite pleased especially if it meant they could reduce the size and weight back down to M6 levels. (here’s an article about a Leica M with simple features and if the comments are anything to go by, I’m certainly not alone in liking this idea.

Everyone is going on about the new menu. Well I never had any problem with the old one. I mostly set the camera once and never touch it again. I used to use the profiles when I first got the M9 and was forever using the wrong profile. It’s just too easy to forget to return the settings after use so an improved menu is of no gain to me.

More battery capacity? This has never been an issue for me in the past and if I thought I might be taking hundreds of pictures I could just take along a spare battery. And that leads me on to yet another reason why I won’t be buying an M 240. Yet another set of batteries, cables and chargers!!! ( Here’s a suggestion for an emergency battery on the M9)

And lastly, I really don’t like the look of the M 240. I love the way the M9 is cut away at the outside by the viewfinder, although it doesn’t reduce the dimensions particularly it does make the camera look better balanced and smaller. The new M 240 is not as good looking as the M9 and the new bigger central red dot is just showing off.

Now I don’t know about you lot but I wouldn’t consider that I take a lot of pictures, maybe 4000 shots a year but even that makes for a hell of a lot of storage. To keep back ups and back ups of back ups means a lot of hard drives. Even bigger files means even more storage issues. I have managed to make amazing prints over a metre wide from the M9 so there is really no need for anything bigger. I tend not to crop so there’s little advantage for me with bigger files. 

Conclusion

Although the M 240 has bigger files and higher ISOs it is bigger and heavier, takes longer to boot up and can only manage a 60 second exposure. The screen is bigger and it costs more. The M9 was a fantastic camera when it was launched and it remains capable of taking amazing images. It is a classic. I’m not convinced that the M 240 offers big enough improvements over the M9 to justify buying one. Sorry Leica but here’s one Leica fan that won’t be buying your latest offering.

Rheinstrom Y3 Aluminium Toilet review

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The Rheinstrom Y3. The lever makes pumping very easy and keeps the shaft straight minimising seal wear.

Normally I wouldn’t write about a boat toilet but when I tried to research this toilet I could find no reviews or any comments of any kind. This is very strange because Rheinstrom obviously make a very nice product and they have been doing so for over 50 years. No company that lasts that long can be selling rubbish. Then consider that Rheinstrom is a German company and it looks like being a quality bit of kit.

The toilet on Doolittle was a Grocco HF. It is certainly a better toilet than most of the offerings on the market today and a new one will set you back about 600€ and because it is made in America it’s not the easiest toilet to service and get bits for. It has a bronze base which is something but it is let down by the plastic pump assembly which either breaks or becomes unreliable and needs constant attention. To be fair it has done ok. It coped for eight years of two people living aboard.

I almost missed Rheinstrom during my research for a better toilet than I already had. At first glance these toilets don’t look pretty having a very functional and practical look. However in place it is a great improvement over the Grocco. There is something about solid trustworthy well considered engineering. That in itself is enough to make such a mundane object almost attractive.

There’s a lot to like about the Y3. The pump can be fitted on either side which could be helpful if you were left handed or short on space. The entire toilet (apart from the bowl) is made from metal. They do two versions of the same toilet, a bronze one and an aluminium one. The alloy version is half the weight of the bronze one at 8 kilos it’s surprisingly light.

It’s made from high quality aluminium and then deeply coated with an easy to clean protective hard white plastic finish. It’s been very well considered and is very nicely engineered. Unlike the Grocco which needs a whole host of screwdrivers and different sized spanners to dismantle, the Y3 uses the same size stainless Allen key for most of its fastenings.

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Quality castings. I like way it is possible to remove the pump without disturbing the big outlet. Stainless Allen key heads for most of the fastenings keep things simple.

The pump action is very smooth. It has a relatively short stroke but a wide pump body. Even the main base piece has a large internal diameter making this a hard toilet to block. Not only that but it should not need such regular servicing as the Grocco did as it has been designed to minimise wear in all areas. The piston pump rod has a machined guide to keep the rod from wearing the top seal. To help this, the pump uses a lever rather than a handle connected directly to the rod as most toilets do.

Even the dry/flush lever on the side has been well thought out. It is made from a cast piece of stainless and is very elegant but the sealing system is very thorough and a vast improvement on the Grocco which often leaked at this spot. The required O ring is NOT supplied in the toilet rebuild kit which is ridiculous. I called Grocco and they told me to just go to the nearest hardware shop and buy one, they only cost pennies. Well, if they only cost pennies, WHY DON’T YOU SUPPLY ONE IN YOUR REBUILD KIT?

Despite the short stroke, the toilet requires less pumps than the Grocco. The Y3 requires 7 full pumps for every one metre of piping. The Y3 is available with two bowl sizes, small and large. I chose the small version which is about the same size as the Grocco one. One of the things that was good about the Grocco was its small size. The head in Doolittle is not massive and I didn’t want to fit a large toilet and the small Y3 is not much bigger than the Grocco so it fits in very nicely. I was even able to get it to sit a bit further back too so actually there is more space in the head than before.

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The Y3 in place on ‘Doolittle’ Of course the mounting holes were different and the aft outboard coach screw needed cutting down a bit but otherwise it was a straightforward swap. None of the hoses needed moving or cutting.

The toilet lid is a standard plastic covered MDF affair with plastic hinges. It’s not beautiful but neither is it offensive. It is at least easy to clean. If the Y3 has one failing it’s that it’s not going to be the easiest toilet to clean with all those bits and pieces on it. I also question the wisdom of using Allen key heads because they can fill with liquid. Maybe it is possible to get plastic caps for them. But these are issues that might be applied to almost any toilet with a pump.

I bought a rebuild kit which cost about 80€ which is expensive but even the seals and O rings are of excellent quality. It’s not much more than most other kits from other toilet manufacturers. The toilet itself cost about 800€ which is a lot but it is a good product and if you want quality then you usually have to pay for it.

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Update 26/12/2013

Sometimes looks can be deceptive. The quality engineering and well thought out design that I saw in the Y3 when I first installed it has now been seen for what it is. Basically the toilet is well designed but it is let down by some details that render the toilet unusable and worse than that the company are as useless as a chocolate fireguard. They either do not understand what I am trying to tell them or they do not care. Either scenario is not good.

Soon after I got the toilet the dry/flush lever would spring back and the toilet would lock. The only way to flush to toilet was to hold the lever down with one hand while pumping with the other. You can imagine that this soon got so boring I decided to take the thing apart and try and improve it.

It looks pretty simple inside although there seems to be no actual mechanism that ‘locks’ the dry/flush in place. It seems that it is only the friction of the lever that stops it moving but this is a piss poor system. On the Grocco, there was a cam that pressed against the valve when flushing dry. It was crude and the action was rough but it never caused the toilet to not flush.

The lever on the Y3 needs to be held in place with loctite, hardly a clever engineering solution really. Well, in the end I did manage to get the toilet to work with one hand by tightening up the dry/flush lever but this made it rather stiff. This worked for a while but then it started leaking by the lever.

So I took it apart again. Or tried to. In the time since I last dismantled it the bolts had all seized. Well, no surprise really since they are stainless bolts in aluminium. Clearly Rheinstrom do not bother to put any kind of anti corrosive paste or any other kind of system. This is pretty poor really since a mix of metals like this will corrode in no time unless treated. I read on a forum that one poor sod had a problem after five years and by then the bolts had completely seized to the point that he had to throw the toilet away.

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This should be one piece, not two. Too flimsy to last.

In taking it apart the bronze part that operates the valve in the dry/flush lever broke. So that was helpful. NOT. Fortunately I had a spare so I fitted it but the toilet would not work afterwards. I inspected the shape compared to the old one and they were similar but not the same. So some bending helped but the old problem was back. The lever would not hold in the ‘dry’ position and required two hands to flush again.

So I took it apart AGAIN. In the end I came to the conclusion that the casting that the bronze piece goes through was not the right shape and was stopping the lever from going far enough. So I had to damage the powdercoat paint to do this so no doubt it will corrode even faster now. However I did manage to get the toilet working better but it does beg the question, why the **** don’t Rheinstrom do this, or at least test their toilets before sending them out? It should not be the customers job to modify a new toilet because it has been badly machined.

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The reason why the dry/flush lever won’t stay put is because it is not able to move enough. I had to file away a load of metal by the pointy bit so that the other end would lie in the correct position

There’s more bad news I’m afraid. Every few weeks the lever starts to rust and leaves rust stains all over the toilet pump. It is not the easiest toilet to clean so this is really annoying. It probably has something to do with the fact that the lever is not polished and has a rough finish.

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Big bubble of paint in the base, just under where the bowl fits.

Then there’s the bubbling paint in the bottom of the base where the bowl attaches. Two nice big bubbles of paint where it has come unstuck from the alloy. This is just one year. Not good enough. So I started to have a look around and guess what? Yep, you guessed it, paint is bubbling up all over the place. Now I should mention that we shower in the head and that means that the toilet is soaked in fresh water a few times a week so should not corrode as there is no salt water anywhere near it (except inside it) and it even gets a chamois down as well. The toilet is well cared for and maintained. There is no reason for the paint to be bubbling already. That’s just rubbish.

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Loads of paint flaking off. I believe it is because of careless casting preparation. If they just rounds the sharp edges a little before coating…This corrosion looks like it was already under the paint before it flaked off.

Yes, there’s more. Apart from the fact that the spares kit only contains one O ring for the dry/flush lever and considering the size and cost it just seems extremely stingy to not throw in a few. The larger O rings for the pump body itself are too big an make fitting the pump almost impossible. This is just bad engineering pure and simple.

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O rings should not be a loose fit in the groove. This makes refitting the pump almost impossible without damaging the O ring. Just not good enough.

So although the Rheinstrom Y3 aluminium looked promising to start with it has been nothing but trouble and a great disappointment. Considering that it cost almost 1000€ it’s nothing short of disgraceful. A Jabsco for a third of the price would give less trouble than this.

I have written to Rheinstrom many times but their response is always very tardy and pointless, asking questions like ‘is my toilet installed under the waterline’ as if that is the reason why the dry/flush lever won’t stay in place! Really. If you want my advice, steer well clear. These toilets are rubbish. They look great, seem well engineered but are let down but poor details, bad finish and a complete lack of understanding from the manufacturers. I asked them many times to explain to me how the dry/flush lever was supposed to work because I couldn’t make any sense of it but they would always avoid answering me suggesting they don’t even understand it. Not good.

Conclusion:

Hard to clean, goes rusty, paint bubbles off, dry/flush lever won’t stay down on its own and needs two hands to flush toilet, bolts not fitted with any sort of anti corrosive paste, internals needed filing down and parts adjusted to get it to work. O rings in spares kit wrong size. Overpriced. Terrible after sales service.

On the plus side it has not yet blocked.

Update 24/3/14

Finally got a reply from Rheinstrom. Bless them. They seem to want to help which is kind of surprising considering what a complete pain in the arse I have made myself to them. Here’s the story so far.

They decided to send me a Y2 bronze pump in the interim so that we at least had a toilet that was working. This was very nice of them although the inlet pipes are a larger diameter so I had to buy new hoses and faff about for a few hours fitting it. Pleased on the one hand that they are trying to help but pissed off on the other because here I am taking this fecking toilet apart. Again.

Anyway. The new Y2 pump in and for a while we had a nice toilet. They dry/flush lever is a far better design with a cam so that it holds the lever properly. The Y3 should have had a system like this. Much better. It also flushed well.

However. You knew that was coming didn’t you? The machined finish on the pump shaft is very rough and the noise the pump makes as the shaft rubs on the seal is really quite something. Now some might say that this isn’t really a problem and it’s true, if this was all that was wrong I might live with it. After all it should be much better in six months or so as the shaft polishes up. In the meantime we have to put up with a very noisy toilet and no doubt a seal that will wear prematurely. But I don’t really care about any of this. It’s a temporary pump until I get mine back. I mention it only because it is a good demonstration of shoddy quality control.

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Extraordinary. This Y2 model has been installed successfully in boats for over 25 years yet look at this. After just two months of use the lever arm handle is cutting through the brass sleeves and making this mess. This is just one day’s dust. Play is getting worse.

The next thing that happened is that the lever arm started to get some play in it and now is laying down brass dust on top of the pump on a daily basis. Now this toilet is only two months old. There are only two of us and neither have bladder issues so it’s not like it gets a hiding. It gets used that’s all so it’s surprising to see this kind of thing so soon.

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Well, now I understand the problem. This thin walled stainless handle is cutting into the bolts. See below. This is poor engineering.

On inspection I found the problem. Despite Rheinstrom telling me that the Y2 has been in production for 25 years without any problems here is a problem that smacks of yet more dodgy quality control. I think I know what has happened. No doubt it wasn’t that long ago that Rheinstrom did make really good bogs but over the years some materials have changed and perhaps they had not properly considered the implications. Clearly the people who assemble the toilets are not engineers. Any engineer worth his salt would have brought an issue like this to his boss’s attention rather than risk it going out the door with a faulty design.

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Here is one of the brass sleeves. As you can see the lever arm has been chomping away at the soft brass. It’s a ridiculous design. If I sold a toilet with such a poor system I would die of shame. The long length of the lever arm makes this system even more hopeless.

The brass bushings in the lever arm are a classic case in point. It all looks proper, nice stainless bolts into a brass sleeve to act as a bearing. Great. But then what do they do? They fit a stainless tube lever arm with such thin walls that they soon cut into the soft brass making shavings and introducing play which will only get worse with time. This is just piss poor. I don’t really know how else to describe it other than that. I’m not a trained engineer but even I know that’s not going to work. The mad thing is, so do Rheinstrom. The Y3 does not have this problem because it uses plastic inserts in the lever arm which have sufficient bearing surface to actually work.

Soon after the toilet became hard to flush and the water would come back into the bowl. I soon found the problem when I found the weight that normally lives on the bottom seal in the bottom of the bowl! The weight is riveted on so either it corroded away, broke or was not done properly in the first place. Yet another demonstration of poor quality control. Of course I had a spare but I had to take the toilet apart yet again!!!!

So what are Rheinstrom doing? Well apparently they have redesigned the dry/flush lever so it stays in place and have addressed the issue of the undersized O ring on the lever as well. I am still waiting to see what they have come up with. To this day, despite asking repeatedly no one will tell me how the lever was supposed to work, nor what they have done to make it work. Have they done this only for me? Or did they realise the design was flawed and are doing something about it? Who knows, they just won’t tell me.

So this is not the end of the saga. At least Rheinstrom are trying and I am grateful for that but I do hate being treated like a moaning idiot when what I see is iffy design and shoddy quality control that needs addressing. I have spent enough of my valuable time taking this bloody toilet apart so I for one will be more than happy to have a working Y3 again. And if that doesn’t work I’ll have to ask for my money back and get a Jabsco like everyone else. They might be cheap and plasticy but they work and spares are easy to find and change. There’s little wonder it’s one of the most popular boat bogs in Europe.

 

Update 10/6/2014

First I have to applaud Rheinstrom for sending me yet another new toilet even if it was the wrong one. Yes, once again they have proved they do not care or are incompetent. Or both. My toilet was aluminium and they knew this yet they have sent me a bronze toilet which is twice the weight.

I took the toilet apart keen to see what modifications they had made and was not really surprised to see that they had done practically nothing. The bronze part of the dry flush lever had one edge very slightly rounded off. I couldn’t imagine what that would do except stop the seal from closing properly.

So yet ANOTHER day of my life spent fitting the new toilet which of course has exactly the same problem as before. The dry’/flush lever springs back immediately and locks the pump so you still have to hold it in position. But now it’s worse because as suspected the seal no longer works and even when flushing dry some water still enters the bowl.

Then the screw that holds the dry/flush lever came unscrewed. At this point I had not even used the toilet in anger. On inspection there was no trace of Loctite which simply means they didn’t put any on the screw so of course it came loose.

They have done nothing about the O ring being too small. I waited months for this toilet only to discover that they have done practically nothing and what they have done doesn’t even come close to solving the problem, if anything it has made it worse.

It’s a real shame as there is so much that is good about the toilet. It is well cast, well painted (except that they don’t round off sharp edges on the castings before coating) has a nice action and works well as a toilet. But it all amounts to nothing with the other faults it has. It is just pathetic. Every other toilet I have ever seen (including the Y2 they sent me) has a locking dry/flush lever and so they should have because if a toilet is left with the lever on the flush setting, water could syphon back into the bowl and sink the boat!

No doubt they tested the toilet before they shipped it but only on their completely unrealistic test rig. Without the correct resistance that a normal set up provides they will never get a proper idea of the forces acting on the toilet.

They have told me that they have sold thousands of these toilets and have never had any trouble before. They seemed to think that the reason the handle had play in it was because of the excess force that my system has. What excess force? There are no restrictions in the system other than the usual slight bends and syphon break. There can’t be more than 1.5 metres of pipework and that is considerably less than some boats I have seen. What’s more the toilet action is very smooth, hardly any resistance at all.

So after over a year of being messed around, I still don’t have a properly working toilet and this one is twice the weight. Rheinstrom are ignoring me. They clearly blame me for the wear on the handle on the Y2 although anyone can see that sharp edged stainless steel will destroy brass in no time. They clearly do not understand the problem with the dry/flush lever on the Y3 or maybe they understand all this perfectly well but are incapable of solving the problem. So I have now given up on Rheinstrom. They are as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle.

I will come up with a system myself to hold the dry/flush lever in the dry position. Then I will be able to loosen the screw that holds the lever and that will take the strain off the tiny O ring and that might mean that it doesn’t start leaking in a few weeks as the others have done. Then, maybe just maybe I will have a toilet I can use without being annoyed every time.

 

Update: 14/6/2014

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Here is the solution I came up with to stop the dry/flush lever from popping back when pumping the bowl dry.

Two tabs are held by two of the mounting screws and a 2.5 mm stainless wire is bent to have a kink in it. It is spring loaded so always pushes against the lever.

Perhaps not the most elegant solution but at least you no longer need two hands to pump out the toilet. Ridiculous that it is left to the customer to come up with a working solution. Perhaps others with a Y3 don’t mind that the lever needs holding but this is the first toilet I have ever seen which does not have a mechanism in place to lock the lever in the ‘dry’ position. It is possible to screw up the lever so tight that friction alone holds it but this leads to premature O ring wear and as the O ring is ridiculously small it just gets ripped to pieces in no time.

The spring system allows less force to be used on the lever making the toilet easier to use and hopefully allowing the O ring to last a reasonable amount of time. At least now I don’t have to be reminded of this stupid fault every time I use the toilet. Now if I can just stop the lever from rusting and if the paint doesn’t flake off or bubble like it did before I will have a nice toilet on my boat.

As I said before, there is much to like about the Y3. I like that the pump can be removed without taking the outlet pipe off. The O ring sealing system for the pump is clever so long as the replacement O rings are not too large. The pump lever has plastic bearings so is unlikely to wear like on the Y2. So long as the weight doesn’t drop off the pump flap like it did before it pumps very well and tackles anything you throw at it.

It’s a shame that Rheinstrom don’t care about all these issues. Maybe I have been unlucky but everything I have seen smacks of a poor understanding of basic engineering principles. I find it hard to believe that I am the only one to have had these issues and if I am the only one then Rheinstrom should have been able to sort them out for me instead they have chosen to bury their heads in the sand.

Leica M (240) T shirt

fig,red,mens,ffffff

The new Leica M. For some reason Leica have dropped the number from the name so many people are calling it the M 240 which is the camera’s in house development name. The Germans rarely do things without good reason and Leica are no exception. They have always gone their own way and I for one am glad. The M is a fascinating evolution of an old concept and once mastered can be quicker to use than any other camera.

The latest M might be seen as the last of the line. After all, where can they go from here? The screen is as big as it can be. The rangefinder has been modernised using led lighting but fundamentally it remains as pure as the first M, the M3. It’s my guess that this will be the last M camera. In the future Leica will simply offer upgrades to it. It will be possible to replace sensors and take advantage of the latest technology without the need to buy a whole new camera.

The next new thing from Leica will no doubt be a smaller body that can use the M lenses but will still have a full frame sensor and all of the legendary image quality. The rangefinder will go in favour of a Live View screen or separate viewfinder. The M will remain on sale as long as there are photographers out there who love the rangefinder system of focusing.

Available from Redbubble

New wood technologies part two: Alpi

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Clever stuff. Imitation teak. The colour and graining is convincing, only the regularity lets it down slightly.

Last year I was at Mets trade show for boats. It was an impressive set up with acres of stands covering all aspects of boating. Quite by chance I came across an Italian company selling wood veneers. I couldn’t resist a look. I was very impressed with their huge range of veneers all of the highest quality. What’s more the veneers were in large sheets displayed on hangers. I was surprised that such consistency could be had from wood.

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Not sure what this one is supposed to be but it’s rather nice.

When I got home I did some reading and came to understand why the veneers were so large and so regular. The reason is because it’s not real wood. Well it is wood but it has been reconstituted. Let me explain.

Alpi wood starts life as a fast growing and sustainable wood like poplar. It is then turned in to large veneer sheets which are then dyed with eco friendly dyes. Then they are stacked together and glued to make one massive piece of plywood which is then cut to the final veneer. The colour of the dyes and the orientation of different coloured sheets can create a surprising number of convincing veneers. Even the colour of the glue can help to add to the effect. Where a wider grain is needed, the block of plywood is cut at a slight angle to create the effect. The idea is simply brilliant.

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This must be mahogany. If you like that uninteresting regular grain pattern then why wouldn’t you use this instead of real wood.

What we have here is a sustainable solution for exotic wood species. This is a completely eco product. Further more it is more stable than genuine veneers and available in much bigger sheets. You can even design your own wood. The possibilities are endless. Alpi were kind enough to send me some samples which I shall test in due time. They are not designed for outdoor use but I reckon if they are coated in a good UV varnish I see no reason why it wouldn’t do very well outdoors.

The only real problem is that the wood can appear too perfect. It lacks the flaws that give wood its character. However in the right situation Alpi wood could be a very good solution. I look forward to playing with it.

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In this close up you can clearly see the individual layers. By laying slightly different colours in varying order almost any wood grain effect can be achieved.

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Close up of the teak version. There’s a lot going on in here. The layers are thicker so this must have been cut at a slight angle and not square like the sample above this one.

www.alpi.it