How WEST SYSTEM Got its Start
through the eyes of meade gougeon
The Early Years
My brothers and I were avid DN iceboat racers growing up on Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay. Post-World War II was a period when boats were hard to come by. In order to compete, we built our own boats. The DN iceboat, with its highly loaded components continually operating at strain rates just short of failure, proved to be an excellent testbed and contributed greatly to GBI history.
In 1959, my youngest brother, Jan, began an apprenticeship as a boat builder for Victor Carpenter. Jan was 14 and spent his time after school and on weekends helping Vic build boats. Vic had been a patternmaker in the Detroit auto industry. He had seen the switch from using resorcinol glues to epoxy adhesives for laminating pattern stock. Because the epoxy required less clamping pressure, it was now possible to bond large structures efficiently and at low costs. Vic became enamored with this technology and was the first professional boat builder to use epoxy and traditional fasteners to assemble wooden boats.
The things Jan learned from Vic at an early age proved crucial to our later work in boat construction and epoxy development. This technology challenged our imaginations and led us down a path of trial and error over the next ten years. In this time, we built a series of five racing trimarans and numerous DN iceboats. Our goal for each of these projects was to build the lightest structures possible while minimizing the use of fasteners. We wanted to produce race-winning boats. Our emerging, lightweight wood/epoxy technology quickly developed as an advantage over the best fiberglass technology of that time. By continuously working to innovate and push the limit of material performance, our knowledge and skills grew. We learned from both success and failure.
In 1969, we began building DN iceboats as our first commercial product. Over the course of five years, we would sell more than 200 iceboats.
The epoxy system we were using worked well as an adhesive but was difficult to apply as a coating. Lucky for us, Herbert Dow, the grandson of The Dow Chemical Company’s founder, was an avid sailor who we introduced to iceboating. After seeing what we were up to, Herb made it possible for us to work with several chemists in Dow’s epoxy lab to help us develop epoxy resin and hardener products we could use as both an adhesive and a coating.
It was well known within the industry that epoxy-based technology had the potential to create a formidable moisture barrier, and now we were able to both bond and seal the wood of our racing trimarans and DN iceboats with epoxy. We had developed the formulations that were the basis of WEST SYSTEM.