January 28, 2020

Lakehills Propellers & Co.

In a small workshop of a tiny lake town, tucked at the tip of Texas hill country, and just 30 minutes Northwest of San Antonio—is where my dad has worked for nearly 50 years to perfect his craft.

It’s here in Lakehills where my dad became a competitive slalom skier. An architect by profession, he learned his trade, and grew his passion for fast drag boats—in his late teens and twenties.

While at competitions, he found a network of like-minded folks with a need to operate at maximum efficiency, whether that be pulling a skier at high speeds and resistance or racing. Thus started my father’s side- (yet robust) business of propeller repairing and performance enhancements for personal inboard vessels.

With the help of my grandfather, a mechanical designer, they were able to set up shop. People mailed their propellers from Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma to my father’s workshop for repairs and enhancements.

While I was home this last holiday break, he took me on a walk back through the early and lucrative days of a business that still so few people know even exist.

He started by showing me the basics: repairing chips, dings, and scratches to three-blade propellers. (This was a good chunk of the work he did for his customers.) As many might know, propellers are built uniquely: for efficient movement in water and powering the vessel forward.

Even the smallest chips and dings can cause inefficiencies and degradation to overall performance. As my dad noted, “the propeller is the heart of the boat.” Having a clean working engine and a tank full of fuel is great, but without a polished, near-perfect propeller, the vessel won’t operate at peak performance—a concept that translates to commercial shipping vessels as well.

Next, he flattened those same chips and dings with heavy steel hammers, followed by welding the new material onto the propellers where needed (for filling in chunks divided along the prop’s edges). From here, he explained that some prop clients, depending on their expectations, would request “cupping”. Cupping is when a very slight hemisphere is added to the outward facing edge of the propeller. (Cupping gives a propeller that “extra zing” (dad’s words) or an overall boost in performance—as the water flies off the edges quickly, thus lowering slippage and RPM. While it’s not common in commercial shipping vessels, it shows just how minute a change to the prop can have on the entire vessel’s speed and efficiency.

Up next: smoothing out the edges, followed by a pitch alignment (or as with some special requests, extending or decreasing the pitch).

For all my non-savvy vessel friends, a propeller’s pitch is the distance the propeller moves forward in one rotation, as if it were moving through a soft solid. For the props my dad worked on, this could be anywhere from 8-24 inch pitches. Pitches were adjusted using this cheat sheet table (see image) to ensure their pitches aligned with the matching diameters. 

After, a balance and rotation test was done to ensure the prop sat perfectly. Unbalanced propellers, similar to chips, dings and incorrect pitches, will cause inefficiencies to the boat’s performance. Props that passed this test could move to the cleaning and polishing stage, (or the last step) whereby my dad rotated the entire propeller around a clothed, propulsion machine to give it a shiny, fresh look. At this stage in client production, propellers would then be packaged up and sent back to their owners for maximum efficiency (and enjoyment).

While my dad’s hand-held propeller repair (in a small workshop of a small town at the foothills of Texas Hill Country) are vastly different in scale and process than the ongoing maintenance and repairs needed for commercial vessel propellers (typically two to three stories tall, requiring an expensive “dry dock” process), the principles and theories are the same. The real difference, and my main takeaway from this holiday season’s visit, was that for ocean commerce the world needs massive propellers (and all their minute features), to be pretty dang perfect in getting the 90% of all goods to my hands, my dad’s, and everyone else’s—on time.

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