is one material that I enjoy working with and have built many boats of this
material. Every boatbuilder must have the basic skills associated with
woodworking; however, few achieve the status of master carpenters, yet are
capable of very fine joiner work and finishes. In boat and shipyards,
construction of mold lofts, building ways, pattern making, and interior joiner
work are but a few instances where woodworking skills are required.
I have designed and built lap strake, plywood, carvel planking (double and single), strip planked and Ashcroft hulls, and have used sawn, laminated, and steam bent frames. I have also built composite hulls, which are framed in steel often in conjunction with steel floors, keel, and garboards. Building in wood requires only hand tools, which can be obtained at a reasonable cash outlay. All the needed tools can be carried in a carpenter’s box at one time without getting a hernia. I have built many boats from 8’ to 50’without any power tools. This was because power was not available and if it were I could not afford the power tools. Even after WWII when hand power tool prices were affordable, my yard at that time was powered by old generators that were either broken down or about to break down, so it became a case of are you building boats or are you fixing machinery. When power lines were finally extended to the yard, power tools were not only used but also welcomed. There are individuals today that wish to emulate their forefathers and never use power tools. Believe me, had my great-grandfather had a power saw or an electric drill he would have used them without hesitation. Power tools may not have made him more productive but he certainly would not have been as tired at the end of a day.
This picture shows the clamp and the shelf on double sawn frame construction (Yacht MEROJA).
This is a view forward looking aft showing the keelson (rider keel) and horn on double sawn frame construction.
Speaking of power tools, it is quite easy these days, due to advertising, to become tool poor as the implied notion seems to be that if one has all of the best tools then all work produced on them will be the best, especially if each tool has a dedicated purpose. It is the ability of the craftsman, not the tools, that determine the excellence of a job. Often more time is spent setting up these power tools to do a task than would be expended if one had used hand tools.
The popular notion that plywood is the best and simplest for the owner/builder is not always true. Plywood planking dictates the shape that the vessel must have to permit its use. In V bottom hulls the conical development of the forward bottom produces convex sections that are prone to curling a sea up and onto the deck. This is lessened by the use of spray rails or modifying the chine by inducing a flat area that deflects the sea. In other words, a problem is being cured which need not have existed in the first place had the proper material been selected from the beginning. Plywood planking covers a hull very quickly; however, it can require a rather complex framing system and, when the chines are properly constructed, often requires skills beyond the capabilities of many owner/builders as well as professional builders. Plywood hulls are often glassed and the chine construction simplified in the hope that one will offset the other and will allow mediocre woodwork to pass as good. Short term, it can work, but I have noted many failures in the long term. Many were due to poor workmanship and others due to moisture saturating the chine area and popping the glass. Small craft chines are often made via the quick stitch and glue method, the longevity of which I suppose is predicated on how well the wood is sealed in the surrounding areas. Glassing over a wooden hull to cut the cost of woodworking is the same as saving with a spoon and spending with a shovel. A wooden hull properly constructed and maintained has a very long life without the need of glassing.
For skiffs, flat or V bottom, the cross-planked bottom is by far the least expensive and quickest method of construction. Plywood topsides are often incorporated in smaller hulls. In larger hulls, such as sharpies of 50’ to 60’, the use of thicker topside planks permits the use of edge bolts to strengthen these slender shallow hulls.
In round bottom hulls, constructing with single sawn frames and strip planking is the easiest as well as least expensive method of construction. The frames are the molds so there is little waste material. Steam bent frames require molds; therefore, for multiple buildings, this method is the least expensive as one set of molds suffices for all subsequent hulls. It matters little if the hull is strip or carvel planked as the frame spacing can, if necessary, be adjusted to suit without changing the molds. One advantage of using molds is that hulls can be stretched in spacing or spread at the midship mold to create more cargo space. In strip planked hulls I have found that lining off so that the strips are parallel to the sheer is the most satisfactory method, especially if a heavy wale(s) is to be incorporated as the sheer strake. Carvel planking, even though the planks must be spiled, is straightforward and planks up faster than strips if the strips are hollowed and rounded.
The difficulty today is the general availability of properly sawn wood and obtaining the quantities required for the construction of a vessel. In the past, I have employed a timber broker to search out, purchase, and deliver timbers and planks dressed to my specs to my yard. Today, I fit in the category of a backyard owner/builder, thus I search through lumber piles long before I need it to select the suitable material. This, of course, is time consuming. When selecting planking material at a local lumberyard or builders supply house, one quickly discovers that all are not the same thickness or width as the lumber may come from a dozen different sources. A power planer is then a necessary power tool for the yard, especially if the material required is not a standard dimension. I have been quite happy with the 10” and 12” portable planers. In the past dozen years I have used pressure treated lumber for all framing, planking, decking and exterior woodwork. Unless it is purchased as “dried after treatment,” it must be treated as green wood and stacked and stickered to dry. I find that during our hot season (May to October) 5/4 wood will dry out and become dimensionally stable in 5 months, and 6 to 7 months during the cool of the year. I have a personal dislike working with plywood, but highly recommend it and use it for bulkheads, decks, shelves, berth bottoms, and cabin tops. Using MDO and HDO ply (medium density overlay and high density overlay) on cabin tops, I seldom glass it over since the phenolic overlay is very durable. I am not averse to using canvas rather than glass if the top must be covered.
I attribute the longevity of many of the older wooden vessels to the use of oil based paints during their construction. These paints were formulated by the builder. Using these formulae allowed the paint to be well-thinned and to soak into the wood. Today many use quick drying paints and sealers which are not absorbed into the wood but merely lie on top, entrapping moisture and hastening decay. Wood must breathe.