Wood is the most popular material for home-built boats under 30ft long, Marine plywood and waterproof glues have simplified boat building for the amateur. Wooden boat plans are available online for you to follow.
Before the Second World War, wooden boats were built from solid timbers in clinker or caravel fashion, with their planks riveted to numerous steamed ribs using copper nails and roves. With no waterproof glues available, the seams between the planks had to be caused with various substances to make them watertight.
Boats made in this age-old way were strong but heavy and by today’s standards, expensive to build and maintain. Some were home-built; but it wasn’t until waterproof urea formaldehyde glues and marine plywood became available after the war that amateur boat-building really got underway. Over the next 20 years, plywood, designs proliferated, and many of these – especially dinghies – are still popular with builders today.
If building and sailing your own boat appeals, the first step is browsing through the world wide web. You’ll realise that there are almost as many boat designs as there are sailors! They range from basic dinghies to sophisticated racing machines; from heavy traditional mono hull cruisers to lightweight, high-performance multi-hull. The prospective builder is spoilt for choice; but if you’ve already learnt to sail, you have some idea whether your interests lie-in racing or cruising, in dinghies, day boats or yachts. Your ideas are likely to be further modified by bank balances, available spare time and other commitments!
Many designers advertise online, and it’s worthwhile looking through their portfolios. There are many wooden boat plans. You should choose a designer specialising in the amateur market; otherwise you may find yourself with very basic drawings adequate for the professional, but difficult for inexperienced to interpret. Good designers provide material lists, full-size patterns, detailed construction drawings and glue type needed.
Copies of the hull are scaled up to produce the full size pattern.This process holds a lot of unnecessary mystery for the amateur builder, but is really quite straightforward. Fortunately, many designers – especially those who produce plans specifically for amateur builders – provide tune-saving full size patterns.
Small boats are usually built inverted, the frames having extended legs secured to a level floor in’the building area. Larger boats are often built-upright, with their frames supported by overhead beams. The shape of the frames, and then positioning along with the stem and transom are of are course critical in producing a fair hull.
With hard chines designs, stringers usually run from stern to stern and are let into frames. After fairing in a trial-and-error process requiring a good eye – the plywood sheets are then marked out, cut to shape and glued into position. This is the essence of the technique, but in practice it’s more involved. For instance, where the ply subsequently be already used for another boat; a sheets meet at the chine end grain is undesirable because it readily lets in water when damaged, so neat ways have been revised to conceal it. This is by no mean a five minute job.
I watched a 15ft lan Oughtred designed Blackfish sailing dory being built in the 80’s. This was done by using three permanent frames and four temporary ones. The frames were joined to the stem and transom, using chin strips machined to the correct parallelogram section on the bandsaw. The bottom of the hull is cut from two pieces of 3/8 in ply which had scarfed together and glue and screw to the chines.
Each hull side consisted of three scarfed overlapping in ‘clinker’ fashion, but with the seams glued rather than caulked. The gunwales are glued and screwed the into place. The hull is turned over and fitted out. Planning the spars out of 4in-square spruce was done as the cut shaped the rudder and dagger board from 3/4in Brazilian mahogany.A laminated curved tiller from Douglas fir was used. The total cost of the project, including sail and rigging, was roughly $650 (1985).
Stitch and Glue
Lofting and constructing frames is time consuming, and even wasteful if they are to be discarded after building. Using the stitch-and-glue method of boat-building, frames can often be eliminated from the design, and the building time considerably reduced. The method relies on the dimensions of all the panels being accurately known. They can then be stitched together using loops of copper wire to form a boat albeit a flexible one. In the case of the ubiquitous Mirror dinghy – of which some 60,000 have been built using this method, mainly from kits – the joints are then made rigid and watertight by covering them with glass tape and polyester resin.
Epoxy resin revolutionised wooden boat-building in much the same way as plywood did 40 years ago. This tough, totally water-resistant resin can be used as a glue, a coating and, when fillers are added, as a filleting material. The technique was developed in the USA by the Gudgeon Brothers in the late 60s, and is now marketed internationally.
The stitch-and-glue method, using epoxy fillets, is certainly quick, as traditional joints are eliminated and little material is wasted. Only a handful of clamps are needed during the whole construction process, as copper stitches and nails provide the low damping pressures needed while the resin cures.
However, epoxy does have its drawbacks. Firstly, it’s expensive. It also requires warm (above 16°C), dry conditions for successful curing, and the timber must have a low moisture content – it certainly isn’t suitable for ‘backyard’ building in the UK. The uncured resin can also cause dermatitis, and precautions should always be taken to avoid contact with skin.
Pitfalls and traps to be very wary of.
Firstly, it will cost you more and ”take”at least three times longer than you think – take some designers’ times with a pinch of salt! Anyway, these will vary considerably from person to person, according to workshop facilities and experience.
Remember that the amount of work and cost generally increases with the cube of the length. When you look at your wooden boat plans for instance, it can take almost twice as long to build a 32ft boat than a 26ft boat of a similar design. As a rule, only half the work has been done when the hull is finished – the tasks of fitting out are seemingly endless and often tedious. Final sanding and painting, for example, seem to take an absurd amount of time, but are nonetheless essential.
It’s most important not to set unrealistic goals, which will inevitably lead to disappointment and frustration. It’s better to divide the building process into phases, and celebrate the completion of each, rather than give up in despair when the launch of a big boat is put back yet another year!
Larger designs need you must have secure building site – a half-finished hull is practically worthless, and almost impossible to shift if you’re ever forced to. The site should ideally be near your home, as much time will be spent going to and fro checking this and that.
Building can be a means to an end, or an end in itself. Some people may build a boat quickly and cheaply as possible, with an end result that can be politely described as adequate and hopefully sound, and then spend every available minute on the water. Others may lovingly produce a work of art, only to sail it once or twice, then sell it and start on the next one. Rapid stitch-and-glue methods may well suit the first type of builder, whilst the latter is likely to find greater satisfaction in more traditional techniques.
Whatever the boat or construction method, the finished wooden boat plans is a statement about the builder as poignant as any work of art in a more conventional medium. It contains much of the builder, his or her philosophy, dreams and aspirations. ” home-built boat, even one made using plans”, has a degree of individuality it cannot be matched by a production fibreglass design; and there’s nothing like satisfaction of sailing something created yourself.