Friday, 13 April 2012

Wooden Boats


When I began this quest to engage in ‘simple sailing, low cost cruising, I tried to make an inventory, a checklist of my boat building, boat maintenance skills – (see ‘Choosing The Boat March 2012’). It’s something I would recommend to everyone. Well’ I have some skills,  I’m a writer of sorts, a member of the Yachting Journalists Association, and so I suppose that might stand me in good stead for dreaming up a name for the boat, but beyond that, the checklist of skills (or lack of them) makes it perfectly clear that I should not attempt to build a boat. 
But a second hand wooden boat – what about that?  I’m at the smaller, cheaper end of the market and wooden boats can be quite inexpensive. Should I be looking towards wood?

The Case for and against wood.

Wood floats! It is a natural material, used over centuries. Its qualities and how to get the best from them are well understood. It has strength and flexibility and it is a versatile material which can be used in a number of ways for boatbuilding. A well maintained traditional  wooden boat always looks good. 
Unfortunately, I am not a trained carpenter and my level of skill as a woodworker did not go beyond ‘O’ Level (for ‘O’ Level read GCSE). If I couldn’t build a traditional wooden boat, could I maintain one? Sadly I’m pretty sure I’d be overwhelmed by simple tasks such as replacing a hull plank, a deck beam, or a cracked rib. If I had a wooden boat there would be little DIY and lots of TDFM,GSI (Too Difficult For Me, Get Someone in!). So, a traditional wooden boat won’t meet my low cost objectives, even though the initial purchase outlay may be lower than craft built with other materials.


I have given some thought to Plywood though, in particular boats built by the ‘stitch and glue’ method. In fact I actually built a Mirror Dinghy some years ago. Now given a fair wind, I think I could probably manage to build a small cruiser using this method; if it came in kit form as did the Mirror.
 A few things concern me though. Firstly, from the kit boats I have seen, it isn’t a particularly cheap means of getting afloat, hardly surprising given that the end result is a brand new sparkling boat. So, if I were to go for plywood, it would have to be a second hand boat and I’m not sure I would be able to tell a good one from a bad one. 

I say this because plywood boats had their heyday in the 1960’s so many of them are now approaching their half century. Plywood relies on the use of appropriate woods, the thickness of its laminates and the quality of the glue binding the laminates together. Does the glue degenerate with time? I don’t know and I can’t find much information on it. For safety therefore I have to presume it does. What I find more worrying though, is that although many of these plywood boats, ‘pocket cruisers’ were of excellent design, they were often built by people like me – backyard boat builders, Saturday shipwrights – whose only claim to competence was the same old school-woodworking certificate that I received at 16 years of age. A number of them also substituted genuine kite-marked ‘Marine Ply’ with an inferior product referred to as ‘Exterior Ply’. The argument was that Marine and Exterior Plywoods were both manufactured using the same waterproof glue and therefore, the quality of Exterior Ply was pretty much as good as that of Marine Ply – despite its much lower price. 

Others argue that while the glue may have been the same, the laminates were thinner, the wood used was of poorer quality and there was less care applied to the manufacturing process. 

From where I sit, I wouldn’t know how to confirm whether or not an old plywood boat was constructed of Marine or Exterior, and I can’t imagine a seller volunteering the information that she was indeed Exterior. I suppose you could take the view that if you are inspecting an old Plywood boat today, and she appears to be in good condition, you can infer that she is of Marine Ply construction, if not she would have rotted and sunk years ago.

I can’t afford to build a Ply kit cruiser of the size I need and although I like the designs of many of those old pocket cruisers, my lack of confidence to assess and maintain one rules the material out for me. 

Cold Moulded, Hot Moulded

Both terms relate to a building process which involves gluing thin laminates of wood over a mould to produce a boat hull. Generally the hull thickness is made up by creating several lays of laminates, the grain of wood in each layer running at 90 degrees to the previous layer. Some hulls built in this fashion are known as ‘double diagonal’. The end result is a light hull of amazing strength – but, at the end of the day  you get something not dissimilar to plywood. As a technique for building a new boat, it would be worth considering but the received wisdom seems to be that if it goes wrong, if it gets damaged, if for any reason water ingress causes de-lamination, you’d better have a pretty strong credit-card. It’s a repair job for a professional yard not a back yard.

Strip Planking

Many of these have been built by amateurs, the technique is to build the hull using thin flexible ‘planks’ glued one on another. They are often then ‘glassed in’. Essentially, there is more wood and less glue (or glass) but my reservations remain, I’m not sure of the long term prospects.

This wouldn’t bother me so much if the boat I had in mind was relatively new – but in my case it would be just my luck to pick one that was terminally ill!

I find this all very sad, because of all the boats I have seen, the wooden ones have the most character. They’re one-off’s, each one built for a purpose and their builders spirit is within them. If you are sure of your skills, this is the way to go – they deserve better than me.