The article below appeared in the Sept./Oct.

2000 issue of

Good Old


Wooden Boat Construction by Mark Smaalders
How they're built and repaired - and the many good reasons for owning one. People have built, paddled and sailed boats for tens of thousands of years. Throughout that time, almost all water craft have been built of wood. Although today wooden boats are seen by many as old fashioned and undesirable, there are still loads of good reasons to own a wooden boat (see Good Old Boat, May iss ue). But what kind of wooden boat? Not surprisingly, there are a number of different construction techniques, each with distinct advantages of its own. From Dugouts to Cold-Molded Racers Our distant ancestors built watercraft by shaping and hollowing logs, with the aid of fire and simple stone tools. Over time those boats were improved, with planks added to increase the boats' capacity and seaworthiness. From such simple beginnings a fascinating variety of craft evolved, but all shared several features: planks were edge fastened (typically with pegs or splines), and each was unique in shape, with the boat's form determined during construction through a combination of tradition, the builder's skill, and the nature of the wood available. Prior to the widespread use of fiberglass, such edge-fastened craft accounted for most of the world's small, locally built fishing and trading craft. The technique is still in use today in some remote areas, with boat builders who have never set eyes on a designer's drawings producing lovely, seaworthy boats. Today's yachts are almost universally built to carefully drawn plans, but the tradition of smooth hulls with edge-fastened planks lives on. Strip planking, where nails and glue join the planks, and a keel replaces the origi nal log, is the modern equivalent. Boat builders in northern Europe developed the edge -fastened vessel to the utmost, using thinner planks and lapping them to provide extra strength. The Norse longboats proved themselves over the centuries on the rough Nor th Sea, and the building technique has stood the test of time as well, remaining essentially unchanged as today's lapstrake planking. As capable and beautiful as they are, lapstrake boats do have some limitations, among them constraints in the boat's shape, and the difficulty in building really large boats. Bigger Vessels

being supported by an internal skeleton rather than by the adjacent planks.As European trade and military forces expanded some 500 to 600 years ago. lapstrake and carvel planking. With large timber becoming scarce. form the five most common boat building methods. and came to be known as carvel planking. or glued up from thin veneers. The majority of wooden yachts afloat today are carvel planked. such as carvel planking. creating an almost one piece hull (as in cold-molded and some modern plywood hulls)? This is important not just from the standpoint of building a boat. where thin veneers are glued together to form the boat's skin. There are many variations in how boats are constructed. Among other advantage s. but also largely determines how repairs should be carried out. they are more often laminated up from thinner s tock. fastened to the framework and its neighboring planks (lapstrake and strip planking). In the past. the keel. it allows the builder to maintain precise control over the shape of a boat during construction. . Is it fastened only to the framework (as in carvel planking). together with strip. But one of the most important distinctions between wooden boats remains the way in whi ch the planking is fastened. more than likely. any boat you encounter was built using one of them. Modern adhesives such resorcinol and epoxy have led to new construction methods. These. Carvel Planking The structure of a carvel planked hull is easily unde rstood if you imagine yourself building such a boat. and cold-molding. It led European builders to develop a construction technique where each plank was independent of the next. so did the demand for larger and more burdensome vessels. and suggests what one should look for when evaluating the condition of an older boat. This revolutionary technique was adopted for use in smaller craft. stem and stern post were usually sawn to shape from large timbers that were then bolted together. including the use of plywood for planking. even if we restrict ourselves to one basic method. and. Is there a best technique? Are all carvel or strip-planked boats created equal? And is there a reason to consider anything other than the latest epoxy-glued cold molded hull? Let's find out.

or longitudinal stringers. Ribbands. spaced every 6 to 12 inches. caulking also helps makes a boat's structure more rigid. along the keel. and to each frame -. awaiting transom and ribbands. but a spacing of 8 to 12 inches is typical. Instead. Wynfall molds being set up. This is done first with the stem. or rivets to hold each plank in place. at the stern. and the size of the boat. Although sawn frames are sometimes used. When braced upright. almost all larger carvel planked vessels are built right-side up. the former method is most common on the east coast. Frames can be installed either inside or outside the ribbands. the hull is caulked. which will act to seal the seams as the planks swell after the boat is launched. down along the keel. The molds and ribbands together form a rigid framework over which a carvel hull is built. using nails. are also fitted at this time. plywood. most small to medium sized yachts employ steam-bent or laminated frames. Floors can be of wood. and the latter on the west.Wynfall with molds in place. this backbone mimics a child's drawing of a boat. Frame and floor spacing varies with each design. . Planking is fastened with bronze screws to steamed frames. when planking is complete. usually with cotton. outlining the shape from the bow. screws. Planking is applied over the frames. Planks are fastened wherever they touch on the hull's framework -. which can be thought of as temporary bulkheads spaced every few feet for the entire length of the boat. steel or bronze. Although many small dinghies and open boats are built upside down. By forcing each plank against its neighbor. which serve to connect frames to keel. Floors. Wynfall planked with red cedar. and up to the stern. To define the shape of the hull a ribcage is added to the backbone. are then fastened over the molds.but not to each other.

Generally speaking. though the technique of spiling. small boats may even be built using only one midships mold. as they provide the planking with its only support. But the quality of the wood and the work must be good. And while a few cracked frames on a strip-planked hull can often be ignored. meaning that ribbands can be dispensed with when setting up. giving access to the damaged backbone. . giving even an unfinished hull considerable strength. Molds are erected on the backbone as with carvel planking. and which involves cold molding several layers of veneer over a conventionally planked hull. rather than before. The fewer the molds. This allows lapstrake hulls to be framed after they have been planked. but these are usually more widely spaced.Simple repairs Repairing a carvel-planked boat is simple in some respects because planks are fastened only to the framework. Vertical grain timber should be used for planking stock. as the interior of the boat must often be dismantled in order to reach and replace damaged frames or floors. and repairs must take this into account. cracked frames on a carvel hull shoul d be repaired. The laminated outer "skin" has sufficient strength to resist the movement of the original planking. Lapstrake Planking Lapstrake hulls generally use a backbone similar to that of a carvel planked boat. Once the fasteners are removed (this is easiest with planks that are screw fastened) a damaged plank or two can be removed. but from there the construction differs. and not to each other. On the other hand. Old planks can be used as patterns. The exception to this rule is the rather radical fix that is sometimes done to older hulls. the more the shape of the boat will be determined by the bending characteristics of the wood. is not difficult to learn. used to determine the shape of a plank when no pattern exists. and fits must be precise. Planks are lapped over each other and fastened at each lap. the independence of the various parts of a carvel hull must be maintained: planks swell and shrink and the entire structure moves. all with a minimum of fuss. Major structural repairs on carvel hulls can be difficult. replacements made and then fastened in place. major repairs to stem and stern are eased by the fact that planks can be removed quite easily. and the result can be a new lease on life for a tired old boat.

Repairs are largely similar to those on carvel hulls. steam-bent or laminated. easing the boatwright's task somewhat. Strip Planking Strip planking bridges modern and traditional building techniqu es. and additional fastenings (usually nails) join . starting with the garboard plank. Plywood can be used as planking stock. Frames may be sawn. and these and any floors usually installed after planking is complete. except that there are also fastenings between planks to worry about. which is secured to keel and stem. Subsequent planks are fastened at the stem or transom and where they lap over their neighbors. and the fit of the planks is even more critical. and if the original construction featured glued plank laps new planks could be epoxied in place.Once the molds have been trued and faired. rivets or clench nails are commonly used. In its traditional form it might be thought of as a modified type of carvel planking. planking can begin. and the laps are often glued as well. where the frames are a bit more widely spaced.

In its modern form. with glass cloth or other reinforcing (set in epoxy) providing the necessary athwartship strength. and the planking would be fastened to the backbone and the frames in much the same way. today strip-planked hulls are typically glued up with epoxy. and the best builders use square copper or ringed bronze boat nails. But the fastenings between planks must all be cut when removing . setup. strips are also available that incorporate a tongue and groove. The backbone. This makes it possible to glue replacement plank sections directly in place. concave on the top and convex on the bottom. Backbones are almost always laminated. due to the multitude of fastenings and glue joining the planks. built in 1964. Most builders fasten the strips with both glue and nails. and may be built without frames. using an inner and outer stem that simplifies both setting up and planking. strip planking has more in common with cold -molding. The first strip being fitted on a strip planked Kahuna.each plank to its neighbor. and construction techni que would otherwise mirror that used with carvel planking. Nomad . The strips themselves are often specially shaped. that even features a caulking seam along stem and garboard. I own a strip planked boat. Strip planked hulls move very little.

Molds are set up. Thin veneers are laid over this framework. with molds and ribbands defining the hull's shape. it's with the advent of epoxy that laminated hulls. On some hulls the ribbands may become part of the final hull. and then several layers of . the hull is planked with a layer of thin strips. Cold-molded hulls are set up in much the same way as their carvel cousins (although almost always inverted). new woo d must be scarfed or laminated onto the existing structure. and this can be a frustrating job. it can provide an excellent moisture barrier when used to coat or sheath timbers.damaged or rotten planking. In addition. backbone repairs on strip-built boats must be managed with planking in place. An excellent way of doing this is to combine strip planking with coldmolding. with each subsequent layer set at 90 degrees to the former. constructed of thin strakes or veneers. Laminated Construction Although the technique of cold-molding far predates the epoxy era. Epoxy is a high strength adhesive that bonds well to most woods. serving as stringers. These properties have made it possible to build lightweight laminated boat hulls that absorb a minimum of moisture as they age. have become commonplace. Framing usually consists of bulkheads and stringers. usually starting at 45 degrees to the keel. As a result. what's more. stern or keel as one can do with carvel and lapstrake hulls. a procedure that can be very difficult if the repair is extensive. Typically. it is impossible to back the planks off the stem. though it is increasingly common to build frameless hulls.

They were usually sheathed with fiberglass cloth set in polyester resin. providing the material is of good quality (marine grade i s best).usually v-bottomed -. gaining access is often the most difficult task. . This eliminate s the need for ribbands or stringers. and to support the new planking as it is being glued and fastened in place. and it is properly protected. joinery. temporary internal framing may be required to help define the shape of the hull.were often planked with plywood over a substantial framework of sawn frames and longitudinal stringers. Older boats -. Repairs to cold-molded hull planking are carried out by laminating new wood directly in place. An Old Captivity (Austral design) being fitted with a first layer of veneer. Ensure that you have an especially thorough survey done if you are contemplating the purchase of an older plywood boat. and plywood's tendency to rot when saturated with moisture. they must also be repaired. and its use is generally limited to decks. But fine boats can be built with plywood. having beveled or stepped back the edges of the damaged area. and the resulting hull is very strong. With cold-molded hulls damaged frames and longitudinal stringers can be cut back and new wood laminated directly in place. If a cold-molded hull has many internal stringers and these are damaged. If the damage is extensive. makes this far from certain. but polyester resin's poor adhesion to wood. As with the repair of frames on a carvel planked hull.veneer are laid over the strip planking. Plywood Construction Plywood does not enjoy a good reputation as a boat building material. Boa ts built in this way may still be sound after 25 or 30 years. and small craft. Backbone repairs on these hulls generally have the same complications as do those on strip planked hulls.

On older hulls. low maintenance boat. strong. It's an excellent construction method that can produce a beautiful. To my mind nothing beats a well finished carvel planked hull for its feel and . although much hype has attended the development of boat building epoxies in the past 20 years. even the use of modern "miracle" materials doesn't guarantee btrouble freeoat. the result virtually mirrors cold-molded construction. How sound any older wooden boat will be depends on many factors. and need little interior framing. The type of boat would narrow the options somewhat: plywood is not suitable for round-bilge hulls. and this may be a contributor to the glue failures that have been experienced with some cold -molded hulls in recent years. Remember that fiberglass was once thought to be mamaintenance free and no thoughts were given to the need for painting or blister repair. and some designers have adopted a radiused chine to overcome the disadvantages of a chine hull form. and possibly using alternatives (such as reresorcinol for some applications. Repairs to plywood planking are relatively easy. .Modern plywood construction almost always incorporates epoxy. These generally require no lofting or setting up. we're now learning that building a wooden boat with epoxy doesn't mean that problems can't develop. the type and quality of the original timber and workmanship. and circumstance. but in being aware of the potential for trou ble. If hull planking is laminated from two or more layers of thinner plywood. Regrettably. What to Look for in an Older Wooden Boat Well built wooden boats can last for decades. On newer hulls constructed with epoxy the usual complications arise. The answer lies not in avoiding epoxies at all cost. a properly built cold-molded boat will almost certainly require less regular maintenance. Epoxies weaken dra matically as temperature increases. Designs for "stitch and glue" construction are also becoming increasingly commo n. I'd consider boats constructed using any of the techniques I've described. usually with the laps bonded with epoxy. and scarfing in a new section. Plywood's primary limitation is its inability to bend in two directions at once. Plywood is also finding increasing use as a planking material for lapstrake hulls. and involve beveling or stepping back the plywood at the edge of the damaged area. If I was contemplating the purchase or construction of a wooden boat. Similarly. backbone repairs can be tackled fairly easily after removing any necessary hull sheathing.ambiance and there are more good old carvel boats to choose from than any others. Is there a "best" construction technique? Not to my mind. but all boats can and will develop problems over time. and the maintenance they've received over the years. where the plywood has not been epoxied to the backbone. including the design. and lapstrake planking is best used on boats of about 25' and less in length. On the other hand. making them much faster to build. But in many ways the choice comes down to one of personal preference.

when hard aground on a rocky ledge. there's a lot that most boats can tell you about their condition. in part because one of the biggest unknowns the buyer of an older boat faces is the quality of the wood that has gone into t he boat. and accelerates corrosion and decay in most materials. Keep in mind. Taken as a whole. you'll want any boat checked out by a professional who specializes in wood. Besides. and even the best set of plans is not always followed by a builder.have to withstand a range of loads and impacts. easy-to-maintain wooden boat in a future article. or hits an object as sea. Boats -.a boat planked with teak is less likely to develop rot than one planked with pine or mahogany -. The Nature of Wood . but if you look carefully. which seeks to tear a hole in stern.and particularly sailing craft -. however. We'll review the construction and design details that make for a long-lived. while others should definitely be avoided.but an inexperienced or unscrupulous builder may use an inferior grade of an otherwise excellent timber species.can be valuable.Knowing the origins of a boat -. The Structure of Boats and the Nature of Wood Boat hulls are more than just a sleekly shaped vessel whose job it is to keep the water out. The hull and deck must be strong enough to withstand loads from tons of water. and builders and designers have developed some remarkably complex structures to handle those loads. Buying a boat constructed by a reputable builder can help avoid such difficulties. resulting in future problems. wooden boats are individual creations. Unless you're an expert. Finally. such as those that occur when a boat is propped up ashore. special reinforcing must be built in to cope with loads such as those from the mast. some features are especia lly desirable. The problem is complicated by the fact that we expect our boats to be capable of withstanding these loads for years. that many fine wooden boats have been built by unknown craftsmen working in tiny shops and backyards. Knowing the species of wood used is important -. the hull has to be stiff enough to resist bending forces when supported between two waves. even the best built boat may be in sad condition if not properly cared for.who designed and built her -. and the rudder. and from the pull of shrouds and stays. and to cope with point loads. What's more. which does its best to punch a hole through the bottom. The marine environment is harsh. The best way to evaluate a wooden boat's condition is thr ough a thorough survey. In addition. Boats must be designed and built with an extra factor of strength in order to cope with the inevitable deterioration that takes place over time.

Click above to go back to Publications . It is no accident that. All wooden craft benefit from wood's remarkable structural properties. easily worked form. they simply mean that such craft will be somewhat heavier than a laminated hull of the same strength. but traditionally constructed hulls can't take full advantage of the properties of wood due in part to the difficulty in effectively fastening all the various pieces together. as it combines strength and resilience in a lightweight. such as resisting tensile loads.stiffer for its weight -. it will prove amply strong in other respects. including high techlaminates. historically. but not all boat building m aterials are equally suited to the task. Wood combines stiffness with light weight in a way that makes it structurally more efficient -. many woods are two or even three times stronger when dry than they are when saturated with moisture. most boats have been built of wood. In general.than just about any other material. if a material can resist bending or flexing.Boats can be built out of almost anything. They also absorb far more moisture than is ideal. due t o its exceptional stiffness. In many respects wood is the ideal boat building material. The stiffness of a material is largely what determines how much it bends when under load. These drawbacks don't make traditional construction a poor choice.

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