30 September 2009

I Decide to Build a Wooden Boat

I could have titled this blog post 'I decide to go to the moon'. That's how difficult building a wooden boat seems to me. I keep reading that boat building is the most difficult form of wood working -- far more complicated than fine furniture building.

Furniture mainly involves small bits of wood joined at right angles. There are few right angles in a boat. Traditional round-bottom wooden boats aren't built, they are carved. Every plank on the hull is a different shape, curved and beveled and hollowed out to fit the constantly changing shape of the boat. And unlike your average Chippendale that lives in a cozy bedroom, a boat needs to keep the ocean out while being beaten up by the best King Neptune can throw at her.

And there's another problem...

People have been telling me I’m unhandy since I was a small child. My brother was the handy one. He had a good eye. He was tall and strong. He looked good holding tools, and he could whip up a tree house or interplanetary space ship in no time.

I was the bookish one. I preferred reading about people who built tree houses or interplanetary space ships. Tools felt awkward in my hands, and I guess they looked awkward, too, because my father was forever shaking his head at me, and telling the neighbors over the fence that my brother was the handy one...

But somewhere in the middle of middle age, I decided to build a boat. I have a few good reasons.

First, I am sick of computers. Yes, I know I'm typing on one right this very moment, but, though I enjoy the challenge of imagining and creating useful, and occasionally profitable, software applications, I'm ready for a change... a big change.

For the first time in my life, I have the strong desire to work outside, with my hands as well as my head. And rather than building something abstract and insubstantial like a computer program, I want to see and feel the results of my labor. And the more hefty and substantial the result, the better.

Second, in the next year or so, my goal is to take an installment on semi-retirement and go for a long sail. A very long sail. I'm too young to actually retire, but I've worked hard to get my software business to the point where I can work anywhere there's a cell phone signal. That includes most of the coast of the US, Europe, the Caribbean. I can work and get 'out there' at the same time.

But while looking for the right boat, my wife, Helena, was drawn not to nice, sensible fiberglass boats, but to beautiful old wooden boats.

This won't surprise anyone who knows Helena, but my reaction was typical of anyone who has grown up in the modern world of sailing. Wooden boats are too much work! We'll spend more time maintaining her than sailing her! I don't know anything about wooden boats! I'm not handy!

Naturally, these arguments had no effect on Helena, who is rarely swayed by logic and has a deranged-but-bracing confidence in my hidden, and even unsuspected, abilities. So I promised to 'look into it'.

Wooden boats have some substantial advantages over fiberglass or metal boats for the long distance cruiser.

It's easier to customize them, or alter the cabin arrangements, for example. Your typical 36' sailboat is designed to sleep 6. This is 4 more bunks than we need and a waste of space where space is in chronic short supply. It would be nice to replace them with storage or a work bench. Making major modification to the layout of a fiberglass boat is a nasty, unhealthy business requiring special tools and buckets of epoxy. Customizing a wooden boat requires simple hand tools, wood, and screws.

Also, wooden boats are infinitely repairable. They are built of individual pieces that can be removed and replaced with easily available materials. Many old wooden boats have been rebuilt two or even three times. The boat I crewed on this summer, The Christine, was built the same year as the Brooklyn Bridge, the same year Thomas Edison was electrifying New York City. She was rebuilt a few years ago, and will easily last another hundred years, when she might be ready for another rebuild.

Most importantly for Helena, wooden boats are more beautiful, warmer, and more comfortable than a plastic or metal boat can ever be. Most importantly for me, wooden boats are about as low tech as you can get.

Or perhaps 'retro-tech' is a better way to put it, since in fact wooden boats embody thousands of years of development by people whose livelihood and lives depended on them. Wooden sailboat are indeed high tech, from that perspective.

To make a long story short, I ended up agreeing with Helena that a wooden boat would be the best choice if -- and this was a big 'if', given my near-zero wood working skills -- I could learn enough about them to fix them. And the best way to learn how wooden boats are put together and how to maintain them, I thought, would be to build one from scratch.

My logic was, if I can build one, I can fix one. The next question was, which boat should I build?

Next Installment: A Boat Chooses Me

I hope you're enjoying "The Unlikely Boat Builder" as much as I enjoy writing it. Some people have asked for a way to be notified automatically when I post new episodes. I've just figure out how to do this, so if you'd like to be notified, please click on the link below. I promise I'll never spam you (and Google will have my head if I do.)

Thanks for your interest!

-- John

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  1. I'll be interested to see where this project leads you. Well written, Uncle John.

  2. Hey, I built my first boat in the spring. It's great!

  3. I am enjoying this. You are an excellent writer.

    I have built a couple of very small boats. I built a cedar strip canoe, and a 2.5 mm plywood kayak. The strip canoe was a beautiful piece of work. It looked like finished furniture. Both the inside and the outside were fiberglass, which contributed to its look. I was surprised how strong the fiberglass made it.

  4. If I tried to use glue, I'd end up as part of the boat.

  5. John

    I have 25 years in software development and I too am intending to head off for a life on the ocean wave. Unlike you, I am saving for the boat. I think that the change of life style is sufficient without the added complication of actually having to build the d*rn thing as well.

    I admire your bravery.

  6. I own a cheoylee clipper 36 I would like to shorten the bowsprit any problems with that?

  7. Fiberglass boats are low maintenance and durable. They don’t deteriorate like wooden boats do. Fiberglass fibers are lightweight, stronger than steel, and won’t stretch or rot.

  8. I came upon this from a search about the difficulty of boat building. I am a nearing 50 woman who took wood shop but really isn't handy. I want to maybe take boat building classes in Port Hadlock WA. I mentioned this to a 30 somethings male contractor and he was very disheartening.. mind you the guy doesn't know me. he was just sitting at my bar drinking wine. he said he doubted I could learn it and most definitely lacked the skill sets. I was thinking about learning for myself and possibly to start building small rowing skiffs ala whitehall.. possibly small sailing boats. I feel like it's never to late to stretch yourself and do something new. Kudos to you for this endeavor.


    1. All I can say is, if I can do it, anyone can.

      'Nearing 50' means you're a young woman with plenty of time to learn. You just have to make the commitment and get started. You know what they say: you've completed half the journey when you put your coat on, pick up your walking stick, and walk out the front door.

      Get to it!

    2. You can do it. I know this is an old post (it's 2022 now and I'm just reading this). I hope you built your boat. I am 53 and building a 75 footer. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't.

  9. And remember: it takes just as long to do NOTHING.

    That's one of my favorite sayings ;-)

  10. Its a good experience to built a wooden boat. However step by step it has described. I think Its a nice explanation.

  11. I've never been on a trip out on the ocean on my boat. Mostly, because of location, I've only done the lakes and rivers. Calm rivers. I liked your blog post. It reminds me of how I felt when I was deciding to start my build. I kind of felt silly, like I can't build a boat. But even though I had some hiccups along the way, it was so much fun. So much more fun than sitting in the office. When I finally got it out there on the water... Wow. no words can explain the sense of freedom. I hope you get there and I'm proud of your work. Keep it up!

  12. Very impressive that you not only decided to build a wooden boat but actually made it happen! You put a lot of thought and prep into the project and I can tell that it paid off, cheers!

  13. Your narrative is captivating, and your decision to embark on the challenging journey of building a wooden boat is both inspiring and courageous. It's clear that your motivation stems from a desire for a tangible change, a departure from the virtual world of computers to the hands-on experience of crafting something substantial.

    The contrast between your bookish past and your current endeavor to build a boat is both amusing and heartwarming. Your yearning for a connection with the outdoors and the physical manifestation of your efforts reflects a profound shift in priorities.

    Your exploration of wooden boats, driven by your wife's attraction to their beauty and character, unveils the practical advantages they offer for long-distance cruising. The idea that wooden boats allow for customization with simple tools and materials, along with their repairability and timeless appeal, makes them a compelling choice.

    Your decision to learn about wooden boats by building one from scratch is not only logical but also a testament to your determination to understand and master this craft. The notion that building one would equip you with the skills to fix and maintain it resonates with a practical and hands-on approach to learning.

    As you ponder the choice of which boat to build, the anticipation of the journey ahead is palpable. The mix of excitement, uncertainty, and the potential for a transformative experience makes your story relatable and engaging.

    I wish you the best of luck on your boat-building adventure. May each step of this journey bring you the fulfillment and satisfaction you seek. If you have any further updates or questions about your boat-building project, feel free to share!


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