06 December 2009

The Quest for Wood

Sometimes you have to choose between your boat and your mother.

I'm the one with the big head
Photo by Dad

Working on Cabin Boy has become something of an obsession for me, but when my mom developed some health issues that required her first-born son to fly off to Florida, work on my boat came to a screeching halt. However, as a side effect, I did develop a severe case of BSA (Boat Separation Anxiety.)

To make a long story short, my mom is doing great and I cured my BSA by putting the long hours in doctor's waiting rooms to good use, re-reading Greg Rössel's "Building Small Boats" and drawing up a complete lumber list for Cabin Boy.

Now back in New York, I am ready to tackle what must be a difficult job for all novice boat builders: finding the wood.

And not just any wood, mind you, but the half-inch of wood that will someday be the only thing between my foot and the bottom of the deep blue sea. Or at least the bottom of Huntington Bay.

When John Atkin drew Cabin Boy, he didn't bother to draw up a lumber list. I imagine his audience of hearty, do-it-yourselfers would have been insulted if he had. So it was up to me to study the 5 pages of plans, and to visualize each and every plank and chine and seat riser, so I could add the stick of wood I'd need to my list:


W Oak
1 3/4" x 4 3/4" x 2'
W Oak
5/8" x 5" x 8'
W Cedar
5/8" x 16" x 38"
Centerboard trunk
W Cedar
3/4" x 4" x 6'


Chines (2)
W Oak
5/8" x 1 5/8" x 9'
Seat Risers (2)
W Oak
5/8" x 1 5/8" x 9'
W Oak
5/8" x 1 5/8" x 9'
Planks (8)
W Cedar
7/16" x 6-12" x 9'
Side frames (8)
W Oak
5/8" x 1 3/4" x 1.2'


Cross planks
W Cedar
5/8" x 4" x 60'
Spines (20)
W Cedar
5/8" x 4" x 8'


Forward thwart
W Cedar
5/8" x 8" x 2' 3"
Center thwart
W Cedar
5/8" x 8" x 3' 8"
W Cedar
5/8" x 11" x 3'


Knees, breast hook, oar lock doublings
W Oak
5/8" x various
Skeg/stern post/mast step/mast reinforcement under twart/stern knee
W Oak
3/4" x 8" x 4'

By 'W Oak', I mean air-dried White Oak. And by 'W Cedar', I mean air-dried White Cedar, flitch sawn if I can find it.

Atlantic White Cedar Tree
photo: US Fish & Wildlife Svc

Air-dried simply means that the wood, cut 'green' from a log, has been stacked up with small sticks between the boards to allow air ciculation, covered loosely, and allowed to sit quietly for a year or two, drying at it's own pace.

This is opposed to kiln-drying, which speeds up the drying process by circulating warm, dry air through the stack. As far as I know, the wood is not actually baked in kiln.

Like many other elements of boat building, the question of air-drying vs. kiln-drying is fought over with religious fervor. I spent a lot of time studying this question, and as far as I can tell, you can build a good boat using either type of wood. However, I've been told that air-dried is both better and cheaper than kiln-dried. I am hoping that this is so.

[If you have an opinion you'd like to share on this topic, I'd be very glad to hear from you. Please leave a comment below!]

For those with even less experience than me, I can tell you that it is possible to dither over your lumber list for a very long time. But if you want to actually build that boat, eventually you just have to say 'good enough' and go shopping.

That brings me to the next big question: where, exactly, do you buy air-dried White Oak and White Cedar? The guys at Home Depot don't have it. Nor do the big, construction-oriented lumber yards. At least, not on Long Island. I've looked.

No, to acquire genuine, boat-building lumber, you need to seek out small mills in out of the way places, and that is exactly what I intend to do in the next week or so.

To prepare, I've made a list, both for myself, and other newbies in the New York area who stumble upon this blog in the future. The names on this list come from Google, recommendations of helpful builders on the Wooden Boat forum, and adverts in the back of Wooden Boat magazine.

Roberts Plywood
Deer Park, NY
Suburban Mills
Huntington Station, NY
Harned Brothers Saw Mill
Commack, NY
M.L. Condon
White Planes
Wood, Steel, & Glas
Madison, CT
203 245 1781
Peter marlowe Forest Products
Guilford, CT
New England Naval Timbers
Peter Kitonis
Elmore, VT
Boulter Plywood Corp
Somerville, MA
South Jersey Lumberman's
Mays Landing, NJ

As I said, I haven't paid a visit to any of these mills or yards yet, so I can't personally recommend any of them, but each has been recommended to me by at least one builder.

In the next week or so, I plan to visit as many of these mills and yards as possible, taking lots of pictures and video. I'll relate my buying experiences in future blog posts, and hopefully score the lumber I need to build Cabin Boy!

Again, if you have any experience with these companies that you'd like to share, or would like to recommend other suppliers within a hundred miles or so from New York, please share by leaving a comment below, or by shooting me an email at john@unlikelyboatbuilder.com.

This is going to be fun!

Next Episode: The Cruelest Lesson


This week's video: Wonder how they sawed wood before electricity? Here's how they did it in Holland.

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 figured 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


  1. From where you live, Suburban sounds like the best place, right in your back yard.

    If they don't have what you want, I can vouch for one of the next closer places, M.L. Condon in White Plains. They're cedar is Atlantic White cedar, which is actually a Juniper variant from the New Jersey area. It is very slightly more brittle than Maine White, but a lot closer than the next place that has Maine cedar, Wood Steel and Glass. Condon typically keeps two stacks, all flitch sawn, out in the open at the end of their yard. The flitches are 16 feet long, 4 quarters thick, and have heartwood ranging mostly from 8-10 inches with an occasional 12 inch piece. Yard workers will happily open a pile for you, by fork lifting it into two parts. You can then pick through for what you want. Some say Condon's prices are high, and they might be. However, they are within easy driving distance for me, and that saves me trucking costs. I can also select what I know I will be able to use. My last boat used 8 or 9 flitches at an average cost of $75 each. The yard workers are generous in their pricing. Point out the end checking or splits and they'll report the usable length to the sales office.

    I haven't used their oak, but have seen one very large bay full of both white and red. I don't know if they have air dried suitable for steam bending.

    They also have a very good selection of other hardwoods, from ash to the exotics, and some of the finer softwoods like Sitka spruce and Western red cedar.

  2. That's interesting. That means I should be able to get all 4 planks for one side out of one board, if I resaw each plank.

  3. Condon is way too expensive.

    Their supplier is Beet Lumber Co., in Manns Harbor, NC. 10 or more years ago, I bought lumber from Bill Beety. He is a great guy, has what you need and will saw any boat lumber for you.

    Whether you go down there, pick out what you want and bring it back yourself. or have him pick the lumber out and ship it to you, he has been supplying small boat builders all his life and I trust him 110%.

    Of course, you will have to pay shipping. But that is the way it is. He used to get really good shipping discounts from the motor freight guys particularly to the upper NE.

    And his lumber is long and clear. Not knotty like the local (to me) NJ material in the Charlie Hankins, Sea Bright Skiff video.

    Tell him me, Matt Prusik, sent you.

    FWIW, I am also on the OT List and got here because of your posting about the Blog there. Keep up the good work.


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