Why use wood to build boats?

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Rowing boat built from wood in the traditional way – and isn’t
it so much more attractive than plastic? Photo from Flickr
Creative Commons, taken by Rick Rowland

Several times now I’ve been promised short articles that answer this question, but as yet no-one has sent me any clear answers – not even those who really should have the information at the top of their heads and have an obvious interest in making the case.

So I was intrigued to find some answers to this question about wooden boatbuilding laid out in a recent post at Tiernan Roe’s weblog Roeboats.  Here are his key points (some are slightly paraphrased):

Where light weight and strength are needed wood is the best material to use.

Pound for pound, wood is stronger than than steel, most fiberglass and aluminium.

On the same basis, wood is stiffer than fiberglass, kevlar or steel.

Wood absorbs vibrations and this includes sound, so wooden boats are quieter.

Wood does not fatigue with repeated loading.

Wood is a renewable resource and the growing of wood removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Wood is eco friendly in that it can be recycled, fiberglass cannot.

Wood looks good.

Wood allows economical, in both materials and cost, custom production of boats.

Wooden boats require similar maintenance to fiberglass boats. Gel coat is not the wonder material it was thought to be.

Tiernan adds that the reason most boats for sale today are made of fiberglass is that they can be made by semiskilled and unskilled workers who are cheaper to hire than the skilled craftspeople needed to build a wooden boat.

I’d add a couple of points to Tiernan’s list. One is that traditional wooden boats bring so much to the landscape – there are many precious places in the UK that would be utterly changed without their characteristic wooden boats – including The Broads, the River Thames, the creeks of the East Coast, and the beaches at Cromer and Hastings.

Another is that when we build in wood or commission others to do so, we are helping to maintain an important tradition. Boatbuilders teach each other, and the skills have long been conveyed by oral transmission. To my mind, this makes boatbuilding a culturally important tradition.

But although I’m obviously an enthusiast for wooden boats and boatbuilding, I’m sure the cause of the wooden boat is best served by a realistic view of the issues, and that many readers of this weblog will have different perspectives based on their own exeriences.

For example, I’m not sure the maintenance argument is entirely justified. I’ve learned that anything in the open air that is covered with gelcoat or a epoxy and a two-part paint requires far less maintenance than anything wooden that’s covered with alkyd paints, varnish or even teak oils. With our busy working and family lives I have no hesitation in saying that we own and use at least one boat that we wouldn’t be able to keep up it on a DIY basis if it was made from wood.

I wonder also whether the argument that building from wood is environmentally friendly has really been made. I’m inclined to believe in global warming and the trouble it is bringing, but I feel also that the arithmetic we presume when we’re making judgements about environmental issues is often overly simplistic. For example, when wood eventually rots its breakdown must release carbon dioxide and the much worse global warming gas methane. So what is the lifetime cost of a wooden boat to the environment compared with a plastic one? I haven’t a clue, but I don’t think the answer should be taken as obvious until someone clever works it through and provides us with the result of their calculations. Just to add a factor that seems relevant, what is the contribution to global warming made by the drying of spirit-based paints and varnish?

These are just a few thoughts of mine.What do you think? Are there any points here you’d argue with? Are there any arguments to add? Comments via the comment link below and at Tiernan’s weblog please!

PS Fans of the US designer John Atkin will be interested to know that Tiernan is currently weblogging the build of a clinker-built Atkin Ninigret.

PPS I’d draw your attention to some of the comments below, particularly those of West Country boat designer, occasional building and general sailing man John Hesp.

18 thoughts on “Why use wood to build boats?”

  1. Gavin, most of Tiernan's list deals with the engineering advantages of wood, as if we bought boats based on these facts. Pleasure boating isn't about engineering it's about enjoyment. For many of us wood is a more enjoyable material for a boat than carbon, glass or steel. Of course peolple do feel the need to justify decisions with "facts", but I think the bottom line is that people like the look of wood (which Tierman acknowledges), they like the feel of wood, they like and understand how it's been produced, and I think we feel a cultural affinity to it too – until recently we were very much a wood using society.

    What a sad reflection on society that we have to say "I bought a wooden boat because it's good at absobing sound and vibrations".

    As for CO2 – I'm no expert but if we only built wooden boats and replanted as many trees as we used there would be no nett increase in CO2 in the atmosphere (leaving aside metal fittings and CO2 created by the manufacture process). But if we only build boats out of oil, and keep a constant number of trees, there will be a nett increase in CO2.

    Trees have been growing, falling over, rotting, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere for years and it hasn't caused a massive increase in atmospheric CO2. On the contrary, the system seems to have negative feedback. Borrowing the use of some of that wood during this cycle won't effect the cylcle.

    On the other hand, digging up oil to build boats is a one way ticket.

    There, I've just done the oversimplification you warned about. But whilst it's a simple analysis, what is basically wrong with it? I think all a more complete analysis would give you is numbers. Instead of knowing we're in trouble we'd know exactly how much we were in trouble.

    1. I do see what you mean – it seems unreasonable to reduce these issues to numbers and engineering criteria when one of the key reasons we go boating is often to get away from such prosaic considerations.

      Nevertheless, these issues are worth considering as I'm sure your inner designer will concede, and the environmental questions are much more subtle than most of us thought at the beginning. I became aware of this when a BBC magazine looked at the issue and decided that the heat consumed in ironing a cotton shirt meant that poly-cotton shirts were a better environmental deal; so it seems to me that we should consider all the inputs and outputs, not just the obvious ones.

      So, for example, what about the spirit fraction of an alkyd paint or varnish? Gaseous hydrocarbons are often very powerful greenhouse gases, and if a boat needs eight coats of varnish every two years, what's the impact of that?

      And of course, carbon emissions are tightly connected to economic activity and human activity in general. If varnishing, painting and all the other aspects of maintenance involve travelling to do the work, employing other people, doing some extra work oneself in order to raise the income to spend on the boat the amount of carbon emissions and liberated greenhouse gases could be huge…

      But by the time I reach this point in the argument, I find my head's spinning.

      On the other side of the issue, some fraction of whatever carbon there is in a plastic boat will remain locked in the material for a very long time.

      I confess I'm baffled by it all. I wish someone would give me some nice, clear well worked answers that left me knowing where I was on all this, and that I could quote when the issue arises.

  2. Hi Gavin,

    I just got these figures from the latest issue of Woodenboat. According to Richard Jagels (Professor of Forest Biology at the University of Maine) the amount of co2 created for 1 square metre of building space in wood requires 1.5kg of co2, for recycled steel 5.2kg of co2 and for newly mined steel 19.3kg. (He gives no source for his figures) Yes the co2 in wood is released when it eventually rots but using wood for long life products like boats is better than using it for "eco" fuel. With regard to the maintenance I was referring to epoxy encapsulated wood like the Ninigret I'm building. There were no figures for fiberglass in the article. I hope that clears up a few things. Of course the wood fiberglass debate is quite subjective in the end.


    Tiernan Roe

  3. According to R. Bruce Hoadley in "Understanding Wood " (The Taunton Press 1980 p 128) "Wood performs well under repeated short-term or cyclic loads without fatigue or becoming brittle," What can I say I believe him.

  4. Gavin, it's not always possible to leave a comment when using Opera for some reason.

    Good point about including consumables. It is more complicated than I supposed. To be fair Diesel/petrol used by the boat should be included, and I suppoose the share of CO2 used by a marina. Do plastic boats use more fuel than wooden boats? Maybe plastic boat owners are more inclined to motor than sail, and maybe plastic boat owners are more attracted to resource hogging marinas? Yes, your right, the head spins.

    If CO2 was taxed more vigourously the market would tend to sort it out.

    "these issues are worth considering as I’m sure your inner designer will concede"

    Yes, I'm just surprised that the most important reason was missing.

    "I wish someone would give me some nice, clear well worked answers that left me knowing where I was on all this, and that I could quote when the issue arises."

    You don't think you've been led down the garden path by what sounds a rather journalistic BBC article? I can guarantee that the energy expended per year ironing my cotton shirts is less than it takes to make a years worth of polyester shirts….

    1. Ironing and washing, to be fair – both need more heat where cotton shirts are concerned. And it seems to me that I've never even owned an iron that got hot enough to iron a cotton shirt properly! How many shirt's in a year's worth btw? 😉

      I'm regularly shocked by how much motoring goes on among sailing craft. Even on grand sailing days it's common to see sailing cruisers motor-sailing, often even on a reach or running, and it isn't just the plastic boats. Why is this, I wonder? They can't all be charging batteries… I often feel that the sound of each piston stroke is the sound of another bite being taken out of the atmosphere, and I've come to really enjoy the rare moments when I can't actually hear an internal combustion engine anywhere around me. Here in the South-East those times are very rare.


  5. I think that a good short answer is that it doesn't really matter: one should do what one can, but the difference between a wooden boat and a steel or fibreglass one after somebody clever figures it out is going to be too small to be worth the trouble. We should use wood because we want to, and save our agonizing about our carbon footprints for the times when it really counts. When we get a house, do I really need 200 m2 or would 120m2 do the job. How about tripple-paned windows and some insulation sooner rather than later? Sure, we need a reasonably big car to haul the family around, but could we get away with an overgrown go-cart for the commute to work? Will an 8 hp outboard get the job done, or do I need the 15? Might a week on a narrowboat be more pleasant than a week on a beach in Thailand? But now I suspect I am starting to preach to the choir.

    One interesting little tidbit I read recently is that the meat industry in one way or another, contributes significantly more to global warming than transportation, worldwide. I am not about to give up my roast lamb, but cutting my meat intake in half would do me good, and probably make a more significant dent in my carbon footprint than all the other little fiddles one reads about put together.

    One other nice thing about wooden boats, which has already been touched on a bit, but a nice one is gives pleasure to people, even when they aren't normally interested in boats. The difference in the reaction of people when I am paddling some rental day-glo plastic fantastic canoe, and when they see me in my little varnished oak and pine S-O-F canoe is remarkable.

    1. You may be right Brian – I'd like to see the calculation done, however.

      On triple glazing, I'm sceptical. I seem to remember writing about the issue years ago, and finding that the energy savings from triple glazing can take a century to pay back the investment. If the returns are so small, I'd suggest there are likely to be other areas we could cut down on that would make more of a difference.

      On meat: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/sep/07

  6. "On triple glazing, I’m sceptical. I seem to remember writing about the issue years ago, and finding that the energy savings from triple glazing can take a century to pay back the investment." … Gavin

    Gavin, at present there's a big difference between £ payback and CO2 payback. What's needed is some sort of mechanism where the cost of dealing with CO2 problems are paid for by the sources of CO2, then triple glazing and the like would look a lot more attractive finacially. Approach this from any angle and it always leads back to higher energy costs. The recession might have lowered energy costs, but I can see us coming out of it with soaring energy costs.

    1. I'm sure a very poor payback in sterling must indicate a poor payback by any measure, including CO2 – a large fraction of the additional cost of making a triple-glazed windown must be in energy costs, and even the wages of the men and women who work in the factory will be linked in some degree to energy costs. Right or wrong, I think of energy sources as the real currency now.

      I'm sure you're right about energy costs rising in terms of the money currencies. I've no idea when that may be, but suspect the economic slump due to rising energy costs will be a humdinger when it comes, and that we'll all have to find ways of living without a lot of the things we take for granted. We'll manage it too, no doubt.


  7. "I’m sure a very poor payback in sterling must indicate a poor payback by any measure, including CO2"

    The wonders of the free market eh? 🙂

    I'm not so sure as you Gavin. If person A manufactures a triple glazed panel using oil based energy sources the cost of energy is very low but the CO2 generated is very high. If person B manufactures the same panel using energy from photovoltaics the cost of energy is very high, but the CO2 released is very low.

    The cost of energy in £s isn't necessarily proportional to the CO2 it releases, on the contrary, and unfortunately, low CO2 energy is proving expensive to generate.

    Why doesn't the free market account for this anomaly? Because the price of a barrel of oil doesn't include the costs incurred by the CO2 generated – global warming. The price I pay for a gallon of petrol in my car doesn't pay for it's contribution of drowning of an atoll in the Pacific. Or the cost of a new barrier for London to cope with the expected 1m rise in sea level. Somebody else pays that price.

    If the global warming cost of fossil fuels is added to that fuel we find ourselves playing a very different game. The cost of the triple glazed panel goes up slightly because of the embodied energy, but the cost of the energy being saved over, say, 20 years is a very worthwhile saving.

    What I'm suggesting isn't a novel idea, in fact it's already happening, but the mechanism needs to be (and will be) broadened to have more coverage.

    Did you know that one barrel of oil contains the same amount of energy as 12 men working for one year? Says it all really doesn't it?

  8. wood fatigue? Theres a tigermoth biplane at our local airport that is probably 60-70 years old with wooden wing spars that DO flex. its still flying with who knows how many hours on it!

  9. Steve, that's nothing. There are some trees round here that are well over 100 years old, and they've been flexing in the wind for most of that time 🙂

  10. For me a wooden boat is the only boat. Call, me a hopeless romantic but there are just some things about a wooden boat you don't get boats made of other materials.

    Image coming back to shore after a day on the water on a foggy day in an aluminum boat and the oars are clunking against metal. My memories are of the clunking of the oars on wood and going up to the cabin (house) with a stringer of fish

    Having worked on aircraft (aluminum) I know that it too deteriorates. Fiberglass does also and putting steel in water just doesn't make sense. I have heard of concrete boats too, but wood floats even by itself, sooooo.,

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