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.

What John Welsford does with mashed potato

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The transom for John Welsford’s new cruising dinghy design, Pilgrim. Read
about this interesting small boat at his Pilgrim Diaries

Well known New Zealand boat designer, builder and cruiser John Welsford has written tell us about a technique he has developed for testing the rot-resisting properties of unknown timber and plywood:

‘Hi Gav,

‘I thought that you might like to put my comment about mashed spuds in connection with rot testing.

‘Just to stir things up a bit you understand!

‘Rot is due to fungus and needs food, moisture and oxygen in order to grow and spread. Cut off one or more of those and you don’t get rot.

‘Also, rot, like most fungi, spreads far more rapidly in warm conditions.

‘My test method involves placing the sample on a dish in the warmth of the kitchen, and covering it with mashed potato. Potatoes are almost all starch, a form of sugar, and mashing it up with milk brings even more sugars. Mashed potatoes also hold moisture and, being light and fluffy (if made properly) they admit oxygen. So a layer of mashed ‘taties accelerates the rate at which rot takes hold and multiply and is a workable if unusual method of testing wood for susceptibilty for fungal decay. You should see what I do with raspberry jam!

‘Yours, John’

Many thanks John. I might try it some time, though I’d be a bit concerned about this as a practical test. Done properly, it would demand not just well made mash, but would also require brewing up quite a number of different samples. It’s a very interesting idea, but could also be a recipe for trouble in the kitchen that could test more than a piece of wood!

I wonder whether it would work if conducted where no-one goes, round the back of the shed in the summer, and under a plastic sheet?

For more intheboatshed.net posts relating to John Welsford’s boat plans, click here.

For more on John’s plans, see his website; also, there’s a nice new weblog about building a small cruising yacht to his Fafnir plans here.

A busy yard with some great projects to its name – and many more to come

Newson’s boatyard stands by Oulton Broad in Lowestoft, Suffolk – that is, right on the East Coast of England and at the gateway to the Norfolk Broads.

Restoration is only one part of the company’s business, for it is also a boatbuilder in wood, steel and fibreglass, makes masts, and undertakes surveys and engine installations. Nevertheless, Newson’s has surely done some terrific boat and yacht restoration projects of various sizes, and the company has kindly promised to let us publish some of their photos over time.

Just for a start, though take a look at the William & Kate Johnston (pictured below), and then take a look around for a taste of what’s to come from this yard:

This is where it is:

Launched in 1923, William & Kate Johnston was designed as a prototype lifeboat by James R. Barnett, Consulting Naval Architect to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and at the time of her launch she was the largest lifeboat in the world at 60ft in length. She was built with a double diagonal teak hull by J. Samuel White and Co at Cowes. For more on her:

If you would like to see your yard, project or boat listed here, please email us at gmatkin@gmail.com . There’s no charge, and no catch.

William & Kate Johnston