About me and My Boats

Rev. August, 2003

The new boat was inverted on the supports, yesterday’s last coat of varnish thoroughly dried.  As builders are wont to do, I ran my hand over the smooth shiny surface, sensitive fingertips on the lookout for any runs or serious dust nibs that would require attention.  Finding nothing of consequence, I was struck by the seeming perfection of construction in the area I had just touched.  All the joints were tight, there were no gaps filled with epoxy and sanding dust – a perfect hull.  Almost.  Just another hand swipe away there were filled gaps between strips and fills of the cracked out edges on some of the mahogany hull strips, all covered and smoothed by that final last ditch solution upon which most builders depend – fiberglass and epoxy.  Less than a perfect hull.  I silently wondered what it would take so that no matter where I (or anyone else, for that matter) critically examined one of my boats, there would be nothing less than perfection.  There were areas on this hull that were perfect; showing that, with more attention to the details of craftsmanship, it should be possible to approach perfection over the entire hull.

For those who may think that trying to build the perfect boat is a waste of paddling time, I understand completely.  After all, it’s a boat, not furniture.  When I was building my first canoe, it seemed like forever until I finished making the strongback, cut and mounted the forms, hacked the stems to shape, and finally got started laying strips.  Each step in the building process was hastily completed just so I could see how it turned out and get on with the next.  Seemingly minor details were ignored in the interest of speed, the lack of patience later to manifest itself as mediocre woodworking.  But it was an exciting time, seeing the hull take shape over just a few days.  The end result looked good and paddled great, but upon closer inspection, it was disappointing.  I knew I could do a better job, and set about planning to build another boat to do just that.  The boat I chose was an Adirondack guideboat based on a 1905 design, but built with cedar strips.  It turned out much better than the first.  No unsightly staple holes screaming “Look where the forms were!”  No gaps between strips, better color matching of the strips, fewer filled cracks - but still there were problems.  The fiberglassing could have been better, the trim joinery could have been tighter, and the seat mounts were much too bulky.  Oh, it rows like a dream, fast and quiet.  But it wasn’t perfect…

Why Build a Boat?

The way I see it, there are two approaches to building a boat.  You have no boat but have a definite need for one, or you have a burning desire to build one whether you have one or not.

In the first case, you may want to get out on the water and enjoy the solitude of a misty morning, or explore the twists and turns of a placid stream, or pack the boat with gear and supplies for an extended wilderness trip.  Fishing, hunting, observing wildlife, or whatever your fancy, the boat becomes the means to an end - enjoying that which can only be had by using the boat.

In the second case, you want to build a boat.  Period.  No time table, no dedicated use, no reason to build it other than the sheer pleasure of building it.  The boat itself is the end product of many pleasant hours spent with cedar strips, sanding dust, and epoxy.   The completed boat will get paddled as the culmination of the building process, and not as the beginning of some other purpose.   In this latter case, the builder applies all of his wood working skills to produce a craft which, in his estimation, is the finest that he could build.  It is an exciting new project for the inveterate wood worker; an imposing but winnable challenge for the novice.

That building a boat from wood strips is a pleasurable experience is an undeniable truth.  So much so, in fact, that the first time builder is often moved to build another, perhaps a third, and so on, resulting in the original need for a boat evolving into a new and fascinating hobby or even a profession.  An appreciation of wood working craftsmanship is developed in the shop, and further elevated to an art form at annual gatherings of other builders on the shores of lakes and bays.

How often has the sight of a beautifully built wood strip canoe or kayak brought admiring stares from casual onlookers?  I dare say that upon beholding such beauty, the moment of confident realization that "I could do that" is the defining moment of conversion of the observer to the brotherhood of wood strippers.  On many occasions I have been engaged in conversations initiated by total strangers alongside one of my boats.  On still other occasions I have been the initiator as I admire a particularly grand craft.  In both circumstances, questions are asked and answered, information is exchanged, and both participants come away with new insights, new ideas, and new friends.

I was once in a historical home built in the late 18th century.  Of course, it had been restored and renovated since its original owner had gone on, but in the attic I could examine and actually touch original timbers hewn from trees that grew before the birth of our nation.  Before Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Franklin had forged and shaped the Republic, a pine or hemlock had sprouted, later to yield roof rafters and floor joists for the very structure in which I was standing.  The point is, wood is an enduring material.  Given reasonable care, it will last for centuries.  And, given proper joinery, the objects and structures made from it will also endure.  I like to think that my boats will still be in use for at least a generation or more after I go to the Great Boat Shop in the Sky.  I would be remiss if I didn't try to include in their construction all of the care and craftsmanship I could muster.

That said we come to the purpose of this web site, namely a description of the joinery and crafting of wood strips to produce an heirloom quality small boat accurately representing the lines laid down by the designer.  The emphasis will be on accuracy and faithfulness to the design, and quality craftsmanship, with a liberal dose of why some things are done and why others are not.  I recall once reading on a boat building Internet forum a concern a first time builder was having trying to critically maintain the design hull shape.  There were several helpful responses to his query, but the most striking was "You can get too anal with these things."  Anal indeed!  If the designer intended the hull shape to be defined by the natural tendencies of strips to assume a shape as they pleased, the boat would have been designed so.  Accepting poor craftsmanship as a matter of course is unfair to the designer, and in my shop, intolerable.  The builder who takes the easier path in the interest of getting the job done and covers up mistakes rather than preventing them will get his boat built.  But certainly more pride will be taken in knowing he did the best job he could, rather than knowing he fudged over his errors in the interest of speed.

Why write this web site?  Well, why not?  All too many times I have seen postings in cyberspace by first time builders describing a particular problem, even one that I may have had myself.  Well-meaning solutions are offered; some solve the problem immediately, others lead the first timer down the path to disaster or to a less than satisfactory solution.  Many times the problem could have been avoided had the builder been fully aware of what was happening or better understood the building step he was trying to perform.  Often the lack of patience ignores a problem as it develops, thereby creating additional difficulty in trying to correct it later.  I hope to be able to expand on many of the steps involved in building a strip boat, provide additional theory and detail, describe shortcuts or easier solutions to common problems, and generally lead the first time builder in the direction of building an heirloom boat.

I also strongly dislike blanket statements of unsubstantiated fact with no experimental evidence or engineering data to back up the assertion.  Any time I might make such a declaratory statement I will back it up with evidence, a reference, or state my source.  Many of the ideas and techniques are not my own, and when stated or described, will be attributed to the originator.  I take full responsibility for stated facts not so attributed.

Artistry in boat making is strictly an expression of individual taste to be considered by the builder, as he may desire.  Contrasting colored woods, inlays, artwork, or even carvings can be added to suit the whim of the maker.  Because such individualism is a function of the number of individuals who build boats, a detailed description is impossible.  I will describe what I have done along these lines, not to instruct, but to encourage further expression.  One must exercise care in applying ornamentation, though.  Many boat designs are works of art in their own right, needing nothing more than high quality craftsmanship to express that art.  The classic lines of the Adirondack guide boat is a perfect example.

The perfect boat is probably more myth than reality.  Even though I strive to eliminate as many variables as possible in my boats, there still remain those few unforeseen problems or mishaps that relegate perfection to an asymptote – approaching ever closer but never quite reaching the goal.  But it is my goal, for without such a purpose, why bother?

And Now My Credentials -

Just about every book of this type has a section “about the author”.  In keeping with this format, here goes:

I confess to not having built a lot boats - more than the casual amateur, but certainly fewer than the professional builders.  I am not a professional woodworker.  About the only thing I have done that could be considered professional woodworking is sell a tall clock or cabinet or other small pieces now and then.  But having worked wood in one way or another for as long as I can remember (I still have some pieces I built over 50 years ago), it was inevitable that I should learn a few things about it.

As for my professional life, a 38-year career as a chemist ended about five years ago in blissful retirement.  The firm at which I had spent my entire working life had but a single demanding customer – the U.S. government.  Success in the job required excellence.  Do it right, or do it over.  No room for error.  Outstanding work was expected and rewarded; average work was considered merely mediocre.  It was during these years that there developed in my work ethic a desire for excellence which I still maintain in my woodworking projects.  I also have this compelling need to repeat a project that I particularly enjoyed building, striving to improve the craftsmanship over the previous version.  After all, you can’t eat one just potato chip….

But why boats?  I had built a plywood boat so long ago it seems like it was in a past life.  I explored building another, but the demands of raising a family put that project on indefinite hold.  I did send for plans to build a canoe from redwood strips, but never followed through.

It was on a restful camping trip that first summer of retirement, as I sat at my campsite on the shore of an Adirondack lake, when my young grandson came paddling up in a rented aluminum canoe.  With childhood exuberance he yelled, “C’mon Grandpa, hop in!”  Now believe me, I had never been in a canoe before.  Powerboats and sailboats, rowboats, white water rafting, and even a research submarine dive in the deep ocean to the bottom over two miles down.  But I had never been in a canoe.  A few moments later I had my first learning experience with canoes.  I learned one does not “hop in” to a canoe.  I retrieved my very wet grandson from the shallow water, and we paddled around for a while.  When we returned to shore, I thought about that plan for a redwood strip canoe I had squirreled away on a dusty bookshelf.  I would build it.

I never did.  With a publication date on the plan that was older than some of my grown kids, I thought that by now there must be better ways, more advanced technology, and better materials.  A quick Internet search brought a wealth of information and encouragement.  I was hooked, built some boats, and here we are.

Adirondack guide boat, by the author.