Backyard Boat Building for Real Beginners

June 8, 2010
By Jason Wimbiscus
Article By Dan Gosselin

At some point we have all said, or at least heard the sentence, “I’m going to build a boat”. I said this exact sentence some 20 or so years ago. I too was a rank amateur; a beginner in the world of wooden boat building. My only experience was some simple carpentry skills and the only real tools I had were a drill, hammer, and saw, saber saw, and circular saw. I also had the basic measuring tools and squares and levels. Yeah, I was going to build a boat.
Building your own wooden boat doesn’t have to be the mystical art that it has always appeared to be. Whether it is several boards nailed across two logs, or a shapely plank-on-frame world cruiser, they can all be built by beginners.
First of all, I want to say right out front that I am in no way, shape, or form a professional boat builder. I have built several plywood skiffs and prams as well as several wood-strip canoes and kayaks. With the plywood boats it seems as soon as one was completed somebody else wanted it more than me. Money was talking and I was listening. Most of these buyers were friends or acquaintances.
I built my first boat out of necessity and was hooked right from the start. It has taken me years of poring through books, magazines, and study plans to get to where I’m comfortable with my ability to decipher the study plans and then build these craft, and I hope to cut through much of that to get you, the beginner, the straight skinny.
My intention here is to show a person looking to build his or her first boat the very basics of what options are available. There are numerous books on the subject and I suggest you take some time to at least familiarize yourself with the terminology given in them when you begin your hunt for plans. Where I assume I am addressing true beginners, I will limit my information to plywood and wood-strip construction. These are two areas with which I have experience and I am always glad to share my successes and failures.
I have been sailing since I could walk, but for my own first boat I was fortunate enough to stumble upon an old 18 foot flat-bottomed wooden fishing skiff. Long, wide, and very heavy, it needed just a little work to get it floating again and I jumped at the $50 price tag. The simple repairs turned into a whole lot of sweat, new words, and the use of tools I didn’t even own. A new stem and inner stem were needed before it would float again. A stem is the triangular piece at the bow that holds the side planking together. But I have to say I was hooked. So here I am with a great family friendly boat ready for outings and fishing for bluefish and striped bass, but there was one problem. It was tied to a mooring fifty feet from shore and either I continuously borrowed a dinghy to get to it, or I swam out to my mooring. Ask anybody who has swam in the water along the coast of Maine and they too will agree I needed a dinghy. Buying a safe usable boat was out of the question, so building one was my only option. I’m a person who hates building square and true and I’m going to build a boat? Yeah, I did.
The first thing I did was go to my local public library and looked through the boating section. I settled on a book by Harold ‘Dynamite’ Payson called Building the New Instant Boats. I will have more books listed in the Resources section later. The designs were all by Phil Bolger and I knew I had hit pay dirt. All of the boats described can be built from the drawings in the book or plans can be ordered from Harold Payson. They are all to be built from plywood and simple lumberyard materials. My kind of easy. A quick trip to my local lumberyard and a few days later I had the boat built and ready for paint. I used this boat for almost 3 seasons before somebody made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. It also gave me the nudge to build a bigger work type boat that was safer for doing mooring and dock work.
So get out there, find a set of plans you like, and build a boat. And by all means don’t be afraid to visit your local library, or get on the Internet and do some research before you plunk down the cash for plans you just won’t use.


Plans and Patterns

Plywood Construction

Again, I want to be up front with everybody and state that I am not a professional boat builder. I will speak from my experiences in building with plywood and wood-strip.
I will first discuss plans for simple plywood boats. By simple I really mean the most basic hull you can build, but basic doesn’t mean it has to be ugly. Take the time to do your research and you will find many great looking boats to be built from basic sheet plywood.
What you get for plans or patterns can make the difference between having a pleasant boat building experience or a nightmare.  I was fortunate in my first boat building venture. The plans in the book I borrowed from the library were complete, meaning all I had to do was transfer the measurements and mark and cut the material. Not all plans are that easy. Some plans, either ones purchased or taken from a book, will require you to loft the final mold shapes. Lofting is taking written measurements from what is called a Table of Offsets compiled by the designer and then measuring and marking out the lines to produce the finished shape of a particular mold. Lofting is a learning experience in itself and I won’t even begin to describe the process here because I have just a basic knowledge about it myself. I will list a book on lofting in the Resources section.
The simplest plans, like the type I used for my first boat, will give all of the dimensions for each piece that goes into the boat. This means that you will be given measurements to lay out everything from the hull side panels to the seat flats to the bottom.
Measure, mark, measure again, and cut. Take the time to look the plans over, and then look them over again. I like to “build” the boat in my head before I even touch the wood. What simplifies things is that many plans have the builder lay out all the measurements on a grid that has been previously laid down on the building material. The grid I’m mentioning here is usually a series of vertical lines extending up 90 degrees from the baseline.  In the case of plywood, this would be the plywood factory edge.  For example, the plan will show a view of the hull side. On this drawing will be shown a series of lines spaced at a regular interval, usually 12″. These lines will look similar to a picket fence running up the sheet of plywood. To lay out the true shape of the hull side we will take the dimensions at each 12″ interval and transfer them to our sheet of plywood. For a side panel you will find a minimum of two dimensions for each 12″ line: one measured up from the base line to what will be the boat bottom, the second measured up past the first to the sheer, or what will eventually be the rub rails. Imagine looking at the side of the boat while on your hands and knees. The first mark measured from the base line would be along the bottom of the boat. The second mark goes above that first mark to the top edge, or the sheer. Once all of these dimensions have been transferred we connect the marks running parallel to the baseline, then connect the marks running along the sheer. The sheer line will normally have more curve to it To connect these marks you will need a long, knot-free, limber stick roughly ¾”x ¾” and at least two feet longer than the boat to be built. This stick is called a batten. Make certain that when you bend the batten to a curve there are no humps or bumps in the stick that will throw off your measurements. Sometimes it just happens that not all of the marks you’ve laid out will touch the batten when it is sprung to the curve. Measure the offending marks again to verify your own measurements. If everything checks out and the curve swings by the offending mark in a sweet curve, mark it. In boat building a fair curve supersedes any measurement. That’s why I like boats over houses. The last two lines to be drawn will be the bow, or stem, and the stern. This will give us the full shape of the hull side panel. If you are satisfied with the look of the panel you can cut it out. If your cuts are true you can use the first panel as a template for the second. Remember: the panels need to be mirror images. If you marked the first panel on the “A” side of the plywood, then you need to mark the second on the “B” side. This makes more sense if you are using pricier fancy plywood.
Dimensions for frames, stem pieces, and even the transom or stern are all found in the plans. Many plans will show only one-half of a mold shape or shape of the stern or transom.
All you need to do is duplicate these measurements to the opposite side to complete the shape. Paying close attention to the dimensions and accurate measuring when transferring the lines will pay off with smooth fits and no headaches. It sounds overly simple and it is. There are also bevels and miters to be taken into consideration. There is a curve to the boat bottom that runs from bow to stern. Some plans call for no bevel to be taken from the frame members while some do require bevels due to the amount of curvature. The more surface area the on the mold or frame that the plywood panels can land means more surface for adhesive and overall strength. You would be surprised at what a difference a few degrees of bevel can do to make the plywood and frame or mold meet well. Frames may also have bevels depending on the amount of curvature involved. Where frames go from vertical to horizontal you will need to cut them with a miter to meet in a good joint. The plans will show what the miter will be. Sometimes you will get lucky and the plans will have full-sized drawings of the miters and bevels. If this is so then you can use a bevel gauge or square to pick up the bevel directly from the plans. If there are many different bevels in a particular plan I often make a bevel board for reference. I note all of the bevels required and lay them out along the edge of a board at least 6″ wide then mark all the bevels with their required degree. Now I can go back and easily pick up the bevels from my board instead of laying out the plan sheets every time I need to pick up a bevel. If you take the time to thoroughly read the plans and instructions before touching any materials you can save yourself much aggravation.
The type of plans I like combine the hull shape mold into the finished framework of the boat. Like the word implies, a mold makes the plywood take the shape of the boat’s hull. Often this frame is combined with a seat, forming a girder or “T” of sorts, to hold the hull to its final shape. Using thin plywood in conjunction with 1″x2″ framing around the perimeter creates a beam liked those used in residential carpentry. Each piece on its own is not that strong but taken together as a whole it is incredibly strong. Some plans require you to build a separate mold used to bend the plywood panels into the hull shape. Once the hull is assembled the mold is removed and can be discarded or used to build another hull.
Some books of designs, like the ones for wood-strip canoes or kayaks, will provide tables of offsets from which you can lay out your own building molds. Again, you would have to loft these mold shapes. Even using the most care in transferring the dimensions, some errors can creep in, resulting in unfair molds. If not caught right away these small errors can and will rear their ugly heads further into the building process causing issues all their own. That means time to pull up the moaning chair and think things through. More on the moaning chair later.
The designer most often will sell patterns for the finished mold shapes for a modest price. The plans and patterns will usually come with an instruction booklet. This is the way I prefer to go where my lofting skills just aren’t where they could be. By purchasing full patterns you can rest assured that any errors in measurements that the designer may have made in transferring the numbers into his table of offsets have been corrected and eliminated. These patterns will ensure that if you set everything up correctly you will get a fair hull right off. Fair means that the hull shape will be sweet with ho humps or hollows. Using the patterns is quite easy. There are several methods that can be used to transfer the patterns to mold stock, from carbon paper to pin pricks, so I won’t go into specific methods here. Keep in mind that legally you are entitled to build one boat from the plans or patterns you’ve purchased. Any hulls you build from the plans after the first require you to pay a royalty to the designer. Just a legal tidbit I felt obligated to pass along.

Sample plan sheet for flat bottom plywood skiff. Dimensions are shown for most parts,

and where not shown they are listed in a parts key elsewhere on the plan sheets

(Image Courtesy of Build the New Instant BoatsHarold “Dynamite” PaysonInternational

Marine/Ragged Mountain Press)

Support for middle seat is also mold and frame for hull sides.

Sample table of offsets for wood-strip canoe. (Image Courtey of Canoecraft:
Ted Moores and Merilyn Mohr
Firefly Books Ltd.)


Wood-Strip Construction

Plans for wood-strip boats like canoes and kayaks require a series of molds set up on a strongback to get the designed shape to the hull. New word: strongback. This is simply the platform or jig you will use to set up the molds to build your strip hull. As I stated in the section about plans for plywood hulls, I strongly suggest you purchase the plans and full patterns from a reputable seller. This will cut your work and stress level in half. I have lofted a bow mold pattern for one type of canoe so I could use it in another design because I wanted a different bow profile. I spent probably twice the time needed just in double and triple checking my measurements. I went the lofting route because I didn’t want to spend the money for a full set of canoe plans for a canoe I never had intention of building. If you are confident in your skills and want to try lofting your own molds by all means give it a try. I suggest a quiet area with plenty of work space and the moaning chair handy.
The molds will look like a skeleton when they are set up on the strongback. Looking down the row of molds you can see what the finished hull will look like. Depending of the shape of the hull, symmetrical or asymmetrical, you will have a different number of patterns. In a symmetrical hull several of the molds will be duplicates to be used at opposite ends of the strongback. This can save you quite a bit of time in marking of the molds.
The plans and patterns you use will most likely have an instruction manual. Before touching a tape measure take the time to thoroughly read the instructions and look at every detail of the plans in order to completely familiarize yourself with the task at hand. The moaning chair can become your best friend otherwise.
Setting up the completed molds onto the strongback has to be the most tedious aspects of strip construction. Attention to detail here will pay off down the road. This is where plum, level, square, and true make all the difference in the world. Every hull design has its own layout for the mold spacing. I have found that generally a 12″ spacing is the norm. You can also stretch this spacing a little bit at each mold to make a 16′ canoe or kayak a little longer. A word of caution: Stretching or compressing the mold spacing can have adverse effects on the hull. If in doubt contact the designer or simply choose another design.
Building your strongback will require basic carpentry skills and lumberyard materials. The same holds true for the molds themselves. I won’t go into transferring the patterns to plywood because it can either be really simple or involved depending on the type of patterns. I always like it when setting up the molds is done and I can finally start working with the wood that makes up the finished hull.

Building molds for a 16′ canoe set up on the strongback. Note the first strip temporarily held in place while fairing.
I started gluing the strips not long after this photo was taken.Another view of the building molds set up on the strongback. T
he pink string is to align the mold centerlines.

top: Finished 16′ wood-strip canoe. This was a wedding gift for my daughter and son-in-law.
bottom: Wood-strip Cosine Wherry. 14′ and 120 lbs.

top: 14′ wood-strip kayak
bottom: 17′ wood-strip kayak


Plywood Construction

Let’s keep things simple here. There are many types of wood that are used in boat construction. For the beginning boat builder, lumberyard material is a great way to go. I have built many plywood hulls using lumberyard wood and almost all of these boats are still seeing active service. But, and there has to be a but, these boats are all kept well maintained. Paint every spring, stored upside down on saw horses or blocking, and well ventilated to keep things dry. The ones that haven’t survived are those that I just beat the life out of knowing that I was going to get my money’s worth many times over. Your boat, your call.
I have no problem using lauan plywood for hull construction. I did some destructive testing of my own and was satisfied with my results. Be advised though; the lauan needs to be sealed throughout, preferably with epoxy. I have used just paint as a sealer but had to be diligent in watching for delamination. If you are careful with marking and cutting lauan will give you a beautiful bright hull. The mahogany veneers look great with several coats of varnish or polyurethane. I have also used AC and BC plywood with good results. AC and BC refer to the grade of the veneers on the finish and back sides. One drawback to using lumberyard plywood is that you are limited to 8’ sheets. Don’t let this deter you. There are ways to make short sheets long. Scarfing and butt blocks are two ways. Scarfing simplified is gluing two edges together after having planed matching bevels on each piece. When you use butt blocks, you butt the two sheets together and use a smaller piece of the same material to span the glue joint. Glued and fastened with nails, screws, or even staples, the butt block is an acceptable alternative to scarfing. You can clearly see the butt blocks just aft of the bow seat in the photo of the flat bottom plywood skiff. Longer sheets of plywood are available but the price gets up there. Specialty lumber outlets will caryy this longer plywood.
When it comes to the non-plywood pieces, once again lumberyard lumber will save you many dollars. Many of the plans for plywood boats that I have seen simplify things for the builder by calling out nominal sized materials. This means that you can go to your local lumberyard and get 1x and 2x stock. This means that a 1”x2” will actually measure ¾”x1 1/2”. If you have purchased any lumber at all from a lumberyard or home center you know what I’m saying here.  If the plans do call for full dimension material there are still yards that carry it.  You can also double the members to make them slightly oversized. Be sure to use good waterproof adhesive and corrosion resistant fasteners.
If you have your heart set on that fancy veneer plywood like you see on those canoe and kayak web sites or books of plans, there are sources. Instead of trying to list them here I would suggest finding where the fancy web sites get theirs, or looking in the classifieds in WoodenBoat magazine. Keep in mind that just because the designer calls for one species of wood, you have the option of using another species that is more pleasing to you. But also be warned that the designer may have called for a specific species for rot resistance or structural integrity. Again, do your homework.
Wood for trim can be almost anything you like. Keep in mind that using softwoods for rub rails means you need to be a little more careful coming alongside a dock or when you flip the boat over onto the carry racks on top of your car or truck. Hardwoods take the abuse a little better and the contrast in colors can make an excellent design statement. Attaching oarlocks or thole pins will be another concern. Screws used to attach hardware need to get a good bite and the hardware needs to be well bedded to keep water out.

Wood Strip Construction

When it comes to wood-strip construction, wood matters. The majority of wood-strip boats that I have seen have been bright finished. This means the wood is seen under several coats of varnish or polyurethane. Again, I’ve simplified things. Wood strip hulls are built using thin strips of wood glued edge to edge, smoothed out, then sheathed with fiberglass cloth and epoxy, or as a less expensive alternative, polyester resin. Because you can see the full grain of the wood strips this is an area you where you don’t want to skimp. I have seen many different types of wood used in wood-strip construction. By and far, the wood used most often is either red cedar or eastern white cedar. Inlays and accent stripes can be added to the hull layup. That piece of curly maple might look great in the hull as an accent, but when it comes time to smooth up the hull the surrounding soft wood will sand away much quicker than the maple. Just because the boat you want to build is over 16’ you don’t need to buy the longest material they make. As long as you stagger the joints in the planking you can use shorter, less pricey lengths. The easiest way to estimate the number of boards you will need to mill the strips is to measure around the widest mold where you will be attaching the planking. If, for example, your measurement is 55”, that means approximately 55 strips. I always add 15% extra because the strips will already be only ¾” wide, plus with the bead and cove edges this width shrinks to about 5/8” wide. Figure on three plank strips per inch of board width.  If you are careful, this will also cover mistakes. I always look for flat grain boards to rip into my plank strips. Once the planks are ripped on the table saw the strips are now vertical grained. I have also used vertical grain boards and the color and grain patterns in the finished hull can be quite dramatic. Be careful when smoothing the hull while using flat grain strips when you plane the joints in the planking. Working against the grain can not only produce chatter marks, but can also lift a grain ’feather’ making further smoothing harder.
Once you’ve decided on the type of hull material you want, it’s time to consider milling the wood into strips. Most plans call for strips that are ¾” wide by ¼” thick. If you already own the tools you can mill the strips yourself. I can mill the strips for a 16’canoe in just over 4 hours. This includes ripping the strips on a table saw then adding the bead and cove edges on a router table. There are also sources where you can buy the wood strips ready to use. Having never purchased these machined strips myself I can’t really quote a price. Many of the sites selling plans will also sell wood strips. With all of the types of wood available, I won’t even try to get into what to use here.
The types of wood you will use for trim in plywood construction can also be used in wood-strip construction. The designer may suggest a species of wood for particular parts of the design. Again, use good judgment if making changes away from what the designer specified.
One last thing to consider when it comes to wood is a kit boat. There are many great kits out there that are perfect for the beginner. Plywood kits come with pre-cut parts ready to glue together. Kits requiring molds will also have the material for molds supplied or even the molds themselves cut out. In wood-strip kits, many come with the molds either pre-cut or ready to cut. The wood strips have been milled and the bead and cove edges machined. There will be some cuts to be made by the builder but again, not having purchased a kit I can’t speak to this point.

Non-Wood Materials

I’ve mentioned before the use of lumberyard materials in building a boat. There comes a point where you will have to find a different source for certain non-wood items. Glue is not a serious concern. Basic yellow carpenter’s glue can be used in some areas, and this can be found at your local lumberyard or home center. I don’t spend the extra for water resistant yellow glue because in most cases the wood will be sealed under a coat of epoxy sealer, or at the very least good quality paint. Many other glue jobs will require epoxy or other special adhesives. The way I see it, it’s like this: if you’re going to use epoxy for taping joints on plywood boats or for sheathing the hull on a canoe, you might as well use it for gluing what has to be glued here too. Stem laminations, breast hooks, frame members, all become structurally stronger with epoxy as the adhesive. There are several types of epoxy resins and hardeners on the market, and add to that the numerous additives and it gets confusing fast. Here is where doing your homework pays off. Probably the two most popular are WEST System and MAS. I have used both and like each. Both are easy to use with both the metering dispensing pumps and additives. The difference I’ve found is cost. Where I live WEST System is carried by several better lumberyards and marine supply stores. I guess I paid a little more for this convenience. MAS  is somewhat cheaper but I have to order it on-line or through a local marine supply store. Buying in a larger quantity saved me the shipping cost where the supplier paid that cost. Sometimes you can order on-line and have it shipped to your local store saving the shipping cost. Do your homework.
Epoxies are two part adhesives and this limits the open or working time you have after mixing. READ ALL OF THE DIRECTIONS AND WARNINGS. The manufacturer of the epoxy you choose will supply any and all information you might want. I won’t get into the use of epoxies because there are many sources describing the use.
If you’ve done any body work on your car or seen it done you will be familiar with polyester resin. It is quite a bit cheaper to buy, but you pay a price in the ease of use, or lack of ease. Adhesion, or lack of adhesion to wood is the biggest reason I switched to epoxy. Add to that the health concerns. Sensitivity is just one of many concerns when you use polyester resin. Grab a handful of pink insulation and rub it on your skin. See what I mean. I won’t even go into the styrene, MEK-P, and other wonderful chemicals. I’m not saying that epoxy is hazard free, but the hazards are far fewer. Your choice. Cost vs. health and adhesion, especially with oily woods.
Fasteners are next on the list. Drywall screws are great, but not in a boat. Even if buried under epoxy putty or wood plugs. Steel rusts. Stainless steel or bronze are the way to go. Ring shank nails are great and can be found almost anywhere. These look similar to those little nails you use to put up wall paneling.  If your local supplier can’t get them they can be found on-line. I have used both bronze and stainless and usually stay with stainless because of cost. Ring nails and epoxy are an incredible combination. Screws are the same. Stainless or bronze. Bronze may have to be sourced on-line if you live away from a marine supply store. Avoid using brass screws unless you really want that look. Structurally, they are weak and they need well sized pilot holes when being driven into any wood. This isn’t to say that you don’t need pilot holes for stainless or bronze. With brass it seems you just look at them funny and the head snaps off.

Fiberglass tape and cloth is something you will use plenty of. Avoid special deals from industrial distributors if they can’t guarantee their cloth is compatible with epoxies or polyester resins. I’m lucky enough to buy mine locally but marine supply dealers on-line will carry it as well as those web sites that sell the fancy canoes and kayaks. The plans you use will dictate what weight cloth or what width tape to use. Cloth comes in many weights like 4oz, 6oz, etc. This means ounces per yard. I use 6oz for just about everything. It’s worth the extra cost to buy the widest width cloth you can just to avoid sanding overlaps or seams. Tape width is self explanatory. Often you will use several widths of tape overlapping to build up a strong joint. This is mostly where bulkheads or frames meet the hull, or the deck of a kayak meets the hull.
There are a large number of brushes and squeegees that can be used in wetting out fiberglass cloth so I won’t go into that here. All of the manufacturers of the epoxies and polyester resins will also sell these items or at least make a recommendation.
Hardware used to finish out the hull comes in many materials. Just like screws and nails you want to avoid steel. Oarlocks and oarlock sockets are probably the first things that come to mind. Look at catalogs and make your own decision. If you are anywhere near salt water, go with the bronze. I have used chrome over zinc with some success but I pay a tradeoff for the cheaper price with a shorter life. If you’ve taken the time to make a beautiful boat don’t scrimp when it comes to the final details. I have had good success using the black plastic deck cleats and eye straps on my kayak decks. I had used them previously on my work skiffs and they held up to just about everything I threw at them. Keep in mind that I was also dock building at the time and was towing 1000lb plus floats across open water.
Oars and paddles are another choice. I have both ash and painted oars and like both. They both need yearly maintenance. Paddles are a personal choice. I can’t remember the last time I bought a paddle. I have head great success making my own from ash, spruce, and even pine. The one thing I was sure to do was thoroughly seal the wood with epoxy. After that I used either varnish or oil based polyurethane.
Epoxy in itself gives you a beautiful finish and it’s all you need if your boat will never see sunlight. UV radiation will eat the epoxy finish if left unprotected. For years I used nothing but real spar varnish. But with the new VOC environmental laws the quality of real varnish just hasn’t been the same. Maybe I need to be a little less frugal and spend the big bucks on the fancy stuff. Instead, I have gone to using oil based polyurethane. While the gloss finish isn’t quite the same as varnish, the cost makes the difference. Protection is what we’re after. Read and follow the directions for use and clean-up.
Paint has caused more arguments among boat owners than you can shake a stick at. There are many marine finishes out there and it will take some homework to learn the pros and cons of each. I have used Petit and Interlux paints with great results. That’s when I wanted to spend the money. When I had work boats I used oil based porch and deck polyurethanes. They are tough and come in many colors. I’ll even confess right here that I have used latex house paint on one boat I had and it worked great. Purists are probably cringing about now. If you’re like me and would rather use the boat than work on it, go with what makes you happy. I do all my fitting-out in the spring and do nothing but enjoy the boat all season. This isn’t to say that I don’t maintain things. An occasional bath and touch-up on the brightwork as needed are quick fixes. I really love the looks on peoples’ faces when I drag a wood-strip kayak over the banking as if I were intentionally destroying it. I later explain that wood-strip boats are very rugged and easily repaired IF they do get damaged.

Lastly, you’ve just poured some serious money into building your boat so don’t cheap out of the carrying rack for your car or truck. This goes for a trailer too. Nothing like towing a $4000 boat on a $100 trailer. This goes for running rope through door openings or windows after setting the canoe on a blanket atop your car.

Tools and Shop Space

When I started boat building I believe I had the minimum homeowner tools; electric drill, hand saw, saber saw, and circular saw. I also had a couple of try squares and a framing square. I managed to build a pretty good boat even if I had to borrow a plane and some clamps to finish a few things.
Here’s a short list of what I feel I need to build either a plywood or wood-strip boat:

Cordless or corded drill with bits
Countersink bits
Japanese pull saw
Try squares, one 12” and one 6”
Framing square
2’ level
4’ level is helpful
Staple gun
Chalk line
Roll of string
Bevel guage
Block plane
Utility knife
Random orbit sander
Shop Vac
Hearing protection
Safety glasses
Cartridge type respirator
C-clamps- as many as you can get
Quick Clamps
Moaning chair

Nice tools to have:

Table saw
Band saw
Stationary combination belt/disk sander
Router table with router
Router bits

I’m sure I’m missing something here but you can always do what I do when I need a tool: borrow or buy it.

I mentioned a moaning chair here and elsewhere in this article. Some of you may have caught on to what I mean. A moaning chair is a really essential tool in the shop. Picture this: you’ve glued up some beautiful pieces of cherry for a canoe deck and have had it sitting on the bench curing for the last 24 hours. You go to check on it and realize you’ve glued the wrong side of one piece up instead of down. Too late. The epoxy has cured and now what. You drop into your moaning chair and start to think of what to do now. The moaning chair can also be used to sight down a hull while you smooth things up. Getting down low to eyeball things and be comfortable at the same time. You need a moaning chair.
Clamps are another thing. Get as many as you can get your hands on. If your budget is tight here’s a good substitute for light duty clamping: get a couple of feet of schedule 40 PVC pipe, 2”. Cut 1” thick slices to make as many rings as you can. Once you have the rings cut go ahead and cut the rings down the side so they open like a C. These cheap clamps will apply considerable force and I have found I can use them for work on two hulls before I toss them.
Here is one instance where I will recommend using drywall screws. In wood-strip planking, especially where you don’t want to use staples to hold the planks, you can use wedges and feathers. I take two pieces of scrap hull planking, about 4” long, lay one atop the other, then drill a hole through the two about halfway down the length. Here’s where you will use the drywall screw: slip a flat washer down the screw then screw down through the two pieces so they move like a propeller. When you need a little help holding a plank down to the mold and up against the previously installed plank screw the pair about ½” away from where the next strip will go on, into the mold not the previous strip. Now you can turn the top strip of the pair as a toggle to hold down the strip being installed against the mold then snug the screw. The scrap that is on the bottom is now the wedge. Use another piece of scrap planking cut to a wedge shape. Slip this under the ‘toggle’ piece and up against the wedge piece. This will apply a spreading force to the plank strip being installed up against the previously installed plank. These hold down jigs can be used over and over until the wood just falls apart. You’ll want at least ten of these. Read this again and it will make sense.
Here’s another jig I use. I take pieces of ½” plywood cut to 3”x5” rectangles. From these rectangles I cut out a chunk along one of the 3” edges so the piece resembles an elongated C. I once again use a drywall screw in one of the legs of the C and screw it into the flat face of the mold where I need pressure. Now I can rotate the C enough to slip in two to three plank strips then slide another wedge as I described before to put force against the hull mold. Here’s what you should be picturing: Standing alongside the building strongback you can see the edges of the plywood molds. When I say screw to the flat side of the mold I mean the side where you traced out the mold shapes onto the plywood. Got IT? Now, the two piece hold down jigs I described earlier you want to screw these into the edge of the plywood mold. Ted Moores’ books Kayakcraft and Canoecraft show these jigs in use.

Shop space doesn’t have to be fancy but it needs to be weather tight. If you plan to build over the winter where it gets cold, then you will also need heat. Keep in mind that if you build indoors in a living space, you will be using some type of chemical be it a glue or paint and it will stink. Something to keep in mind.
Floor space is important too. You should have at least two feet at either end of the building mold or hull itself plus several feet along each side. I have built a few canoes in my garage where I had to wheel the strongback out after I opened the door just so I could attach hull plank strips and have them extend beyond the end of the hull. I was lucky because I knew where the high and low spots were in my floor and could move the strongback there each time keeping it level. If you are lucky enough to be working on a wooden floor you can level and plumb the strongback or building platform then screw it to the floor to keep it that way.
Having a warm space is important in gluing and using epoxy. Think before using any heating device that uses an open flame.

A quick note on safety: before using any power tools, read and understand all directions and warnings. The same holds true for any chemical you may use to build the boat. Safety glasses and hearing protection are a must. I hook my random orbit sander to my shop vac and it draws away around 95% of the sanding dust. Investing in a cartridge filter respirator for using epoxy is money well spent.

Just as a last comment on tools and shop space. If you don’t need a specific tool and maybe won’t use it ever again, try borrowing it or renting it. When it comes to shop space, maybe a friend with usable space might want to build his own boat too. Offer to help him with his in exchange for the use of his shop space. I’ve seen this happen often. More people have started building their own boats after seeing another friend building one and that has started a domino effect. You might consider getting a small group together and renting a space short term. There are often people who just aren’t ready to build their own boat but would like to help others while gaining experience. Maybe they could help by providing work space. Enough said.

I hope that after reading this you aren’t even more confused than when you started. I have learned all of this through personal experience, reading all I can about boat building and design, and from paying attention to experienced builders. A teacher told me many years ago that the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.

About the Author


While I am not a professional builder I have built a number of canoes and plywood boats for paying customers. The large majority of these customers were people I knew or were recommended to me by other people I knew. Until I can truly get set up as a business to build full time I will continue to take small jobs when I can.
The name Wood…Water…Happiness comes from the personal philosophy of mine. Wooden boats, being on the water as often as I can, and drawing happiness through the building and use of beautiful wood boats. I look at building a wooden boat as a form of therapy. Running my hands over the hull when I smooth the planks, eying the sweet lines of the hull taking shape, the smell of the wood be it cedar, pine, or other aromatic wood. I don’t see it as work because I can spend 16 hours a day easily in the shop and time goes by in a flash.
I’m always willing to talk about wooden boats, so if you would like to ask me a question or send me a comment you can reach me at <>.
I hope to have my web site up and running soon and when it is you will be able to get the address here at this site.



Build the New Instant Boats
Harold “Dynamite” Payson
International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press
ISBN 0-07-155966-3

Jennifer andTed Moores
WoodenBoat Publications

Ted Moores and Merilyn Mohr
Firefly Books Ltd.
ISBN 1-55209-342-5

Allan H. Vaitses
ISBN  0-937822-55-8

Rip, Strip, & Row
A builder’s Guide to the Cosine Wherry
J.D. Brown
Tamal Vista Publications
ISBN 0-917436-02-4

Boats with an Open Mind
Philip C. Bolger
International Marine
ISBN 0-07-006376-1

WoodenBoat  Magazine

The books I’ve listed above can all be found at the WoodenBoat Store. <a href=””></a> <a href=””></a>

Non-Wood Items

West Marine
<a href=””></a> <a href=””></a>
Fasteners, paint, adhesives, rigging supplies

Hamilton Marine
<a href=””></a> <a href=””></a>
Fasteners, paint, adhesives, rigging supplies

MAS Epoxy
<a href=””></a> <a href=””></a>
Epoxy resins, fillers, fiberglass cloth, application tools

WEST System Epoxy
<a href=””></a> <a href=””></a>
Epoxy resins, fillers, fiberglass cloth, application tools

Bear Mountain Boats
<a href=””></a> <a href=””></a>
Plans, kits, building supplies

Chesapeake Light Craft
<a href=””></a> <a href=””></a>
Plans, kits, building supplies

Pygmy Boats Inc.
<a href=””></a> <a href=””></a>
Plans, kits, building supplies

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