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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The boat is nearly complete. Notice the attractive pattern on the bottom of the hull. © Jim Leverance
The boat is nearly complete. Notice the attractive pattern on the bottom of the hull.

© Jim Leverance

June 2001

Pull your own oar

A handmade rowboat looks great, handles like a dream, and reflects the taste and style of its maker.

Jim Leverance


Read, look and practice | Clear the decks in the workshop
To kit or to cut | Glassing the boat

I always liked smaller wooden boats and I think row trolling is a great way to fish. It is relaxing, therapeutic, and good for both body and soul. But in years of searching, I never found the rowboat I was looking for – something functional, good looking and affordable. Most motored fishing boats are wide, heavy and are not easy to row. After a few years, it dawned on me that the only way I was going to get the boat I wanted was to make it myself.

Several years ago, this magazine carried an article ("Strippers," October 1991) about building cedar strip canoes. I knew the authors and fueled by that article, I enlisted their help as mentors, borrowed forms from a neighbor who had crafted a canoe, and built a 17-foot cedar strip canoe.

That experience whetted my appetite for making a rowboat. I looked at a lot of boating magazines, attended boat shows, visited stores and finally found a style that seemed right for me. I selected a 17-foot-long Rangeley design, a rowing boat with an hourglass shaped transom and keel.

Read, look and practice

If you're tempted to take on a similar project yourself, start by reading a few good books with step-by-step instructions and photos. I particularly liked Illustrated Guide to Wood Strip Canoe Building by Susan Van Leuven, published by Schiffer Books. Reading is a cheap way to evaluate your own skills and decide whether or not you want to proceed.

Look at several designs and, if possible, test each kind of boat in the water before you buy plans, a kit or lumber. Building a boat to suit your size and needs will keep you much happier.

Learn from experience, if you can. Offer to help someone build a boat to anticipate the decisions you'll have to make and get comfortable with the tools you'll need to use. Boat building courses are also available in various parts of the country. Search for them in specialty magazines and on the Internet. The Wooden Canoe Heritage Association is an excellent source of builders and suppliers.

Clear the decks in the workshop

Make sure you have plenty of workspace and you can get your finished product out the door when you are done. If you can't get it out, don't build it there! I'm using part of my garage. Be prepared for a flurry of wood shavings, sawdust, resin and varnish dust. Plan on wearing a good face respirator that excludes both dust and chemicals. Keep the work area clean and well ventilated.

All hand-built boats and canoes are formed on a strongback – an upside-down skeleton made of a series of shaped plywood pieces. The strongback determines the shape and dimensions of the boat. You can vary the spacing of forms to build a boat that is longer, narrower, wider, flat-bottomed or keeled. Wood strips are joined and glued on these forms, then fiber glass, seats, gunwales and hardware are added to finish the boat.

Lining up the the forms on the strongback. Take the time to measure carefully, or the boat won't be centered. © Jane Leverance
Lining up the the forms on the strongback. Take the time to measure carefully, or the boat won't be centered.

© Jane Leverance

The critical step in building a boat is taking the time to construct a solid strongback. It must be absolutely flat and level. don't scrimp or cut corners here! The "how-to" books offer lots of building options. I used wooden construction I-beams, just like the ones used for floor joists in some homes. I screwed 2"x 6" boards into the inside top and bottom of the I-beams to create an open-ended box. Then I screwed scrap three-quarter inch plywood to the top to create a flat surface for the forms. The strongback was heavy and cumbersome, but also strong, functional and flat. Disassembly will be easier because I built it with screws rather than nails.

In my design, each form is shaped from three-quarter inch plywood. I like keeping the forms wide, strong and rigid so I have plenty of support when I staple on the wood strips.

The strongback should be set up at a comfortable work height. You don't want the back strain of stooping over or reaching too high. Even though I placed the beams on the garage floor, I soon discovered poured concrete floors are not completely level. Use scrap pieces of wood to shim. I measured and re-measured pieces several times, and used a construction level to check that the forms were square.

Most "how-to" books tell you that attaching forms to the strongback is pretty simple. You should spend some time and do it right, because it's easy to knock the forms out of alignment, which will change your boat's shape. I braced each form with four-inch-high scrap wood glued to pieces of 2" x 4". These L-shaped supports were bolted down to the strongback with lag bolts and horizontally into the forms using quarter-inch bolts with washers and nuts. I overdrilled the forms a tad so I could make adjustments by loosening and tightening the bolts.

As you attach the forms you will see your boat take shape. Mark the centerline on each side of the form and on the top. Keep the forms perpendicular to the base of the strongback, and use old playing cards to shim under the supports to square out the forms. Then align the centerlines you marked on the side and top using a piece of string held like a plumb line slightly above each form and right down the center of the keel line. The bow and stern of the boat establish the two end points of your string and determine the location of all forms in between.

It will be a complete miracle if all the forms align right away. Usually you have to loosen and tighten a lot of bolts and keep shimming to get the forms lined up really well. Take the time now and you'll be rewarded with a sleek, straight hull. An experienced hand can really help you get it right at this critical stage.

To kit or to cut

Many companies offer "ready-to-go" boat-building kits. Should you decide to buy a kit, talk with the company so you understand exactly what you are buying, how finished the pieces are, and what procedures the company follows to replace faulty materials or provide replacements if you damage any pieces.

If you choose your own wood and watch your costs, you can probably save about 50 percent over the kit price, but the pieces won't come pre-cut and ready to use. I bought three-quarter-inch thick western red cedar boards that I subsequently cut down to make wooden strips. I had to search a bit, but found two local lumber stores that could provide clear boards with long, straight grains in lengths over 12 or 14 feet long. I was fortunate enough to purchase some boards 20 feet in length! Many of the "how-to" books describe how to join shorter boards. You'll want to buy some shorter boards, anyway; not every part of the boat needs long strips.

Since I like to match the grain in the wood and do patterns rather than just run the wood strips randomly, I spent a lot of time selecting the right boards. Some builders like to alternate stripes of darker and lighter wood strips. Boards cut from heartwood near the center of a log are generally quite dark. Sapwood, from the outer part of the tree, is lighter. A mix of these allows you to put stripes and other designs into your boat. Be aware that the darker wood is somewhat harder and may sand differently than lighter wood.

I used a table saw to cut the three-quarter inch lumber into quarter-inch strips. Some lumberyards will do this for you – for a fee. It took my wife and me about three hours to cut our strips. I bought a high quality saw blade with a narrow kerf (thickness) for about $70. Considering that the blade had an eighth-inch kerf and I was cutting quarter-inch strips, we lost a strip every two cuts. Ouch! That's very expensive sawdust. Practice your cuts and your technique on a cheap piece of cedar first. Be careful and use appropriate safety gear and push sticks. Also plan on creating a makeshift deck on both sides of the saw to provide support for the long boards as you feed them through the blade.

Make sure you hold the board tight to the fence as you feed in the stock so that you keep the width at exactly a quarter-inch. You don't want to end up with thicker strips because they are harder to bend to meet the contours of your forms. Thick strips also make your project more expensive as you will get fewer strips from each board.

Once the strips are cut and sorted, it's time to start assembly. The strips are stapled to the forms to hold the shape and pattern using a staple gun loaded with 7/16-inch staples. The edges of adjoining strips are glued together (I use a brown carpenter's glue) and stapled with quarter-inch staples to hold them tight while the glue hardens. Even though you will have to pull all these staples out before you sand, don't be tempted to skimp. Eventually I expect to have more than 2,000 staples to remove from my boat. A sharpened beer can opener works great to remove the staples.

High-stress areas, such as at the ends or where the strips are bent at severe angles, need to be nailed to hold the strips to the form (and each other). Use small diameter 1- 1 " nails with blocks behind the nails. Place masking tape over small blocks of scrap wood to keep them from splitting or being permanently glued to your boat surface. You may need lots of these blocks.

You will use a lot of glue (likely at least a half gallon). Wipe off excess glue with a dampened rag after you staple and before the glue sets. Hardened glue on the surface of the strips would otherwise need to be sanded or scraped off. Wiping is a lot easier. Also make sure you rinse or change wiping rags frequently to keep the work surface clean.

The top edges of your boat (gunwales) need to be capped with a harder wood to prevent damage. Strong, bendable white ash is an excellent material, but finding pieces longer than 14 feet may be difficult. You may have to connect them with scarf joints or laminate pieces together. Sitka spruce is a good, strong alternate to ash and, although expensive, may be available in up to 20-foot lengths.

Glassing the boat

Once the boat is formed, the staples are removed, and the boat is sanded. (Believe me, that's quicker to say than to do!) The surfaces will first be covered with epoxy resin, then covered with fiber glass cloth treated with epoxy resin for strength, weather-resistance, added waterproofing and durability. Canoes generally have one layer of fiber glass on the interior surface and another on the exterior. My rowboat calls for two layers on the exterior.

"Glassing" is a slightly tricky procedure. You'll be encumbered by face protection, a respirator and gloves. As the cloth/resin mix dries, you'll work out bubbles, look for creases and ensure good contact for both strength and protection. "How-to" books will show you how to fix bubbles if they persist. To minimize bubbles and creases, fiber glass cloth should be laid on the bias at an angle to the predominant weave direction.

Epoxy resins are expensive and come in different forms. While somewhat similar, they all share two important characteristics – they need to be mixed at the exact ratios indicated on the directions and they must be used within a short period of time once the components are mixed. If you do not mix them carefully, they will not set up properly and create major, major problems for you. Lay out your materials before you mix the resin,follow directions carefully and use disposable gloves, eye protection and a respirator when handling resin and hardeners.

Resin manufacturers also offer calibrated pumps for mixing resin and hardener. The pumps work well, but sometimes you only need to mix a smaller amount. I bought two graduated cylinders, like those we used to use in chemistry classes, and I keep one filled with resin and the other with hardener so I can mix the exact amount I need for smaller jobs like laminating the gunwales.

Seat supports, seats and oarlocks are added after the fiber glass layers are finished.

This boat-building business sounds like a lot of effort, doesn't it? don't let the above overwhelm you. I am not a hardcore woodworker and have only a few tools. If I can build a boat, so can you. Homemade boats require work and upkeep, but the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Your reward is a lightweight, strong craft that I think is prettier than fiber glass or aluminum and will be a real joy to use for a long, long time.

Jim Leverance, team leader for DNR water programs in the Lower Rock River, works in Janesville.