Custom Nautical Woodworking

A Boatwright can be defined as a craftsman that builds wooden boats. Organizations like The Chris-Craft Antique Boat Club exist to help keep alive both the skills and the boats themselves as wood becomes a thing of the past for use in their construction. Having owned, lived and worked as captain and crew on steel, fiberglass, aluminum and wooden vessels, I can speak of the pros and cons of owning these various types. The purpose of having the boat will be limited in this essay to pleasure craft.

In this section, I’ll talk in general about wood boats ranging in size from about thirty to fifty feet in length. There is virtually no question that these boats will ride more comfortably than their other hull material alternatives. Marguerite and I lived and cruised aboard a classic forty eight foot 1957 Bullnose Chris-Craft Constellation for years. We traveled from New York to Texas and back. It was roomy and comfortable.

Once a wooden vessel achieves the state of maintenance only, the work required for that maintenance is about the same, but sometimes less than boats built from other materials. Ever dealt with blisters? Because of the growing scarcity of old time yachts, restoring, refurbishing and updating are where older skill sets are progressively more difficult to find.

Attention to specific wood for specific structures that make up the vessel is very important. As I write this, the new owner of an old boat next to the one I’m working on is using treated lumber, non-marine ply and steel fasteners. The work required to make repairs is the same regardless of materials. The increased cost by using proper materials will be nothing compared to the cost of redoing all the work next year.

Pretty much nothing is square in a boat. For wood, this means having the right tools and skills to use them. Various planes, sanders, saws and bits are essential for repairing and restoring wood vessels that are not needed on other types. Properly treating the wood with a penetrating epoxy for both original and new wood will extend the life years beyond doing the same work without this treatment. Using the primer and paint developed for wood can make or break the job. I know one guy who uses Awlgrip on his hull. Every year or so, he replaces rotten planks because Awlgrip, as good as it can look, prevents the wood  from breathing so it ends up rotting because the water is trapped by the paint.

How often do you see advertisements for old wood boats boasting that they lived their life in fresh water, as though that were a good thing. Salt water preserves the wood. Fresh water encourages the growth of various types of fungus which begins the destructive process wreaked upon fibrous cells. This in turn makes the wood more attractive to tiny bugs that burrow and sometimes eat the wood. That’s why you see the topsides of many wood boats in bad shape. It’s from the rain water. One reason people think fresh water is great for wood boats is because there are no hull destroying worms in fresh water. Worm destruction is easily avoided in salt water by using proper bottom paint and worm shoes. One trick I’ve seen with some owners has them cruising up rivers where the fresh water kills any existing worms.

In the future, we will address more specific areas of work with wood on boats.


What paint should I use on my hull?

Why shouldn’t I use S.S. Fasteners?

You can, above the water line. If you are in the process of refastening or adding fasteners to the hull below the water line, bronze fasteners, preferably silicon bronze fasteners are the way to go. Galvonic corrosion results from current between materials with different electric potential. If you use S.S. Fasteners along side of bronze fasteners, the S.S. will literally disintegrate. This may take a long time depending on the salinity of the water and spacing of the fasteners.

What is cold molding?

In a nutshell, it is a method of laminating wood layers with epoxy. This results in a very strong structure, (ie. Hull, beam...)

Why shouldn’t I use pine framing lumber?

Do you like to waste time and money as well as repeat all your efforts? There's a reason boat builders use mahogany, teak, cypress, oak, Douglass Fir and some select others. There are books written about this. The ideal wood is dense, yet flexible, rot resistant, bug resistant, strong, easy to cut and shape and more. No single type will fulfill all of these criteria. It helps that ribs and stringers, for example, have their unique requirements, while planks and decking have others. It is typical to have oak ribs, mahogany planking and teak decking.

What’s a worm shoe?

It's a piece of sacrificial wood that is attached to the bottom of the keel. It prevents worms from boring vertically into the keel. Typically, it is a weaker variety of wood than the hull with a layer of tar and or tar paper between it and the keel. Worms will not bore through tar.

What makes wood rot?

When fresh water soaks into wood, it provides the perfect environment for fungus growth which then results in rot. When the moisture is extreme, extremely tiny bugs will destroy the wood. Although not technically rot, post beetles and other various kinds of termites and ants will damage wood beyond repair. By the way, there is no such thing as dry rot and while on the subject, there is no such thing as an air pocket, as in The plane fell out of the sky after hitting an air pocket.

Can wood rot be prevented?