An Ode To Wooden Boats, Even Building Them

Mar 12, 2019

Floating in a wooden boat soothes the soul.

These days, most small boats are stamped out on factory assembly lines. Gone are the boatyards where shipwrights, carpenters and caulkers showed up for work in stiff collars and neckties. 

There was a time boatbuilders were as numerous and as respected as crafters of fine wood cabinets and furniture. The distinctive salty shapes of traditional wood boats evolved so each boat could do its job efficiently and safely in calm waters and storms. 

Boatbuilders had to steam-bend oak frames and cedar planks to produce the sweeping curves that describe a proper boat. Boatwrights spent a lifetime learning the skills required to cut and fit the many complex parts of a seaworthy wooden vessel.

But wooden boats inevitably succumb to wear and rot. Mass production using new materials, such as plastic and fiberglass, replaced derelict wood boats with today's modern fleet of indestructible small craft.

But then in the 1970s, some people decided to build their own boats. These backyard builders preferred traditional boat design and traditional boat materials. That's when I got the bug, and began building dingies, skiffs, canoes, kayaks. My masterwork was a 22-foot, four-oared rowing vessel.

Taking a 22-foot St. Ayles skiff off building molds, at left, after 14 months of building.
Credit Mercedes Maskalik / Courtesy Toby Goodrich

They weren’t all built by me alone. I started a boatbuilding club at the school where I taught science and English. 

My novice boatwrights — students and faculty — discovered the value of taking one’s time to appreciate the fine curves, delicate joinery and jaunty appearance of a yar wooden vessel.  

Much of their time was spent walking around the unfinished hull, squatting to examine it, assuring each curve is “fair,” possessing no unsightly bumps or sags.

The builder begins to imagine, as the boat takes shape, how she’ll behave as she cuts her way through the water.

Of course, no shop would be complete without a moaning chair, where the builder sits and ponders the most recent mistakes and how to correct them.

But the work gets done, and finally comes the pride and joy a builder feels on launching day.

There's as much adventure in building a wooden boat as in using it. I recommend it.

Toby Goodrich is a small boat enthusiast and retired teacher. He lives in Canton, Connecticut.