Off she goes, Iain Oughtred's slightly foreshortened Penny Fee, at 15ft. Sails by Jeckells, spars by the wonderful Jeremy Freeland at Collars. The rest by Messrs Burke and Morgan (that's Jonny by the way...)

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

What is Wood and What Not

There seems to be considerable confusion about what constitutes a wooden boat. Some maintain that anything with a wooden core, albeit plastered with resin and cloth, qualifies; others that only solid timber is proper. What is the difference between a balsa-cored epoxy laminated hull and one that has a harder core of strip planking, also covered in resin and cloth?

The question arises whenever two or three wooden boat enthusiasts gather together, and often leads to heated debate. And it was only the other day that a similar conversation lead me to question and then seek to qualify my own, very personal ideas about what is is not a wooden boat, and it was not an easy one to answer.

Clearly a plywood boat is, to some extent, a wooden boat. I would argue that laminating thin layers of wood between lines of glue nullifies the material’s claim to be wood, in the accepted understanding of the word. And the strange grain patterns which some builders of plywood boats sanctify under layers of varnish serves only to showcase plywood’s fakery. It’s a laminate, like Formica, masquerading as the real thing. So rule number one, in my book is, if you do build a plywood, rather than a wooden boat, so as not to offend the eye, use paint. That way you will hide your guilty secret, and save money into the bargain: also, mahogany faced ply is very dear and, as it uses old growth timber, ecologically very suspect.

I have no objection to boats built in plywood; having owned a number, one of them was even varnished, but I would not claim they were wooden boats. So what, you say? It’s pure snobbery to downgrade plywood boats of which there are countless exceptional examples. Look no further than Iain Oughtred’s designs which take traditional shapes and refine them to the ultimate. In line and form they are close to perfection, but they are still not what I would call proper wooden boats.

So what is a proper wooden boat? It’s probably best to avoid categoric statements and rely instead on a scale, the higher up the more closely does the boat conform to the definition of a wooden boat.
At the top end of the scale would be classic carvel and clinker constructed boats in solid timber, at the bottom, perhaps, strip planking encapsulated in resin and glass mat of some sort. Somewhere near the bottom would be laminated wood composite boats, aka plywood and so on.

Why go for plywood? As someone who is passionate about the virtues of  solid timber boats, I feel it is important not to lose sight of what can be termed wooden. When people talk of a “wooden boat revival” they invariably mean plywood, and more often than not plywood and epoxy. At Beale Park, thankfully, the trend is slowly away from plywood towards traditional construction. There is a beauty in a clinker boat, its lines of copper rivets gleaming. Fillets of pigmented epoxy just doesn’t do it for me. Plywood is dead, inert and while excellent for building precise boats to meticulous plans, makes dead, inert boats. Sure, they are unlikely to leak, or move, but nor do they, as one writer say of the wooden loch boats on which he learnt to fish for trout, “live”. And if living means a little movement, then so be it.

Any true wooden boat revival cannot, in my opinion, then rely solely on plywood. The techniques requred to build a plywood boat overlap only rarely with those needed to plank a solid timber boat. The latter, I maintain, is not only quicker and cheaper to build (just look at the price of top-quality marine ply) but better for the environment. It is infinitely more satisfying to build in solid timber too, with less emphasis on mixing quantities of mayonnaise, more on close-fitting bevels.


  1. Adrian,
    I asked myself a similar question when I was building my strip planked canoe.
    I spent balmy summer's evenings cutting, glueing and clamping strips of cedar wreathed in a fog of aromatic sawdust with only half an idea of how much fibreglass and resin would come to define the building experience. I loved the carpentry, tolerated the sheathing of the outside and nearly threw in the towel (dripping, as it was, with resin) when I came to tease the delicate biaxial and resin to the fit the inside. I estimate that the ratio of time was 1:2 wood to fibreglass.
    As a neophyte boatbuilder I now judge the "woodenness" of a boat by how much time I will spend working wood and how much other materials.
    My next build will be an Oughtred Auk, traditionally planked (it'll make a lovely tender to my fibreglass 22 footer).
    If it all ends in tears at least they won't make the epoxy blush.

  2. I have nothing against mayonnaise, on chips, etc. But to spend half the time building a boat mixing epoxy and filler into a thick paste is not my idea of fun. I have built plywood/epoxy boats, and will do again, I am sure. In some instances it is the only way to go. However strip planking leaves me cold, although, again, it's an excellent method in that the boats will float. Not wood, though. Given the choice between plywood and grp (or even better polyethylene) I would choose grp/polyethylene. They are unashamedly man-made materials, with no pretences. Honest materials, in other words. Same cannot be said for strip planking.

  3. I can follow most of what you say.
    But in my eyes you are like a "religious" man when you say that plywood boats should be painted.
    Why??? If someone is proud of his work, let him show his pride in peace.
    I´ve owned 3 solid wood boats 20 - 24feet. I´ve built S&T and glued clinker ply and I will build solid wooden boats. No problems. Depends on the use the thing will have.
    And also. If you build glued clinker ply, you can build with very little epoxy if you prepare everything well. Its not solid wood, but it can be turned into a nice hull.
    I respect you building a lot. Larch is wonderfull but please remember that where you live, the forests were once cut away and what is left is just a small percentage. So we´re all guilty. I´m a pro guitarbuilder and all the wood use is more or less in danger.

  4. Plywood is a superb material for building boats, don't get me wrong. I say plywood should be painted for these reasons:

    1. The top veneer of a good plywood is invariably old growth hardwood, which is very scarce. You cannot be sure where it comes from, despite the label.

    Top grade marine plywood is also very, very expensive.

    2. Second, the grain of the top veneer in good plywood is twisted, ugly and unnatural: it does not look like wood, so why beautify it?

    3. And so it cannot be called wood. That is simply my point. It is an excellent man-made laminate, and one day someone will find a method to make a wood-look laminate without using wood. Then there will be plenty of real wood for me to use, sustainably.

  5. I've just posted some comments on, to stir things a little.

  6. Having built only two boats, both double paddle decked canoes about 12 feet long, I must agree with Adrian.

    The traditionally build boat, a Harry Bryan "Fiddlehead," was cedar on oak, clinch nailed, and was a delight to build.

    The other, a stitch and glue made of expensive marine ply and several quarts of epoxy was one royal pain in the arse to build. ... especially in an unheated shop where the best building time was when the weather was warm enough for boating, not building.

    Both of these little boats are a joy to use. They perform nearly equal to each other. Yet, the traditional boat was, for my senses, the more satisfying and is a real wooden boat.

    See them at: and

  7. I also dont like the look of twisted face veneer. It looks wrong.
    The problem with you ortodoks "religious" guys (he -he) is that you alway take things to an extreme.
    Plywood has a lot of limits which soem are trying to hide (other religious persons) It rots, good quality is expensive and its made using wood that is cut without any control. I agree.
    But a lot of solid wood is being cut without control. What happened to the Caledonian forest?
    Another typical orthodoks religious thing is to talk about the amount of epoxy needed to build with plywood. And the example is always stich and glue covered with glass. Right, it takes a lot of epoxy. BUT there are other ways of building with plywood.
    I´ve just finished a 7,5´pram/Tender of my own design. Flat bottom, 4 planks aside. I used a total. everything included of just over 1 liter of epoxy. Its painted exept the gunwhales and the seats. By using a high quality 5mm 5 layers WBP plywood without any kind of voids, It was possible to keep the weight down to 16kg (35lbs) This means that I can lift it of the water myself and store it on deck.
    The pram will live 10 month a year in a shelter and will be paited when needed. One day it´ll rot away but if looked after it´ll most probably take decades.
    Lots of small boats, canoes etc are being dry stored for 90% of their life.
    Another thing is that using solid wood doesnt have to be more correct. I live in south west Spain and the only solid wood you can get here which might be useable and have a size that can be turned into boat planks is pine with a lot of knots. Buying home Mahogany, oak, larch etc. from other places is not an ecological aproach and it´l be a lot more expensive than usin plywood and epoxy.
    I´ve owned solid wooden boats and I liked them and if I move to another place, I´ll be building small craft in solid wood. But I´ll try to not turn into a orthokoks religious man. What I do might be rightfor me but I´m not sure its right for everyone else.