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.