The blog will now be devoted not to boat building but to my 82-year-old Vertue, Sally II, now undergoing a well needed refit at Johnson & Loftus in Ullapool (and gliding...)

Friday, 21 January 2011

More Than a Sum of the Parts... and Infinitely Repairable

Finally got round to taking a photo of the Shetland boat I have been restoring. She was built by Ian Best on Fair Isle and has survived on an exposed beach for some years, before coming to me for refreshment. And I just cannot get enough of her shape. A good, honestly built working boat with no frills or fancies. Fit for purpose, form and function in harmony...

I expected a number of planks would need replacing after such a long time in the open, but the damage was limited to just a few sections which were popped out and replaced. I cannot over emphasise the ease with which a traditional clinker boat can be repaired. It is their unique selling point, and like the new axe (just two new shafts and two new heads) will survive indefinitely (albeit with next to nothing original).

It's just that all the components are held together with a view to replacement, should they get damaged (which was often the case in hard-driven fishing boats, like these Shetland types.) You needed to be able to pop out a plank, and scarph in a new section when the occasion arose. Which meant no glue (even if they had something up to the job in those days). Just a case of grinding off the heads of the nails, popping the roves off, removing the damaged plank (use it as a template to make a new one), bevel the edge, cut the scarph, a smear of mastic  (or twist of cotton as in the case of this boat) rivet up and it's back in the water in a matter of hours, given the kind of simple skills once found in the fishing harbours around our coasts.

Which is one of the problems I have with plywood epoxy/clinker. OK, it can be repaired, and seamlessly too. But what a palaver. In the time it takes to repair a clinker plywood boat, a traditionally planked boat with the same damage would have been back in the water long since. And there's a flexibility in those old Shetland types which is quite delightful. Don't confuse movement with weakness. Pretty light too, if the Shetland boat in my shed is anything to go by. The photos above were take in the Faroes, where the boats are similar but subtly dfferent. Thet don't sail much there, due to the currents and weather. Note the boulders to stop her blowing away, it's a fearsomely breezy spot (or maybe it's an anchor?!)

I expect the Shetland boat will leak a bit at first, but that shouldn't last long. Sail trials in March. Can't wait...


  1. Very nice counterpoint to the activities over in Ullapool.

  2. are you thinking of taking her lines off, certainly looks a fine shape be nice to have them recorded for prosperity - or future builders once the glue has all run out!!

  3. Seems a pity to replicate something that was built by eye using sticks from the roof of Ian's shed. There are too many replicas. Maybe we should let this one stay unique, look after her, replace planks until all the planks have been replaced.

    And if I took the lines off her, someone would build her in plywood and epoxy, grp and market her as "Fair Isle skiff" or some such.

    Does that make any sense, or am I being unreasonable?

    If anyone wants a similar boat, then give Ian a call. I am sure he would be delighted to build one, which would be subtly different to this one. No two good boats should be identical... Well, I could argue the point.

  4. So where are the photos?

    Having owned two classical solid wood clinker vessels, I kind of agree. Then I lived in Scandinavia.
    But now I lve on south spanish coast. 40 degrees celcius in summer. Very dry and very humid in winter. I can imagine having a solid wood boat here. But it would have to stay in the water all year round and Spain is not the place where you find sweet and cheap little harbours. Here its steel and concrete marinas and very expensive.
    If I was to have a boat on a trailer which I find very attractive, it would be glued plywood. A solid wood boat would simply dry out way to much during the 40 degrees celcius and 20% humidity.

  5. Anders

    Strange you can't see the photo I posted. Quite understand why they built carvel in the Med, although the vikings must have brought their methods to Constantinople on their travels? Maybe they had a man on board at all times pumping or keeping the planks wet.

    I read an account of Sea Stallion from Glendalough's voyage from Denmark and they were taking in tons of water every hour, so continuous pumping was vital. I reckon that the flexibility of the longships came at the expense of watertightness, but then the man with the baler was just as important as the man at the tiller. I believe they even had specialist baler makers.

    One thing we learned to take for granted with the advent of grp was that boats need not leak. Not a bad thing perhaps.

  6. In an ideal world we would all like to have a boat just like that Shetland boat. What a beauty! In form and construction she is just about perfection in my eye.
    But what about the poor sap who lives in some hot dry place and must, if he has a boat at all, keep it on a trailer? I guess he's just out of luck. Heaven forbid he have a boat of plywood or GRP.

  7. Come on. Horses for courses. These are boats designed for the north. Just as you wouldn't want an open topped sports car in Siberia, you can't have everything you want whenever and wherever you want. We are spoilt in our choice.

    Shetland boats are built like that to suit the waters. There are perfectly good boats for those who want to keep them on trailers in the sun, but maybe they should look beyond a boat like this.

    Having said that, if the timber is well seasoned to the environment the boat will inhabit, and she's built right, there is absolutely no reason why you should not have a Shetland boat, or a faering or any other Scandinavian-type clinker boat in a hot place.

    There is no need to run for the marine plywood every time you see a lovely boat that may not be indigenous or quite suitable. Lean to live with the leaks (if there are any).

    Incidentally, I have nothing against glassfibre. It's an honest man-made material, made from oil dirivatives and a bit of glass, whereas plywood can be a waste of good old growth hardwood if used for the wrong purpose.

    My argument is simply this: try, if possible to find alternatives to plywood if you can.

  8. It's not actually that hard, fixing glued clinker ply, and since the glue is setting while you are asleep you are not losing time. Unlike traditional plank scarphs the glued scarphs are not a source of weakness, so the repaired boat is as good as the original.

    And plywood is a much less wasteful use of wood than sawn planking stock, since nothing is lost as sawdust with rotary veneers.

    You could regard traditional clinker with fore-and-aft grain in the planks and athwartships grain in the ribs as a kind of primitive antecedent to plywood, which combines both grain directions so effectively that it is the preferred material for patching split clinker planks.

    Why mourn the passing of bailing continuously to stay afloat? Much over-rated in my opinion.

  9. Aha, Topher my clever friend. So you have discovered the Trouble with Old Boats (the name says it all).

    As always I cannot argue with a word you say. But methinks you occasionally protest too much.

    A few thoughts to add to the debate: how many ribs do you see in the boats pictured above? And, secondly, how old do you think they are? Thirdly, how many plywood patches do you see on these hard-driven Faroese and Shetland boats?

    My fear is that what people call "traditional" methods of boat building will fall by the wayside and wood will come to mean plywood (who felled the tree, where did it come from, was it sustainably grown, etc, etc).

    Luckily more and more students from the colleges are reverting to the old ways, but crucially bringing new techniques and a fresh ethos to bear. People like Will Stirling, Tim Loftus, Ashley Butler, Luke at Working Sail, Cockwells, Larry Pardey (of course) and a host of others. Their boats do not leak. As I do agree that leaks are not a good thing.

    But then again, how badly did the delightful clinker boats you once built on Scoraig leak? And how many of them are still afloat now, giving good service?

    One, I admired so much, was broken by a fallen tree in a storm, which I repaired, fairly seamlessly I hope. You wouldn't have thanked me for patching her up with plywood.

    I genuinely have nothing but admiration for the quality of your repair on Ulla, the St Ayles skiff. I just wish you would throw in return a few crumbs of admiration for those who revere an older way, one that still has many advantages, of which, I will maintain until my dying day, is "infinite and easy repairability".

  10. Hi Adrian,

    We have had these discussions before, and will again, amicably. The boats you have pictured are lovely and they are genuinely traditional, and very well made. I'm glad people are still learning to make them. For boats kept in a cold wet climate or continuously afloat, they are great and will stand a lot of hard work. The one I built and you repaired is still in service, though sadly some genius has put a sharp edged pallet in for floorboards.

    They do get heavy from water absorption but this is not always a problem.

    I was just seeking to point out that plywood is a strong material and has its place in lightweight boats which spend most of their time out of the water and can be made by amateurs without access to special timber.

    There is another discussion to be had about sustainability. The big hardwood logs which traditional boatbuilders and plywood makers love are a finite resource rapidly disappearing. Ply is a more efficient way to use these, but perhaps we should not be using them at all.

    My next boat is going to be out of birch ply, which at least does not come from a tropical forest. It's not durable against rot but that is the price I am willing to pay, so I will need to make sure it stays dry under the finish.

    Horses for courses.

  11. Hi Topher (we can't keep meeting like this. I'll drop round for tea...!)

    I think we have reached a pleasant balance, as always. As you say: horses for courses.

    I am intrigued by the idea of birch ply. Saturated with Woodseal, I can imagine it lasting as long as any hardwood ply, but alas (see subsequent post) poor Woodseal.

    The late Robb White, a Georgia boatbuilder with a unique technique (more of which later), used Tulip poplar, which has an interlinking grain which makes it a bit like plywood, he claimed. I am investigating...