Building a skiff
Ken Endean described how he went about constructing an Anglo-American 12ft skiff, refining a design from 30 years earlier
A reader constructs a 12ft AngloAmerican skiff, refining a design from 30 years earlier
My home-built skiff was inspired by the late, great American designer Phil Bolger. His drawing board conceived a huge variety of vessels, including a folding schooner, a fullsize 20-gun frigate (which starred in the film and also several hundred other craft of all sizes and shapes.
One of the very best of those shapes was Teal, a double-ended 12ft rowing skiff of discreet elegance that could be assembled very easily, from two standard sheets of plywood, using only straight cutting for most of her components. He published the drawings and, about 30 years ago, I built a Teal as a throwaway project, using very cheap timber. It was so delightful that I wished I’d invested in more durable materials.
Last year I decided to do the job properly, but 30 years of mentally tweaking the details had thrown up some ideas to suit my own boating habits, so I drafted this new design, which aims to honour Teal’s delicate sheerline while being just as simple to construct. The principal difference is that the hull is broader aft, with a small transom. Teal was mainly intended for a single person, but when ours was fitted out for two people, with the forward one rowing, the forward rowlocks were too close together. In this design the centre of buoyancy is further aft, so the forward rowing position is in a beamier part of the boat and more comfortable for the oarsman.
We named our original skiff Angelica because she was slim, green and rather sweet, reminding me of the crystallised angelica that I enjoyed pinching from Mum’s cake-making activities when
I was a small boy. The new boat was again slim, green and sweet, so she had to be Angelica II.
Standard plywood sheets used to be 8ft x 4ft (2,438mm x 1,219mm) but rounded metric dimensions have been creeping into use. I bought sheets at 2,500mm x 1,219mm, so I employed the extra length and formed a cranked transom. This elongated the bottom panels to make their after end as narrow as possible, in order to minimise drag. Two sheets of ply will still suffice for most of the hull, but a small extra piece is required to complete the bottom. I used Gaboon marine ply, 6mm thick, with sapele hardwood for the solid timber parts and epoxy adhesive throughout. The building instructions are extremely simple, as follows.
Creating the shape
The first sheet of ply is sliced up according to the dimensions shown in Diagram 1. Join each long side panel to one ‘side forward’ and one ‘side aft’ as shown at the bottom of that diagram, with each butt joint straddled by a butt strap. The butt straps could be glued and clamped or glued and screwed. It is important that the butt straps are 100mm wide and straddle the joints accurately (ie, 50mm on each side) because their positions will determine the shape of the boat.
(Note: I’ve drawn the panels to suit a cranked transom. If the ply sheets are only 2,438mm long, cut out the ‘side aft’ panels along the hatched lines and that will produce a plain transom.)
Assembly involves just three transverse frames. Their trapezoidal shapes are dimensioned in Diagram 1, and the photos show how mine were constructed. To suit my gunwale detail their upper extremities fit 12mm below the edges of the ply sides. Bring together these frames and the side panels, as in Diagram 2, and bevel the outer edges of the forward and aft frames to suit the hull curves. Then join the parts with the end frames latched in against the butt straps, as in Diagram 3 and Photo 3.
Voila – we already have a boat shape! To complete the bow and stern, cut and bevel internal battens to fit those junctions then glue and screw them in place to fasten the stem and secure the small transom panels.
To finish off, fix the gunwale strakes and chine log battens to the bent ply sides and bevel the chine logs to take the bottom panels. Lay the second sheet of ply over the inverted hull, scribe it, cut out and fix the main bottom panel, then follow with the smaller bottom panels at bow and stern. (The butt joints between these panels might be made by butt straps or scarfs, but the 2,500mm-long ply sheet allowed the joints to coincide with the forward and aft frames, which I widened slightly with thickening pieces.)
Completing the boat
If we want a basic boat, that’s it. However, it can be as basic or as fancy as we wish. For instance, my gunwale is built from three strips of timber, forming a recess to hold a rope fender, but it could be just a single rectangular strip (as shown in Diagram 4). Phil Bolger’s Teal only had one permanent frame plus two spreaders: the gunwale and chine log were external (see alternative sections in Diagram 4) and the oarsman sat on a kind of plywood box.
I wanted civilised transport for two or three people, and some of the details – such as seating and bottom boards – are obvious from the photos, while others are worth mentioning for anyone who intends to build something similar. The frames are notched at their upper extremities and lower corners, to accommodate continuous gunwale strips and chine logs. Limber holes in each frame allow any water from splashes to drain through, making it easier to mop up.
The 20mm square bottom rails provide abrasion resistance, but they also act in conjunction with the internal bottom battens, forming 46mm-deep laminated stiffeners to keep the bottom curve in shape. I enjoy rowing with thole pins rather than metal oar crutches, so the rowlock positions are formed as swellings to take rectangular pins. Each forward swelling has four holes, giving a choice of three oar positions and allowing the oarsman to move forward or aft and trim the boat according to the relative weight of the passenger.
Living with it
The boat is car-top-able, when the thwart, seats, backrest and bottom boards all remove for stowing in the car boot, leaving a weight of 38kg (84lb) to be lifted onto the roof rails.
When at home, it lives in our garage and the only free space is above the car, where the design’s zero deadrise (no V-bottom) suits the limited headroom. To be kind to the hull, it should be slung from its frames, but hoisting a long object tight-up against a ceiling is easier if the hoist ropes are close to the extreme ends. We therefore have a lifting spreader that connects to the frames but is hoisted from its ends.
On the water
This craft is for anyone who relishes the joy of leaning back against the resistance of a pair of oars and feeling the boat leap forward as the blades bite. A subdued chuckle from the bows and a flat wake astern tell a tale of low drag and potential speed. In Angelica we made several picnic excursions of up to 20 miles. In Angelica II our best effort to date has been 8 miles for lunch, but we have plans for longer expeditions.
With its zero deadrise, the design is not perfect for open water because the bow slaps when leaping over steep crests. However, in our experience she gives a dry ride. Rowing at a steady pace involves no serious effort, and I would not dream of making provision for an outboard.
A small rowing boat is a greatly underrated form of transport, ideal for quiet exploration of rivers, creeks and intricate coastal crevices. It is essentially safe, without the inherent capsize risk of a sailing dinghy, and is certainly safer than a canoe or kayak in less-than-expert hands.
If we want to add fixed buoyancy, the seats and thwarts can be fastened in place with foam blocks fitted beneath them.
The original Angelica on the Upper Hamble, many years ago
Diagram 1: Plywood parts list
Bending the side panels around the frames creates the boatÕs shape
Diagram 2: Side panels and transverse frames including transom panels
Diagram 3: Side panels assembled on transverse frames
Photo 3: The forward and aft frames locate against the edges of the butt straps
Painted, varnished and fitted with thwart, seats, backrest and bottom boards Each bottom board is a simple ply panel, secured by a single turnbutton Rowlock swelling with rectangular thole pins
Internal structure at stern
Internal structure amidships
Internal structure at bow
The gunwale construction forms a recess for a fender rope
The name board doubles as a carrying handle