Popular Mechanics (USA)
HOW TO BUILD YOUR OWN STITCH-AND-GLUE BOAT
AND THE GUY WHO DISCOVERED IT IS SHARING ALL OF HIS SECRETS
In the summer of 1974, Sam Devlin was working on a tugboat in Alaska when he read the first issue of Wooden Boat Magazine. He was immediately entranced. “I couldn’t shake the image of that wooden boat from my head,” Devlin says. “I can even see it today, almost five decades later.” Devlin had loved boats from a young age and had worked on fiberglass boats in the past, but the process lacked creativity, he says, and didn’t challenge him. This wooden boat, though, was something different.
A natural craftsman, Devlin believed wooden boatbuilding was a career he could be proud of. He leaned into the idea of making vessels that were both beautiful and functional— something that would last. Physical labor suited his strong, tall frame. And as a child of the ’60s, someone who came of age post-Vietnam, he felt the freedom to draw his own roadmap and forgo a traditional career.
However, the wooden boat revival had just begun, and very few builders were sharing their processes. Devlin had to come up with his own from scratch. Starting in 1977 with hand drawings and small, to-scale models, Devlin created hull shapes that looked viable for small sail and motorboats. But one part stumped him: how to fuse the panels together.
Nevertheless, he forged ahead. “My dad agreed to buy the materials if I would build him a boat,” he says. Cutting the hull panels was the easy part. But they needed a method to attach them together. “We looked around the shop and saw baling wire and pliers, and two hours later we had the boat stitched together and looking like the shape we wanted. That was the eureka moment,” Devlin says. He had stumbled upon the stitch-and-glue method.
The stitch-and-glue method is a simple boat building technique popularized in the 1960s that creates a solid, one-piece hull, unlike most other wooden boats, which start with frames and bulkheads and build the hull on top. Using marine plywood panels stitched together with electric fence wire and sealed with epoxy resin, the process eliminates the need for frames or ribs, making it a simpler, faster construction. Stitch-and-glue doesn’t require expensive molds like fiberglass, and can be maintained over the long term, perfect for DIY builders.
Devlin and his father continued to tinker with the shape and construction of their boat. A few days later they had a functional skiff. It wasn’t perfect, but it showed the stitch-and-glue process was more than viable—it had clear advantages over other boatbuilding methods.
Stitch and glue, generally speaking, has a remarkable ability to adapt. Without high tooling costs like most other boatbuilding mediums, it’s more accessible to more builders, which makes for rapid idea evolution and pervasion about the method. “With low barriers to entry from an experience side, we learned a lot quickly,” Devlin says. They learned that if they cheated on the grade of plywood, they would be sacrificing the integrity of the whole boat. They learned to use epoxy resins because they would seal stronger than more popular polyester resins. And moreover, they learned the process, the best order of operations, and how unique it was to quickly go from an idea to an actual, working boat.
Less than a year after finishing his first boat, Devlin embraced boatbuilding as a full-fledged career. Research led him to builders making small boats in England and New Zealand that used a method similar to the one he had devised with his dad, but not at the same scale or complexity he envisioned.
SHAKE THE IMAGE OF THAT WOODEN BOAT FROM
From there, he focused on improving the process. “We needed to nurture the method, testing the parameters and not constraining it with patents,” Devlin says. “My goal from the beginning was to proliferate the knowledge as much as possible and keep persisting and developing my own skills as a designer and builder.
“Most people didn’t see the potential for boats over 15 or 20 feet with stitch-and-glue, but I didn’t believe in that limitation. I hung my boatbuilding shingle on the door of my shop at the time in Eugene, Oregon, and I got my business started in 1978 with 25and 30-foot boats.” Devlin’s business has grown since then, adding members to his team, expanding his shop, and refining his process. Today he works on a variety of wooden boats, and currently is putting the finishing touches on a 40-foot ocean-going catamaran.
The biggest advancement in the stitch-and-glue method in the past decades has been computers replacing hand drawings. Using 3D modeling and CNC machines to cut out shapes, the panels of the boat are more accurate and easier to work with during assembly. This also allows boat designers like Devlin to ship kits to home builders with precut panels to assemble using their own tools.
In 2012 Devlin received the Lifetime Achievement in Boatbuilding and Design award by the Wooden Boat Foundation and Wooden Boat Magazine, after designing and building over 400 boats (ranging from 7 to 65 feet) with the stitch and glue method, which he helped improve and bring to the mainstream. To this day Devlin is still building boats, from his facility in Olympia, Washington. Here are his tips for making your own.