If you’ve ever thought of build­ing your own boat, you are not alone. The road can be long, but the re­wards are great


Many as­pire to build­ing a boat of their own; Lawrence Cheek ex­plains what you need to know in order to ac­tu­ally make it hap­pen

Not many events in life are as emo­tion­ally con­vo­luted as when the plans for a sail­boat ar­rive at the am­a­teur builder’s home. The plans flut­ter out on the din­ing ta­ble, and quickly there arise in­ter­twin­ing shiv­ers of heady an­tic­i­pa­tion and well-founded fear. If there are 10 pages of plans promis­ing breath­tak­ing beauty, within them are 100 things the prospec­tive boat­builder does not know how to do, rang­ing from wa­ter-seal­ing the deck hard­ware to some­how turn­ing a 25ft spruce mast. Beyond the tech­ni­cal is­sues, the awestruck am­a­teur rightly won­ders: Do I have the char­ac­ter—the per­se­ver­ance, the ca­pac­ity to surf the waves of ela­tion and de­spair—for the year or three or 10 this mag­nif­i­cent cre­ation will de­mand?

There’s never been a bet­ter time to find out. As many pro­duc­tion builders have evap­o­rated from the un­der-30ft class, a tide of pro­fes­sional de­sign­ers and naval ar­chi­tects has flooded the void with so­phis­ti­cated plans for am­a­teur builders. Mod­ern ma­te­ri­als—ply­wood, fiber­glass and epoxy—make it pos­si­ble to build light­weight, rot­proof and prodi­giously strong com­pos­ite hulls through sev­eral tech­niques, most of them sim­pler than tra­di­tional plank-on-frame. In just the last few years, many de­sign­ers have also started pro­duc­ing kits con­sist­ing of a build­ing jig and all the hull pan­els and bulk­heads through the tech­nol­ogy of CNC (com­puter numer­i­cal con­trolled) rout­ing. The jig guar­an­tees pre­cise

align­ment, and the pan­els are per­fectly cut to plan. This elim­i­nates one of the am­a­teur’s prime trep­i­da­tions—birthing a twisted banana of a hull—and erases many hours of front-end labor.

That said, the log­i­cal and prac­ti­cal ar­gu­ments against build­ing your own are hard to beat back. There’s risk; not ev­ery­one who starts will fin­ish. An in­ex­pe­ri­enced builder prob­a­bly will not end up with a boat whose func­tional de­tails are as well ex­e­cuted as those of a pro­duc­tion boat that has un­der­gone years of de­sign re­fine­ment. It’s also no way to save money. A used fiber­glass boat in de­cent con­di­tion can be found for a third to half the cost of parts and ma­te­ri­als for a com­pa­ra­ble home-built boat. For ex­am­ple, the 21ft gaff-rigged cut­ter I’m cur­rently build­ing will end up cost­ing be­tween $33,000 and $35,000, fully out­fit­ted—sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars more than the new prices of a cou­ple of pop­u­lar fiber­glass boats near the same size. And yes, since it’s wood, it will de­mand more main­te­nance.

I am a se­rial boat­builder, how­ever, with enough ex­pe­ri­ence to know bet­ter if know­ing bet­ter would en­hance my life. This is my sixth build; pre­ced­ing it have been three other sail­boats and two kayaks. I never ex­pected this would hap­pen, but what started out as an ex­per­i­ment in build­ing a com­pli­cated toy be­came a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. So it is for many am­a­teur builders.


With the dream, of course. And then whack it down to re­al­is­tic scale. While there are in­spi­ra­tional sto­ries like that of Roy Jack­son of Bain­bridge Is­land, Wash­ing­ton, an ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive who be­gan build­ing a 43ft schooner in 1976 and fi­nally launched it in 2009, at the age of 78, there are many more where the over­am­bi­tious dream ended as ex­pen­sive fire­wood. It’s more pru­dent to start with a mod­est dinghy to both learn ba­sic skills and test whether you have the per­se­ver­ance to build a se­ri­ous cruis­ing boat. Some de­sign­ers post ex­pected build­ing times for var­i­ous boats in their cat­a­logs. These are, without ex­cep­tion, laugh­able. For an hon­est es­ti­mate, mul­ti­ply by two or three. For the record, my first boat, a 13ft 6in sail­ing dinghy, re­quired 419 hours. My sec­ond, a 19ft gaff sloop, con­sumed about 3,000. A friend in Bri­tish Columbia took 6,000 hours for a metic­u­lously crafted 23ft Ber­muda sloop.

The am­a­teur will be sur­prised to find how many dif­fer­ent skills have to be learned to build a sail­boat. It’s not just cutting and fit­ting wooden parts. For a com­pos­ite hull, you also learn fiber­glass­ing and fil­let­ing (sculpt­ing coves of thick­ened epoxy to strengthen joints such as bulk­head-to-hull), and good fiber­glass­ing is not easy.

Do it slop­pily, and you’ll in­cur three grue­some hours of ex­tra fair­ing per foot of boatlength. Paint­ing and var­nish­ing are arts that take many boats’ worth of prac­tice to rise above the backyard skill level. (Al­though it’s ab­so­lutely OK to go for a “work­boat” fin­ish.)

Then there’s rig­ging. When I ar­rived at this fi­nal step on my com­pli­cated gaffer Nil Des­peran­dum I was lost in the woods—the plans pro­vided lit­tle il­lu­mi­na­tion—un­til I phoned Sam Devlin, the de­signer, and told him I was about to turn the job over to a pro­fes­sional. “He’ll charge you $5,000,” Devlin said. “You can fig­ure it out.” And I did, faced with such a bulging es­ti­mate. I di­gested a book on rig­ging and spent days prowl­ing mari­nas in the Seat­tle area, cam­era and note­book in hand, study­ing how boats in my size range were rigged. Fi­nally, I vis­ited a chan­dlery where an ex­traor­di­nar­ily help­ful as­so­ciate combed through the plans with me for two hours, pa­tiently ad­vis­ing which block, shackle, eye, cleat and line was ap­pro­pri­ate for each job. It took a cou­ple of sea­sons of sail­ing to fid­dle the rig into top form and re­li­a­bil­ity, but it now works ad­mirably—and I have only low-grade trep­i­da­tion for rig­ging the next boat.

The step from dinghy to cruis­ing boat is not to be taken lightly; new com­plex­i­ties present at ev­ery turn. How does one ex­e­cute the corners of the trunk cabin? Gar­den-shed car­pen­try won’t do: these are prom­i­nent de­tails fea­tur­ing grace­fully com­pli­cated curvy parts and “other-

than-right an­gles.” My so­lu­tion in­volved mak­ing mockup cor­ner posts from scrap wood to an­gle the rab­bets for the cabin sides cor­rectly be­fore reach­ing for the ex­pen­sive ma­hogany. Tak­ing this ex­tra step cut against the grain of my im­pa­tient na­ture, which was an­other ben­e­fit of do­ing it: vo­ca­tional re­hab in learn­ing pa­tient and me­thod­i­cal work.


Brows­ing the online plan cat­a­logs is like nav­i­gat­ing the world’s largest sail­boat show, one that takes place in an al­ter­nate uni­verse where the economics of the industry ac­tu­ally fa­vor mod­est size and cre­ative va­ri­ety. For ex­am­ple, if your dream is a com­pact cruiser in the 19ft to 22ft range, the de­sign­ers listed in the side­bar of­fer 30 dif­fer­ent op­tions, in­clud­ing Ber­muda sloops, gaff sloops, yawls, cat­boats, a catketch and even a trail­er­a­ble schooner.

Con­struc­tion regimes in­clude tra­di­tional plank-on-frame, ply­wood stitch-and-glue, ply­wood lap­strake and cold-mold­ing. I have built hulls us­ing var­i­ous meth­ods, and in my opin­ion, stitch-and-glue is the most am­a­teur-friendly. Its only draw­back is that se­ri­ously cur­va­ceous shapes are not pos­si­ble, and some de­signs—cer­tainly not all— look a bit slab-sided. The most beau­ti­ful small boats may be lap­strake: the par­al­lel flow of sweep­ing lines cre­ates a vis­ual rhythm that makes the boat seem like an or­ganic cre­ation.

Al­though some de­sign­ers bitch and moan about am­a­teurs’ ir­re­press­ible urges to tweak their plans, build­ing your own al­lows per­son­al­iza­tion that would be im­pos­si­ble in a pro­duc­tion boat. I thought it pru­dent, for ex­am­ple, to build pos­i­tive flota­tion into Nil Des­peran­dum, so I turned 14 cu­bic feet of hull cran­nies into wa­ter­tight air com­part­ments, pro­vid­ing 900lb of flota­tion to counter the 650lb of bal­last. Devlin ap­proved my scheme and even of­fered help­ful advice; it’s sen­si­ble to ask.

Even a mod­est daysailer will force you to surf a cy­cle of ela­tion and dis­cour­age­ment. And if you are to keep go­ing, you have to fig­ure out a way to man­age it, build­ing a reser­voir of per­se­ver­ance that may seep into other are­nas of your life. You learn that per­fec­tion­ism is not your friend, so you let go of the vi­sion of un­com­pro­mised beauty you held when you first spread out the plans on the din­ing room ta­ble. Oddly enough, this sur­ren­der will also make you hap­pier, as you learn to sep­a­rate the tasks that must be done right from those merely built as a pro­jec­tion of ego. You will gain con­fi­dence in your­self at the same time you plumb new depths of hu­mil­ity. You will be star­tled to find that these two qual­i­ties don’t con­tra­dict each other.


John Hart­mann’s 14ft 6in daysailer Waxwing, which he built to the “Ilur” de­sign by French naval ar­chi­tect Fran­cois Vivier, is a fetch­ing refu­ta­tion of my claim back at the be­gin­ning: that an am­a­teur-built boat prob­a­bly won’t match the ex­e­cu­tion of a pro­duc­tion craft. The de­tail­ing of Waxwing would blow any com­pe­ti­tion out of the wa­ter. The oars, for ex­am­ple, stash ele­gantly un­der the floor­boards. A mizzen, complementing the bal­anced lug­sail, makes sail bal­ance and heav­ing-to easy. The mizzen sheet, in an ex­quis­ite in­no­va­tion, runs through a hol­low boomkin that Hart­mann de­vised.

Waxwing il­lus­trates an­other of the ad­van­tages of home build­ing:

pro­duc­tion man­u­fac­tur­ers rarely try to in­cor­po­rate tricky, dif­fi­cultto-ex­e­cute de­tails in small boats be­cause they would in­flate the price beyond the mar­ket’s tol­er­ance. Am­a­teur builders can en­joy very finely de­tailed small craft that sim­ply aren’t avail­able com­mer­cially—if they have the pa­tience and chops for the work.

Hart­mann, 59, lives in cen­tral Ver­mont and works as an emer­gency physi­cian. “Our mod­ern work lives, whether you’re a stock trader or a physi­cian, are dic­tated by del­uges of in­for­ma­tion,” he says. “That del­uge takes us away from pro­cess­ing in­for­ma­tion at a hu­man scale. Mak­ing things with your hands is evo­lu­tion­ar­ily hu­man-scaled, and that’s a re­ally im­por­tant counterpoint to my work life.”

It took 11 months of steady off-hours work to build the boat, start­ing with a kit for the hull. He com­mis­sioned Vivier to draw the mizzen—hereto­fore the Ilur fea­tured a sin­gle lug­sail with op­tional jib—and un­der­took ex­tra am­bi­tions such as de­sign­ing a bronze main­mast col­lar for a lo­cal foundry to cast. Still, he wasn’t try­ing to cre­ate a work of art, a boat so finely fin­ished that a scratch at the dock would ruin the day. He says his goal was to honor the Ilur’s work­boat roots on the 19th-century Bre­ton coast, while yet build­ing a plea­sure boat nice enough to be proud of.

“It’s such a ca­pa­ble boat,” Hart­mann says. “It’s a boat to which peo­ple re­spond warmly. And I’ve learned I can trust it in cir­cum­stances where in the wrong boat we’d be in se­ri­ous trou­ble. I give Vivier all the credit.”

Steve Strom­borg, a 52-year-old fire­fighter from Bain­bridge Is­land, Wash­ing­ton, is an­other se­rial boat­builder with half-dozen sail­boats and kayaks be­hind him. For the last two, pure beauty drove his choices: a 14ft Deer Isle Koster by Maine de­signer Clint Chase and a 19ft Eun Na Mara by Iain Oughtred. Each of Strom­borg’s boats, be­gin­ning with a Pygmy kayak kit—the “gate­way drug in boat­build­ing,” he says—has been a step up in com­plex­ity. He seems to have an in­nate need to keep rais­ing the stakes, chal­leng­ing him­self more with each boat. The next one, he says, will be the 24ft Fen­wick Wil­liams gaff yawl, a 9,000lb, plank-on-frame cruis­ing boat.

What has he got­ten out of build­ing boats? “I’ve met a lot of great peo­ple. It’s kept me from restor­ing an­other car. The act of mas­sag­ing wood into a func­tion­ing boat is my form of med­i­ta­tion. To avoid PTSI, fire­fight­ers need some­thing that ab­sorbs us out­side of work, and it’s given me that out­let. I’ve cre­ated a num­ber of pretty things that have the po­ten­tial to last beyond my short life, and that’s very sat­is­fy­ing.”

Am­a­teur boat­builders some­times find it dif­fi­cult to put into words, but most of us have found that in var­i­ous ways, the boats build us. This isn’t like craft­ing planters or fur­ni­ture. A wood­worker’s pride may pivot on a cof­fee ta­ble, but hu­man lives de­pend on boats. We build pa­tience and fo­cus and char­ac­ter through the vi­tal tasks that in­volve their struc­ture and sea­wor­thi­ness. Char­ac­ter can be sim­ply de­fined as the abil­ity to dis­cern right from wrong, and choos­ing to do right even when no­body’s watch­ing. Build­ing a boat is re­plete with those choices, and mak­ing them faith­fully is like ex­er­cis­ing a mus­cle. Keep that mus­cle healthy, and it’s in shape for the dif­fi­cult tests in ev­ery other cor­ner of life. s

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