row2k Features
On Building a Wooden Single
December 8, 2022
Richard Van Voris

Van Voris's handiwork, afloat on the Agawam River

Ed. Note: When Richard Van Voris suggested last week's Rowing Hack--The Banding Film 'Clamp'--he also asked if we might be interested in a few lessons he's learned from building his own singles out of wood.

So Van Voris, who calls himself an "amateur with nearly four decades of wooden boat-building experience," wrote this story about why he built his shells and the tips he would share with anyone who might have a similar whim to build a wooden scull of their own.

Why Build a Wooden Shell

Nearly twenty-five years ago, I built my first wooden scull: a "Kingfisher," designed by the legendary Graeme King. Once, when returning to the dock after a beautiful morning row, I noticed one of the younger members of our club eyeballing my boat, and I proudly declared, "I built it myself." To which he replied, "Why would you do that? Wouldn't it be easier to buy one?"

At the time, I laughed it off, but for whatever reason, I couldn't stop thinking about this short exchange. All I could think was "If you have to ask, you don't get it." But upon further reflection, I believe that the question of "why" is one of intent more than objective.

For me, the goal of building a boat isn't to have a boat--otherwise, as my astute young friend suggested, it would have been a lot easier to just buy one. No, building a boat is an ongoing act of creation, refinement and self-improvement. In some ways, the functional object that results from this process is almost more of a byproduct than an end in itself.

For some of us, we look at a boat or a house or a piece of furniture and "I think I could build that," to which our rational mind replies, "yeah, in half a year and $500 over budget." Yet the urge to try the build won't go away. It takes root in our brains and the next thing you know we're googling "wooden shells" while digging through stacks of old "Wooden Boat" magazines. The whim turns into a daydream, and the daydream turns into an obsession, and, finally the thought gets wings. There is no choice, we have to build it.

I am not a professional boat builder, although in my job as a boatman I did work on a lot of carbon fiber rowing shells. I am an amateur with nearly four decades of wooden boat-building experience. As such, the following are some of the things I have learned--one mistake at a time--about building wooden shells. There are undeniably more profitable and less time-consuming techniques and specialized tools, but this advice is meant to be shared with kindred spirits and aspiring boatbuilders with reasonable access to space, materials, tools and time.

Close up of the cockpit and hardware
Close up of the cockpit and hardware

A Project is a Commitment

According to Bruce Roberts, an Australian yacht designer who sells boat plans, five percent of the people who buy study plans go on to purchase full building plans. Of those, five percent actually complete the project.

All of which means there are a lot of unfinished projects rattling around in garages, backyards and dumps across the world.

Don't make yourself a statistic - if you get the urge to build a shell (or anything for that matter) go into the project with your eyes open and be prepared to finish, no matter what. Life happens, but there's no time limit on finishing your boat. So work on it when you can, and finish...eventually.

Set Up Your Space

When it comes to your workshop, you do not need to be fancy, and you don't need to spend a fortune on specialized tools. Start with the essentials: a tablesaw, access to a motorized thickness planer, a small--and sharp!--block plane, and whatever clamps you can get your hands on. Miter saws are helpful, and I've consistently surprised myself with the diverse functionality of an inexpensive, Japanese-style pull saw. Pick up a few saw horses and some sanding blocks, and you're well on your way.

This next tip may seem obvious, but it's an easy oversight: build with a plan of egress. You don't want to build something that is too big to get out of your workspace when you're finished. I built several shells in a long, narrow basement, but I was able to orient my workbench to get the finished shells out through a small window.

Finally, a shop should be a place you feel comfortable in. It should be warm in the winter, cool in the summer and protected from the rain. Don't let your workshop turn into a junk room or storage for out-of-season yard decorations. It should be a dedicated space that you look forward to spending time in--a safe haven for your work and your soul.

Relationships are Key

It may sound cliché, but unless you're really into doing things the hard way, there's no reason to reinvent the wheel. Talk to other woodworkers and boatbuilders whenever you can, and however you can. Join online groups and browse message boards, even if they are very old. You never know when someone else's solution may help you find your own. Pay special attention to notes or archived conversations from others who have used the same plans you intend to use, and don't be afraid to contribute to an existing conversation or start a new one.

Share what you can about your plans, and ask for constructive feedback. There's no harm in asking, and most members of the boatbuilding community are happy to share their knowledge.

Learn about the locally owned lumber yards in your area, and rely on those, not Home Depot or Lowes. Not only will the quality be vastly superior, but the folks who work in these places are generally much more knowledgeable about their products.

Ask if you can pick the wood yourself. I generally reject three out of four boards on average. After picking through a stack of lumber, put it back neatly. Talk to the people at the yard, tell them what you are doing and learn their names; they can be very helpful if you take the time to treat them courteously.

Remember, you don't know what you don't know.

Next to a Carl Douglas wooden shell
Next to a Carl Douglas wooden shell

Learn Your Wood

I use Western Red Cedar for the hull, Sitka Spruce for the keelson and ledgers, and Ash for the ribs. I like South American Mahogany, for the stems and anything you need to laminate because it is beautiful and takes epoxy so well.

These are specialty woods and often not easy to source, but don't be cheap by using junk or even semi junk. You are going to need to spend some money on these materials. Garbage in, garbage out.

Do not go to Home Depot and expect to find boat building wood. It is not there.

Study the Plans with a Critical Eye

Take the plans down to a rowing coach or better yet, a good boatman, and ask them their opinion of your project as a rowing shell.

Remember this boat has to row well. You don't want to work for a year on a boat have it feel like a single barge when you finally get it in the water.

My Method of Building a Wooden Scull

There are many ways to build a wooden scull, but I prefer strip planking. Strip planking was described by my friend, Captain Dave Bill, as "building a boat with popsicle sticks," and he's not far from the truth. Basically, I use a skeleton male mold (i.e. not a sold mold) to define the form, and then I glue lots of thin , 1/8 inch thick , 3/4 inch wide and up to 27 foot long strips of red cedar together to create the basic shape of the hull.

Years ago, builders of wooden shells had access to some really remarkable wood. George Pocock used sheets of cedar that were continuous to the boat, 60 plus feet long. These sheets were 5/32 of an inch thick and book-matched, meaning he paired matching sheets so the adjoining surfaces mirror each other. The result was visually stunning and tight as a pin.

Unfortunately, wood of that quality is virtually impossible to obtain today for a reasonable price. However, boat builders of the 21st century have access to a different kind of resource that Mr. Pocock did not: truly amazing adhesives. Rather than rely on the quality and size of the wood, we can instead glue lots of smaller pieces of wood together. Perhaps not as elegant as a Pocock, but with strip planking, we can build contemporary wooden sculls that are lighter, sleeker and, ultimately, faster.

Many talented builders have written about strip planking for canoes and kayaks, and there is much to be learned from these writings. Ted Moore's "Canoecraft' and Nick Schade's "Building Strip Planked Boats" are both excellent. Most of those boats, however, are built with 1/4 inch thick strips. This will absolutely not work for a scull because the thickness increases the weight considerably. The strips I use for my sculls are all 1/8 inch thick.

Close up of the bow
Close up of the bow

After shaping the hull, I coat the entire boat, inside and out, with 2 oz. of fiberglass cloth, which I set in epoxy resin. Traditional strip building techniques call for 4-6oz, but again, weight is a much greater concern when building a scull compared to a canoe or kayak.

Following the epoxy and glass, I build the decks using fiber or carbon fiber set with epoxy resin. Then, a 'cockpit' seating platform and some building out of additional support for the hardware and riggers. Then it's the home stretch of finishing and painting,

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, but I mean to demonstrate that you don't need to be a master boatbuilder to take a stab at wooden sculls. The whole process is involved and labor intensive, but each step is manageable for someone with only moderate woodworking experience.

You're Never Finished (But that's a Good Thing)

You will never know a boat better than one you have built with your own hands, and this means that you have infinitely more "knobs" to adjust and fine tune to your unique needs and comfort.

It can also be helpful to try other study other boats, and row them if possible. What do you like? What bothers you? Take measurements and look hard at them. Trust your eye, it is an incredibly precise instrument. Talk to the owner if something doesn't feel right to you. The quirk may be a matter of preference or design, but there's no harm in asking.

As you fine tune and customize, remember: it's ok to fall in love with your boat. With some time, she will hopefully become an extension of yourself on the water, aligned to you in a way stock models could never be. However, that does not mean every other rower will love your scull. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there is no accounting for taste.

The 'Because'

There are times, when I am rowing well and the conditions are perfect, at day break or twilight, and I feel absolutely connected to my boat. We have melded into a single entity. I am not so much rowing the boat as being part of it, and at that moment I am the closest I will ever be to my ideal image of myself.

The wood I shaped with my own hands was once alive, and by giving it form and function, I return some of that life to the organic material - a life that is inextricably bound to my own. I could never feel that way in a boat built in a factory completely with inorganic materials, and I suspect I could never feel that way in a boat built by anyone other than myself.

This, I think, is the true answer to the perplexed young rower I met on the dock all those years ago, and if you too want to understand the appeal of wooden boats, then I highly recommend giving it a shot.

And so, there you have it: the directions to my favorite rabbit hole.

About the Author: Richard Van Voris, the longtime boatman at Tabor Academy, now coaches, and fixes the occasional boat, at the Narragansett Boat Club in Rhode Island, when he is not out sculling in a shell he built himself.

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12/08/2022  3:03:12 PM
Thank you for this wonderful article! I can't imagine building one myself, but I had the pleasure of rowing a kingfisher boat at my club that was built in 1996 and rows like a dream, and is absolutely beautiful. I finally gave in an bough a used carbon fiber boat for racing, but there is no more beautiful boat in the boathouse than that wooden boat!

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