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Go Back   SailNet Community > Contributing Authors > Buying a Boat Articles
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  • 1 Post By Michelle Potter
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Old 07-12-2004
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Boat-Building 101


After a year to research, 18 months to build, and 100 gallons of epoxy, the final project emerges.
My husband and I spent a full year looking at boat designs and construction techniques before we decided to build our 34-foot, hard-chined boat Moondancer. Since we were novice boat-builders, we wanted to understand the trade-offs involved with the different methods and designs before we made a firm commitment to one set of plans.

We started with the most obvious material: fiberglass. While fiberglass is a wonderful material that can offer you just about any shape, for a one-off design, molds are prohibitively expensive. After some research, we decided that fiberglass laid in or around a mold would be best for a production hull, but not for an individual boat-building project where keeping a handle on costs was a chief concern.

After fiberglass, we also toyed briefly with the idea of building either an aluminum or steel-hulled boat. The allure of this kind of construction is found in a strength that is capable of withstanding ice and other rigors of the ocean. For a hard-chine design, the welding and fabricating skills we would need would be relatively basic. Unfortunately, steel is succeptible to rust and aluminum is prone to galvanic corrosion. In the end, however, we didnít want the hassle of dealing with a special surface treatment for a steel hull or finding an aluminum-compatible bottom paint, which can also be nettlesome.


Steel, like every other boat-building material, has its advantages and disadvantages.
Next, we turned to wood. One of its immediate appeals is that we both like working with wood. Itís been a traditional, boat-building material for hundreds of years, is readily available, and relatively inexpensive. The tools to work with wood are also affordable and are as close as the hardware store.

When examining wood designs, we first came across the popular stitch-and-tape (or stitch-and-glue) method. This technique is very easy, fast, and economical. Stitch-and-tape projects usually means a design with hard chines, (except for these done in a lapstrake fashion), because that method lends itself to the use of sheets of plywood. This method is usually used for building dinghies, kayaks, and small daysailers.

For larger projects, traditional solid-wood planking is more common.  It involves the use of thick planks of solid wood bent around frames. Caulking compound is then placed in between the planks to make the hull watertight. Craftsmen who are making reproductions of older boats often use this method. In the past, when old-growth timber was more available, solid-wood planking had its heyday. Today, however, these materials have become rare and thus expensive. Itís a very labor-intensive, skill-intensive technique that takes time to learn in this day and age.


This strip-planked catamaran hull is currently carrying a family through the South Pacific
Strip-planking is another technique used for wooden boat-building. In this process a full-size male mold of the boat is made from plywood. Thin strips of wood are bent to the shape of the mold and glued to each other. This type of boat is usually built upside down, on the mold, and is then lifted off the mold after the entire hull has been sanded smooth. Strip-planking can be skill-intensive and time-consuming, (as can most types of boat-building, if you haven't noticed by now), so we started looking at cold-molding.

Cold-molding is similar to strip-planking, except that instead of using strips of wood, long, thin sheets of wood veneer are laid up in layers. Generally a hull is made of three or more layers of wood veneer that are laid at different angles over the molds offering a light, but strong structure. These layers are tacked in place until the glue sets. Cold molding is great for the smooth curves of a soft-chined hull, but it wasnít a good method for the hard-chined design that we had already chosen. Cold moldingóyou guessed itócan also be time-consuming and skill-intensive.

"Cold-molding is great for the smooth curves of a soft-chined hull, but it wasnít a good method for the hard-chined design that we had already chosen."

Since we had been looking at different designs at the same time that we were looking at materials, we knew by now that we wanted to build a Jay Benford-designed, junk-rigged, dory-hulled schooner. To build this hard-chined boat, we could use plywood and epoxy, and build from the ground up.

To build Moondancerís hull, we used a table saw, band saw, hand-held jigsaw, power planer, drill, thickness planer, tons of clamps, about 100 gallons of epoxy, and roughly 100 sheets of 3/8-inch, marine-grade plywood. These were tools that we were comfortable using and the materials proved easy to obtain.

Our choice of boat design was a result of a combination of factors: our individual preferences for looks, material, type of ballast, and ease of construction. Other popular designs for a 30 to 40-foot custom-built boat run the gamut of vessel types and rigs and include catamarans, sloops, and ketches. There are a number of boat-building magazines and books that list the different designs available for do-it-yourselfers (several are available in the SailNet Store)..


Table saw, bandsaw, wood clamps and a number of other hardware store-variety tools were used to produce Moondancer.

We spent $70 to order the "study plans" or "bid plans," and these provided a clear idea about the boat we wanted to build. From the catalog pictures, we didnít know all the structural details of this boat, so we had to study the specifics of the project when we received our study plans. We learned about the materials we would need, the thickness of the hull, the shape of the keel, the details of the keel fastenings, and just about every other detail we would need to build the boat except for the table of offsets and the lines of the boat.

After analyzing the study plans for about six months, we ordered the full set of plans from the designer. Our designerís permission to build the boat came along with our full set of plans. After that, it was on to finding, a place to build the boat and getting started on fulfilling our dream.

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