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Wood vs. Fiberglass

16324 Views 54 Replies 21 Participants Last post by  Matti Miettunen
My question is: assuming two boats with identical designs, what are the different performance characteristics of wood versus fiberglass?

By way of background, I am looking to upgrade from an ensign to a 28ft-30ft daysailer/weekender. I had only been considering fiberglass, but have come across a wooden boat that I am very interested in. The boat would be sailed primarily along the Maine Coast, from Penobscot Bay to Frenchman's Bay where the sea conditions rarely exceed 2'-4' and the winds are generally light to moderate southwesterlies in the summer. I am painfully aware of the maintenance issues presented by wood, so I'm really asking here about the performance issues as I have primarily sailed/owned fiberglass.

Appreciate any input..

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wood will flex and groan, essentually "talking" to the helmsperson and instilling feelings of terror or charm depending on their disposition. Before there was glass.. there was only wood. Being in Maine you would belong to long standing maritime tradition. I'd say that wooden boats have sharper lines then fiberglass, since FG gets its strenth in it's curves. It would be interesting to see the performance results of 2 boats with the same design in wood and glass.
Wooden boats are many things nowadays.. Are you talking of a traditional wooden constructions or cold-molded?
Cold molded constructions may be lighter and faster than a comparable GRP boat (and relatively easy to maintain).
Locally there is a fleet of 25' T-Birds, then again, the fleet and design started south of me in the Tacoma area. Original design was plywood over frame, later some to many, I do not know the quantity, were made from glass. This class, along with lightning and el toro have done a pretty good job of making sure the glass versions wiegh etc the same as wood. Generally speaking, a glass could weigh a bit less of the same design, potentially being faster with the same sail area.

With this in mind, reality is, if the class is done correct, there should not be any different tween the boats when racing one design. That is the goal of a boat that meets one design.

If the 1d rules are thrown out, then it is possible for glass to be faster, on the other hand, some wood boats built of the West or gougen brothers epoxy impregnated cedar, or a stich and glue plywood, are all pretty light boats, and may of the same design, be lighter than a glass boat! How the boats are built will really be the ultimate deciding factor.

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I do some sailing in a Norwegian one design class where wood and fibreglass boats compete on the same terms. The results indicates that material used have little impact on the results.
The majority of the boats is fibreglass but still some wooden boats get first now and then.
Assuming identical hull shapes, the fiberglass boat will be lighter, and therefore probably faster. Fiberglass designs do not require the extensive internal framing of traditional plank on frame wood boats, and even a newer cold-molded wood boat will not be as light as the identically shaped fiberglass hull. This is not to say that fiberglass is "superior", just that it is lighter.

The scenario you posit (identical boats made of different materials) is probably not very helpful in helping you make a decision as to whether this is the boat for you. If its a one-design, then the class rules will ensure that the boats are as identical as possible. If its not a one-design, then the material used to construct the hull will have no more or different bearing on "sailing ability" than any other factor.

If you are really considering buying a wood boat, then I salute you; you are keeping alive a grand tradition of beautiful boats and traditional craftsmanship. Whenever I see one, I am thankful there are those out there with more time, money and/or ability than I to maintain these beauties.
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As size increases structure increases. I respectively disagree that wood will always be heavier. The bracing and engineered curves needed to keep a glass boat of size within it's design specs requires stringers, keel supports, floors, etc. all need nearly the same types of structure. Ever notice what is in those fiberglass stringers that make that glass boat so strong? wood! what's in the decks? wood! (or foam) Some are tubes of paper to give the glass form while curing.
Glass without something to make it a composite is weak and flexible.
Exceptions are coldmolded, strip built, wood boats that most often are smaller designs, of which are designed like glass boats and use the curves to give it it's strength, I think I read somewhere that over about 50ft glass is not the best choice of materials. Didn't a ocean racing yacht break in half recently? I think it was carbon fiber.

On the small side of things. my 15ft one design wooden canoe (traditional wood ribs and planking with canvas skin) is lighter or close to equal in weight then a glass canoe of the same size. unless that canoe is "high tech" and designed to be ultra light.

All of the arguements aside, Those that love wooden boats are not easily swayed.
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This is a 1929 Alden designed 28' knockabout sloop. The current owner replaced the original plank 15 years ago with a coldmolded hull. SA/D of about 25, with almost all the sail in the main. Fractional rig with self tending jib. It doesn't really fulfill the weekender part of the criterea so well, but I have an interest in a 40' cruiser, so i'm comfortable with the trade off. Being in Maine, I have spent a lot of time admiring the old wooden boats and am having a tough time resisting this one...appreciate all of the input.
Now you need to look at it from a maintenance standpoint. From having built two plywood boats etc, wood is harder.....altho I am not sure I want to say harder, other than maybe more time consuming to a point. There a places a wood is easier glass, and the other way around.

Bright work is way more time. but when done right, you're happy, and the comments pour in...........

When the Tbird fleet went to FG, they took great pains to ensure that there were no weight differences between the wood and glass boats. Old boats continued to do well in competition for a long time. They also went through a few different deck designs, with no noticeable advantage to either.
Well andrew the cold molded hull is a composite just like FG boats. the veneers are cross grain to each other as they are laid up to build the required thickness. do you have pictures or a web link to the boat? I'd love to see it.
Marty - would love to hear the ways in which you feel the wood is easier than the fiberglass from a maintenance perspective. The maintenance is the thing that is really holding me back. I assume (but could easily be wrong) that the coldmolded hull means you are not dealing with recaulking between the planks every year, which I recall used to be done on an old lobster boat my family had when I was a kid.
I used to own and cruise on an Alden Malabar Sr., which was designed by Carl Alberg while he worked for J.G.Alden and Assoc. At 33 ft and roughly10,500 lbs., she gave similar sized and designed vessels [including Alberg 30 & 35's] a run for their money when raced . I also owned and restored an Alden Triangle but sold her without ever having a chance to sail her. You've plenty of qualified people up there to help you assess her condition prior to buying her.Good luck , I hope you get her ;they're nice boats. As for the weight question,the Triangle is roughly 2/3 that of the Pearson Triton. Though not identical, they are close in design and both are 28 footers.
I spent a lot of time researching this topic some years ago. I think that there are some big misunderstandings expressed in the discussion. My research looked at boats that were originally constructed in plank on frame wooden construction and which were converted to glass. I looked at a number of early boats like the Lightning class, Folkboat, H-28, and Rhodes Bounty.

In a general sense, the hulls on the wooden plank on frame boats were lighter and stiffer than the glass boats. In other words, the wooden boats flexed a lot less than the glass boats. In the case of the keel boats, this lighter weight meant that the wooden boats generally had more ballast and so had greater stability and in some cases carried more sail area than the glass boats (H-28 being a good example of that).

The reason that early fiberglass boat hulls were so heavy was that it was very hard to replicate the stiffness of wood without going to very thick fiberglass and since Fiberglass was so dense it quickly outweighed its wooden sisters.

This situation changed when designers began adding internal framing and then coring to fiberglass boats (late 1970's and early 1980's) . A properly framed glass boat can have a lighter, stronger hull than a plank on frame wooden boat.

Cold molding is another animal all together from plank on frame. Its weight is very dependent on the species of wood used, and the care in lay-up but in a general sense a cold-molded hull is lighter than a plank-on-frame wood hull but a bit heavier than a framed glass boat of similar strength and stiffness.

Generally speaking a carefully constructed cold molded wood boat will be less maintanence than a fiberglass hull and will be a lot more durable. I base this on an industry study comparing the life cost of various boat building materials that was done some years back.

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Jeff - thanks for you comments. As I understand it, the hull is "western red cedar laminars with GRP epoxy sheathing" and the work was done by Gordon Swift of Swift Custom Boats (means nothing to me).

If anyone here knows a good surveyor in or near Annapolis, it would be much appreciated.

Thanks again for everyone's input and feedback.
Here's a link that gives a picture and the specs of the design.

TRIANGLE (ALDEN) Sailboat details on (units English)
{Sigh}. Wow.

I have read how many of the old plank-on-frame boats have been given new life and added marketability by sheathing the outside of the hull with either fiberglass or a cold-molded veneer. My understanding is that this will eliminate the need to recaulk the seams; however, the original internal framing system still remains in the boat, and is still integral to its structure. I'm no engineer, but it would seem to me that while you "gain" by elminating one of the biggest wooden boat maintenance issues, you "lose" because now you have the additional weight of the external shell too. But with a boat that beautiful, I'd be willing to "lose" quite a bit. Anyway, you don't buy a boat like that to win races, you buy a boat like that because she makes your heart race.
mstern, actually the old planking can/could/should be removed and the cold molding becomes the new hull. glass sheathing is good but many boats still rot because the timbers will get water logged by trapped moisture and bilge waters.
That's a new one to me. I've never removed the old planking prior to cold-molding nor have I ever heard of anyone else doing so. Standard practice is to take a saw or router to open the seams to a uniform width and the glue wooden splines into the seams. These are then faired to the hull .To address the added weight issue, many plank on frame boats that have been cold molded do not gain weight because they lose the weight of the water that is no longer saturating their planking. The hull is thoroughly dried out prior to sheathing and the inside of the hull is sealed in a proper job. Progress on one such job can be followed at Welcome to the Colonial Seaport Foundation, Hampton, Virginia as they convert an old 47' Rosborough Privateer gaff topsail ketch into an 1800's style Colonial Sloop. The work is being led by John Collamore III , who has performed this process on many old classics which would have been dead otherwise.
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XS, of course everything I say is gospel! I wonder why I used the words "can, could, should" ? Because it would be up to the restorer to make that determination.
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