Boatbuilding Process

Building a boat often comes from daydreaming. In my mind, I imagine what kind of boat I may be able to make with hazel sticks or oak ribs as a building block. I visualize the boat, make sketches, and draw a full-size lofting on paper to get an even better idea of how the actual boat will be shaped. Once visualization and planning are complete, I begin the boat building process--fathering and prepping wood, assembly, sewing on the fabric skin, and waterproofing--all the processes below. 

HAZELWOOD HARVEST: Hazelwood is everywhere in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Not only are there thousands of acres of domestic hazel orchards, volunteer hazel bushes are ubiquitous. I have learned to spot long, straight hazel sticks from a distance. For this reason, it's better not to follow too closely behind me while I'm driving. Most wood is harvested in winter when the leaves have fallen off and the trees are dormant. If harvested with leaves, they need to be pruned. The wood is seasoned for a few weeks and maintains flexibility for several months.

MAKING THE FRAME WITH STICKS: The traditional method of making a boat with hazel or willow is to place the rods in the ground in the shape of the boat, with the ribs spaced 5-6 inches apart. The boat is constructed upside down as the gunwale (pronounced "gunnel") is woven with willow or hazel sticks at ground level. Once the weaving is complete, the ribs are folded over, then the stringers are bent over the top of the ribs. The boat is tied like this to form a basket shape, and heavy weights are placed to hold it in shape and keep the bottom flat. After one week, the boat is dug up and may be covered with a skin. 

DRAWING PATTERN: Sometimes I draw full-size renderings of boats to help me visualize what the final boat will look like.

MAKING THE FRAME WITH STICKS AND MILLED WOOD: Once the shape and dimensions of the boat are determined, the gunwale may be shaped with milled wood. After that, the round sticks may be used instead of milled wood. Green ribs are flexible, do not need to be steamed and bent, and will hold their shape once they are stabilized with lashings. Round ribs form a solid yet flexible hull in skin-on-frame boats.

FINISHING TOUCHES ON THE FRAME: Finishing touches on the frame may include attaching the cockpit coaming. Other boats may have artwork burned or painted on the decks.

TESTING THE FRAME: Once a boat is complete, I often wrap it in plastic and duct tape and test it in the river for a few minutes. It's easy to discern if the boat is going to track straight and be stable using this method.

APPLYING THE SKIN: The skin may be leather hides sewn together, tar and canvas, or ballistic nylon. Other eco-friendly fabrics may also be available. These days I use ballistic nylon, which is kept cool and wet while stretching and attaching it to the wooden frame. The fabric is then ironed or dried with a heat gun to encourage shrinkage.

SHRINKING, COLORING, AND WATERPROOFING THE SKIN: I use urethane to waterproof the fabric. Some builders use exterior latex house paint. New eco-friendly technologies are being developed in this area, too.

FINISHING TOUCHES: Finishing touches may include adding leather straps to the hull and making custom paddles. I have also explored making sails.