Wooden It Be Loverly? The Wooden Boat Mystique
No doubt about it, wooden boats have a lot going for them. They’re elegant, traditional, and efficient. And they rot. (Yes, this is a good thing.) But is a wooden boat the right boat for you? Take three minutes to find out, with just a little help from Farwell.
by Farwell Forrest | May 8, 2018
A canoe or kayak is, first and foremost, a hole in the water. The shape of the hull is what matters. The material it’s made of is less important. Serviceable boats have been built of everything from paper to concrete. Still, most boaters have strong preferences. This is especially true of wooden-boat buffs. It’s easy to see why. Wooden boats can be beautiful, and wood’s a pretty good material from an engineering standpoint, too. It’s rigid, naturally buoyant, an excellent insulator, and widely available. But is it a good material for your boat? That depends on you, and on the sort of boating you want to do.
A recent article by Tamia described wood-canvas canoes as “pricey luxury good[s].” That’s a bit offhand, perhaps, but it’s not really unfair. If you’re looking for the cheapest way to the water, wood’s not the material for you. That’s also true if varnishing isn’t your idea of a good time. And what if whitewater’s your thing? Then plastic is the go-to option, though like most easy options, it carries a hidden price tag. How does speeding up the destruction of Canoe Country ecosystems sound? A hint: Like the impending climate catastrophe, it’s not somebody else’s problem. But that’s a subject for another day.
Let’s take a closer look at wood. If you want to buy a professionally-built wooden boat, be prepared to dig deep and wait years to take delivery. Time is money. Wooden boats can’t be pulled from a mold like so many brightly colored Christmas cookies. Each one is the product of many hours of skilled labor. And with more and more of the world’s remaining old-growth forests going up in smoke or being decimated by invasive species, the clear, straight-grained lumber used by boat-builders isn’t exactly cheap, either. The bottom line? If you buy new, expect to pay more for a wooden boat than for a comparable boat built from almost any other material.
What about buying a used wooden boat? Good luck. A quick visit to any popular put-in will confirm that wooden boats are not the people’s choice. And wood requires care. It’s organic, after all. It rots. Even when sheathed in fiberglass and saturated with epoxy, it can decay or delaminate. The result? When you look in the classifieds, you’re not likely to see many wooden boats on offer, and any you do find will probably command a premium price.
How about the DIY approach, then? It’s an attractive notion. Wooden-boat kits can be had for about the same price as a new plastic boat of similar size and type. But there’s a catch. You can’t go paddling in a kit. You’ve got to build the boat first, and a typical kit-built kayak or canoe will take 40-80 hours to assemble and finish. (Novice woodworkers will likely need longer.) That’s one to two weeks of full-time labor, and in those two weeks you could circumnavigate Lake Champlain, or paddle the length of the Hudson River. The choice is up to you.
Nor is construction time the only obstacle. If you’re dead set on doing it yourself, you’ll need proper tools, as well as a place to work. Don’t plan on building a canoe or kayak in your living room. Sawdust, glass spicules, and the noxious fumes given off by curing resin aren’t the most welcome of house guests. So if you don’t want to gamble with your health—and with that of your spouse and children, into the bargain—you’ll need a roomy, well-ventilated workshop, separated from your living space. You’ll also need a respirator with a cartridge certified for both organic vapors and particulates (Hint: If you have a beard, you’ll have to shave it off), a box of nitrile or vinyl gloves, and impact- and splash-resistant (ANSI Z87.1-2010) eyewear. A pair of Tyvek coveralls is a good idea, too. And if you’ll be using power tools, you’ll want earmuffs, as well.
The upshot? If you don’t already own all this stuff, figure on spending as much as a hundred bucks on protective gear alone, with any tools you have to buy adding still more to the bill. (You do own 30 C‑clamps, don’t you?) Lastly, bear in mind that few boat kits include paint, varnish, or “disposables” (sandpaper, paintbrushes, and the like). You’ll need to buy these. Don’t forget to include their cost when budgeting.
Of course, if you’re an experienced woodworker, or if you want to become one, none of this will matter. You’ll spend the money happily and have the time of your life building your new boat. But if you’re in a hurry to get out on the water, or if you need to pinch every penny till it squeaks, think twice before you decide to build. In any case, don’t imagine that a boat kit is a passport exempting you from the laws of the marketplace. Yes, wooden boats can be beautiful. But this beauty comes at a price. Whether you build or buy, you get only what you pay for, one way or another. There’s just no such thing as a free launch.
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