You don’t have to be a boatbuilder to learn how to build a boat. You can row, paddle or sail these elegant boats even if you’re a beginner, says Roger Nadin...

On the upper reaches of the Thames, a rower slides gracefully along in his skiff. Meanwhile in Dorset, a dory sets sail with a crew of three, keen to explore Poole Harbour.

On the Norfolk Broads, an open boat with a lugsail glides past a refurbished windmill. Near Bath, along the broad Kennett and Avon Canal, a newly-built pram dinghy heads east for a family camping trip.

Nature is much easier to access from the water, and in the UK few of us live more than a few miles away from a river, canal, lake or sheltered stretch of coastline.

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Build a boat from a kit

There’s a great way to own a new boat on a budget – build it yourself. We followed five builders…


Rowing, to many of us, conjures images of muscular men and women racing along in a shell of a boat. But look back to the Edwardian era and you’ll find thousands of folk in rowing skiffs enjoying a day out on the river.

Today we can enjoy this same freedom on a cost-effective craft that can often be rowed, paddled or sailed – or even motored, if you get tired, with an almost silent electric outboard.

Unlike most Edwardians, we almost all have cars to carry or tow our boats wherever we want – what freedom!

Choosing an open boat

But how do you acquire such a boat and what choice is there? A website search will reveal hundreds of small boat designs from around the world: dories and skiffs; whitehalls and wherries; pram dinghies and faerings; guide-boats and catboats.

Your difficulty will only be in choosing which boat is best for your particular requirements. These boats are all based on traditional boat designs, usually working boats that years ago served the working men of harbours, hunters out in the wild or fishermen out on the sea.

These old boats were built using traditional skills and methods which today tend to be hard to find and costly to use. Fortunately, modern boat designers have found ways to design and construct these same boats using up-to-date methods and materials that require far less skill.

Your choice is to (a) have your boat built for you, (b) buy plans and a manual to build what you want, or (c) buy a kit of pre-cut parts and follow simple instructions.

In terms of cost, buying plans is the least expensive option, but the next cheapest – a kit boat – will still give you the thrill and satisfaction of building a beautiful craft that will give you many years of pleasure.

At the end of this article is a list of oar, paddle or sail boats. This is just a taster of what is on offer (apologies to any designer who has been left out). Visit the websites linked below and you’ll be spoiled for choice.

There are designers all around the world and, in most cases, a great support network provided by each designer. Where you are really doesn’t matter since plans and kits are available just about anywhere in the world.

So, you’ve decided that you want to learn how to build a boat. What’s next? Ask yourself a few questions:

  • How many people do you want to carry in the boat?
  • Do I want to use a trailer or to carry my boat on a roof-rack?
  • How much do I want to spend?
  • Can I afford the time that it will take to build a boat?
  • Do I want a boat just for rowing, for paddling, or would I like to sail as well?
  • Do I want to enjoy camping on board?

There are lots of ‘off the shelf’ glassfibre boats on the market but wooden boats built using modern materials and methods can prove to be as long-lasting and a real pleasure to own.

How to build a boat: 5 popular methods

If the pleasure and satisfaction of building your own attracts you, then there are designs available to suit all levels of skill. Methods of building vary. Let’s take a look at just a few examples of available row/paddle/sail craft:

1. Stitch and tape

In this method, marine plywood panels are temporarily stitched together then fixed using glassfibre tape and epoxy.

An example from French designer Françoise Vivier is the 5m Doris Dory. Doris (French for ‘dory’) is intended to be a simple home-build but is also available professionally, built to a remarkably high quality (see steinboot.at).

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Doris Dory

She is a reworking of a traditional Banks dory – an 1850s fishing boat on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland – but with more stability, and is equally good as a sailing or rowing boat.

Another even simpler craft from New Zealand designer John Welsford is his Light Dory. Easily carried on a car roof-rack, this light, seaworthy iteration of the ubiquitous dory can carry plenty of equipment.

There are also open canoes that can be paddled and sailed. Some require the addition of floats on either side of the hull, which can be cumbersome, but Michael Storer in Australia has designed two canoes that encompass the stability of a dinghy with the speed and lightness of an open Canadian canoe. The Viola 14 and his larger KOMBI sailing canoes are well worth checking out.

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Viola 14

2. Ply on frame

This technique involves the construction of an inner framework, which is then covered in ply panels.

The Drake 17 by American designer Clint Chase is a 17ft fixed-seat rowing boat, available both as plans or as a kit. It’s a boat for serious long-distance rowing and is capable of downwind sailing.

Also from the US comes the 15ft Jeff Spira Cape Cod Rowing Skiff. This has great capacity and is particularly simple to build. It looks like a good project for the first time builder.

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Cape Code Rowing Skiff

3. Glued lapstrake

With glued lapstrake, pre-formed ply panels are epoxied together.

UK designer Iain Oughtred is well known for his beautifully proportioned and attractive boats. His 15ft Elf Faering is based on a historic Norwegian design.

Another option from Doug Hylan in the US is the solid and seaworthy 3.55m (11ft 6in) pram dinghy, named Oonagh after a Celtic faery queen.

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Oonagh. Photo: Benjamin Mendlowitz Marine Photography

4. LapStitch

This trademarked system of accurately cutting and joining plywood planks is used in the Passagemaker design from John C. Harris. A 3.5m (11ft 6in) pram dinghy, it’s similar to other prams, but its light build makes it an easy boat to carry and attach to a roof rack.

5. Skin-on-frame

This is an ancient method of creating a boat using a framework covered with a waterproof fabric. Originally constructed using animal skins or waterproofed canvas, the Baidarka ‘Eskimo’ kayaks are possibly the best known. These were originally built using bones for the frame and seal skins for the cover.

Skin-on-frame (SoF) is a very quick and cost-effective build method giving a lightweight but rugged vessel. These days, the craft is covered by modern ‘bullet-proof’ polyester and resin.

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Adirondack Guideboat

Brian Schulz’s Guide Boat is based on traditional hunting and fishing boats from the Adirondack Mountains in the US. This elegant rowing boat weighs just 17kg (depending on length) and looks like a joy to own and row.

Another SoF craft is the US-designed 18ft rowing wherry Ruth. Available from Dave Gentry, at just 21kg this is another lightweight boat that’s also light on the pocket.

Get browsing

There are many books available on the subject of modern boatbuilding – so browsing through these will give you a good idea of what’s involved.

Some boats take only a few days of part-time work to build, while for others you’ll need to commit to a few weeks of weekend and evening labour.

Now you’ve acquired your boat, where can you use it? Different countries have different rules – or none at all!

In the UK you’ll need a permit or licence of some sort for just about any form of inland waterway. Check out local byelaws and/or the Canal & River Trust or the Environment Agency.

To launch in the sea, check local harbours and marinas who may or may not charge a launching fee.

And please remember, if you are heading out to sea, seek some tide and weather details and take an RYA course on navigation.

Whether your first trip is on a river, lake, canal, or sea, take a short trip to see that everything works well and that your rowing seat is comfortable.

Once you have checked everything then you can set about some longer distance journeys. These can, if you wish, include an overnight stop since most craft can be used for cruising. Your overnight can be in a tent on land or, probably better still, under canvas on your boat.

Photo: Kathy Mansfield

Night under canvas

If you have never spent a night under canvas this might all sound a bit daunting. Don’t expect a solid night’s sleep the first night. The boat may rock a bit, the canvas, blow and slap a bit and you might be alarmed by just how noticeably quiet it can be out in the country away from town.

My first overnight trip by boat was on the River Ardeche in France with a small group of canoeists. We pulled our boats up on the rocky bank and set up camp on a cliff-bottom ledge. As the sun dropped over the edge of the river gorge, a deep peace descended, and a black starry sky became our cover. Bliss!

Another canoe trip – with two friends – took me from the north coast of Germany over to the island of Wangerooge, one of the Frisian Islands. We stuffed our sea-going kayaks with tents, food and clothing and crossed the fast-flowing tides that run between the islands. We camped close to a little harbour, surrounded by seabirds and seals.

Whether for fitness (both physical or mental), a romantic picnic, or just the pleasure of being out in nature, a small open boat to row, paddle or sail will provide you with great pleasure.

17 of the best kit boats

Cape Cod Rowing Skiff

The 4.6m Cape Cod Rowing Skiff has a flat bottom and is probably one of the simplest boats to build.

LOA: 4.60m
Beam: 1.40m
Weight: 59kg
Build method: Ply on Frame
Designer: Jeff Spira
Kit and/or plan supplier: Spira International Inc.

Doris Dory

The 5m Doris is a French-designed Dory that can be rowed or sailed. It’s available as plans, a kit or can be built by an agent based in Austria.

LOA: 5.00m
Beam: 1.45m
Weight: 88kg
Build method: Stitch and tape
Designer: François Vivier
Kit and/or plan supplier: Vivier Boats

Drake 17

Drake 17 Rowboat

The Drake 17 fixed-seat rowing boat has some downwind sailing ability. Based mainly on a Norwegian faering it is built using the plywood on frame method.

LOA: 5.30m
Beam: 1.30m
Weight: 50kg
Build method: Plywood on frame
Designer: Clint Chase
Kit and/or plan supplier: Chase Small Craft

Elf Faering

At just 15ft (4.57m) the Elf Faering is capable of carrying a camping load and trekking along for many hours.

LOA: 4.57m
Beam: 1.34m
Weight: 65kg
Build method: Glued lapstrake
Designer: Iain Oughtred
Kit and/or plan supplier: Classic Marine/Jordan Boats

Elf Faering. Photo: Kathy Mansfield

Oonagh

Oonagh is a pram dinghy, which has the advantage of more space and stability than their ‘pointy-nose’ dinghy equivalents.

LOA: 3.60m
Beam: 1.52m
Weight: 77kg
Build method: Glued lapstrake
Designer: Doug Hylan
Kit and/or plan supplier: Classic Marine/Jordan Boats

Viola 14

The Viola 14 has the underwater shape of a dinghy for enhanced sailing and added stability. Like the KOMBI (below) it is based on an open canoe, and so can be used as either a sail or paddle craft.

LOA: 4.30m
Beam: 1.00m
Weight: 34kg
Build method: Stitch and glue
Designer: Michael Storer
Kit and/or plan supplier: Storer Boat Plans

KOMBI

LOA: 4.80m
Beam: 0.86m
Weight: 21kg
Build method: Stitch and glue
Designer: Michael Storer
Kit and/or plan supplier: Storer Boat Plans

The Ruth Wherry weighs just 21kg

Ruth Wherry

LOA: 5.50m
Beam: 0.84m
Weight: 21kg
Build method: Skin-on-Frame
Designer: Dave Gentry
Kit and/or plan supplier: Gentry Custom Boats

Adirondack Guideboat

LOA: 4.57m
Beam: 0.98m
Weight: 32kg
Build method: Kevlar or cedar
Designer: Traditional design
Kit and/or plan supplier: Adirondack Guideboat

Acorn 15

LOA: 4.60m
Beam: 1.20m
Weight: 60kg
Build method: Clinker ply
Designer: Iain Oughtred
Kit and/or plan supplier: Classic Marine/Jordan Boats

Cape Falcon Kayak

LOA: 3.7m-4.80m
Beam: 0.79m
Weight: 14-19kg
Build method: Skin-on-frame
Designer: Brian Schulz
Kit and/or plan supplier: Cape Falcon Kayaks

Caravelle Skiff

LOA: 4.40m
Beam: 1.23m
Weight: 52kg
Build method: Plywood on frame
Designer: Clint Chase
Kit and/or plan supplier: Chase Small Craft

Classic 12 Geodesic Skiff SOF

LOA: 3.70m
Beam: 1.23m
Weight: 13kg
Build method: Skin-on-Frame
Designer: Platt Monfort
Kit and/or plan supplier: Geodesic Airolite Boats

Light Dory

LOA: 5.10m
Beam: 1.26m
Weight: 42kg
Build method: Stitch and tape
Designer, Kit and/or plan supplier: John Welsford

Shenandoah Whitehall

LOA: 4.10m
Beam: 1.20m
Weight: 27kg
Build method: Skin-on-frame
Designer: Dave Gentry
Kit and/or plan supplier: Gentry Custom Boats

Skylark

LOA: 1.8m-3.7m
Beam: 1.1m-1.5m
Weight: 23 kg-45kg
Build method: Stitch and tape
Designer: Paul Fisher
Kit and/or plan supplier: Selway Fisher Design

Passagemaker

LOA: 3.50m
Beam: 1.40m
Weight: 41kg
Build method: LapStitch
Designer: John C. Harris
Kit and/or plan supplier: Fyne Boats / Chesapeake Light Craft


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