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Salish Sea Blog

As anyone who has owned one will tell you, there is a world of difference between wood boats and plastic or metal boats. Wood is a complex living and breathing material that behaves in many ways.

Boats of wood have been built in the Northwest for more than 150 years by hundreds of local boat builders. From rowing skiffs to sailing ships, wood was the material of choice for commercial fishermen, sailors, and yachtsman alike. It wasn't until after World War Two when other materials replaced wood boat building as tradition gave way to cheaper and faster methods. Yet, wood boats seem to outlast all others. Steel and aluminum dissolve away, while fiberglass de-laminates, fissures and drifts out of style as the years go on. But wood boats, if diligently maintained, will span generations.

It's a simple concept really. Wood boats are made of lots of little parts - planks, frames, beams, etc. When a part goes bad, it gets fixed and eventually replaced. A responsible wood boat owner gets to learn about all the trades. Shipwrights, corkers, finishing carpenters, painters, etc. During the normal life-span of a planked wood boat, it's not uncommon to see that a good percentage of the boat eventually gets replaced.

Just as there are no two trees that are exactly the same, there are no two wood boats that are the same. Even if it was a production boat, over time, each becomes it's own work of art as evidence of the repairs that are made over the years to each vessel. Fresh rain water is a natural enemy of all things made of wood. Deck seams and waterline planking are most often sacrificed first.

New planks and frames are often steam bent and shapped to conform to the existing structure.

Proper wood boat construction techniques dictate that a water barrier between each piece of wood will prevent rot from traveling to adjoining members. Professional boat workers take extreme care to isolate, insulate, and treat new wood.

Metal fasteners eventually get renewed. While boats fastened with bronze and copper last many generations, most boats built in the early part of the last century were built with iron boat nails. Due to the low carbon content of old-time steel, these fasteners can last many decades before replacement.

Corking not only keeps the water out, but almost as importantly, it stiffens up a wood planked hull. Warn and tired seems will make a wood hull too flexible and put too much strain on the fasteners, eventually leading to leaks and hull deformation.

While any boat can be considered "a hole in the water to sink money into", a wood boat having endured years of deferred maintenance, is a special case to consider. Cautious buyers investigate every visible inch of their prospective acquisitions. A good surveyor can glean as much from a hauled vessel. However, present observation is only part of the story. Having detailed maintenance records, and repair receipts can help identify forthcoming issues. Hasty and shoddy repairs may hide deeper problems. Inferior materials such as recent supplies of salvaged Douglas Fir have cast dark shadows on the wood boat market - as many of these blown down trees acquired rot inducing viruses as they laid on the forest floor for even a few months. No shipwright of old would ever use salvaged timber.

Thew beauty of a traditional wood boat goes beyond her graceful lines. Most wood hulls were designed with highly faired shapes to glide nearly effortlessly through the water. Early engines were minimal in horse power and fuel stops were often far and few between. What typical wood boats lack in house-like spaces, they make up for in riding comfort, economy, and style.

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