This article reflects Steve Kelly’s personal experience and is not necessarily the policy of the Wooden Canal Boat Society.
Wooden boat building – what is it all about?
The W.C.B.S. spends an enormous amount of effort raising funds, and raising boats, literally, keeping things afloat. Sooner or later some actual boat ‘restoration’ must be done.
Restoration in these cases often means wholesale timber replacement to the extent that if it is done in one hit, you are almost building a replica boat. However it is rare to be able to do this and so a process of partial replacement will take place over a period of time.
Examples of these two approaches are the Ashton Packet Boat Co’s boats Joel and Maria, which were subject to wholesale re-construction and privately owned boats such as the Spey which has been systematically repaired ever since coming out of commercial service.
The result is different in each case of course, but generally a larger expense will be incurred in one hit if going for the major re-construction effect, whereas the gradual replacement process will appear to cost less at any one time.
In fact it is usually more effective to carry out as much work as possible at any given time, due to the construction of these boats causing considerable re-working of the last repair area in order to complete the next area.
Large scale re-builds are sometimes criticised as being merely replicas , and whilst it is true a boat gradually re-constructed will always ‘feel’ like the same boat and never look like a new craft, it is none the less true that many working boats underwent major re-builds during their working lives.
It is also worth remembering that our boats tend to be in a far worse condition than any that would have been repaired in the era when these boats were in regular use and so a more drastic approach is needed. Whether this is restoration or not will no doubt be debated for eons, however if our task is to keep these boats serviceable then major works will be required.
The skills needed
Boat building work is a particular combination of skills, almost unique, in which dexterity with tools is an advantage, marking and setting out peculiar shapes a necessity, fitting too is essential at times.
Other aspects such as engineering, electrical and painting work all need to be done at some stage. Above all though wooden boat building means handling a large volume of heavy timber and persuading it to become a boat.
Caulking alone can take days, but after some instruction and practice can easily be mastered.
Many timbers will be too heavy for one man, and removing old timbers carefully, can take a lot of effort.
This means that a considerable amount of work can be done by relatively unskilled people, so a small team of volunteers can make a difference without everyone needing to be greatly skilled.
The key is a willingness to learn and follow instruction from more experienced people
and good old teamwork.