Boatbuilding for Beginners (and Beyond)
by Jim Michalak, with illustrations by Alyssum Pilato

Boatbuilding for Beginners (and Beyond)
by Jim Michalak, with illustrations by Alyssum Pilato

Reviewed by Gavin Atkin

This is the latest in a long line of books describing the hows and whys of instant boatbuilding - but to my mind Boatbuilding for Beginners is undoubtedly the best to date that I have read. That's not to say that some of its predecessors weren't damn good - many of them are - but this book of Jim Michalak's has three well-nigh unbeatable advantages:

  • First, it contains plans for an excellent and diverse selection of small, simple craft;
  • Second, it brings the subject bang up to date in terms of boatbuilding materials and supplies, and construction methods;
  • Third, Jim's own clear, quiet voice of reason and experience.

The designs that can be built straight off the page include the Mayfly traditional-style 14ft flatiron skiff; the Piragua 13ft flat-bottomed canoe; the 13ft flat-bottomed QT skiff in both rowing and outboard versions; the appropriately named Johnsboat 16ft jonboat; and the atrociously punning Robote 14ft taped seam rowing boat. I think almost any small boat user will find there's something among that little group to meet some need they have.

On materials, Jim's basic principle is that show boats should be made from the best materials, but everything else should be built from basic lumberyard (or timber merchant or builder's merchant's ) materials. His reason is essentially that there's so much evidence that boats built from these materials can easily last ten years, that paying for expensive materials is a luxury - unless the boat has to remain in the water for years at a time. His more specific advice on materials is to some extent specific to the US market, but since the US accounts for a huge number of people and most of his likely sales, those of us who live half-way round the world can't really complain when we don't recognise the kinds of plywood he discusses, or even the glue brands and suppliers. To those who can recognise Weldwood and luaun underlayment, I have no doubt that his advice is golden.

On building techniques, Jim is quite brilliant. His description of how to make a Dacron sail made even me feel that I could hope to sew a sail successfully - and I can tell you that I am usually highly allergic to anything that involves sewing with thread of any description. Another particular favourite with me is his technique of squeegeeing epoxy into glass or Dynel cloth in order to produce a smooth, bubble-free finish. Somehow, this had passed me by - possibly because I had no idea what a squeegee was! - but now thanks to Jim the penny has dropped and I'll certainly use his method on my next boat.

On Jim's quiet good sense, I very much admire his lack of unnecessary hype - he seems to be the antithesis of most European's clichéd view of Americans as confident and bombastic self-publicists. He makes no claims for himself, yet he's a real of philosopher of boating in small craft.

For instance, he believes that recreational boat users should choose a boat largely for themselves, because much of the time they will be working with a crew of themselves only. Sad this may be, but it's true both where he lives, and where I live, and I think we may call it Jim's First Law.

Even a rank beginner will usually see the sense in the argument that one should build a small project before building a larger one, but may not actually wish to go that route themselves. For this kind of person, Jim's answer is direct - the small first project will almost never be wasted because you will always find uses for the smaller boat. In fact, it will probably get more use than the bigger boat. So now we have Jim's Second Law.

Jim's Third Law is about boats at the limit of car-topability for one person on their own (see above) - that is, a 12-ft boat weighing about 100lbs. The idea is that the boat is lifted one end at a time so that the maximum load is no more than 50lbs, or about the maximum that is comfortable for a reasonably fit and strong individual to lift. Jim's rule here is never to overbuild a boat like this - yet overbuilding is common, as people use thicker ply here, a little more epoxy there and feel that they're making a better boat as a result. Adding an extra 50lbs is not uncommon, but as Jim says it makes the boat difficult to cartop.

(He's quite right in my view. I own a 12ft 6in 120lb factory-made plastic dinghy, and nothing would persuade me to cartop it alone - and I'm a healthy six-footer. I'd also argue that every pound you add in building materials is a pound the boat won't be able to carry on the water, but that's almost by-the-by if overbuilding leads to it builder suddenly developing a bad back.)

Finally, Jim's Fourth Law is that once you've decided to go over 100lbs, you should generally go straight to something like a 15-footer because that will give you a lot more capacity for people, yet it will still be comfortable to tow using an ordinary small car. He's probably right, yet I've noticed that even the boats in this book don't quite abide by that one!

These Laws of Jim's that I have picked out - and I could have picked many more equally illuminating - may not be what you want to hear, but they are capable of saving a lot of grief and frustration. At worst, if you ignore them you will be aware of what's coming your way.

I came to this book expecting a lot, and I wasn't disappointed. Jim's experience of building 15-odd boats adds up to much more than it would for many people because of the particular way his mind works, and he explains what he has learned in clear language. And by offering alternative ways of doing the same job wherever he can, I think he shows an admirable flexibility of mind . This book may be titled Boatbuilding for Beginners, but you can be sure that it will take you far beyond the beginner stage in instant-style boatbuilding.

Perhaps I should also explain how I feel about this book in another way. I've built five boats in my time and I thought I'd learned something. I can honestly say that my next boat will be better for having read this book. That's how good this book is. I think it deserves to become a classic.

Gavin Atkin, November 2002