Building Classic Small Craft
Commemorative Edition

by John Gardner

Complete Plans and Instructions for 47 Boats
International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press
ISBN 0-07-022864-7, Retail: US 49.95.

Reviewed by Barend Migchelsen

The book is a reprint of two collections of articles written by the late John Gardner (1905 - 1995):

1. Building Classic Small Craft, Volume 1.
2. More Building Classic Small Craft.

To the first part is added an Appendix: Notes on Boatbuilding Methods that touches every facet of this process. These 39 pages alone are already worth the price of the book.

The Appendix to the second book describes the many different “Boat builders’ Planes” and the tools to make them. Knowing that John was a master also in all these things make me stand in awe.

Since this is a Commemorative Edition, eight articles about John Gardner as a person precede the boat descriptions. None of these articles mention that John during his 89-year lifespan kept an open eye for, and wrote about the many socio-economical problems, especially of the crisis years before WW II, the adverse effects of the chemical industry on the environment thereafter, and was not afraid to give his at-that-time dissenting opinion about them. Even around 1965, he wrote an article about a highly controversial subject in a capitalistic economy: A Guaranteed Minimum Income (page 34, WoodenBoat # 40, May/June 1981).

Actually, it started just before WW II with the introduction of waterproof-glued plywood.
The improving of fiberglass materials and epoxies substantially added to it. The progressing knowledge of how to weld aluminum nearly completed it.

What I am talking about here is the demise of the traditionally built wooden boats. These boats became endangered species, and made the classic wooden-boat builders a dying-out breed. An important part of our North American heritage, the age-old art and craft of building classic wooden boats was on the verge of completely going into oblivion, and of being lost for always for the future generations.

It was close. But, thanks to John Gardner, this did not happen,

The inside of the cover page of this book tell us, and I quote:

“John Gardner, a teacher and a writer by training, was a rare man, good with both words and tools. As Associate Curator of Small Craft at Mystic Seaport Museum from 1969 to 1995, he became the leading teacher of building small wooden boats. He sought out the best remaining examples of classic wooden boats. Then he measured them, drew them, researched their histories, and wrote out instructions so clear and complete that any amateur builder with modest talent and ambition could build a beautiful boat.”

This description of John does not mention sufficiently that he was a gifted, superb draftsman, witness his drawing on page 51 of this book, and reproduced herewith. This drawing of the transom of a Skiff, in all its simplicity, shows clearly all the details of measurements, bevel angles, crown, and, above all, the different flares of the sides in a way that no misunderstanding is possible. All the little details are there.

It is not a book that you will read one page after another without being able to put it aside. But you will keep it close to your workbench at all times. It will give you enough study material for many of those long winter nights. Its main merit is that it documents the nearly lost art and craft of building traditional classic small boats with cedar planks on white oak frames at a time when this was nearly pushed into extinction.

What I personally like the most about this book are the colorful pictures on the cover cover, especially a larger photograph of the late John Gardner beside a beautifully finished, double-ended, rowing peapod. Or is it a Rangeley boat as described on page 163?

The possession of this Commemorative Edition should be high on the wish list of anybody who is interested in small boats. It is a must for everybody who takes his (her) boat building seriously. The extensive alphabetical index of 9 pages with 3 columns per page makes the looking-up and finding of any subject child’s play.

At US$49.95, I consider it the “steal” of the year.


PS: If you ever feel inclined to give in to the urge to design your own boat, and you have not read this book, go to your nearest library and read what John says about designing small craft in the Introduction. It will be a constant guideline, and save you a lot of misery.