By Ross Lillistone - Esk, Queensland - Australia

Plans, Manuals and Building

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Thinking about building a boat is a very exciting thing. For most of us it involves a lot of procrastination, planning, dreaming, mind-changing and so on. The actual building process can often end up being more simple than the original thinking about it. I’ve frequently advised people to just get on with it, and nine-out-of-ten of the problems you’ve dreamed about disappear. The job provides the answers as you go along.

Home-built Phoenix III in gentle surroundings

When I’m preparing my plans packages for publication, I find that writing the instruction manuals I supply with plans is the most difficult part. Personally, I’m very happy to work from plans which have no instructions at all – letting the job instruct me as it progresses. To have to write down on paper a single, specific way of doing a particular job is quite confronting. That is probably why many designers leave detailed instructions out and just rely on an accurate specification and building key.

All very well, you may say, but you already know how to build a boat. Well, yes, but undertaking the construction of a boat is a serious business (it should also be fun), and everybody should carry out adequate research before starting out on what is a complex and unfamiliar project.

For most people, this interest in boats is a hobby to be pursued after the other responsibilities in life have been attended to. Not many of us have the opportunity to build large numbers of boats, and without expert tuition, it is difficult to pick up skills prior to commencing construction of the one or two boats which a normal lifetime allows.
I receive hundreds of emails about boatbuilding, designs, rigs, rowing and sailing. The vast majority come from people who are highly enthusiastic, but lacking in confidence and specific experience. A recent contact illustrates the sort of thing I’m talking about, and allows me to explain some of the potential pitfalls – as well as the opportunities.

An email turned up from a fellow who is currently building a simple sailing dinghy from a well-known Australian designer. The boat is an excellent example of sensible design, and represents a very good project for an inexperienced builder. I’ve built a few examples of this particular design for customers, and they have proved to be seaworthy, relatively comfortable, rugged, and they sail beautifully. Additionally, the plans are well detailed, and the specifications for materials result in a boat which is plenty strong enough for rugged use.

Mike Robert's-designed Green Island 15 - a good boat

The fellow who contacted me is a very capable and intelligent person, and his approach to the job was, and continues to be, very thorough. However, he had become hung-up on whether certain aspects of his workmanship were up to standard, and called me in to tell him what was wrong.

There was nothing wrong! Every part of this boat had been built exactly as designed, although the builder was concerned about the standard of his work, and he did not have the benefit of prior experience to gauge the required standard. It is ok if you start work as an apprentice in a boatbuilding establishment – each and every day an apprentice is exposed to the standards which are considered acceptable – but when you work alone at night and weekends you are largely in a vacuum, relying on books to provide the guidance.

In the case referred to above, there were a few minor inconsistencies in the plans which would not even have been noticed by a professional, but to the novice builder who called me in, they caused serious head-scratching.

Generally speaking, it is not enough to rely totally on the instructions supplied by the designer. The designers all have their own favourite methods of construction, but that doesn’t mean that their method is the only suitable one, nor even that it is the correct one. You must carry out your own research – reading, talking, observing, making test pieces yourself – the list goes on.

Now, the danger is that a line has to be drawn between what you can change and what you can’t! The good designers (and trust me when I tell you that there are plenty of bad ones) will have put a lot of thought into each and every element of their work, and you should not alter the design without having either the designer’s permission, or a very clear understanding of what is involved. That means having lots of experience and a substantial understanding of the engineering involved.

Concentrating on an accurate mark-out – plans at hand

But, it is possible to alter the way in which a boat is physically assembled without altering the shape, weight, strength, and looks of the resulting structure. In the notes and instructions which accompany my own design packages, I try to explain why I do things a particular way, and if there are acceptable alternatives I try to make mention of the fact in the text.

While it may be ok to alter the method of construction (as long as the alternative is suitable from an engineering point-of-view), it is definitely not acceptable to alter the shape, weight and/or proportion of a design without consulting the designer or a Naval Architect with experience in small craft design. This even includes such apparently simple matters as altering the mast material, or putting in a self-draining cockpit.

Flint - simple to build, but properly engineered

Lastly, before you commit to the purchase of plans, ask the designer which engineering standards or scantling rules the boat has been designed to comply with. The boat you build may be required to carry many other people in its service life, and you had better be sure that its design and construction meets an acceptable standard.

See, there I am writing yet another lecture! Sorry, readers….

On a lighter note, I’m in the process of gradually up-dating my website , and hope to have more pages containing edited discussion about a host of different design, building, rigging and general boating matters. Over the last ten years I’ve answered literally thousands of emails from people, and within the archives there are some valuable question/answer interchanges. It has always seemed a pity to me that other people could not benefit from the discussions.

Keep up your enthusiasm, build simply - but build to the very best of your ability, and have fun!


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