John Welsford's website

A few of John's designs:

Golden Bay/Setnet






From the Drawing Board
(occasional ramblings of a Small Craft Designer)

by JohnWelsford

On Skills

I had a call from a friend the other day. He's getting geared up to build a Pathfinder.  It's his first boatbuilding project and he's all worried! "John, do you think I have the skills to do this?"

Someone has been feeding him "you're not good enough" pills. By his perception boats are objects to be revered, a bit like books to a Librarian or cameras to a photographer. To create such sacred things requires a builder who has amazing skills, special training and tools, hands like precision machine tools and eyes that take in the whole sweep of the horizon in one glance. For a mere mortal to aspire to such heights is sacrilege, and this is a guy who has supervised the building of huge factories!!!! Someone has really done a number on him!

First thing to remember is that building a boat, even a really big one, is only a matter of one job at a time. A bit like the man leaning on his shovel who when asked, "how are you going to move that mountain?" Replied, "one shovelful at a time!"

No job is big in itself, if it is a big job, then apply the teaspoon theory to it. ( I can hear the puzzlement from here, if you can't handle a shovel then try a spade, if that's too much use a spoon, or a teaspoon!) Every job can be broken down until the immediate task is within your grasp. The skill factor is in recognizing the method of breaking the job down and prioritizing the order of the jobs.

Now that's not too hard. You have to start somewhere and if the plans have not got a building guide that outlines the sequence of events then pick on a small item that can be built and laid aside. Then do another, and another.

So how about the actual skills, well, it helps if you can read. It helps if you can visualise the finished product when looking at a drawing although this is something that will come with time ( until then, trust the designer, if he can't do that then you're both in trouble) . I like my clients to be able to measure with a rule, draw a straight line, count, cut to a line and sharpen tools. I like them to be able to plane a piece of wood smooth, although I am quite happy for them to go away and practice. Its nice if they can drill a hole where needed, put a screw in and drive a nail straight more often than not. I bend my share over, and with ringbarbed boatnails this can mean it needs to be broken off and punched down below the surface so as not to gap your plane when you are smoothing the surface off. Better to get them right.

Power tools. Experience helps, but for everybody there is a first time. Experience starts when you begin! Or as I like to remind people, "An expert is a beginner with experience". If you've never used say, a power plane before, get it out of the box that it came in, DONT PLUG IT IN YET!!!!!!. It bites!

Read the handbook. Have a good look at it, see the flat surface on which it slides along the work , look at those little knives on that wee drum shaped holder, and imagine them screaming around wanting to chew on anything within range! Hold it by the handles so that your fingers are well clear of those blades and slide it along the edge of a piece of wood, making sure that the wood is securely clamped first. You are well on the way to learning a new skill, you know what part of the machine is dangerous, you know how to hold it safely and you are very close to using it for the first time. Not hard now was it?

Hand tools are not quite as easy to learn but much less likely to bite you, and much the same applies. Pick up your Stanley no 4 smoothing plane that you coerced the family into buying you for your birthday and take it, and the book on sharpening and setting woodworking tools off to your workspace and sit down in the thinking chair ( every workshop needs a comfortable place to sit and think) . Look it over, get the grand uncle or whoever in the family knows about these things to come and show you, and set up a piece of nice even grained wood clamped in a vice or to the bench, and plane a few shavings off. Practice, practice planing down to a mark, straight, a rounded curve, a rounded edge. Practice.

Don't the shavings look nice! You made those! A skill you didn't have a few minutes before!

Skills. they're deceptive things, some of those who have them need to feel important so make their skills sound wonderfully complex, but even a complex skill is just a series of simple jobs and it is a rare one that Joe average cannot teach himself with help, patience and application.

I'd suggest that an enquiring mind is an essential skill, given some curiosity as to how things work. With a willingness to ask what may sound like a silly question, some application and determination most people can learn pretty well any skill.

Boatbuilding is not a skill per se, it is a whole bunch of skills, each one a series of smaller skills. If each one of these skills is broken down to the basics, these elements of skill are easily achieved. There are many complex tasks in our daily lives, and if we can cope with those then the basic elements of boatbuilding can't be too much trouble. As an example I learned to type, notthat wweell ( oops, fat fingers) and although I am not very fast ( about 20 words a minute with lots of spellos, I can't think much faster than that so don't need to go any quicker) I now do all of my own typing which frees up Denny who typed all of the New Zealand Backyard Boatbuilder from my hand written notes. A long and laborious task which took endless time and stressed both of us more than enough. But once I made up my mind to try it didn't seem that hard.

Funny thing about skills, they're sort of exponential , one skill plus one skill doesn't make two, when you approach a new task there are parts of earlier skills which apply to the new one and you wont have nearly so much to learn. Boatbuilding is definitely one of those, where there is a cross fertilisation of skills, a boatbuilder can build kitchen cupboards ( hide this so she wont see it) , can do a pretty fair job of painting a porch, building tree huts and even laying a cement path. Conversely, people who can already do those things bring those skills to their new vocation.

I would add that a Woman who can read a sewing pattern will have a lot less trouble sorting out a set of boat plans than many men, existing skills are far more transferable than you might think, even sharpening a pencil with a pocketknife is woodwork, and quite demanding woodwork at that.

But more to the point. A tyro begins at the beginning, learns to do tasks that are fairly simple on larger bits of the boat, gradually works through to smaller and smaller pieces of boat, and ends doing the bits required to finish the parts of the boat that the spectator sees. That person will find that the skills have been improving all the way, and that the wobbly lines from the first cut with the Power Jigsaw have disappeared, planed smooth, glassed over, hidden under a stringer or whatever and cleaner, smoother, edges will have have appeared, the better for the practice and improving all the time. ( My favourite power jigsaw is the Makita BV4200, my old one has built close to 20 boats, has done some awfully tough work, has had one set of bearings and a new set of brushes in its long and hard life and still performs like a champion)

Your choice should also suit your intended usage. A Jonboat will not make an ocean sailor happy, nor will a deep keeled double ended sailboat enrapture a man who wants to explore the bayous and salt marshes in the lower reaches of the Mississippi. Make sure your selection is appropriate.

It pays to pick a project that is achievable. To start out on a 60ft Schooner when your building space is only 20ft long means that you will have to engineer a pretty effective pair of hinges or perhaps complicate the design by making the boat telescopic. If your budget will stand a sheet of plywood once a week then don't start a boat that will need 20 tons of imported hardwoods, if you have two hours a week to devote ( while your better half visits with her Mah Jong buddies) then you need to choose a design that is not going to take forever to complete.

So the point of this rambling diatribe is that you can do it, if the challenge of building a first boat is looking a bit daunting, find a part of the boat that looks achievable and build that. Then do another, and another. If you are really worried build a part of the boat that you could sacrifice on the bonfire of experience. Before cutting a treasured and expensive piece of wood practise a little with your tools on pieces that can be thrown away. Gain the skills a little at a time, but begin. Get started. Get on with the learning process. There was a time when the most skilled boatbuilder was a raw beginner.

John Welsford.