The weird and wonderful tools of boatbuilding

Published Thursday 05th March 2015

Despite the array of modern materials we have at our disposal these days, there's still a great appetite for traditionally-built wooden boats.

In this guide, we'll take a look at just some of the specialised tools it takes to put together one of these nautical masterpieces and what they're used for.

The Basics

According to amateur enthusiast Mike Taylor, the first task of an apprentice or newcomer to the world of boatbuilding was to construct their own tool box. While it's easy to see why this gave them a good introduction to the craft, given the array of tools required – it was probably no easy feat.

While these seasoned relics are still popular among many boatbuilders, there's now a vast range of (thankfully) lightweight and water proof plastic starter kits to choose from.

As with other forms of woodworking, you'll need some common go-to tools like a carpenters pencil, notebook and belt or bum bag in which to keep the things you'll need to have at hand.

Adze

One of the most important tools in boat building, an adze (or 'adz') is a truly ancient tool. It's been used to carve and smooth wood for tens of thousands of years – with the earliest examples uncovered by archaeologists thought to date back to the stone age.

Adzes are similar to axes, but with the head mounted at a perpendicular angle to the handle. It comes in two basic varieties – the foot adze and hand adze, with the former being swung single-handedly and the latter using both hands (but not feet, somewhat confusingly).

Their modern equivalents are usually made out of steel, but have been greatly overshadowed since the introduction of the sawmill and powered planes. Shipwrights' adzes are usually lighter than normal – enabling them to be utilised ergonomically at a variety of angles.

Clamps

It's a common adage among boatbuilders that you can't have too many clamps. These come in all shapes, sizes and materials, and do exactly what they say on the tin – keep things in place.

They're especially useful if you're working alone and come in handy when boring, sawing or marking pieces.

Saws

Saws are the bread and butter of boatbuilding, as well as regular woodworking and require little introduction.

The demanding tasks required by boatbuilding often necessitates several saws – from to traditional western-style devices, to Japanese saws that cut on the pull stroke.

However, modern boatbuilders will often speed up the process by making use of power tools like circular saws and jigs.

Hammer time

Hammers are must-have when it comes to putting together a vessel. While the claw hammer is commonly favoured for its versatility, a pin hammer can be of great use for tackling smaller, fiddly jobs.

While mallets may look similar, they serve a very different purpose. Made from wood, they're used to hit other pieces of wood without leaving marks or for tapping chisels.

Chisels

A common fixture in any woodworkers' arsenal – the humble chisel is used to remove fine shavings or get rid of large chunks with a little help from a mallet.

Larger chisels are referred to as slicks and are used in much the same way – but are almost entirely hand-operated.

Planes

A boatbuilder's workshop is likely to be so full of planes, you might mistake it for an airport.

As well as the typical planes you're likely to find in any woodworker's shop – boatbuilding requires specialised planes that can be used on concave and convex curves.

While wood-bodied planes used to be a staple, these days, the metal variety is favoured due to their versatility and ease of use.

Awls and Gimlets

As well as regular drills, boatbuilding often requires the finesse that can only be provided by specialised tools for hole-making.

Awls and gimlets are commonly used to make starter holes – with the bradawl being the simplest of the lot and the gimlet being called in when deeper small holes are required.

Caulking irons

Caulking is one of the processes involved in sealing joints and seams in wooden boats, whilst ensuring they're watertight.

The devices for carrying this out come in variety of shapes and sizes, each with specialised functions.

For instance, dumb irons are used to widen seams, bent irons are used to tackle awkward areas and a caulking wheel is used to place cotton within a seam.

Plumb Bob

Despite its exciting name, this relatively simple piece of kit has one job – to point directly downwards. This is, quite simply, used to make sure that a fixture is exactly vertical.

What Else?

We've barely scratched the surface of the boatbuilders' tool kit – so if you think we've missed anything important or have any questions – be sure to fire us a tweet.

And if you're looking for quality boatbuilding timber for your next project – don't hesitate to get in touch today!

Images used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.