The best timber for boat building – An introductory guide

Published Thursday 13th November 2014

Timber is the traditional boat building material. It's been in use for thousands of years and is prized for its resilience, buoyancy, widespread availability and the ease with which it can be worked. 

But, as with most timber-based projects, when it comes to constructing water-going vessels – some woods are better than others. In this guide, we'll take a look at some of the most commonly used timber materials for boat building and explore what qualities make them desirable. 

Wood and Water 

As we've mentioned in previous posts, despite its natural hardiness – wood can be highly vulnerable to deterioration if water is allowed to penetrate its inner layers.

If this occurs, warping of its structure or contamination from microorganisms can occur, rotting the timber and degrading its ability to stay afloat.

While some types of wood naturally produce chemicals that help protect against this, others are highly susceptible and therefore unsuitable for use in boat building.

Techniques

As wood has been used in boat construction for eons, there are a raft of techniques that can be used to put vessels together. From ancient approaches to modern methodologies and which is right for your project will depend on the size, scope and intended use of your vessel.

Some of the most commonly used techniques from either category include:

Carvel: Where individual, tapered planks are positioned edge-to-edge and fastened to a framework. While it can deliver fantastic results - this traditional technique requires a great deal of expertise to carry out and due to its antiquated nature, sourcing the correct materials can be a drain in terms of cost and resources.

Cold Moulding: Where a number of thin veneers are layered on to a jig or framework. Despite requiring relatively expensive materials and the construction of a jig, this tends to produce a strong hull.

Clinker: This method involves individual, tapered planks that are laid out with overlapping edges, which are in turn secured to transverse timbers. As with the carvel technique – you'll need a great deal of skill to carry this out and expect to pay a pretty penny for materials. It also requires more maintenance than several other methods and can even precipitate hull leaks as it ages.

Strip Planking: A modern update to the carvel technique – this involves glued construction where flexible strips of timber are fastened around temporary forms. It's especially popular for smaller vessels like canoes and kayaks, but can be applied to several types of larger boat.

Clinker Ply: Similar to traditional clinker, but with the joins between planks fastened by epoxy, as opposed to nails. It's great for lightweight constructions, but can prove difficult to repair.

What makes for good boatbuilding timber?

When it comes to timber that's intended for a water-bound vessel – a prime concern is how free of knots it is. If sizeable knots are present – there's a good chance it'll fail to bend properly, making it unsuitable for use on a hull.

The grain is also a major factor in whether timber is suitable for use in a boat. It needs to be as straight as possible and shouldn't twist or run off the board. These issues can cause major problems in terms of the wood's strength and how pliable it is.

Types of Timber

There's a huge variety of species that can be used in boatbuilding, with various strengths and weaknesses. However, if you're using modern methods – it's vital to ensure that you opt for a species that accommodates glue well.

Ash

Ash provides tough timber that can stand up to the elements, while still being fairly lightweight to boot. It's suitability for bending means it can be used in a variety of fixtures, although these days, it's favoured for interior fit-outs. However, it does tend to require treatment before being exposed to a marine environment.

Cedar

Several varieties of cedar are ideal for ideal for construction work and Western Red exemplifies the qualities of this lightweight softwood. In addition to being used in a conventional format, it's available in veneer form – which lends itself well to cold moulding techniques.

Douglas Fir

Providing the ideal combination of low weight and strength – Douglas Fir has seen use in a variety of boatbuilding roles – from heavy construction to masts and spars. It's widely available in long, clear lengths and accommodates finishes well.

Iroko

This low-cost wood provides a great alternative to Teak for those on a budget. It's hard, resistant to abrasion and UV rays, as well as being waterproof. However, it can be tricky to finish and contains a lot of internal stresses – limiting the roles it can be utilised in.

Oak

Oak has been a historically popular boat building material – particularly for heavy constructional purposes, although only some varieties are suitable for marine usage.  

Sapele

A favourite for musical instruments, as well as water-borne vessels, this African wood is similar to mahogany and combines reasonable rot resistance with great aesthetics.

Utile

Utile is a similar species to Sapele, which tends to produce a more interesting grain and consequently, a better finish. However, be prepared to shell out a little bit more for these features.

And You

We've only scratched the surface of the intricate world of boat building and if you have any favourites or advice you'd like to share – be sure to let us known on Twitter.

And if you're looking for quality timber for a boat building project, don't hesitate to get in touch today.

Image used courtesy of nwclassicyacht on Flickr.