My Backyard Boats:

The Weekend Skiff

The Weekend Skiff at the dock near the mouth of the Salmon River, Selkirk Shores, Lake Ontario. The Reverend took this pic.


  Spring 2001: Many years ago, and far, far away in California, I set out to build a sailboat. It had to be cheap, it had to be easy, and it had to be wonderful.

    I chose plans for an International 14 dinghy, and jumped right in. On my budget, it wasn't cheap, at my skill level it wasn't easy, and the result was ugly.

    After much effort, some of it sloppy, I had a strongback, frames, and stringers in place. I sighted along one of the stringers. It was twisted like a snake on hot midday pavement. I gave up the project. Didn't try again for a very long time.

    Last winter, the boat bug bit my again. I had more experience, more income, and more patience and skill than I had had before. My wife's sister's husband had been building and enjoying a boat for a year or two.

    It was a design that I had admired in the past but had rejected because I had fancied that it looked too easy and simple. With new eyes, I looked again at these plans and quickly decided to build this boat, because it promised to be cheap, it promised to be easy to build, and upon mature reflection it looked like it would be wonderful.     My wife was pleased that I was starting small.

    The boat I built had been designed right here in Buffalo, NY, by two professors at Buffalo State University, less than five minutes from my house. The plans are in a book costing about $20 and published by Tiller Press.

    It's available from many online book sources. Check at Powell's Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, a truly incredible bookstore. I tell you this because I believe in both the boat and the bookstore.

     I was lucky enough to have a conversation with one of the designers of the Weekend Skiff one Saturday in winter 2001 when my wife and I went to the Buff State campus while a boatbuilding session (the Six-Hour Canoe) for local kids was going on. Mr. B (Richard Butz) was kind enough to give me a 10-minute crash course on weather helm, sail options, and related concerns that I had. As it turned out, I still spent much time, money, and effort in choosing a sail to adapt to the Weekend Skiff. The sail that is suggested in the boat plans is about the size of a hanky. My first choice was a gaff main with jib (which proved to be a disaster because my wife and I found on the shakedown cruise that we were sitting on all the strings that I had set up for this ambitious rig.) In all, I have tried the gaff mail/jib rig (too complex for the size of boat), the hanky sail from the plans (adequate, and safe, especially in a fresh wind), a larger balanced-lug rig (turning me into a lugnut on the spot), and one of those cool sprit sail - snotter types that Phil Bolger and Dynamite Payson are so fond of (not enough clearance for the First Mate's head -- which violated one of her stipulations).     The key element in all this experimentation was a polytarp sail kit reasonably priced from PolySail. For a total expenditure of about $150, I made four polytarp sails in a total of about 10 hours of work over a period of three weeks. Amazing. I started out with an 11-foot mast, and it was adequate for all the sail options; I made other spars as needed from fir closet rod stock.

Sailing on Glenwood Reservoir, on the edge of Medina, New York, and just south of the Erie Canal. The sail is of polytarp and is the original one suggested in the building plans. I used graph paper and some good books to plot three other sail plans that I made of polytarp and tested.


    The books that I drew on in learning about sails, spars, and rigging included Bolger's book on 103 sail rigs and a wonderful WoodenBoat book, Canoe Rig by Todd Bradshaw, on canoe sail rigs of 40 to 90 square feet, or there about, which gave me many ideas, and exact measurements, for many of the sails I made from polytarp. The skiff is canoe-like in its beam and length, so the canoe rigs work well for the skiff, too, and Canoe Rig covers rigging as well as sails.

       A Buffalo connection for me from way back is ClarkCraft. I have been reading their catalogs for years and years, as far back as when I tried to build that International 14 in California. In winter 2001 when first I went to the ClarkCraft motherhouse itself, down on the Niagara River just north of Buffalo and less than 10 minutes from my house, it was a real thrill. I purchased all the epoxy, fiberglass, and most of the fastenings for The Weekend Skiff there. It was like visiting a shrine -- something like I feel when shopping at a special bookstore or going to a good toolstore or lumber yard.

    I started building in February 2001, with a satisfying day spent hand-planing the stem. The plans call for using a bandsaw to cut a 2x4 in half the long way at a set angle, but I don't have a bandsaw, so I computed the angles, transferred them to a clear piece of fir 4x4, made the rough cuts on my table saw, and finished up with an 18-inch hand plane. By April, I was spending more and more time on the boat. My goal was to be done by the end of summer 2001, and I made it with a month to spare. Lord knows why they call it The Weekend Skiff, since it took me more like five months to build it. The professors say in their book about The Weekend Skiff that they can build them in two weekends when they work with local families, supplying them with tools, guidance, and precut wood. I tried for the best work I could do, which is somewhere between workboat quality and museum quality. I don't mind spending an entire day on one joint or piece, and I used mostly hand tools and tablesaw (for rip cuts), electric drill, and power sanders. I estimate that I spent about 150 hours on the project before launch day (rowing version).

I almost always work alone, and I usually forget that I do so by choice, especially when I need a second pair of hands. Here, I use rope to hold the bow so that I can put the joined sides on saw horses.


    I spent another 50 hours before sailing version launch day, and I still plan to work on the sail thing next summer. Total cost so far? About $900. And about $500 for books. And it's been worth it. This boat was the joy of the entire neighborhood, particularly the kids, while I was building it, and it has never failed to turn heads and loosen tongues when we have taken it out for a row or a sail on the Erie Canal, Glenwood Reservoir near Medina, NY, or protected waters along Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.     The boat is a car-topper at the moment, but after a season of bruised arms and tummies, we have decided to get a trailer for the 2002 season. I didn't build the boat with an eye toward keeping the weight down, and the finished product is difficult for us to get onto the frame I built into the back of our pickup. All the flipping and lifting has marred the finish much more than I like, and lifting on and off, and on and off, gets old on a muggy day.

    Last fall, after the weather turned colder, I roughed out a 7 1/2-foot dink and a 13-foot shantyboat. Both designs are by Jim Michalak, who designs boats that are cheap, easy to build, and wonderful to look at. And he is online, unlike Bolger and Friends. I don't know about you, but I want the convenience of going online, looking at boat plans, and ordering online.

    Finally, no one who loves boats, especially small ones, could fail to love the little magazine called Messing About in Boats. As an old hand at print journalism myself, I appreciate this funky but satisfying little magazine that comes 24 times a year for a cost of $28. It is one of life's little joy -- old guys writing about wonderful boats that are mostly small and mostly owner-built. I gave subscriptions to my wife's sister's husband and her brother for Christmas. They are raving, too.

    I finished the interior of The Weekend Skiff bright, and the exterior in a dark green water-base house paint. Before painting, I applied two coasts of ClarkCraft epoxy in and out, and glued all the joints with epoxy. I spent countless hours sanding globs and drips of epoxy before I learned how to save time by cleaning up more carefully. The sides are 5mm lauan plywood that sells for about $11 per sheet at the building supply chain store we all know and love. This plywood is attractive and has no voids. The bottom of the skiff is half-inch fir plywood, and I don't plan on using much more of that on other boats after using the lauan. I put fiberglass tape over all the patches in the fir plywood.

The finished bow and breasthook show the wide range of woods that I used. The breaskhook is ash, the stem is fir, the gunwales are radiata pine, as are the inwales, sandwiching the lauan plywood sides.


    The shantyboat/canalboat I'm building now is of lauan and half-inch bc pine. The bc pine is heavy, has some voids, but has far fewer patches that the usual sheet of exterior fir ply. And the bc pine smells wonderful, and work up with fewer splinters than the fir. Some folks say the bc pine doesn't lay flap, but that, though true, hasn't been a problem for me.

    I followed the plans for The Weekend Skiff, making few alterations save those based on pure stupidity and other operator errors. My wife's brother-in-law made extensive changes in his version of the skiff. I was able to improvise fixes for my errors without much fuss. The design is forgiving to begin with, and there are many options and alternatives. The plan book has many helpful photos and drawings.

     I used several types of pine and some ash in building The Weekend Skiff. In the photo of the skiff's bow and breasthook, you can see the ash breasthook, radiata pine inwales and gunwales, and the lauan plywood sides. Oh, and the stem is from a piece of doug fir 4x4. Radiata pine comes from New Zealand, and I also used a bit of yellow pine for the keelson. The seats are from clear pine from the building supply chain store, and I used a bit of 1x4 pine I had laying around for the frames and transom framing (hope it holds up; it's got a lot of sap wood; using it was part of the aforementioned stupidity). 

    My father before me was a fine boatbuilder, and I know that he would be proud of my efforts, too, and it is a joy to remember little things that he taught me, such as how to pull a nail without bending it, or how to line up a saw cut, or how to tap a nail on its nose so it won't split the wood when you drive it home ... . He's is in my hands, and when I look in the mirror, I see something of his face in mine, too. He would have loved to go out in the skiff. And he would have appreciated the fun of its name -- toyboat x3 (as in "can you say 'toyboat' three times real fast...").
          See you on the water.

          Blessings and peace!

Mom and Dad streak along on the Fall River, in northeastern California, using a 15-horse outboard. Circa 1950.

Copyright 2002 - 2008 Herkimer & Perkins

 NOTICE: To reach us by email, cut and paste this address into your email client --