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
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
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
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.
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
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).
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
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
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
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
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
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