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To Build a Skiff

Bad weather and bad ideas turn a three-week project into a three-month misadventure.

By Scott Sommerlatte

It started out simply enough — my flats skiff was starting to show considerable wear and tear after several duck hunts. “I think it is time to add another boat to my fleet,” I told my buddy Shane Batchelor. While researching the possibility of a new boat, Batchelor ran across a Web site that sold plans for building boats and various skiffs. “You know — we could do this …” he said. And so the adventure began.

Batchelor and I were very thorough in our research before I actually started spending money. We looked over several different plans on a Web site called bateau.com, which incidentally has links to several sites to purchase not only the plans to build a number of boats, but the wood, fiberglass and epoxy resins necessary to complete the project. We then decided on a small, 15-foot boat called an Indian River Skiff and purchased the plans.

With the plans in hand I quickly came to a conclusion — this just will not do. For one, because it was so short, it lacked displacement, which would increase its draft, and it had way too much freeboard (the amount of boat sticking above the waterline), creating a larger sail area for the wind to push around. “What if we want to pole the boat around to fish? This just won’t get it done!” I said. At this point we started studying options. I decided I wanted an 18-foot skiff with less freeboard.

Several weeks later, after considering the plans in hand and everything that we wanted this boat to be, I went out and purchased some stiff, but pliable, vinyl paneling, and we laid out the boat with our recalculated measurements, cut it out and taped it together. We now had a plan and I was on the Internet ordering material. I first ordered the glass and resin from boatbuildercentral.com and then it came time for the wood. After doing some research I decided to go with the lightest marine-grade plywood I could find to keep the boat light. Once I found it, I learned quickly that not only was it the lightest, but it was the highest grade and the most expensive. This wood, known as Okume, could be purchased online through the same site that I purchased my glass. However, I located the wood at a specialty shop by the name of Houston Hardwoods and decided to save some money on shipping.

As soon as we had the wood we busted out the power tools and began making measurements and splinters. Once all of the pieces were cut out, we had to glue the sides and bottom together to give the boat its length. Having worked with glass and resins before, I felt that I had a good grasp of the process. Needless to say, I was wrong. Our first mix of epoxy not only hardened in the cup, but melted the cup that we mixed it in. Back to the books; we had to find out where we went wrong. As it turns out, even with slow-curing epoxies, the material must be spread out quickly to slow the chemical reaction. With one problem solved, it was back to work.

After we mixed the epoxy, wood flour (very fine sawdust) was added to create a glue used to join several sections, creating the sides, bottom and transom. After a day of curing, it was time to make a few more cuts and then begin the process of assembling the boat using a technique known as stitch and glue.

The stitch and glue process consists of cutting out the pieces of the boat and assembling them using wire or zip-ties. As all of the pieces come together at the numerous joints, the wood will begin to flex and take the form of a boat, allowing the builder to come in and glue the joints on the inside of the hull.

Once the boat was stitched together, we decided to move the project from the garage to the outside underneath a canopy beside Batchelor’s garage. This decision turned a two- to three-week project into a two- or three-month project because of the torrential rains that we began to experience. After way too many rainy, workless days, Batchelor’s wife took pity on us and allowed us to once again take over their garage.

When the wood finally dried out, we finished gluing and taping the inside seams and we regained our forward momentum. Next we saturated the inside of the boat with resin and sat back to watch it cure.

A couple of days later we flipped the hull and glassed the outside. Again, it was a learning experience, but we managed with only one incident. I somehow managed to get a small piece of glass mat stuck to the hair on my leg. I officially know how the ladies feel when they get their legs waxed. Ouch!

After another session of watching and waiting, we glassed the deck on. Feeling relieved that we were getting close to the finish, it was time to outfit it. It was off to West Marine, and like two kids in a candy store we yelled back and forth across the store holding up different items and asking, “What about this?” Several hours later we walked out with not only what we needed, but several things we didn’t. The shopping spree was not our last mistake, but one of our biggest. The addition of many of the items we purchased caused several redesign issues and added many extra hours of work to a project that should have been finished months earlier.

Now the only remaining steps were to paint, install the hardware and hang the engine. Since the boat was being built for duck hunting, we opted for camouflage paint. After a couple days’ cure time we installed the hardware, hung the engine and headed for the water. Our skiff had nice lines and floated shallow but had some structural and performance issues. Through my many years of running boats I was able to identify and correct all of the issues, but it came at a price, both monetarily and in time.

The first issue was a design flaw that was taken from the original plans. The original plans did not call for stringers (lengthwise support) in the hull. This was something that I had wondered about but chose not to address because I was trying to keep the hull as light as possible and felt it would be stiff enough to handle it. I was wrong and ended up solving the problem by adding a coffin-box to stiffen the floor, provide seating and storage. In addition I heavily glassed the inside of the cockpit to provide a more rigid boat bottom.

As for the performance issues (caused by my redesign), they were solved by experimenting with different propellers and by adding a manual jack-plate (vertical lift) to adjust the engine in as many different positions as possible until finding the most optimal setting.

It goes without saying that the whole process was a learning experience. And, while it was frustrating at times, when the project was finished, I couldn’t help thinking about how I could apply what I’d learned to building another homemade skiff.

Tips for Building your own Skiff

  • Have a large enough space to work in that is protected from the weather.
  • Winter weather is not good for building a boat. The wet, cold weather lengthens the cure time of epoxies and paints. If you choose to build a skiff, do it in the spring or summer.
  • Stick with the original plan and keep your first skiff as simple as possible. Our biggest mistakes happened because we kept adding features and redesigning the cockpit of the skiff.
  • It is possible for one person to build a skiff alone, but having a friend to help is a big plus.

Specs of Skiff

  • Hull: 17’6” long, 4’8” wide
  • Engine: 25 hp

Costs:

  • Hull: $2,000
  • Engine: $2,500
  • Extras: $1,500

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