Building a boat 'just like' the Swallow

Stuart Wier and Andrew Goltz

What if you want a boat 'just like' the Swallow? Aside from buying one, which is a whole different matter, you may want to build one. Be advised that building a boat is not fast and usually costs more than buying a used boat, if you can find one you like.

The Swallow and Amazon are examples of a boat building method called clinker building ('lapstrake' in the United States). It was the way to go when wood, good solid wood, was the only material for hulls, metal was expensive, and glues and caulks unknown. Materials were dear, labor was cheap, and skills were common. Viking ships were made the same way more than 1000 years ago. If you really want to build another Swallow or Amazon the same way, this is the style of building. It is not a simple boat building method. It requires curved, close fitting, wooden joints, so tight they do not leak without caulking. Here are the best, and only, guides to clinker boat building.

One of two key books is Clinker Boatbuilding by John Leather (Adlard Coles). He describes the techniques of how the original Swallow and Amazon would have been built. You can order the book through

The other book is Clenched Lap or Clinker by Eric McKee (30 p., Greenwich, National Maritime Museum, 1972) — an excellent guide to true clinker building. Used copies may be usually be found on-line at

If you want to build in clinker you need both these books. Clinker boats used not to be built with detailed plans or drawings. The key to shaping and fitting planks are the moulds onto which the planks are bent and which are also used to determine the width of a plank at a particular point. Traditionally a boat started life as a miniature half model. This was then sawn into sections, the sections measured, the dimensions scaled-up (lofted), and drawn (onto paper or the loft floor) and the moulds constructed from the drawings.

The number of moulds used will depend on the shape of the boat and its intended purpose. For example, the builder of a Thames Skiff might employ no more than two or three moulds or half moulds. These would not be fixed permanently while the boat is constructed, but used occasionally to check the bevel as each plank is shaped. The Thames Skiff boatbuilder constructs largely by eye (like his Viking forebears) and because his hull lacks sharp curves he can rely on the natural spring of the wood to create the curves. The results are beautiful boats, although no two will ever be quite the same.

The builder of a dinghy like the Swallow or Amazon has to bend the wood much more severely than the builder of the Thames skiff. He will have to steam his planks and bend then onto fixed moulds in order to get the curves right. If he is constructing a class boat he will use more moulds than if he is building a working boat, to ensure that each hull is as similar as possible.

On the American side, lapstrake building is detailed for some boats in John Gardner's books:

Building Classic Small Craft (320 p. 1977): wherries and whitehalls

More Building Small Craft (256 p.): The boats of interest to Swallows and Amazons fans are probably the Matinicus Peapod and a 16' Swampscott Dory.

Classic Small Craft you can Build (195 p. 1993): The Maine Reach Boat is a rowing/sailing boat, 13' 4" by about 4' 5" that is not unlike the Swallow.

About the first book one reviewer wrote "The boats discussed in this book are not especially simple or easy to build, but, to the contrary, require careful and precise workmanship...none of which is beyond the reach of reasonable diligence on the part of the serious amateur."

And there is Building the Herreshoff Dinghy, by Barry Thomas (50p. Mystic Seaport Museum; Seventh Printing, 1999 edition).

A new method, glued lapstrake or clinker, using plywood, may be the thing for you, and certainly will have much to recommend it now. There are plans available for several boats with hull form and rig like the Swallow. For example, Iain Oughtred is a top British builder and designer who sells plans, kits, and this book - Clinker Plywood Boatbuilding Manual. His design "Grebe" (now called Tammie Norrie) is one that is pretty close to the Swallow and the Amazon. See Clinker Plywood Boatbuilding Manual which is available from The Wooden Boat Store.

John Brooks, who teaches the glued lapstrake class at WoodenBoat School, has wriiten a book: How to Build Glued Lapstrake Wooden Boats.

See also: Lapstrake Boatbuilding by Walter Simmons, and Ultralight Boat Building, by Tom Hill.

If you are in the United States you can take classes in traditional and glued lapstrake at WoodenBoat School in Maine, a great place:

Glued-Lapstrake Plywood Construction

Lapstrake Plywood Construction

If you plan to use either method, I urge to you attend a class at WoodenBoat School. The time and cost should be saved later in making your own boat, and I guarantee you will have a fine time there.

There are also courses for would be builders of small boats in the UK:

Boat Building Academy (Lyme Regis) - Traditional Wooden Boat Building

International Boatbuilding Training College - Small Boatbuilding


There are kits which could be used to build a Swallow-like boat:

Arch Davis in Maine has plans, videos, and materials. His Penobscot 14 is the Swallow near-equivalent.

I intended the boat to be a suitable project for any builder with modest woodworking skills (although some have been successfully completed by absolute beginners with no prior woodworking experience). I took great care in drawing the lines, making a model to help me arrive at the prettiest, and most sea-kindly, hull form. I chose glued lapstrake construction. It is light, strong, and easy to care for.

If someone in the United States said, "I want to build a good boat like the Swallow, as simply as is possible, so what shall I do?" I would probably recommend the Penobscot 14.

Kits for Iain Oughtred's boats are made by Jordan Boats (Fife). Further information in the US is available from InThe If you are in Australia plans for Iain's boats can be ordered from Duck Flat Wooden Boats.

The Swifty 13 and Swifty 15 from Shell Boats in Vermont have long, shallow keels similar to the Swallow's keel, an unusual feature. For a day sailor I would simply omit the cabin and use a simple sailing rig like the Swallow had.

This article is ©2010 by Stuart Wier and Andrew Goltz, and posted on All Things Ransome with permission.

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