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
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.
Lapstrake Boatbuilding by Walter Simmons,
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:
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:
There are kits which could be used to build a Swallow-like boat:
Arch Davis in Maine has plans, videos, and materials. His Penobscot
the Swallow near-equivalent.
intended the boat to be a suitable project for any builder with
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
as simply as is possible, so what shall I do?" I would probably
the Penobscot 14.
Kits for Iain Oughtred's boats are made by Jordan Boats (Fife). Further
information in the US is available from InThe
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
to the Swallow's keel, an unusual feature. For a day sailor I
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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