Whatever floats your wooden boat

Jul 15, 2019


It seems almost hard to believe in a modern world in which you can 3D-print something in less time than it takes to hammer in a single nail, but artisan craftsmanship and traditional slow-build techniques have exploded in popularity in Australia.

Perhaps it's that we once again value quality over speed. Or it's simply our innate need for biophilic design: the concept that humans evolved in a very different environment than exists today, and so find happiness and a sense of wellbeing when surrounded by natural products like beautiful wooden surfaces and objects.

It might seem like a lost art from a different epoch, for example, up there with blacksmithing or calling someone rather than texting them. But there are still people out there building boats from wood – and those with the patience (and money) to buy them.

Meet the boatmaker

Ian Thomas, 65, has been crafting boats since he was 18. He has spent the past 12 years working on just one American Oregon yacht for himself, which is still some years from being finished. It has "unique, timeless appeal", he says, before sharing this anecdote:

"Years ago, I had a factory at Terrey Hills and at one stage I had nine fibreglass boats at various stages of construction. In the middle of those I was building myself a Huon pine yacht. I used to get deliveries nearly every day from truckies who knew nothing about boats but they'd all stand at the door and stare and then go straight to the wooden boat, run their hands over it, lie on it, caress it; they'd just walk straight past the glass ones," he recalls.

"There's something about wood that appeals to people who don't even know anything about boats. I think it's the fact that wood is alive: it feels nicer, it has the colour, the grain, the hue, you can see the growth rings in it and know that each one represents a year. Wood gives off almost an aura."

Thomas, in his own words, has just hinted at something the experts are calling biophilia. Put simply, it's our affinity with natural materials and environments. From a British study reporting that two hours a week in nature can improve our mental health, to another Australian study concluding that wood in our workplaces can help us feel better, have less sick days and be more productive, the evidence for the positive influence of biophilia – and the potential for using more wood – is growing around the world.

Belle of the boats

While there was a time when wood was the only building material for boats, Thomas says these days there are probably only about half a dozen built each year in Australia. A few years ago, acclaimed Sydney chef, Tetsuya Wakuda had one such boat, Belle, custom made for him in Tasmania.

"Normally I like a modern boat, a fibreglass one but this one, I fall in love with them, smell good, smell beautiful, you know Huon pine," Tetsuya said at the time.

The challenge with wooden boats is not so much the craft as the labour. Thomas is finishing up a 42-foot trawler style wooden boat and the hull alone has taken him around 2500 man hours.

"It's because every plank has to be shaped and then when you finish it, it takes two men a couple of months to smooth it all up and paint it. And you've got to get it to the kind of finish you'd get on a car, because that's what's expected these days.

"By comparison, if you've got a fibreglass mould, two men can lay up a hull in two weeks. So you're looking at about 250 hours versus 2500 hours; it's not feasible. And that makes it expensive."

A boat worth the bucks

The fact is, when it comes to choosing wood over other materials, there's no competition. "There's nothing like a wooden boat, and if you want a beautiful old trawler-style boat with that traditional feel, you just can't get that with fibreglass, and that's why some people are willing to make the effort," says Thomas.

Sourcing the right kinds of wood to make a beautiful boat is also harder than ever, but in environmental terms Thomas says that's a good thing.

His Huon pine yacht was built from trees that were 1000 years old. It has the beautiful, aged look to prove it, and is completely irreplaceable, because you just can't get that kind of wood anymore.

"I've got a table on my boat that's made of Honduran mahogany and that was banned for export years ago – for very good reasons,” he explains.

Today we know that when choosing wood it is important to make the right choice in order to avoid buying illegally logged imported wood or wood from forests of high conservation value.

The best options are to use recycled wood or to choose wood that is certified. There are two certification options to look for in Australia: Responsible Wood and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Choosing wood (or wood products) with either of these two marks will ensure that the material has been responsibly sourced.

The greener choice

Compared to making a boat out of fibreglass – a plastic product and thus "made out of oil out of the ground” – using sustainably sourced wood is a far greener choice.

"There's also something a bit more romantic about a boat that was once growing,” he says. "Rather than making one out of something that turns up at your shed in 44-gallon drums.”

All other factors aside, however, what Thomas loves most about wooden boats is the practical process of making them: the tactile joy that's involved. As he points out, you don't put a dozen years or more of your life into making a boat just because you're looking forward to sailing it; it's the journey that's a large part of the joy.

Joy in the making

"I wouldn't get that enjoyment from building a boat out of fibreglass – and if it was going to take years, I'd go nuts,” he laughs, adding working on a wooden boat gives him a link to the past and doing things the way they've always been done.

"There's nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon than carve up a piece of timber. As long as I can pick up a piece of wood and make something out of it, I'll always be doing it. It's like fishing for some people; it's not work. I just love wooden boats.”

Are you ready to come aboard?

If wooden boats are your thing, Tasmania's biennial wooden boat festival might be the perfect destination for you. Other Australian states have wooden boat associations and events too. An internet search will no doubt delight your inner wooden boaty.

Designer and builder of the Emma Louise vessel (photographed) - Tim Phillips, The Wooden Boatshop