The Thrill of Wooden Boat Ownership

(or Look Before You Leap)

by Sherwood Heggen

Ownership of a wooden boat can be a very exiting part of your life, mostly after the boat is restored. When the idea of becoming a wooden boat owner takes over your mind, the quest for that boat to reflect ‘you’ begins. You picture yourself in that boat, motoring across a calm lake with your loved one at your side, spray off the chines, and the sun at your back. You find that boat and bring it home on the trailer that comes with the deal described as “serviceable.” You   watch it in the rear view mirror with horror as the bow of the boat bobs up and down with every little bump in the road. You’re glad you made it home without incident, The boat would only need paint and varnish and a good cleaning – you thought.


Mark Pottenger found that boat — a 1956 Chris Craft Sea Skiff 18′ with a Hercules A for power — and brought it home for paint and varnish.

From there, the concerns mounted and the project got its completion date extended. While crawling around inside the boat, pulling up the floors, Mark got a little closer to the subject. The first “oh-oh” he found was a soft port-side stringer at the transom. Beneath that he found de-laminating and brittle bottom planks next to the keel. The keel was good but the transom base was another story relating to rot, as was the bottom transom plank. Wood that crumbles in your hand is a sure sign that it has seen its usefulness in keeping out water.

Digging deeper into the boat, Mark found more rot in the planks mid-ship at the chine area. Looking casually at some of these areas of rot, it would appear that all is well. Put the area to the test and start poking and scratching the surface with a screw driver. Good wood will withstand the abuse of poking and scratching, while rotted wood can easily be picked away and even penetrated. If you go through the hull with the screwdriver, you have done yourself a favor in possibly saving the boat from sinking while under way.

The problems certainly didn’t stop there. Rotten steam bent frames made themselves known just ahead of the engine. Hey, what about the engine? What kind of shape would it be in? Would you believe frozen solid? Yeah, locked up. No amount of effort would cause that flywheel to budge. So much for the simple paint and varnish.

The point of relating all this is to give a heads-up to potential wood boat buyers. The condition of this boat is not an exception but an expectation. Wooden boats that have been used over the past 40 years and have all of their original parts are expected to have a few problems. Mark didn’t make a bad buy, he just got more restoration work than he expected.

None of these maladies is terminal to the boat. New plywood is available for the bottom, as well as new mahogany for the transom base and planking, and white oak for the frames. Locally, Youngblood Lumber and Lake Elmo Lumber are good sources for that. Engines can be rebuilt. The boat can be rebuilt to as good, or better, than new. Two other things must be added to the ingredients for a restored boat – time and money. Take it a bit at a time and it will all come about to a successful end.

Mark has just begun that journey on this, his first restoration project, by removing the rotted transom base and planking and stripping the layers of paint from the sides. He will replace the transom base with a duplicated piece and install a new bottom transom plank. The rotted bottom planks will be removed and replaced with new plywood. It is a little work-intensive removing all of those clinch nails that hold like little kitten claws in tree bark, but it just takes patience to get them all out. It is a two-person job to install new clinch nails – one on the outside with a hammer to drive them in, and one on the inside with a hammer dolly to cause the nail to turn over and clinch the two boards together.

Replacing the steam-bent frames may seem a little daunting at first until you work out the exercise in your mind. It is not necessary to replace the whole rib, only the part that is rotten. In the case of Mark’s boat, the simplest repair is to cut the rib just inside of the stringer. The old rib end should be treated with Smith and Co. clear penetrating epoxy sealer. This stuff will wick up the rot-infected rib from where it was cut off and replace the resins that have been destroyed, giving the remaining rib new life. New ribs will be installed next to the old ones, which is called sistering. The sistered ribs should overlap by at least a couple of plank widths and screwed in place at the three edges of these two planks. Since the ribs that are being replaced are out of sight, it doesn’t have to look pretty, just functional. Correctly done, the entire rib would be replaced, which is considerably more work, but it looks original and more pleasing to the eye. To replace the rib, the new rib must be cut to size and then steamed to allow it to bend to the shape of the hull prior to fastening it in place. Installing the ribs with out steaming will be impossible.

Steam bending new frames is an interesting process. If you are not familiar with the process, check out the Gadgets and Kinks article on steam bending in the February 1999 issue of The Boathouse which can be read on the BSLOL web site at


This Chris Craft Sea Skiff is a work in progress and, from the sounds of it, could be in the water in pretty quick order – well, meaning maybe by next summer.

Good luck, Mark. You are clearly a person who takes to heart the meaning of “don’t destroy it; restore it”.