The Life of Boats

Originally posted on

As we've seen, there have been boat kits forever.  For much of the last century, options have been similar, too.  We have slickly marketed boat kits that draw builders in but leave them frustrated, great works of boat kit craftsmanship fabricated with intricate care in one-man shops, frame kits, hull kits, big kitssmall kits, and everything between.

It’s hard enough deciding which boat to build, much less how to pick from the scores of boat kit companies.  In this article I’ll try to break down some of the choices.

Types of Boat Kits

Boat Plans

A Set of Chesapeake 17 Kayak Plans 
 A set of Chesapeake 17 Kayak Plans
A boat plan isn’t a boat kit at all, but I thought I’d get it out of the way first because the issue of proper boat plans, and the rights to use them, hovers over the whole process of building your own boat.  Whether you’re building from a complete kit or from scratch, somewhere, a qualified designer has labored over the design of the boat, optimizing it for a particular type of usage and for a particular level of building difficulty.  This is a time-consuming process.  Even a simple kayak or dinghy can consume hundreds of hours of design and drafting work.  Thus you might be startled to find boat plans costing hundreds of dollars for a set.  The cost of a set of plans isn’t necessarily a good indicator of the quality of the design:  volume players use boat plans as a hook to get you into a kit.  But $25 plans probably aren’t going to give you a lot of information or detail.

Speaking of information, instruction manuals are a relative rarity, even with boat kits!  They range from thin pamphlets with few drawings or photos to extravagant shop manuals running to hundreds of pages with thousands of step-by-step photos.  Make sure you understand what you’re getting in terms of instructions with your plans or boat kit.  An advanced builder may not need much, but everyone benefits from clear instructions.

This is all relevant to the choice of a boat kit because A) you might need to purchase plans and instructions separately from the kit in some cases and B) you want to make sure you’re not getting a pile of timber with no clear instructions on how to turn it into a boat.

In any case, it’s universal that the purchase of a set of boat plans gives you the right to build one boat.  More boats from one set of plans will require royalty payments to the designer.

The Basic “Frame Kit”

This is an old option and it’s still popular.  Brooks Boats offered this option back in the 1900’s.  This type of kit is for boats that have traditional “skeleton” framing.  The frames are mounted on a building platform or a “ladder frame mold,” and then you skin the boat with planking of one type or the other.  All things being equal, building a traditional “skeleton” frame for a wooden boat is quite difficult.  Assuming that the kit frames are correct and you can mount them accurately on the mold, you’ll start out well ahead of the game.

A thoroughly modern version of the frame kit is common in the world of cedar strip-planked kayaks.  You purchase both the molds and the strongback for a kayak, which arrive in the mail.  This package is inexpensive to ship because kayaks just aren’t very big.  You mill your own planking and source your own epoxy and fiberglass, but you save hours and hours of finicky mold-work.  The mold is thrown away after your project is done—or you can build another boat on it!

If you’re buying a “frame kit” or “mold kit,” the expectation is that you can source the rest of the marine grade materials for your projects.  This has gotten harder than it used to be.  As recently as twenty years ago, high-end lumberyards would stock at least a little marine plywood.  Now you’ll probably have to mail order it if you don’t live near a marine lumber outlet.  The same goes for marine adhesives, sheathings, and hardware.

These types of kits don’t always include plans and instructions.

“A La Carte” or Partial Kits

This really describes most boat kits on the market.  Hardly any boat kit will include every last piece you need to launch and head out on the water.  Chesapeake Light Craft kits, for example, don’t include the paint or varnish, or paddles or oars.  So strictly speaking, these kits aren’t “complete.”  But in the category of “partial kits” I’m referring to boat kits that leave out big chunks of what you’ll need.  At Chesapeake Light Craft, we offer kit options that include all of the computer-cut wooden parts, but leave the builders to source their own epoxy and fiberglass.  The typical customer for this option is either a professional boatbuilder who already has supplies on the shelf, or a dedicated amateur with strong feelings about what kind of epoxy is used.

Other examples of this type of kit would include a dinghy that has an optional sailing rig, or kits that are literally “a la carte”—you choose individual pieces or assemblies and provide the rest yourself.

“Complete Kits”

Complete Chester Yawl Kit 
The "complete kit" for a 
Chesapeake Light Craft Chester Yawl 
The obvious choice for folks who are new to boatbuilding.  Competition in this segment has kept prices down, and boat kit manufacturers tend to brag about how much they include in their kits.  When you shop, look for what the vendors really mean by “complete.”  My firm, CLC, doesn’t include paint or varnish, but we do include almost everything else.    You’ll find a great deal of variation in what a “complete kit” actually includes.  If you’re anxious about cost, you’ll want to tally up the extras so that as you comparison-shop, you are comparing apples to apples.

A really smart choice is to purchase the instruction manual for the kit in advance so that you can study the process and get a clear picture of what you’re getting.  It will also give you an idea of the difficulty of assembly before you get too deeply into it.

A “Bare Hull” Kit

This option has been around forever, too, but hit its stride in the 60’s and 70’s.  In this permutation, a boatshop will sell you just the hull, or the hull and deck, and you’ll finish it from there.  The typical Bare Hull kit is a fiberglass shell comprising the hull and deck, maybe with one or two bulkheads in place.  Cape George Cutters are a good example of the type.  If you’re thinking about building a larger boat, starting from a bare hull is emphatically a good deal.

I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but there isn’t a whole lot new under the sun in terms of cruising boat hull design.  Starting from scratch to build the hull of your large cruising boat means hundreds or thousands of hours of the most laborious sort of work before you can even start on the interior of the cabin or the deck.  If you get started with a proven, assembled hull, you can pour your energy into the customized cabin and deck layout that you’ve always dreamed of.  Don’t worry—that will take plenty of time.

Choosing Your Kit

Where to start?  Well, it’s easy enough to narrow down what type of boat you want.  With thousands of plans and kits out there, there’s a flavor for every taste.

Once you know what you want—a 30-pound kayak, a 300-horsepower fishing boat, or a 30-ton sailing yacht, you need to make a clear-eyed assessment of your building abilities and your time.  (The two are related, naturally.)

Skilled builders have a lot more choices.  They can do more with a less complete kit, in less time, and they have a substantial “larder” of tools and supplies to carry them through the project.  Why am I talking about skilled builders, though?  They already know what they want.

Speaking of skilled home builders, I’m still in awe of this massive homebuilt trimaran project.  Set aside an evening, though, as you’ll become completely absorbed by his sprawling blog.

Anyway, folks newer to boatbuilding should try to get to a boatshow where kit builders have displays.  There, you can get up close to the boat kits and the finished products.  Requesting or purchasing an instruction manual will tell you how thoughtful the company has been in documenting the process.

A sea trial before you buy is always great, if possible.  ALL boat kit companies are fairly small by manufacturing standards.  None of them function through dealerships, so you can’t go down to the local dealer and try one out like you can with a Bayliner powerboat.  My outfit travels around the country with a big trailer, attending shows and holding in-water demos.

You might get lucky and run into someone who has built a kit you’re interested in.  Manufacturers can help connect you to builders, and of course, there’s that wild frontier called the internet.