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Blackberry Rowboat

Building a small boat doesn't happen overnight. Sometimes it doesn't even happen over a winter. From the outside it seems like a simple enough project but can, after beginning, seem impossible to finish. Here is our story.

When my daughter Dana was about one year old I thought it might be nice to have a small rowboat for me to take her for short trips on our local lake or around Gig Harbor. I knew my daughter wouldn't be ready until the following year but wanted to have plenty of time to build this boat. I did lots of late night Internet research and studied the basics of small boat building. I decided early on that I would build with plywood and use interior chine log construction. I also decided this little row boat should be named after my daughter: Dana May.

A fair number of hours were also invested in evaluating free boat plans I found on the Internet. I even built a few tiny paper models to get a better idea of how the boats would end up looking. I settled on the Blackberry dory designed by John Bell. It seemed to offer a proper compromise of rowing efficiency, initial stability, light weight, and aesthetics.

Dory sides being bent around temporary forms
Trimming purposely oversize bottom
Blackberry Dory with improvised breast hook

Lacking experience I needed a gradual introduction to boat building. The first step was building a toy box out of plywood. It featured, of course, chine log construction. The beauty of this project was that there were no curves. This project proceeded well and, before I knew it, my daughter had someplace to put her toys.

The next warm-up project was a bit more challenging. The idea and shape were copied from Phil Knox. Unlike Phil's, my aero cap needed to be build with thin plywood over chine logs. This project was a lot like building an upside down boat but with only a few curves. Maybe it was the introduction of curves and angles. Maybe it was the size of the aero-cap. Maybe this project was closer to boat building than I anticipated. Regardless of the reason, the assembly was more complicated and took much longer than anticipated. When it was done I felt I was prepared to start on the 'Dana May'.

Before construction began I made some material choices. Durability, light weight, and cost were the driving factors. For plywood I chose quarter inch thick marine plywood. Meranti plywood was half the cost of Douglas Fir plywood. Next I chose cedar one by four boards from Home Depot for the chine logs. The few parts that would be under substantial stress were fashioned out of oak scraps in the Race Garage scraps bin. Gorilla glue was chosen because it was easy to work with. One eight ounce bottle finished the entire boat. About 200 one inch and 70 two and a half inch brass wood screws were used. All screws were countersunk.

The plans showed four sheets of plywood including the temporary bulkheads. I built the temporary bulkheads out of scraps and was able to layout the boat on just three sheets. After cutting on the lines, except the bottom which I purposefully left oversize, I was ready to start assembling the sheets. Scarf joints would have been quite 'boaty', but my skill set led me towards butt joints. When the butt joins were complete I had the four basic plywoods components; two sides, a bottom, and the small transom.

Inside of partially built Blackberry Dory
Blackberry Dory being painted in the driveway
Blackberry Dory loaded on top of truck

The real work started when I bent the sides around the temporary bulkheads. I used Sheetrock screws to temporarily hold everything together. Short cedar strips were ripped that matched the angle between the sides at the bow. The angles needed for these strips weren't based on fancy measurements but instead on trial and error. Each inside leading edge received a strip and the two strips were glued and screwed together to form the bow chine log. Next I ripped some cedar boards into strips, again based on trial and error, that had a diamond cross section. These short strips were screwed between the inside back edge of the sides and the inside of the transom to form the vertical chine logs at the transom. I repeated the process for all remaining chine logs. When completed it became evident that the bottom edges of the chine logs where they met the sides and transom were not completely flat. I used a block plane to flatten the surface where the plywood bottom would be attached.

Attaching the bottom required more thought than I initially anticipated. The temporary bulkheads held the sides at the correct angle but still allowed them to flex from side to side. With the boat upside down I laid the bottom on top of the sides. The sides were then pushed athwart ships at the bow, the stern, and each temporary bulkhead until the boat was straight. Once strait it was a simple, but lengthy, task to drill, glue, and screw the bottom into place. I finished the bottom by trimming off the extra plywood off the oversize bottom.

At this point a bunch of lumber and plywood had been transformed into the shape of a boat. Without rails the boat would have flexed like a wet noodle without the temporary bulkheads, but it was encouraging to see it take shape.

At about this step of construction we moved. The shell was loaded onto my Laser trailer and carefully moved across town without incident. This move took place at the beginning of the summer that I had hoped would be the summer I introduced my two year old daughter to rowing. I was still hopeful we would splash before the fall.

Monk 52 footer under tow
Blackberry Dory under tow throught the Tacoma Narrows
The Dory's owner at the bow

The original plans called for permanent thwarts fore and aft. I decided to omit them but add in rigidity with wider rails. Choosing a spacer block rail allowed a wide rail, less weight, and a traditional look. The first step was cutting and installing the breast hook out of oak. Smaller versions were cut and installed at the side to transom connection. The spacer blocks were cut and glued into place without screws. The inner rails were then cut and glued into place. This step required every clamp I owned. The outer rails came last and required me to purchase one 14 foot cedar board. They were easy to assemble and, after the glue set, were supplemented with two inch screws through the outer rail, plywood side, spacer block, and inner rail.

At this point the major assembly was completed. I used the block plane again to flatten the top of the rails where the various strips had differing heights. I also cut out as much of the extra Gorilla Glue as I could. Then a quick sand and I called the inside and rails done.

On the bottom I used some microballoons and epoxy to fill in gaps on the exterior of the bow and transom corners. The last woodworking step was to fit a skeg. I chose oak for this part of the boat as it was the most likely to get abused. The plans did not include a shape so I took a guess. After the skeg was glued and screwed in place I sanded and primed the bottom. I had been asking my daughter what color she wanted her boat to be for the month prior to painting. She answered purple regularly for the first three weeks. I was relieved when, in the final week, her answer was consistently yellow. I primed and sanded the bottom twice to help seal and smooth the plywood surface. Next almost an entire quart of Brightside paint was brushed on in three coats. Brightside is oil based but I did let Dana handle the brush for a minute or two.

The final challenge was the oar locks. 'Light weight' didn't seem to go with 'store bought' when I was shopping for this item. After doing some reading I realized I could build my own locks and custom pins easily enough. After scrounging the race garage I ended up with rectangular pieces of white HDPE attached to the spacer inwale rails. These had holes drilled that fit bolts that were lashed to my oars with small diameter Technora line. My oars were horrible, two part, five and a half foot wooden relics handed down from my father-in-law.

The Dana May and Venture boat headed for Gig Harbor.The Dana May came together just a month or so after my daughter's third birthday. That made it two years from when I decided to build a boat and a full year after I expected to finish it. Better to finish building a small boat late than not finish at all.

The was finished at about the same time that we planned our week long Venture Boat vacation. Without a test float or row we confidently lashed the Dana May to my truck, which was hitched up to the Venture Boat, and headed for the Harbor.

The public boat launch in Gig Harbor can be busy. We plopped the Dana May into the water, tied her to the dock, and hurried back to the truck to expedite the slightly more complicated launch of the Venture Boat. While waiting on her painter my daughter's new boat was already attracting compliments from strangers. She continued to do so for the next week as we cruised the South Sound with the Dana May in tow.

During that week we had plenty of time to 'mess about in boats'. The Dana May provided service as our tender. She provided amusement for kids of all ages. But mostly she gave me the perfect tool to introduce my daughter to the simple joys of boating.