“Woodstrip Rowing Craft”

How To Build, Step By Step
by Susan Van Leuven

A review by John D. Michne

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Susan Van Leuven’s new boat building book speaks volumes. The 8½" by 11" hardcover 288-page book contains over 800 (that’s eight hundred!) color photographs, over 50 drawings and sketches by the author, and is printed on heavy weight glossy paper. While the text alone gives an overview of each major step in the process, the descriptive details in the notes under each picture provide a degree of explanatory detail that almost gives the reader a sense of being there. This theme continues the author’s writing style seen in her first highly acclaimed book, Illustrated Guide to Wood Strip Canoe Building, published in 1998. A casual reader could get sufficient information to make a building decision by reading just the text, but a committed builder would get all of the detail needed to build a boat by delving into the picture captions.

If I were to have an overall impression of the book, the very last sentence says it all – “After all, quality time is what wood strip boat projects are all about.” The book is all of that, written with a sense of relaxed pleasure along the way, wisps of levity here and there, and “quality time” enjoyed while building a boat. While craftsmanship is only mentioned in passing, it is seen continuously in the work the author describes and shows in photographs. She takes her time with each step, waiting for glue to properly cure or epoxy to fully harden before going on to the next operation.

Building a modern rowing craft using wood strips, fiberglass, and epoxy is a logical application of a building technique that has seen innumerable strip-built canoes and kayaks produced mostly by amateur builders world wide. The book uses two wood strip boats as demonstrations of rowboat building techniques. These are the Rangeley Lakes boat, a long-popular rowing boat design indigenous to Maine lakes and used as a fishing platform; and the Liz, a boat designed primarily for recreational rowing for the sheer enjoyment of doing so. Both boats are single ended designs with transoms and propelled by the rower using oars, defining the key differences between a rowboat and a paddled canoe or kayak.

  • The construction of these boats is described in detail, while along the way explaining concepts and methods applicable to other types of strip-built boats. The Rangeley Lakes boat was built from western red cedar strips milled by the author, while the Liz was built from pre-milled Alaskan yellow cedar strips. Also in keeping with the concept of presenting optional methods, the Rangeley building forms and plans were obtained commercially . The plans for the Liz, designed by Ken Bassett, were originally drawn for lap straked construction, but were adapted to strip building. The author modified the study plans for the Liz by adding intermediate stations to better define the hull shape in the building form. The procedure for doing this was clearly described in the Lofting section, which also explains basic lofting in general.
  • The book contains the expected chapters and sections on building space and environment, tools, materials, safety, and working with epoxy, among others, all of which are discussed in detail. The construction portion starts with building the strongback, followed by making the individual station forms, mounting them on the strongback, and precisely aligning each form to center lines on a reference plane on the strongback and in space above it. Once again, all of these steps are fully described and documented with clear color photographs.
  • Throughout the book, the author describes more than one way to perform a step or build a part. These can be taken as options for the reader to fit his or her particular building situation. For example, she describes holding the glued strips to the forms by clamping them to precut grooves in the forms, stapling the strips to the forms as they are mounted, or using thin nails driven through small pieces of strip or thin plywood that act as cushions. She leaves the choice of fastening method to the reader, indicating that the choice of method used is one of the “…factors which can affect the speed with which the hull is completed. Another is your standards for quality of fit, and means of achieving it.” Her high standards are evident throughout the book.
  • Once the raw hulls are completed, fairing, sanding, filling gaps, and preparing them for fiberglass are described. The author continues her theme of presenting options in describing different brands of epoxy. Fiberglassing the hull, perhaps the most daunting operation for the first time builder, is next and is described in comforting detail. Then on to the inwales and outwales, seats, stem band, and oarlocks, all of which are offered with choices. Descriptions and characteristics of several commercial brands of varnish and paint are given, as well as techniques for applying them. For the Liz, the author describes fitting and installing a commercially available sliding seat drop-in oar system that uses outboard oar mounts. The book ends with a chapter on accessories such as oars, trailers, and small dollies for moving a boat.
  • There are three appendices – Lists of Tools, Lists of Materials and Supplies, and Lists of Supply Sources. Fully twenty three pages are devoted to these lists, but I found them overly detailed and repetitious. The list of tools is first broken down by major headings pertaining to each of the two boats, which are further subdivided to lists of the actual tools used for each major part of each boat. The consequence of this is a lot of repetitive listings. For example, “block plane” appears nineteen times in the Lists of Tools appendix, distributed among the various sub lists. Similar multiple entries also appear in the other appendices. Typical books about building boats usually contain similar information, but are of a more general nature and apply to the project as a whole.

There are a few errors in the book; none of which are serious. In the definition of breasthook on page 10, ”... the sides of the hull come together at the stern...". Stern is an obvious error, and should be stem. With the particular font used, it is difficult to distinguish the letters rn from the single letter m, and the error wasn't picked up in the proof reading process. Another, on page 215, has the reader searching for a picture referred to in the caption under the sketch, and again on page 257 in the body of the text. The references to the pictures do not state where the picture can be found; rather they appear to be place holders referencing the author's file location of the actual pictures. I found one back on page 42; I couldn't find the other anywhere in the book.

Despite these few warts, the book is destined to become highly regarded in marine literature. It is substantially detailed, profusely illustrated, and well written by an author intimately in touch with her subject.

John Michne is an award-winning amateur builder and co-author, along with Michael Olivette, of Building an Adirondack Guideboat – Wood Strip Reproductions of the Virginia.

Strip building plans and forms for both boats are available from Newfound Woodworks, Bristol, NH.