Here is one of those cases where a blogger inevitably gets some chunk of his readership annoyed as he openly stews over potentially touchy subjects. The issue of plywood is on my mind, though, and I need to ask for some thoughts from you all. The question, as stated in the title, is: does plywood belong in a “traditional” boat?
Allow me to elaborate. As many readers will know, I have a skin-on-frame outrigger canoe that I designed and built. I like to think of it as being traditionally built, even though it is a deliberate fusion of traditions. It has steam-bent ribs and is almost completely lashed together. There are, of course, non-traditional elements, from the screws holding on the rub-rail to the two laminated frames to the glued scarf longitudinals to the non-animal-hide skin and lashings. Such bendings to modern convenience seems to pass muster – at least they do for me – since the retain the spirit of the tradition and acknowledge that walrus hide outside of the Arctic is not going to work, period. Even the glued up elements could have come like that, but I have no access to natural crooks and the like in suburban Washington, DC. That’s my story, anyway.
I am now contemplating another skin-on-frame boat, and likewise want it to be “traditional.” As with my prior one, it will meld some traditions and thus needs a little more framing, in this case, a couple stout frames and some deck beams. Now I could accomplish this through steaming, but it would be easier to do it with lamination, or, and here we go, by using a couple of layers of plywood cut to fit. If I went this route of cutting frames and deck beams of plywood and using these alongside the steam-bent ribs and lashing, have I sucked the “tradition” out of the boat? Has this nod to convenience irreparably cast the boat into the “traditional design with modern materials” camp?
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with “traditional design with modern materials” boats, and many are wonderful and lovely. I wholly respect and like glued lapstrake, strip-built, stitch-and-glue, and the like as methods and am not in any way suggesting any inferiority here. My question really comes to retaining a certain aesthetic, and maybe one that is my own.
This question all gets into slippery slope territory, I know. I think it is generally accepted that glued lapstrake boats, which typically have a traditional looking design, are fairly squarely not traditionally constructed. And, on the other wise, the modern skin-on-frame materials are still considered traditional, even though there was no nylon in 14th century Alaska. So where is the line, and can some amount of plywood for structural pieces possibly be on the right side of it? If the plywood goes too far, does lamination not? If lamination does cross the “traditional” line, does gluing a scarf stay on the right side?
I am interested in your honest opinions, and I hope you add good comments below. Of course, what I really want is you to collectively say it is OK if I use some plywood for some structural pieces and that you won’t call me a cheater and say I am a fair-weather traditional boat guy. Because I care about my cred’, darn it!
New York City readers, do set a course for Tom & Jerry’s, at 288 Elizabeth St., on Tuesday, 2/3, from 6-8PM. There you will find a show of lovely boat sketches by our frequent contributor Klaus Schmitt. Meet the man, so his great work, and have some drinks. What could be better? It’s in Greenwich …