Idiot’s Guide to Cutting and Fitting Planks

I had promised a separate post on planking. What shipwrights do is an ancient and mysterious art – there is a lot of well-written information in old musty books, and even some online – about spiling planks. This author will not be adding to that collection of information.

But there was a time when every small river along the northwest coast and the inlets of Puget Sound were dotted with fishermen and coastwise traders who would build their own boats and then work them. Some would build a boat and fish it for decades, others would build a boat, use it for a year or two, sell it, and then build a bigger one or one designed for a different fishery. These men were not shipwrights who built and repaired boats for other people – they simply gained the knowledge they needed to provide for themselves. What I am learning is more in the spirit of that. I have observed shipwrights in action over the years, and tried to learn what I can to be able to repair my own boat – if for no other reason than I can’t afford to pay somebody else $100.00 per hour to do it.

So the first step is to remove the old plank. In the picture below the old guard planks were removed (dark wood area) and the plank immediately below has been removed:


“Removing” planks from an 86 year old vessel is not as easy as it seems. She had been put together with iron square nails originally, and over the years silica bronze screws, stainless steel screws, and even galvanized lag bolts had been used. Here are some from the guard removal – and none of them wanted to come out easily:


Next, we cut some strips of 1/4″ plywood that are slightly undersize of the plank dimensions. These will be used for our patterns.


The plywood strips are tack-nailed into place where the missing plank is. If the plank is longer than the plywood, then two plywood strips are screwed together. Often they will have to be offset because the plank is not actually straight – that’s also why a 6 inch plank takes a 10 or 12 inch piece of wood to carve it out.

Once the plywood is tacked into place where the plank will be, I place white stickers just touching the planks above and below. I use one sticker for every frame, or rib, where the plank will be fastened. Then you carefully remove the pattern.


Set your plank stock out for measurement. Remember we went to Port Townsend to find this wood, which is Norwegian Larch that has been air-dried for over 20 years. Here you can also see that two pieces of plywood have been joined to form the proper length pattern. I place the pattern upside down so the white stickers are laying directly on the planking stock.


Once the pattern is tacked down, use a black magic marker to made a mark across the end of the sticker. This should now give you a sharp line exactly where the edge of the existing planks above and below are.


Once all the marks are made, you can remove the pattern. Then lightly set a nail in all the marks:


Then use a thin but sturdy strip of wood as a spiling batten, which you can use to trace the curve of the plank from nail to nail onto your planking stock:


Now we have a line for the saw to cut.



Always cut to the outside of the line, then use a planer to finish shaving down the plank edges for a tight fit. After it’s cut your straight piece of planking stock becomes a curved plank that fits just right (in theory).


The edges of the planks should fit tightly together, with the outer facing edges beveled in a V-shape to accept cotton and seam compound. It’s hard to see but in this picture the rear half of the planks are seated firmly together, the outward-facing half of the joint is beveled.


If you are going to remove more than one plank, as in the picture above, you mark the framed with the old plank edge before you remove the second plank. This mark can then be used when you make your pattern. The planks are then fastened (I use #14×3 stainless steel fasteners above the waterline and silica bronze below) and bent into place using clamps. It often takes some patience to keep shaving off bits here and there to get a tight fit. Then repeat and repeat until the bad wood is replaced by good wood:





While there are still planks that need to be replaced, half of the battle is making a realistic refit plan and prioritizing projects. Most of the bad planks are gone, but it was not realistic to tackle all of them this year. Also whenever a plank is removed, the frames behind it should be inspected and another frame added if warranted.


In the end we have a much safer and much stronger vessel. The real shipwrights, Reino and Ted, very kindly inspected my work and offered encouragement and advice. I feel like the boat and I are carrying on the maritime tradition of captains who take care of their own boats, learning just enough to be dangerous…




Hauling Out


My friend Dan came with me for a short boat ride to the slings. On Tuesday morning, May 31st, we motored upriver and slipped into the lowered slings of the Toledo boat lift. They yard guys came down and measured the boat alongside the pier and looked at some old photos to determine where to place the slings. They then slowly lift the boat up until the bow is almost at the pier in front, so the crew can step off onto dry land. Then it’s up, up and away until the boat hangs over the pressure washing pad.


This was our first glimpse at the bottom, and it looked pretty good. As usual with old wooden boats in the northwest, they are better preserved underwater. The only planks that needed to be replaced were above the waterline.


While she was having her bottom pressure washed, Celeste and I made a speed run to the valley to pick up a decent ladder and scaffolding from Home Depot. The Toledo boat yard charges a daily rate to rent the ladder and scaffolding, which was new to me. So I figured we would pay for them in the first two years – and I can loan them out to friends so they don’t have to pay either.┬áThis pad next to the shipwright’s whop would be her home for the next 9 days. Here’s the boss inspecting the bottom:


I did find a couple of butt seams that got some new cotton while we were out:


Here’s some pictured of the some of the new wood we installed. I’ll go over how planks are cut and installed in another post, but the short of it is you expend a lot of energy removing the old planks and old fasteners, add new framed or ribs if possible, then pattern and cut new planks to replace them.

All told about 80 feel of new planks were added and 175 feet of seams were caulked.





It made for some very long days. Out of the water I usually worked until 8 or 9:00 at night. The heat during the day was horrible – for 5 days it went over 90 degrees during the day, so I would switch sides and hide from the sun. I did have some occasional helpers…


Eventually she got a new $1000.00 coat of bottom paint, and I spent half a day cleaning the propeller. The new zincs went on and she was ready to go back in to the water…After paying the yard bill, which was over $3800.00 for 9 days.




A quick splash, and then it was back to the service dock to keep an eye on the planks while she swelled back up. The planks had shrunk quite a bit in the 9 hot and dry days we were out. most wood boats were trying to haul out day one, paint & zinc day two, and go back in the water day three in this weather. The pumps had quite a workout the first night. The main float switch stopped working so I had to stay onboard and get up once an hour to pump her out.


After a pump replacement on Friday and the planks swelling up for 36 hours I could finally go home and relax. Saturday morning we took a quick boat ride down the river, making 7.3 knots at 600 rpm. Uncle Pat came along as engineer, and went around checking things and greasing the shaft. It felt good for the old girl to stretch her legs. This was her first real voyage in over a decade, 11 river miles to South Beach.



carlyle III first voyage

After an uneventful hour and a half, Pat and I tied up at the end of A dock in South Beach. There’s plenty of work left to do, but all the people who thought she would never leave Toledo were thankfully proved wrong. Thank you to my beautiful bride for being patient for the last three months as I’ve literally spent seven days a week either at work or at the boat in Toledo. It was all worth it though, as we will one day have a sturdy and beautiful family cruiser.