How to Build Wooden Boats for a Living

This classic wooden buyboat has been well maintained.
This classic wooden buyboat has been well maintained. (Image: old wooden oyster boat with yellow trim image by Jorge Moro from

Wooden boats have long been an important part of U.S. maritime history. According to the Penobscot Marine Museum, New England fishermen built their own boats to ply local waters for fish and seafood. Construction of bigger ships meant increased opportunities for local shipwrights as well as building small boats to act as tenders for ships at anchor. In addition, owners with large discretionary incomes commissioned luxury wooden motor yachts and sailing yachts. From the 1970s onward, renewed interest in wooden boats has combined with new construction techniques to create new opportunities for wooden boat builders.

Things You'll Need

  • Business license
  • Other local permits (if applicable)
  • Building permit(s)
  • Metal building order details
  • Ad rates and copy for help-wanted ads
  • Wooden Boat School course schedule
  • List of needed fixtures and equipment
  • List of consumable boat building supplies
  • Boat construction drawings
  • Commemorative cake
  • Champagne
  • List of upcoming wooden boat shows
  • List of upcoming wooden boat festivals

Organize your boat-building business. Meet with a certified public accountant with expertise in the marine industry. Consult with a commercial insurance agent with similar background, as well as strong liability and risk management expertise. Visit your city or county clerk’s office for a business license. While you’re there, inquire about other permits your wooden boatbuilding business will need.

Select your wooden boat market niche. Many types of wooden boats travel United States waters. These include small crabbing skiffs, fishing boats with small overnight cabins and boats with living quarters for short cruises. At the other end of the spectrum, elegant wooden motor yachts and upscale lake launches garner admiration for their classic lines and superior craftsmanship.

Examine your area’s wooden boat market, along with the larger boating market, for clues about potential demand for your wooden vessels. For example, let’s say that local fishermen prefer a certain type of wooden fishing boat. The area’s existing boatbuilder can’t build the boats fast enough for the demand. In that case, there may be room for a second manufacturer.

Select a convenient location. Choose a boatbuilding site accessible from major highways and with sufficient parking and turnaround room for trucks and trailers. If you will build larger wooden vessels, choose a site in or close to a deep-water marina. This proximity to the waterfront will allow you to use the marina’s lift to launch your wooden boats.

Before you finalize your location, consult with your local zoning department to ensure that your operation will be in compliance with local regulations. In addition, visit your local building inspector to determine what building permits are required for your facility.

For the construction facility, investigate a metal building that will accommodate at least two boat hulls at once. Make sure you allow for materials storage and equipment space along with sufficient room for safe operation of the machinery (see Resources).

Hire wooden boat professionals. First, recruit a general manager experienced with wooden boat construction schedules and personnel management. Work with your manager to fill your boat construction positions.

To build quality wooden boats, you’ll need marine professionals such as engine mechanics and marine electricians. In addition, you’ll require accomplished wooden boat craftsmen. To attract both groups of professionals, place help-wanted ads in two related media: a magazine geared toward wooden boat lovers and a magazine tailored for boat building professionals (see Resources).

Once you’ve assembled a well-rounded staff, plan to improve your staff’s expertise through courses sponsored by The Wooden Boat School. This well-established institution, located in Brooklin, Maine, offers specialized wooden boat construction and repair courses (See Resources).

Work with your general manager to order boat construction equipment. For example, you’ll need table saws, planers, and band saws to cut and trim the raw wood. Your facility will also require sawdust collection equipment and varnishing work tables. You’ll also need an engine hoist to install the engine into the finished vessel. Order quality equipment that will withstand rigorous use.

Obtain wooden boat customer commitments. If you’re building a popular type of wooden boat, visit with local fishermen or other users of those vessels. Emphasize the readiness of your production facility to begin construction on a captain’s vessel.

To reach a larger audience, contact a local maritime museum. Determine the dates of its next wooden boat show and arrange to exhibit a vessel on land or in the water (see Resources).

Order consumable boat-building materials. Assemble a list of construction supplies such as nails, varnish and bulkhead hardware. Depending on the vessel you’re building, order interior components such as toilets and galley fixtures. Ask your general manager to maintain an adequate inventory control system for all supplies.

Begin your wooden boat production process. Assemble your supplies, equipment and boat construction drawings. Cut and lay the boat’s keel, and fasten the planks that will make up the vessel’s hull. Continue the construction process with an attention to detail and a commitment to a quality finished product. Ask the general manager to oversee the construction in order to ensure adherence to production schedules.

Launch your finished wooden boat. Celebrate the completion of your first vessel with an employee party and a commemorative cake. If you’ve built a smaller wooden vessel, assist the owner as he prepares to transport the vessel by trailer. Offer to christen his boat with a traditional bottle of champagne.

For a larger vessel, transport the boat via lift to the water. Launch the vessel with much fanfare and champagne. Once the hull settles in the water, leave the boat in the slings until the seams swell enough to stop water leakage. Ensure that all through-hulls are functioning and there are no leaks from the engine compartment.

Continue to market your wooden boats. Keep the production line flowing with additional vessel orders. To attract new customers, advertise in a wooden boat magazine. Exhibit your company’s services at a national wooden boat show (see Resources).

Take a finished vessel to the show by trailer. If that’s not feasible, run a well-produced video showing the construction process for a larger vessel. Look for regional wooden boat festivals as well. These events are often sponsored by local maritime museums.

Tips & Warnings

  • Focus on safe operation of your facility at all times. Ensure that employees use protective gear when appropriate and that equipment safeguards are always in place. Always err on the side of safety.

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