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Whitehall Bucket List Build

On April 5, 2018, in Builder Blogs, Human Powered, by mccollumj

Planning Stages:

One of my “bucket list” items has always been, “Build a wooden rowboat from scratch”.  However, you need many things to accomplish this task. Besides all of the tools necessary to cut and shape wood accurately you also need a place to do the work and above all, THE TIME TO DO IT!!

I saw a T shirt once that said, “I have a super power, I can turn wood into a boat!” Follow along with me as I go through building this Glen-L Whitehall and you too can have that super power.

My wife has been gifting me various tools over the many years we’ve been married so I’ve accumulated a nice garage full of hand tools and a few power tools as well.  The hand tools needed won’t cost an “arm and a leg” and I’ve collected many over the years from garage sales and swap meets including hammers, screwdrivers, sanding blocks, saws and a very useful hand tool for this project, a hand plane. To build a boat like this it is also necessary to have an inexpensive table saw (can be had for less than $200) for cutting the strips for planking and laminating plus another power tool that comes in handy is a jig saw for cutting the molds and various parts that, when assembled, turn a pile of lumber into a boat.

 A rowboat can be made without plans by people more skilled than I and it’s possible that I could have made one without professionally designed plans but I didn’t want to end up with a “Nailed It” boat so I purchased detailed plans for building a 17 foot Whitehall rowboat from a business called Glen-L Marine in California.  I used to pass their building in Southern California when I would drive down Rosecrans to visit customers in my former life as a regional manager for a tool & die distributor and always told myself that I would someday build one of their designs.
The plans arrived in the mail and I quickly spread them out on a table and was a little intimidated at first but then I saw that the plans also came with a short step by step guide.  As I read through the steps and found each corresponding drawing I quickly saw that if taken one part at a time, a novice woodworker could build a beautiful, functional boat that a family would enjoy many years.
Next step: Build the strong back, the structure on which the boat will be built.
Part 2: Building the Strong Back

This Whitehall will be built upside down by attaching strips of wood planking onto temporary forms. The forms must be mounted onto a strong back which is nothing more than a flat and level table that can support a few hundred pounds.

 I built the strong back with 1/2″ x 4′ x 8′ sheets of plywood, cut them and nailed them to a 2 x 2 frame and once I had a 16 foot long box I added some legs and casters so I could move it around to work on it. If you have the room it would be preferable to have it permanently set up so you could shim the legs perfectly level. I do not have the room but fortunately my garage floor is very flat so it wasn’t a problem for me to make it mobile!
As you can see above I’ve marked a straight centerline by snapping a chalk line lengthwise and then used a carpenter’s square to mark perpendicular lines spaced according to the plans.  Each perpendicular line represents a spot where one of the molds will be attached.

Here is another shot so you can see the entire structure. I have a level on top to check it out and I also temporarily set up an upright 2 x 6 that is the same height as the boat forms to make sure I can reach over easily.

 You might be wondering how I’m going to build a 17′ boat on a 16′ table? I don’t have room to work around a 17′  boat so I’m going to proportionately shorten the spacing of the molds so I’ll end up with a 16 foot Whitehall.  Hull speed in knots is calculated by taking the square root of the length of the waterline times 1.34 so I’ll be losing very little speed through the water.
As I’m writing this I’m pretty far along with the boat and I can tell you that this was one of the hardest parts of the job so once this is built you are on your way!
Part 3: Making the Molds

More plywood!  The plans come with full size drawings of all the molds for each station from stem to stern.  (The stem is the front and the stern is the back of the boat where something called a transom will be built and mounted later.)

Now, how do you transfer the drawing to a piece of plywood to cut the molds? Believe it or not you can still buy carbon paper at the big stationery stores so I purchased a package of 50 sheets for less than $5 and put those down on the plywood then with the drawing on top I carefully traced over the lines using a gel pen so it would glide smoothly.

When I lifted the drawing and carbons I had a perfect transfer to the wood and cut along the line with the little jigsaw above. I left a very small amount of wood over the line and then sanded back to it so I’d end up with a smooth surface.

After cutting and sanding each mold you will have one half of the complete mold station so you will need to flip it over and trace along your mold ( the half you just made) and repeat the process until you have both halves of each mold for all the stations.

Since the strip planking will eventually fit tightly to the molds it will be necessary to partially destroy them to get the boat free. This can be facilitated by butting together your two halves and attaching them to a smaller square of plywood with a few screws so you can pull each half out separately later.

In the picture above you will see that I have attached all of the molds to the strong back and I mocked up a strip of wood to get an idea of the shape of the boat.

At this stage it’s very important to make sure all of the molds are lined up square and plumb to the strong back to help make constructing the boat easier.

It was so much fun to see something already! This was on my third day.


Part 4: Laminating the Stem


The front of the boat has a laminated stem on the inside which will not only provide a very strong bow but also provides an attachment point for the strip planking.

The plans include a stem mold that butts up against the front station mold and has to be placed on the centerline previously marked on the strong back.  I drilled several holes in mine so I could use clamps to hold down the thin strips of wood to the form.

The stem is the continuation of the keel which will be about 3 1/2″ deep so how do you make a two by four piece of wood curve up from the keel?  You do this by using glue to laminate enough thin strips of wood until you have a stack about four inches high then you bend them around the form and clamp them in place until it sets up.

My stem was laminated using clear epoxy which was then wrapped in ordinary parchment paper.  Parchment paper is that stuff people use on a baking sheet to keep cookies from sticking to it and guess what?- Nothing sticks to parchment paper, not even epoxy glue!!

After the stem had cured I unwrapped it and attached it to the mold.

Here is a photo of the laminated strips of wood that were easily bent around the stem form but after curing could probably hold up the house!  It’s difficult to see traced lines but the stem needs to be made larger than the final finished part so the proper contours can be cut later.  The stem needs to be beveled so that the strips will have a good attachment point when they meet up with the stem.

We will mount the laminated stem to the stem mold tomorrow to continue the process of building the Whitehall.

Part 5: Transom Jigsaw Puzzle



On the last post we talked about the stem that is part of the bow of the Whitehall rowboat. Today we’re going to take a look at how the transom is built for the stern (back) of the boat.

You can see from the picture that the transom is made up of several parts and in two layers. The outside of the transom is what you see above and what you don’t see are the alternating layers that make up the inside.  The transom is made up of a double thickness of 3/4″ boards to end up with an overall thickness of 1 1/2″.  This is strong enough for a trolling motor to be attached.

The inside and outside layers overlap in a way that no joints line up to eliminate water ingress.

Here we have the transom mounted and it becomes the rear attachment point for the wood strips to come.  You can see that according to the plans the transom does not sit right on the strong back like the station molds because the strips will not go all the way to the strong back table top, only to that sheer plank you see clamped to the transom.

At the bottom of the transom (which is at the top of the picture) you will see that I made another laminated part called a “knee” that connects the transom solidly to the keel.

The finished knee is in the picture above and below you have the laminated strips being held in place on the knee form.  The knee form is also part of the plans and I made it from 3/4″ plywood to have a thicker surface for clamping

Here is another shot of the transom to keel connection and you can see how the knee helps keep everything lined up properly (it’s not a 90 degree angle but don’t worry, it’s also in the plans) and very nicely screwed and epoxied together.

If you look closely you can also see the layers of wood for the inside of the transom don’t match the outside which adds strength.



Keel and Floorboard Supports

The keel joins the laminated stem at the front and the transom at the back plus it ties into the floor supports.  The floorboard supports sit on the keel and follow the outline of the station molds so that as strips of wood are added they also glue to the supports to make a rigid structure that will hold the weight of people stepping on the floor of the boat.

You can see that the keel and floorboard supports are made of a different wood from the station molds because it’s better to use a type of wood that resists rot. Even if your boat will be coated in epoxy and fiberglass cloth, water will get in so rot resistant wood is an additional precaution.  I’m using western red cedar for this boat but there are other choices out there depending on the look you’d like to achieve.

The keel has a taper which is easy to cut along the length using the table saw’s ability to tilt the blade for long beveled cuts and with some sanding to remove the saw marks it wasn’t a big project to get ready.

Here is a look at the basic assembly of the front stem mated to the keel, floorboard supports and at the stern of course, the transom.

You’ll notice the laminated front stem has been notched so the keel has plenty of surface area for gluing and fastening with stainless bolts.  There is an additional notch at the outside front of the keel that will eventually be filled in by the outer stem. More on that later.

I’ve also added both the sheer and the risers. The sheers will eventually mark the top edge of the hull and they temporarily fasten to the transom at the back and attach to the stem at the front with a tapered edge to make kind of a point going forward.

The riser attaches at the transom in the back but ends before getting all the way to the stem.  After the hull is finished it will be turned over and the riser becomes the base for placing the seats otherwise known as the “thwarts”.  The seats do two things, one is they provide a place for the rowers to sit and secondly they “thwart” the sides of the boat from pushing in under pressure from the water!!

The stem has been mated to the keel and has bevels shaped into it to meet up nicely with the cedar strips when we start planking. On top of the keel I made some cedar strip “holders” to have a handy place to quickly get additional strips when the planking gets going.

We are ready to PLANK but we are missing something.  We need to make the STRIPS!!

Part 7: Making Strips

Making Your Own Strips!

First of all let me say, this was a LOT of work that took days to complete but I’m glad I did it. Commercially made strips are available from mills so if you want to skip this step just go and buy them but be prepared to get your wallet out!! It’s hard to believe that a few of those boards above will be a boat in a few months but that is the beauty of woodworking and it’s so much fun!

Thank goodness my recycling container was the exact height I needed for an extension table.  These big boards were 17′ long so it would have been awkward without something to take the weight as I pushed them through the saw.

BTW, even though most table saws use a 10″ blade I chose to switch over to a 7″ circular saw blade because they are only about 1/16″ wide vs nearly a tenth of an inch for the big blade. It might not seem like much but saving 1/32″ on every cut saves a lot of wood in the long run.

I cut my blanks for the strips a little under 1/2″ for thickness and about 5/8″ for width (.430″ x .620″ for my tool & die friends) and all 17 feet long.  They were a bit cumbersome to handle but my little rack I made kept them up and out of the way.

Another must have tool if you’re going to cut your own strips is a router and a router table. I received this as a Christmas gift a few years ago because my wife wanted me to make toys for the kids and now I’m finally getting around to using it for my big toy–the boat.

As you can see above I have a router blade that cuts both the bead and the cove into the blanks I previously made however, it doesn’t do both at the same time. I have to set it up for the bead and run all the boards then set it up for the cove and run them all again.

The bead and cove strips fit together pretty well and it allows for curving over the station molds as well.  The plans call for 1/2″ thick strips but I know that my boat will not need as much wood removed through planing and sanding because I’m being careful with the finish on the strips plus it will end up pretty smooth when it’s all planked.  My strips are about 1/16″ thinner than 1/2″.

Next step–get the molds ready for covering with glued strips.


Part 8: Preparing the Whitehall Form for Planking

Fairing a boat’s hull is what we do to make sure that the boat is as smooth as possible to minimize turbulence while moving through the water.  In order to make it easier to accomplish this after planking we need to make sure the form will not introduce any “bumps” to the hull as we bend the strips over it.

With all the station forms carefully aligned and the transom, keel and stem perfectly centered there will nonetheless, .. be places on the form that will cause the strips to go in directions that won’t produce a fair hull.

If you look closely at the form above I’ve already started tapering the the front stem so the cedar strips will converge to a point plus this is done to give a larger surface for the stem to strip connection.

The angle for this fairing of the form was found by taking a long batten (any bendable thin strip of wood) and temporarily clamping it in place along the forms to visualize what the natural smooth curve should look like.  If you see anything causing the batten to deviate from a nice curve then it must be ground away just enough to keep a smooth curve but not so low that the strip won’t stick to it during the gluing process.

Preparing the form in this way must be done carefully.  It took some time because I knew I would be using slightly thinner strips than the plans call for so I wouldn’t have a lot of room for error later.

BTW, you’ll also notice I’ve put packing tape along the edges of the station forms so the glue will not stick to them and it will be easier to separate the hull when it comes time to flip it over and start on the interior.  The little blocks you see glued to the forms are in case it becomes necessary to clamp onto something while applying the strips.

Once you’re satisfied that the form is in “ship shape” (literally) then it’s time to start planking!  If you thought it was fun already wait and see how much fun it will be to actually start seeing the boat take shape over the next few days.

One last important thing! Take a look at your form and its bracing to see if there are any screws you will not be able to unfasten after the form is covered with strips.  Every screw holding down the forms and thus the boat hull itself will need to be removed when it comes time to flip the boat over.


Part 9: Stripping Begins

The first strips begin at the keel and though it’s difficult to see, the keel has been beveled so the strips make a solid, flat contact and don’t just meet at a corner.  The first two strips against the keel only had the bead and not the cove so as to make a solid connection. I chose to have the bead down as I added strips so I could tap on the strip with a mallet if necessary without damaging the thin edges of the cove if I had oriented them the other way.

Although the plans call for starting at the keel I’ve seen others who have chosen to put several rows of straight strips along the shear and then worked their way up to that point from the keel. It’s up to individual taste but this being my first try at building a boat, I’m sticking to the Glen-L plans.

In this picture you’ll notice two things.  The strips are applied with no concern for them lining up with the end of the stem or the transom at the back. It’s much easier to just trim them all later and sand back to an aesthetically pleasing termination.  The other thing is the use of an adjustable wrench (crescent wrench) to twist the strips.

Look back at the first photo and see how the strips are nearly parallel with the floor in the middle of the boat and then at this photo where they’ve twisted nearly 90 degrees to attach to the stem.  Using the wrench turns this into an easy operation since you can easily twist the strips into place as you nail them together.

I only needed the wrench for the first rows and once I got about halfway down the sides the bend necessary to attach to the previous strip wasn’t so great and could be done by hand.

Each batch of strips was put on the boat by first applying a thin layer of glue all along the previously attached strip then I chose a new strip from the rack and centered it on the middle of the forms making sure that the strip would have sufficient length on each end to cover the stem and transom.  I would then attach the strip at the middle of the forms and work my way to the ends of the boat. Each strip has to be tight up against the previous one so a bit of tapping with a rubber mallet was sometimes necessary.


Part 10: Stripping the Hull…But, What Glue?


That brown stuff you see me brushing on the cedar strips is called plastic resin glue. In my research I found that many types of glues have been used to join the strips on these boats. However, since the fiberglass cloth with epoxy will be covering the whole thing it’s really only being used to hold the boat together until then.

At first I thought I would use epoxy for stripping but then I remembered how difficult it is to sand it off later.  If you have a spot of epoxy glue on a soft wood like cedar you will nearly always sand off a lot of the surrounding wood while you’re trying to smooth the epoxy causing a wavy appearance to the boat hull.

Some people have used those yellow wood glues to bond the strips together and there is the thought that it’s not a good idea because it’s not very compatible with epoxy adhesive but I don’t think it would be that much of a problem since once the hull is faired the glue joints are nearly gone.

I have even heard of a guy who used a hot glue gun to put his boat together but I decided to use the Weld brand Plastic Resin.

This glue is stronger than the wood it’s holding together, brushes on easily and dries in a few hours. Clean up is with water (before it dries) and once it’s dry it sands like wood and looks like wood too!

Plastic Resin Glue comes in a tub and is a dry powder with a consistency similar to powdered sugar. I used a plastic cup and added water to a small amount and it had a pot life of about thirty minutes which was enough time to add about 7-8 strips at a time.

I got pretty good at edge nailing the strips to the previous strip which hides the nail head between the strips. However, every once in a while I would miss the angle and a nail would end up protruding inside the boat which needed to be removed once the boat was flipped over.

As you can see the strips are stiff enough to hang out quite a ways but bend nicely to the form. The motion you use as you’re nailing is to bend it slightly to align it then push the strip flush up against the previous one, (giving it a tap if necessary) then finally nail up through to the edge.  Repeat!


Part 11: Stripping Nearly Done!

One of the most remarkable things about using cedar for my strips was the variation in colors from one single piece of lumber.  When I bought the big 17 foot cedar boards they were a uniform reddish brown color and I’ve seen boats online that looked as if they were stained because the color of the wood was so homogeneously boring.

Thankfully as I was cutting the strips I saw that many times the strips would not only be a different shade but sometimes even on the same strip!  As you can see above the strips run from nearly white to ebony with many shades in between including pinks.

At this stage I hadn’t started sanding yet so I wasn’t sure how much of that color was just on the surface and would last.  As you can see there are some black rubber spots where the planer I used stopped on the board for a second but those will all be sanded off in the coming days.

Here’s a picture of the stern so you can see how a 17 foot strip just made it to cover a 16 foot boat. This was the closest it got and as I proceeded down to the shear they were plenty long.

At the front I had to trim them as I went because they would otherwise cross the centerline and hit just beyond the stem.  I like how the Whitehalls have a nice plumb bow which gives the boat a maximum length at the water line for improved speed through the water.

Related Images:

Your Thoughts?

4 Responses to Whitehall Bucket List Build

  1. Pat Gresley says:

    Thanks for posting each step, I look forward to seeing it all completed.

    • mccollumj says:

      You’re welcome Pat! I plan on posting a new step each day until I’m caught up and then as I progress through this build. I’m working on the seats and bracing now.

  2. Dan Hennis says:

    Hey, Go for it bud! I look forward to every installment.

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