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2nd Oct 2017 by Rightboat

Buying and Caring for a Wooden Boat

For Under £5,000 you could travel back in time to a far simpler and less complicated time. An era without broadband, satellite TV and checking in on Facebook every hour. For £5,000 could buy you a little wooden boat complete with two cosy berths and a galley. Just let your mind relax and imagine it for a moment. The dry coarse creaking of the mooring rope as the wooden hull lifts and falls with the lapping tide, the scent of aged wood and varnish drifting and filling your senses with the aroma of lazy days gone by. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?

Of course, like most things in life, wooden, or classic boat ownership isn’t just about sailing on a millpond of nostalgic delight. There are a few storms fronts and sandbanks you’ll need to navigate along the way but don’t let that put you off.

Classic boat ownership trains the soul in a way that no modern craft can. Tolerance, decisiveness and coolness under fire are all honed and refined and help to change an enthusiastic amateur into a far more complete sailor. So, read on and expand your horizons.

Definition of a classic boat

Even if you know absolutely nothing about cars, you can always recognise a classic car. You may not know if it’s a Jaguar, MG or Morris Minor but there’s just something about it that tells you it’s a classic. Whether it’s the chromed grill or the patina of the paint finish, there’s just that certain something that screams classic at you. It’s the same with classic boats.

However, coming to an agreement over the precise definition is anything but simple. For example, an old working boat, or a boat of working type is not considered to be a “classic”, rather it is termed as being “traditional”. Not all wooden boats are classic and not all classics are wooden. In the same way that car designers frequently re-visit classic designs and re-vamp them for a new generation such as Volkswagen did with the eponymous Beetle, as do boat designers.

As interest in classic boats has grown exponentially over the last decade, modern boat design has harked back to craft being built in more traditional styles, much to the chagrin of the purists.

In 2005, Classic Boat magazine surveyed their readership as to what was their all-time classic of classics. The results revealed the subjectivity of the question with the answers ranging from canoes and sailing yachts to steamers and fishing craft, from tug boats to warships, the range was all encompassing but with no precise consensus as to the meaning of the term “classic boat”. Probably the easiest way to approach the actual definition is to view it subjectively and with an open mind. Just rely on your gut feeling as you would with a classic car. Even if you don’t know why, you just know it’s a classic.

Reasons to buy a classic boat

Firstly, classic boat ownership really can represent value for money. Unlike classic cars, classic boats can be some of the most undervalued vehicles on the planet. £20,000 could buy you a 30ft yacht, hand-made by a master craftsman, far below the starting price of the modern equivalent. There’s also a more tactile approach to classic boat sailing which can really develops sailing skills in a way no contemporary boat will. The absence of modernity delivers a more “seat of the pants” sailing practice in the same manner that a 747 pilot would experience flying a Sopwith Camel biplane. And finally, the warm welcome and looks of envy received whenever mooring at a marina chocked full of anonymous white craft are impossible to put a price on.

Classic boat ownership is truly one of the few recreations that appeals at every level. The wide range of affordable boats available are within the budget of most sailors, starting at around £1,000 for a modest little clinker dinghy to £80,000+ for a cruising yacht. There really is something for everyone in the classic boat world.

Choosing your first classic boat

As previously discussed, the range of boats available is vast. As little as £500 could launch you into Swallows and Amazons fashion with an open wooden dinghy whilst if your pockets are somewhat deeper, £40 million could secure you a three-masted schooner! Ideally, a small 25ft cruising yacht would make a fine introduction into the world of classic boats. The main thing to do is to bear in mind exactly where, and with who, you want to sail and make your choice of boat appropriately. Ask yourself the following:

  • - River or sea
  • - Sail or engine
  • - Day sailing or river cruising
  • - Solo or with friends or family
  • - Budget
  • - Renovated or in need of restoration work


Taking these factors into account, as well as the standard considerations you would apply to any boat purchase, such as upkeep or mooring fees, will help you decide upon which type of craft is the one for you.

For some, sailing is a solitary affair, for others, it’s a more social recreation. For classic boat owners, there are a plethora of regattas and events in the UK and all over the world. From the annual Yarmouth Old Gaffers Regatta on the Isle of Wight to the glamour of the Mediterranean racing circuit, the social mix is staggering. Rather than being competitive, many of these events are just a diverse range of sailors united by their love of classic wooden boats.

Types of classic boats

Axe One Design

12ft clinker dinghy kept at a sailing club - £1,000-£5,000/ £200 per annum upkeep Large enough for two adults and one child Usually, open but can be made covered with a “tent over the boom” method

Day Boat

15ft daysailor kept on a trailer at home - £1,000-£10,000/ £200 per annum upkeep Large enough for four adults or a family Usually a canopy with sleep under on the side-benches. Some have small “cuddy” cabins for sleeping or storage

Weekend Yacht

19ft-22ft. £2,000-£30,000/ £500+ per annum upkeep Fixed keel of iron or lead and either inboard or outboard engines

Cruising Yacht

25ft-30ft. £4,000-£80,000/ £3,000-£5,000 per annum kept at a marina Typically sleeps four or more. Galley, heads, sometimes heating and hot and cold water. Ocean-going with a full range of navigation equipment, GPS and echo sounder, etc.

A few words of advice from the experts

Classic Boat magazine asked a few experts their advice on classic wooden boats and here’s what they had to say;

Gillian Nahum, Hambleden sales and charter

“Buy a boat that’s already in good condition. Keeping on top of the maintenance of a boat that’s sound is not such a big problem.”

Adrian Espin, Eastern yachts

“Go for something less than 25ft (7.6m). A 40-footer would be crackers. I advise buyers against it. There’s no point in a wooden classic unless you enjoy looking after wood, but if you do, and you know you’re handy, I wouldn’t say no to starting with a restoration. Just make sure you’re somewhere there are plenty of other people doing similar jobs. Read Classic Boat! And read some of the many good books out there.”

David Morris, Woodrolfe brokerage

“My advice would be to start off with a GRP classic that has wooden spars. If you find you enjoy looking after the wood, varnishing it etc, then move onto wood. And keep it small. Small boats, like 20-footers, are so much fun you may never trade up.”

Where to keep your classic boat

Costings based on a 25ft classic yacht:

£2,000-£5,000 depending on location for a marina berth. Secure, staffed with shore power and water usually available. The most expensive option.

£500-£1,000 Drying, or mud berth. Boat either floats or rests in the mud dependent on tide.

£200 apx. Swinging mooring. Moored to a stout buoy anchored to the sea-bed. To access your boat, you’ll need a dinghy or water-taxi service.

Free Keep it at home on a trailer. Freedom to sail wherever you can drive.

Wooden boat care

There are basically three options for care and maintenance:

  • - Dry dock your boat every winter and have a shipwright or boatyard maintain it
  • - DIY
  • - A combination of the two above approaches. Tackle the more basic stuff yourself whilst leaving the more complex jobs for a professional boatyard or shipwright


For those considering the second or third options, below are details of some of the basic care and maintenance tasks which could be undertaken by any capable enthusiastic amateur DIYer.

Varnishing a wooden boat

Correct surface preparation is the key to a satisfactory varnishing job.

  • - Remove the old varnish using a paint stripper or a heat gun. Sanding, as well as being labour intensive, can also result in removing some of the wood unnecessarily.
  • - Any stains can be removed by using oxalic acid or household bleach. However, ensure you neutralise after treating as failure to do so will result in poor varnish adhesion.
  • - Use a hoover to remove any dust.


Applying the varnish

  • - Plan the area you are varnishing. A square foot at a time is a manageable method. Use a reflected light source or wear polarised glasses to see where you have varnished and where you haven’t reached yet.
  • - Thin the first coat by half. A thinner coat will cure far faster and make it easier to sand sooner.
  • - The following day use 180-240-grit sandpaper and sand carefully taking care not to cut into the varnish.
  • - The most important factor in the subsequent coats is achieving a glass finish. Ensure your varnish flows by thinning it to avoid tearing or dragging. Don’t worry if it’s too thin, just make the next coat slightly thicker. The further down the can of varnish you get, the more you’ll have to thin as some of the solvents within the varnish will have evaporated. Try and deliver an even brushstroke by simply gliding across the surface rather than digging in with the bristles. Work fast and avoid going back over previous brushstrokes.


Levelling off

  • - Give the varnish time to dry to let any brushstrokes “level off”.
  • - Don’t varnish on a hot sunny day. The varnish will dry too quickly and won’t level off satisfactorily. Ideally, varnish on a cooler overcast day with little or no wind.
  • - Aim to apply one coat per day. This allows plenty of time for the varnish to cure and level off.


Mirror finish

  • - Once you’ve put eight or nine coats on you’re ready to achieve a mirror finish.
  • - Wait two or three days for the varnish to harden.
  • - Flatten with 320 wet & dry paper in a sanding block. Lubricate well with soapy water.
  • - Wash dust off and tag rag. A simple tag rag can be made by using an old t-shirt dipped in white spirit with a few drops of varnish dropped onto it and then wrung out.
  • - Thin the varnish as much as you can to make a “wiping varnish”. The varnish will level better and dry faster.
  • - Quickly apply the final coat of wiping varnish and leave it alone. Do not be tempted to go back over an area.
  • - By the next day you should have achieved a mirror finish.

Wood rot

Most forms of wood rot encountered by the sailor are caused by fungus although it’s often erroneously misnamed dry rot. The fungus needs three things in order to survive; moisture, oxygen and a warm environment. Bare wood absorbs moisture which then in turn attracts the fungus. Another major factor in eliminating rot is good ventilation. Adequate air-circulation prevents dampness, hence why open boats are less susceptible to damp than closed cabin boats. However, all boats are at risk of rot especially when they are not in use.

The type of wood used in the construction is also a factor- softer and faster growing woods attract more rot than older growths. There are many products on the market that treat rot effectively.


Chances are your boat will spend as much time, if not more, in storage than in use. This is a vital factor in the care of any boat, but of particular importance for a wooden craft. Take careful note of the following factors in good storage;

  • - Wooden craft left afloat at sea suffer less rot than those in fresh water.
  • - If you keep your boat on the beach or in a yard, then ensure they’re raised off the ground by at least a few inches.
  • - Don’t leave your boat over long wet grass or under leaf shedding trees.
  • - Don’t leave your boat near any old wooden structure that may be harbouring rot-hungry spores.
  • - Open the drain plug to allow any bilge to drain.
  • - Raise one end higher than the other to help rain water clear.
  • - If kept indoors, ensure the wood isn’t allowed to dry out too much.
  • - Check periodically and let some airflow circulate through the interior.
  • - Check your varnish and paint and treat accordingly.


A good quality canvas cover can effectively protect your boat from rain, sun, leaves, twigs and even bird dropping. Covers should be used in a way that allows air to circulate and let any moisture escape. Leave the ends open. Keep any cover clear of the wood by using a simple framework. Covers made from a breathable canvas material are the best type to use but avoid darker colours which may absorb heat in a hotter climate, drying out the wood excessively. Always check your cover for wear and tear and repair or replace if necessary. Use grommets and lines to hold the cover in place but ensure they are anchored to the ground and not the boat itself.

Keep on top of any repairs

Make a habit of routinely checking your boat for any wear and tear. Touch up any damaged varnish and treat any areas of rot before they spread. Pay particular attention to areas of wear such as the coamings where fenders or mooring lines may have rubbed. Check your mooring lines for wear and replace if necessary. If you have any chaffing caused by being dragged up a beach then fix some metal rubbing strips to the bottom of the keel.

Lighter coloured boats reflect the sun which helps to extend the life of any protective paints. Darker colours may result in shortening the life of the paint and even any caulking. The deck of your boat has a hard life so pay attention to its care and maintenance. Repair or replace any cracked deck boards to avoid rot from trapped water, especially with plywood decks. If unchecked it will spread by capillary action and could affect larger and less accessible areas of timber.

Don’t forget items such as spars and oars. Store them out of the sun and touch up any areas of wear. Grease any oar leathers to help prolong their life and make rowing far easier. Any boat kept on the water should have its anti-fouling paint renewed annually to deter borers and marine growth. Check any running and rigging. Also, check any blocks for signs of stress especially on boats with large sail areas.

The more time you spend on caring for your boat when you’re not using it, the less time you will lose to breakages and breakdowns when you are using it. In short, look after your boat and it’ll look after you!

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