Category Archives: West Coast Skiff

Finishing the backbone

In the last few month’s we’ve made loads of progress on the West Coast Skiff in GalGael. First we had to complete the backbone assembly. This is the central component of the boat and it’s pretty key that it’s well put together.

Traditional Boatbuilding Keel

Cat and Brian are happy about the backbone!

From our lofting we could pull the exact shape of not just the keel but the other parts that make up the backbone. In the picture above the stem, the front of the boat, is the dark piece on the left and the sternpost is the dark piece on the right. Both are made from Greenheart. The long straight section is the oak keel that we milled from the huge board. Joining the keel to the stem and sternpost at either end are the knees. These are both made from elm, the curving laminations follow the shape of the boat and ensure that they are sufficiently stong.


Cat and Brian drilling bolt holes for the stem.

Once we had all these pieces made we had to assemble them, they are held together with numerous 1/2 inch thick bronze bolts. Throughout this boat we’ll be using only bronze and copper fastenings, both these metals have different purposes but are strong and have the benefit of not rusting!

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While the keel was going together our dedicated teams of volunteers and participants were busy making the moulds. Each one of these is exactly patterned and shaped from the lofting to define the shape of the boat at a given position. Once the back bone was set up and ready the moulds stand on it at a given position, but first we have to set the keel up. And to do this we need a ceremony! About a traditional keel laying ceremony, next time!

On finding and milling a keel

As has probably become fairly obvious for regular followers of this project we’re going to be building two West Coast Skiffs in the GalGael workshop over the coming years. These bonnie boats are 20 feet long and traditionally built, meaning they are built of larch planks rivetted together to steam bent oak frames around a central backbone.

As we’re in the early stages of the build we are most worried about the keel at the moment. It’s surprisingly hard to find a keel for a boat this big, mainly because we have such stringent requirements. So we went looking for a bit of native oak, 17 feet long, at least 2 1/4″ thick and 5 1/2″ wide, it needed to be dead straight, and ideally air dried. We’d always rather buy native timber because it’s better for the environment, better for local industry and more traditional. Our first piece was too thin and had to be sent back. After calling just about every timber yard in Scotland we gave up on native and bought a beam of Greenheart (Chlorocardium Rodiei), this South American hardwood is a very strong and heavy, it can make a great keel. Unfortunately the piece we got was not straight enough and it too had to go back. Finally we went to McConnel Wood Products, a supplier of oak beams who sourced for us a truly massive board of French Oak.

Big Ol' Oak Board

Plank of oak on one of our boat trailers.

The board was 5.5 M long, over a meter wide and 65mm thick. Far too heavy to lift off the trailer without about six guys working! So first we had to reduce it in size, cue a circular saw and lots of dust.

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The photos don’t quite give an idea of the scale of the piece, but it’s pretty huge. With the piece small enough to move it was through to the machine shop to mill to size, first on the the table saw we cut it down to a manageable width. Then on the surfacer to flatten out the twist, and the thicknesser to get it to finish thickness.

Big Ol' Pieces

Cat and Brian milling the keel to thickness

And finally it’s straight edged, and back onto the table saw to finish it width accurately. Back to the lofting in the end we lie it down in place, with the part finished stem as well we are finally starting to get an idea of the size of the boat.


Keel and Stem in place on the loft floor

All that work for one piece of wood, luckily they are not all that big.