Lofting a Wooden Boat

Attending a Wooden Boat Building Program, I started chronicling my time spent in the 8 month course. The Introductory article was published by both the school – The Landing School of Boatbuilding and Design, but also by The Village, a regional monthly publication out of Kennebunk, Maine. The Village has agreed to publish my articles as a monthly series.

The second article, on Lofting a boat can be found at The Village website here and also below:

Taking lines and numbers on a piece of paper and turning it into a wooden boat is a process that has many steps. Many (including myself) would think a builder looks at a plan and then starts building a boat. However, the geometry of a boat can be tricky to translate from paper to life size. This is where lofting comes in. Lofting is a time-honored technique of transferring the plans for a boat on paper into a life size drawing, either on the floor or a levelled table. This allows the builder to not only see the components of the boat as they will be, but the builder may also transfer the lines accurately to create molds or pieces of the boat, as well as use the lofting to calculate different angles within the boat that a small drawing could not produce.

               Lofting is so called because builders of large vessels would have a loft with the drawing on to oversee the boat. Naturally, the Landing School teaches this technique, and our instructors placed a lot of emphasis on being as accurate as possible at this stage. I’m talking “Oh man I’m 1/32 of an inch off, I have to redraw it” accurate. The better your lofting, the easier things are down the road. Sometimes the lofting will even expose errors in the drawing that you’re grateful to notice before you start cutting wood.

               Our class began by building and leveling two 20’ x 4’ tables topped with melamine and painted white. We situated the tables so that once the boats were built alongside them, we could stand on one end and see the lofting and boat simultaneously.   During the process we were shown how to level a table with a laser level, stick, and shims. Like many things in boatbuilding, we had to get creative and come up with solutions in real time to how to get the desired result.

               Once the tables were set, levelled, and topped with white, we were ready to mark it up. Of course not after many lectures and assigned reading. The way the wooden boat program is taught is like an enhanced apprenticeship. Our day mirrors a boat shop, teaching us time management and working to meet deadlines, but in a way that helps a group on inexperienced builders. This hands on work is balanced with reading and lecture. Of all the components in class, lofting was the most lecture heavy and for good reason. To loft well you need to slow down and really understand the plans you’re looking at. Our class was given practice assignments and the actual lofting of our Town class sailboat was taken step by step.

               Each day, after a morning lecture covering the next step, we would walk over to our tables with rulers, pencils that were endlessly sharpened, and long wooden battens to draw the big sweeping curves of our boat. We learned how to use ice picks stabbed into the table to hold the long batten in place as we slowly drew and re drew the long lines of planks. Having the drawing life size, we were able to step back or onto chairs and see where lines didn’t work or where we miscalculated. The math involved in lofting is no harder than most math used in woodwork, however, if you’re like me, your brain will hurt by the end of each day over how painstakingly slow you must consider each and every step. During the lofting process, I left each day so mentally exhausted I felt like I’d run a marathon. However, the benefits of an accurate lofting paid off and have been paying off through many steps of the build. We have returned to the loft over everything from checking the spacing between planks to understanding the placement of the centerboard truck. Putting in the work up front with the lofting definitely pays off through out the build.

               Could you build a boat without lofting? Yes, there are more modern computer-generated methods. But, if you’re going to be a boat builder, understanding and continually practicing lofting will be invaluable to you whether you’re working on a 70 foot schooner or a 10 foot rowboat in your garage.

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