On the Mark: Boatbuilding Tools - Part 1


When buying tools you may want to look for tool reviews. Fine Woodworking and American Woodworker reviews and comparisons are, in general, by far the best. I also strongly recommend picking up this month's copy of Fine Woodworking, which has a number of excellent hand tool articles.

Edge Tools

A set of 4 bench Chisels (1/4-1" wide) Marples Blue Chip are a good reasonable priced set. My own set is a bunch of mismatched name brand (Marples, Freud) and no name (Cheap Indian Imports) and rummage sale /antique store purchases. The no-name chisels have highly variable quality and took a LONG time to flatten the backs.

One of my absolute favorites is a heavy 2" wide slick (for timber framing or ship building) that I bought at an out of the way antique store ($20, broken handle). I use it a lot, but it would be very hard to justify the cost of a new one(~$100-150). If you can find an old one get it. Think of it as a plane without a body.


Block Plane
A small block plane is used constantly for fitting, trimming, spiling, rounding over corners, cleaning off epoxy squeeze out, etc. Prices vary widely ($10 to $150). You can get a very serviceable tool for less than $20. This is also a tool where it is nice to have several. I also have a more expensive Record Low angle adjustable mouth ($70) which I am not happy with. Price is not the guide, look for a good locking mechanism, and a blade that stays in place and does not move sideways in the mouth during a cut. The cheaper planes will have a wider mouth, which is a disadvantage for tear-out when planing wood, but is an advantage when cleaning up epoxy squeeze out.

Bench Plane
Planes have an arcane numbering system. Look for a #4 to #5 plane. You may find it called a bench, jack, or smoothing plane. Yes there is a proper order to the naming, but I find it more misused than to be worthwhile. I have a Record #04 1/2 which is excellent.

Jointer Plane
This one is not needed unless you are fairing a complex frame with a lot of battens. Then it is a huge help. Place the tail on a batten adjacent to the one you want to fair and you will quickly get the correct shape (many times as fast as a sanding board). Unfortunately, these are generally expensive $75-125 whether new or used. I did get cheap Indian made knockoff of a large Stanley. It works (barely, chip breaker and cap iron is awful and clogs up with shavings ).

Wooden Planes
There are great buys to be had in used wooden planes. They can be used for many tasks, but if you try to do a lot of frame fairing with them, the wedges wiggle loose. Shop the small antique dealers and rummage sales. Avoid a cracked body and make sure the blade, cap iron, wedge and body all belong together (they often play mix and match to get something that looks like a plane but does not work like a plane). The glide of a good sharp wooden plane is almost hypnotic.

Edge tools fresh out of the box are generally useless. You need to tune them and then repeatedly sharpen them during use. There are as many methods / systems of sharpening as there are guys with sharp tools (and even some for those that never get sharp tools). There have been hundreds or thousands of articles written on the topic. A couple of my favorites are: The Scary Sharp System: http://www.shavings.net/SCARY.HTM#original and Hock Tools sharpening tips: http://www.hocktools.com/sharpen.htm. Scary Sharp is THE way to flatten a plane iron, chisel back or plane body.

My personal preference for a simple system is a bench grinder (I have a cheap 6"), 1200 grit water stone, sewn cotton buffing wheel (for the drill press or grinder) with DICO emery and white rouge (optional) compounds. I started with oil stones, but was won over to the water stone due to faster cutting and less mess (no oil smell on my hands either). Each tool takes only a few minutes to get a razor sharp mirror finish after the initial tune up and flattening when new.


The hand saw of choice is the Stanley Short Cut. This is a "tool box" size saw that does an excellent job of most cuts and has Japanese saw style teeth. This means that the teeth have almost no set, but a very aggressive cutting pattern. The short blade allows cutting in between frame pieces, and where there is not much space. The lack of tooth set is very useful when trimming angle cuts, as you can lay the saw against the fixed piece and trim the end without scratching (at least not significantly) the fixed piece. You may want to also consider a Japanese style saw, but I never caught on to cutting on the pull stroke. I also have other more expensive hand saws but the Short Cut is what I now reach for. The funny thing is I originally bought it for my son, when he was ~6 as one of his first tools. It was too aggressive and hard for him to push, but now is a favorite. It is also very easy to sharpen, purchase a very slim triangular file.

Sabre saw
You will need to cut curves and this is the most practical way. Get a "Bosch Type" with the quick change blades. This blade style is much more rugged than the old "hole in the top" style. Get one with orbital action, it provides a much cleaner cut, and a clear foot insert will provide a virtually tear out free cut on plywood. Look at Bosch, Milwaukee brand tools.

Band Saw
I strongly prefer a band saw for most curved cuts of frame members. Use a 1/2" skip tooth blade (4TPI). While a band saw is not absolutely necessary I find it produces a cleaner cut that is smoother (more fair) than I can achieve with a sabre saw, and has much less tear out. I think this is due to the blade only traveling in 1 direction, and less overall vibration.

Circular saw
This is one I did not use much at all. Go for a better sabre saw, table saw or band saw first. Granted it will see a lot of use for homebuilding, but for the boat, very little which surprised me (I had even bought a new one for the boat).


12 Volt rechargeable drill. Most come now with 2 battery packs, a 3/8" keyless chuck. My preference is Porter Cable, Milwaukee or Panasonic. My Porter Cable 8500 is now nearly 10 years old and has lasted through many projects and abuse (3 falls off of a stepladder included). 2 of the 3 battery packs bought for it are still going strong (3rd was a replacement).

12 Volt provides a good tradeoff of size versus run time. Higher voltage leads to a larger and heavier drill. The size and weight really get to be a problem. I rarely have to resort to a standard (corded) electric drill.

For those large holes for propeller shafts, exhaust ports, etc. borrow (or rent) a 1/2" drill. The size and weight penalty is too great to have this be your only drill. Better yet is being able to borrow the hole saws and big boring bits with it (they get expensive).

See my previous article in Webletter # 26 or my web site.


You will need lots of these. The best buy are the Jorgensen F Clamps. Next are the Bessey Bar clamps. Beware of the knock-offs as some are good, but many will slip under pressure or bow excessively. A few Quick Grips are also very useful since you can put one on with one hand, but do not provide a lot of pressure. There is little use for pipe clamps, Bessey K Body , Jorgensen I beam, or other large clamps. Borrow them when you need them . If you look at my web site, you will see numerous shots of clamps lined up on the frame. For many years I asked for clamps as presents, to the point where my sister complained that she was bored getting them for me after several years. You can never have too many.

An often overlooked problem is that a lot of clamps are often needed and that you are often working on a curved position and the clamping surfaces are not parallel. Large clamps are harder to position, parallel jaws won't work, large clamps interfere with each other and the weight of the clamp may twist and distort your pieces.

Be sure to wax the bars and screws and put pads or multiple layers of duct tape on the jaws. Epoxy will gum up everything otherwise, and then will selectively stick more to the clamps that you have borrowed than your own.

Work Mate

A Stanley Workmate is my favorite portable workbench. You can easily move it around, clamp you work in it (or a tool). Mine is almost 20 years old and is still used for almost every project, even though I have fixed workbenches and other work surfaces.

Try use your other projects to justify as many of the tool purchases as possible, as you will still end up buying some new tools just because of the boat. Remember, "Every project requires a tool", and after a few years of training my wife now believes it and it is part of the up front "negotiation" for each household project.

Measuring tools, Tool versus material trade-offs, also known as how do I get my significant other to let me buy (i.e. justify). Next Month.

We are very pleased to have Mark sharing his expertise with his fellow boat builders. If you would like to comment on this article to Mark, he can be reached at "builders at bronkalla.com". Replace the at with @. (Just trying to dodge a few spammers). See Mark's great web site for information on his Riviera project.