Sandy's Treatise on Driftboat Building for an Angler

The following started off as an email conversation between Roger Fletcher and me. Roger suggested turning it into a web page....and that seemed like a good idea. So here it is:

I started off building framed boats in 1979. My first boat was built from plans I bought from an ad in the back of Field and Stream, from a guy in Fernwood Washington. My buddy's all called that boat

Sandy's Lead Sled. It was so flat bottomed you couldn't keep the transom out of the water, so it was impossible to slow down. The next few boats I built were inspired by Keith Steele's great boats. The handling and performance of my boats got better over time, but I was dissappointed when I saw what happened to fir plywood that had paint or varnish on it. I didn't know about oiling mahogany plywood then. I read something about " Instant Boats " by Dynamite Payson and a light went on. "I can build driftboats that way" I said to myself.

I made a boat with temporary and removable ribs. I duct taped small pieces of visqueen to the temporary rib-chine corners, so they wouldn't stick to the glue. And I eliminated the inside chine strip.

Then I turned the boat over (still with no bottom on it). I straighted up the form (sides attached to temporary ribs) and layed the square bottom panel over top, traced out the sides and then cut it out, and then attached it. I used bailing wire and epoxy putty to stitch the sides to the bottom panel. I removed the bailing wire with a soldering iron (to heat the wire, so it pulled from the glue).

Then I removed the temporary ribs and fiberglassed the inside. I added gunwales and seats and voila: I had a lighter boat. There were no ribs. It was "encased" in fiberglass, so the fir plywood didn't split and crack. The fiberglass was a thin, transparent layer so it still looked like a wooden boat. The term stitch-and-glue wasn't happening then, so I called them 'ribless boats.'

This technique can be applied to any framed dory. You can start with plans for a framed dory and apply those techniques instead. Take your pick. It's a construction technique decision. There is no framed boat that cannot be built as stitch and glue. The layout and sizing dimensions for the permanent ribs of a framed boat simply become temporary formers on a stitch and glue setup.

In 1986 I was feeling frustrated by the sizing constraints of 4x8 plywood. I read about balsa core sandwich layups for racing sailboats. Balsa could be pieced together to form any size panel. So I made a balsa-core boat (the Honky Dory) that had a 56" bottom. Balsa turned out to be a good-news bad-news idea. Balsa core does build a very light weight boat, but you do have to fix fiberglass cuts almost right away, because balsa core does soak up water and fiberglass does get nicked. So balsa core turned out to be less than perfect, but wide bottomed boats turned out to be a revelation. Wide bottomed boats float in shallower water and they are a lot more stable.

Then it dawned on me that 48" plywood wasn't a design constraint after all. If you can scarf plywood to make it longer you can scarf it to make it wider. Epoxy is handy, but the old resorcinol glues they used in the 1950s can be used for scarfing too.

People just weren't doing it. 16 and 17 foot boats still had 48" bottoms. I was the first one I know of--in 1986--to build a 15' boat with an extra-wide bottom. Now others are starting to build that way too. Jason Cajun's beautiful boats are all wide like that, and Jason is at the top of his trade. Design-wise, wider is the future for Driftboats. For fishing boats I like less rocker too. That part isn't new. Rogue River boats have been built with a curved chine--to reduce rocker--for half a century. Wide boats with minimal-rocker are where it's at for fishing boats.

Narrow Tails
The early Oregon boats where all designed for passengers up front, with no one behind the rower. The boats in Roger Fletcher's wonderful book all reflect that. Not only are there no seats in back, those boats are all a bit narrower in the tail too. But starting in the early 1980s fly fishing became popular, and you do have to put a guy behind the rower to make it possible for two fly fishermen to cast at the same time.

The early Oregon boats just don't work well that way. If you put a passenger in the back of a Keith Steele boat you turn a highly-tuned hotrod into a half-sunken water melon. Boats like that drop down at the transom and rear up in front like a pregnant whale. If you want to fish a rear passenger you have to make structural changes. The MRB Beavertail is dead symmetrical on the bottom: the rear end is as wide as the front. The Beavertail's seats are set a bit further forward too. Shifting the weight forward, combined with a wider, more bouyant tail allows the boat to trim properly with a rear-seated fisherman.

Front seating is a better setup for big water--there is no doubt about that. Front seating compacts the payload closer to the center of the boat--closer to the boat's center of gravity. But if you are going to have a rear passenger at all, then you need a boat designed to work that way.

Even now, some 30 years since the beginning of the fly fishing change, most boats (aluminum, glass, wood, etc) are still narrower in the tail even though they don't get used the way that design wanted.

That's almost everything I know about driftboats. The only missing historical addition I can think of (for do-it-yourselfers) is the recent substitution of polyethelene honeycomb-core for plywood to make the bottom (thank you Jason). But that's a subject for another page, on another day.