skin-on-frame Adirondack guide boat
Originally designed to access the interior of the
Adirondack wilderness, the guide boat is a miracle of ultralight
engineering. Meticulously crafted, the original planked guide
boats weighed seventy pounds yet could carry a thousand. This
enabled the boats to traverse the many portages and link the many lakes
and rivers in these glacially carved mountains.
My journey with the guide boat began after I spent a few weeks rowing
an eighteen foot sailboat in the Sea of Cortez. A dedicated
lifetime kayaker, I was surprised at how much I loved the rowing
experience, and equally surprised at how seaworthy a rowboat could
be. I had plans that when I returned home I would row all the
time. One year passed, then two, and then I sold the boat having
used it only once since leaving mexico. The problem was that
whenever I wanted to go boating I could deal with the fiasco of the
trailer, or I could throw a kayak on the car and be in the water in a
half hour. The kayak always won.
Then a friend mentioned that I might want to check out the Adirondack
guide boat. I bought some plans and a few books to look at,
sought some expert advice, and most importantly, recruited a student to
keep me motivated through the process. Now if I were a real boat
builder I'd be building this boat out of spruce crooks, thin
planking, 2100 brass screws, and 4000 individually clench nailed
copper tacks, but since I'm a skin-on-frame guy I decided to go
skin-on-frame. Most skin boats are adaptations, however, because
the guideboat is such a perfect shape, I was reluctant to interpret the
lines. Instead, I chose to build my boats as an exact copy of an
original shape, using a similar process to the original.
We started with a table of offsets, a set of coordinates from which the
lines of a boat are taken. I say we because I avoided days of
tedious hand lofting by persuading my girlfriend Jackie to do days of
tedious computer lofting instead. Sometimes it really pays to
have a draftswoman handy! Next we made the guide boat builders
prize possesion, a set of rib forms that will overlay laminations (or a
natural wood crook) to reproduce the shape.
Day 1, cedar strips are laminated on a form to make the ribs,
Day 2 we slice these thick ribs lengthwise with a table saw, each
lamination making four thin cedar guide boat ribs.
Also on day 2, we lay out the flat bottom board the foundation of the
On day 3 we screw the ribs to the bottom board. Peter, my phantom
apprentice is a great help but doesn't like his picture taken.
With ribs and stems mounted the boat is turned right side up and
screwed to a jig that will preserve the rocker and plumb of the stems.
Day 4, next we'll be needing some sheer strakes so we laminate three
red cedar boards to make a two inch sheer strake.
The laminations are sliced on the table saw and then screwed to the
ribs and stems
I added a lashing for a little extra security.
Day 5, we turn the boats over and then clamp stringers on. The
stringers are fastened with carefully piloted stainless ring
nails. The stringers are 7/16 square and the ribs are 5/16
x 3/4 on edge.
Stringers are faired into the stems and then lashed, an easy process.
Day 6, we finish the frames by adding support for the decks and then
oiling the boats.
Day 7, a lightweight ballistic nylon skin is laid over the frame, then
cut and sewn up the stems.
Then skin is stapled to the frame and the staples are hidden with a fir
gunwale. Next the skin is saturated with a tough 2 part
The next week I work intermittently on the finishing work, like these
seats. I really blasted through these details and my finish work
is crude compared to the original, however, I think it is appropriate
for a boat built so quickly.
Hand caning the seats was no fun, luckily I had help.
The finished product.
My deck and end protection, marine plywood, brass flat stock, bronze
ring. Like I said, crude but effective. On the smaller boat
we installed a sliding seat.
Traditional guide boat oars are permanently pinned allowing the rower
to drop the oars and deal with a fish, or shoot a deer. I
loved these non-feathering oars and had no trouble with the cross armed
rowing stroke caused by the overlapping handles.
Traditional guide boat hardware is about $250, I couldn't afford that
so I used a set of $50 pinned bronzed oarpins.
I have to thank my friend Alec who did the layout for these traditional
guide boat oars, to function correctly they must be built very lightly
and the shaping is somewhat precise to preserve the strength. He
did most of the oar shaping while I finished up the boats.
The finished product, launched two weeks from the start of the project.
Beautiful, I'm so in love with the thirteen footer that I don't want to
give it back to Peter (the phantom apprentice). Of course, the
fifteen footer isn't bad either.
Getting ready to launch, Alec stabilizes the boat while Jackie gets
Then, with a leap of faith, Alec lunges forward and pushes off.
Alec in the thirteen footer, this boat could easily accomodate
these boats was a revelation, swift, silent, and powerful. I can
describe it as addictive. Even the carry was a pleasure.
The thirteen footer weighs thirty-one pounds and the fifteen footer
weighs forty-two. The thirteen footer seems plenty stiff built
entirely of red cedar, I think the fifteen footer will benefit from a
little more framing, perhaps increasing it's weight by five pounds at
most. Materials cost for each boat was nine hundred dollars.
Building the skin-on-frame Adirondack guide boat has given me profound
respect for the meticulous craftmanship of the original. It is
also the most beautiful and rewarding thing I have ever built in my
life. Sincere thanks to The Adirondack Museum, Geoff Burke, Rob
Frenette, Ben Fuller, Jackie, Alec, and Peter. I look forward to
sharing this boat in a class this summer.
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