The building and repair of wooden boats. See the separate entry for coracle making.
|Status||Currently viable (see ‘Local forms’ for further details)|
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK (but very much reduced and shipbuilding has vanished from some of its historic locations)|
|Origin in the UK||Bronze Age|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
|Current no. of trainees||101-200?|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople|
|Current total no. of craftspeople|
The earliest known boats are log-boats or dugouts with examples from Holland and Denmark dating from about 7000 BC, and the earliest plank-built boats were found in Egypt and date from about 2600 BC. Early plank-built boats were made by stitching or sewing the planks, but the Egyptians developed edge-fastening by mortises and tenons. The frame eventually developed into the rigid frame-skeleton, covered in planking, of the familiar carvel-build (‘skeleton first’ construction). In the north, hulls were built up of thin planking overlapping at the edges which were ‘clenched’ by dowels or iron rivets (‘clinker-construction’) with ribs inserted afterwards to keep the hull in shape (‘shell first’ construction).
Historically, there were many regional forms of boat building in the UK.
Techniques have evolved over time – think wooden coracles to super-tankers.
- There are numerous regional styles of boats. There are many traditional types of craft, such as the Whitby cobble, which have not been built for many years and there is a danger that the knowledge to build them will be lost. However, in theory, a good boatbuilder can make any type of boat.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Cost of training: There are three private colleges teaching boatbuilding – the International Boatbuilding Training College (IBTC) in Lowestoft and in Portsmouth, and the Boatbuilding Training Academy in Lyme Regis. The Lowestoft course costs £16,000 for a full-time 47-week training course – this is a cost that many people can’t afford. For example, it is difficult to get young people into the industry not because they are not interested but because they cannot afford to get properly trained. Many people who do the course are mid-life career changers or retirees. There are some grants available from City and Guilds and the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights, but these do not cover the cost of the whole course. The IBTC has four entries a year and currently has 19 students, but would like to run at 8-10 students per entry with 36-40 students per year – there is plenty of demand from students, and more than enough work.
Lack of investment in training by the government: While the IBTC was established by the government in the 1970s, it is now a private college with no funding from the government, which is too reliant on trusts and charities to fund craft training.
Lack of investment in training by the sector: The industry doesn’t invest in itself – it wants qualified boatbuilders but does not invest in their training, and boatyards do not subsidise the training of boatbuilders. It is this lack of investment that will cause the craft to die.
Issues with apprenticeships: Modern apprenticeships do not go anywhere near far enough in training a boatbuilder in the practical skills of the craft. Neither modern apprenticeships nor craft ‘trailblazers’ meet the standards required by the sector. As a result, the IBTC at Lowestoft has stopped running apprenticeships.
Certification of courses: City & Guilds offers a Level 3 qualification in Marine Construction, Systems Engineering and Maintenance (2463) – this is the highest vocational qualification in boatbuilding. This is awarded as part of the course at the IBTC, in addition to an IBTC certificate which is industry-recognised, but not government-recognised. The IBTC course also includes three months of intense boat joinery, but City and Guilds have said that this is too niche a course to run and so there is no qualification available in it.
There is more than enough work within the industry, and everyone who has done a boatbuilding course is able to find work if they want to. However, there are people who do the course who go on to work in other industries such as furniture-making or design, and also retirees who do the course because they want to spend a year making boats with no intention of going into the industry.
Raw materials: Some timber has increased in cost.
People assume that if there is a demand for the craft, it will be met. However, there is the danger that if there are not enough people learning the craft and thus not enough people making wooden boats, the market gradually dries up as prices go up, until the market perceives that it is no longer worth investing in building or repairing wooden boats as they are too costly and the craft disappears as a result.
Talent gap (older craftspeople retiring with no replacements)
Craftspeople currently known
Shipwrights per se have decreased in number with the UK’s shipping industry but continue to exist. Boat-building skills continue to be used and there are some boat-building schools and academies which keep those skills alive. However, boat-building in the leisure industry continues apace and the UK has some of the top leisure craft manufacturers.