Heritage Crafts

Traditional wooden boat building

The building, restoration and repair of boats made from wood using planked construction or skin-on-frame, mechanical fixings and traditional finishes. See also coracle making, curragh making, spar, oar and mast making, sail making, and boat building (modern).
Craft category
Historic area of significance
Area practiced currently
Across the UK but heavily concentrated in the south of England.
Origin in the UK
Bronze Age
Current No. of professionals (Main income)
21-50 These are boat builders who are carrying out all aspects of traditional boat building including building new boats as their full-time occupation. (Estimate based on 2023 survey carried out by the WBTA and Heritage Crafts. See Other Information)
Current No. of professionals (Side income)
50-100 (Estimate based on 2023 survey carried out by the WBTA and Heritage Crafts. See Other Information)
Current No. of trainees
50+ (Students at the boat building schools will study traditional boat building alongside contemporary techniques such as laminated wood and GRP)
Current total No. of serious amateur makers
11-20 (Estimate based on 2023 survey carried out by the WBTA and Heritage Crafts. See Other Information)
Current No. of leisure makers
Not known but there is a keen interest in wooden boat building amongst retired and hobby makers.


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.

See also: Historic England Ships and Boats: Prehistory to 1840.


  • Clinker construction
  • Carvel construction
  • Skin on frame construction
  • Multi skin construction
  • Building ‘by eye’
  • Lofting
  • Finishing
  • Decking
  • Caulking


Allied crafts:

  • Spar, oar and mast making
  • Rigging
  • Sail making
  • Heritage engineering
  • Internal carpentry and fit-out
  • Signwriting / Gilding
  • Ship’s carving
  • Designing for traditional methods
  • Block making

Issues affecting the viability

Summary of findings from the Symposium on Traditional Wooden Boat Building 2022 and the Traditional Wooden Boat Building Survey 2023:

  • Loss of regional boat types – Boat builders are heavily concentrated in the south of England, which increases the risk of losing other regional boat types and their associated skills and knowledge.
  • Loss of traditional skills – Due to market pressures and efficiency, most boat builders will (understandably) carry out both traditional skills and modern construction methods. However this could lead to some skills such as ‘building by eye’ and other hand skills becoming increasingly scarce.
  • Threats to UK maritime cultural heritage and a lack of government commitment to heritage skills and intangible cultural heritage in the UK – Shipwrighting and the restoration of large boats was cited as an area of concern with most of the skills concentrated in one or two businesses. It was felt that this, in addition to the loss of regional boat types, could pose an ongoing threat to the maritime cultural heritage of the UK. See also Shipwrighting.
  • Training routes – Boat building is well served for college based training with a healthy number of graduates. However, it was felt that these opportunities were not available to everyone and that there was a limited amount of funding to support those on lower incomes. There could also be more options for training including more apprenticeships and practical ‘hands-on’ work experience.
  • Lack of diversity in the sector – Most respondents were male (89%) and aged over 40 (70%); the dominant age category is 50+ (58%).
  • Sourcing raw materials – including timber, copper nails, roves etc. This has been further exacerbated by Brexit.
  • Business costs and overheads – energy, premises costs, high costs of labour and materials
  • Shrinking market for traditional boats – only the wealthy can afford to buy or own a boat
  • Loss of boatyards – waterside frontages and workshop rents have become prohibitively expensive
  • Recruitment and retention – recruiting people with the necessary skills, experience and the ability to work to a commercial timescale is becoming a problem. Difficulty in recruiting apprentices was also cited as an issue. Low rates of pay can mean that it is difficult to make it a viable occupation, particularly in the south of England where accommodation and cost of living are expensive.
  • Restoration and repair – there is an increasing market for restoration and repair, rather than building new boats
  • Lack of practical education in school.

Support organisations

  • Wooden Boatbuilder’s Trade Association
  • British Marine Inland Boatbuilding
  • Anglia Boatbuilders Association
  • The GalGael Trust
  • The Worshipful Company of Shipwright
  • Pioneer Sailing Trust
  • National Historic Ships UK
  • Women in Boatbuilding

Training organisations

Accredited taught courses

  • International Boatbuilding Training College – Lowestoft
  • Falmouth Marine School
  • Boatbuilding Academy


There are boat building apprenticeships available but these tend to focus primarily on modern boat building methods such as laminate/composite materials and GRP.

Boatbuilding Level 3 Apprenticeship: Building boats such as yachts, workboats and superyachts, and refitting and repairing existing boats.

On-the-job training

Many boat builders will train on–the-job alongside experienced boat builders. This may follow an apprenticeship or a college based course in order to gain work based experience and develop specialist skills.

Craftspeople currently known

Other information

The Wooden Boat Builders Trade Association and Heritage Crafts have been working together to consult the boat building trade. A Symposium on Traditional Boat Building was held in Bristol in October 2022 and this was followed by a Survey of Traditional Wooden Boat Building in January 2023.

Numbers of practitioners

90 people responded to the survey. Of these 30 described themselves as full-time traditional boat builders and 31 as doing it as part of their work.

When asked how many traditional boat builders they knew of, most respondents gave a figure of between 5 and 50. From this we have estimated that the number of full-time boat builders to be between 21-50 and those doing it as part of their work as 50-100.

How endangered is traditional wooden boat building?

73% of survey respondents describe traditional wooden boat building as either ‘Endangered’ or ‘Critically Endangered’. Of the remainder, 20% describe the craft as viable, with the rest suggesting it’s viable depending on location and which skills are being considered.

The majority of attendees at the Symposium agreed that Traditional Wooden Boat Building be considered as distinct from boat building as a whole.



National Lottery Heritage Fund
Swire Charitable Trust
The Royal Mint
Pilgrim Trust
Maxwell/Hanrahan Foundation
William Grant Foundation

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