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A frequent question we hear: “I can’t get mahogany, white oak or spruce as recommended in your plans; can I use poplar?”

Answer: Boats have successfully been built using all sorts of woods that are not recommended for boat building. But when we’re asked to recommend a wood or alternative wood, we pick from a standard list. In our plans, we don’t generally list long-leaf yellow pine as an option, because it’s not available here in our part of the country. In fact, it is a good option and frequently used as an alternative to white oak.

Like Douglas-fir, there are caveats about yellow pine. Both woods, in the areas where they are common, are used for home construction. Construction grades are not acceptable for boat construction, both from a quality standpoint and because they are not properly dried. Yellow pine is also a generic term which encompasses a variety of woods. The experts recommend “long-leaf” and some specify “old growth”. “Straight grain” is specified for many types of wood, particularly Douglas-fir, because it is dimensionally more stable and has better strength characteristics.

planeBefore the 20th century, when wooden boatbuilding (like many crafts) was an art, boat builders would take great care in selecting their lumber. Today, in a world of consolidation of suppliers and rushed life styles, many home boat builders contact us to ask if they can use woods that really aren’t suitable for the wet environment in which boats spend much of their life. In many cases, the caller went to their local building supply store and found that specialty woods were not available. The woods may have been available in lumberyards or from local specialty suppliers, but they had not taken the time to look. Thus the question “Can I use red oak instead of white oak?”  Red oak is not as rot resistant as white oak and is not recommended… but can it be used? As Allyn (our retired shop foreman) was fond of saying, “It ain’t my boat.” We can give recommendations, but it is up to the builder to decide what to use.

Which non-marine woods could be substituted depends on how the boat will be used. You always want wood that is properly dried, free of knots or other structural defects, but what if this is a duck boat you keep in the garage and only take out a couple of weeks a year? If it is well painted, do you really have to worry about rot? Probably not. Clear red oak would be an option, albeit heavy, for a boat you might have to carry any distance. Western pines tend to be relatively weak and prone to rot. If you are building a small rowboat that you use as a coffee table, pine would be fine. If it’s kept inside and only taken out occasionally… how about used frequently, but stored dry in a garage.., how about stored under a cover in the back yard? When you build a boat and you know how it is built and what its limitations are, then you will presumably treat it accordingly. But if you give it to someone else who hasn’t decided in advance the limitations he would accept, your pine boat may be very short-lived.

We have a section in our website, “Wood & Plywood” pages in which we have reproduced Chapter 5 from our book Boatbuilding with Plywood. This chapter discusses woods used in boat building. We continue to add additional features to this section concerning various types of wood that we have been asked about, listing information to help a potential boat builder decide what wood to use.

Maybe in the future we will be able to tell anyone who asks about poplar why it is not listed as a desirable wood for boat building.

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