Colin Henwood, Chair of the Wooden Boatbuilders Trade Association, helps assess the viability of traditional boatbuilding in the UK.

One sunny Saturday in October, the Create Centre in Bristol hosted the Symposium on Traditional Boatbuilding Skills, organised by the Heritage Crafts Association supported by the Pilgrim Trust and with the involvement of the Wooden Boatbuilders Trade Association. The aim was to discover whether the skills in traditional boatbuilding are in danger of being lost, as part of Heritage Crafts' campaign to record all the crafts which exist in the UK and those at risk.

So far, they have recorded 212 distinct crafts of which 56 are Critically Endangered, 74 are Endangered and 110 are considered Viable, this is the Red List of Endangered Crafts. The Critically Endangered are those with few practitioners, limited training opportunities and in which skills and knowledge are not being handed on. Endangered are the crafts where there is serious concern about their viability which could be due to shrinking market share, ageing or declining number of makers. The Viable are crafts considered to have a sufficient number of makers to pass on the skills; currently, boatbuilding is considered Viable.

You may wonder what is the use of this list: is it just columns of names and categories? Safeguarding the vast range of making talent cannot be done if you have no idea of what is out there. Heritage Crafts are UNESCO accredited and this project is based on the principles of the Convention of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Unfortunately, the UK is one of only two countries in the world which has not signed up to this convention despite lobbying from Heritage Crafts. The other wayward country is Russia – enough said?

The Red List is also the ammunition Heritage Crafts employs to lobby for recognition by government, funding bodies and charitable trusts.

Wooden boatbuilding has evolved. Modern wood construction using epoxy products which have been around since the late 1960s, is the norm. Anyone building a wooden boat will depend on accurate plans from a designer, either lofting out the lines full size to make the building moulds or having the moulds accurately cut by a CNC machine straight from the design files. Few boatbuilders today repeatedly build the same or similar type of boat year in year out using the same materials and construction. Now, most boatbuilders develop a wide skill set for maintenance tasks, repairs, re-builds, some engineering and electrical work, as well as new-build projects. The list of the required skills to work effectively as boatbuilder is a long one.

Unlike other man-made artefacts where innovation has speeded up the manufacture, the process of building wooden boats has slowed down. There are many reasons for this, everything from the loss of repeat orders for one type of boat to the distractions of running a modern business.

There are huge gains in labour and material costs by building multiples of the same boat. Most new builds today are one-offs. In many cases a designer is employed, timber sourced and selected, and components cut and fitted without the expedience of patterns. There are few today who can build a complex wooden hull largely by eye. Judging a plank line so it falls to the desired hull shape when fastened in without first setting up moulds and marking out, this ability is left to very few makers.

The concept of a 'man and boy' turning out a clinker dinghy in a week is a thing of legend. Back then there was an ease of construction, employing a refined and practiced series of actions to build the boat efficiently and smoothly. An un-written understanding of the allotted time to build the boat, leading to efficient work practice, un-disturbed by over-thinking the process. This simple old way of building an established boat style with the minimum of information but a deep understanding of the essential requirements to construct the hull is largely a thing of the past. Those were the days when the only boats were wooden boats.

That same clinker dinghy can and is still built today, bespoke and in certain aspects, built to higher standards so they cost a great deal more. Perhaps the wooden boat is appreciated in a different way by those who commission them to be built. Against the modern backdrop of mass - produced white plastic, the beautifully built wooden boat stands out as an individual choice, shining a light on natural materials and great skill.

The question is whether traditional boatbuilding which relies on minimal technical input and maximum hand and eye coordination can be considered endangered? On the other hand, traditional boatbuilding in which the boatbuilders use plans and erect a complete set of moulds is alive and well. The value in retaining those ancient skills is up for discussion.

The argument for preserving the old hand and eye skills could come from the heritage or conservation sector where a different set of parameters exist to determine the approach to conservation/preservation/replication even adaptation. Often these projects are not only preserving the boat but also the skills that built them. They become an education in themselves, locking in the knowledge and understanding.

Traditional boats have a geographic place in our heritage. The regional and locational influence on the development of both working and pleasure boats is striking. This is another area where the significance of the boatbuilding traditions is the only way this heritage will survive. People are very keen to see Wensleydale cheese or a pork pie from Melton Mowbray continue to be available, so why not a Northumbrian coble or a Thames skiff? Both these boat types have peculiar construction characteristics which require special skills and knowledge to be cherished if these boats are to continue as part of our maritime heritage.

The future for wooden boatbuilding will largely depend on two broad areas. Firstly, training: giving people the opportunity to learn the skills and understand the materials. Secondly, promoting wood against the 'noise' of mainstream man-made materials used in boatbuilding. Both these important factors depend on the legacy left by boatbuilders long departed and those still with us. The information held in the heads of traditional boatbuilders, particularly those who still work largely by eye, is so precious that it must be handed on. This hereditary knowledge is best handed down by example and word of mouth; it would be difficult to write it in a book; it has to be practised.

The Symposium was part of a process to assess traditional boatbuilding in this country. There were inspiring presentations: Gail McGarva spoke about her love of traditional boatbuilding; Stephen Beresford on the real issues facing anyone trying to make a living today as a wooden boatbuilder.

The experience from Norway was well represented, Eivid Falk of the Norwegian Crafts Institute described the extraordinary support his country has given to their boatbuilding traditions and Hallvard Heide explained his work as a scholarship student and the future he has working with apprentices.

A lively open discussion with a panel representing commercial boatbuilding, the WBTA and two boatbuilding colleges brought us to the conclusion that there are threats to traditional boatbuilding which should be taken seriously. The next step is to discover who is out there and a survey of wooden boatbuilding is long overdue. The last attempt was Iain Oughtred’s 1986 book Wooden Boatbuilding in Britain, a Guide to Designers, Builders and Suppliers.

This article was first published in Watercraft Magazine