Why Steel?

I’ve often been asked the question why did I choose to build a steel boat, rather than fiberglass or other materials?

It’s a bit like the paper-rock-scissors game we played as kids. You know the one, no matter what you pick there’s another choice that can either beat you or loses to you: eg. scissors beats paper, but rock beats scissors. Well, having a steel boat is a bit like this, but with one major difference. Should there ever be an accident, steel always wins. 🙂

– steel breaks fiberglass

– steel breaks timber

– steel breaks ferro-cement

Seriously, though…

The choose of material is mostly a personal one, and some boat owners will start a “religious” war over why their preference is the only material that should be used. Personally, I think all the various materials have their place, with pro’s and con’s depending on how you want to look at it. A well built and maintained boat is always a pleasure to look at, regardless of what it’s been built from.

So, that said, here is a quick summary of the things that swayed me towards steel.

Fiberglass is a popular material. To use it requires the building of a mold that holds the wet fiberglass in shape until it hardens. The more work you put into building the mold, the better the final result will be. When the hull is completed, you then throw the mold away. Nearly anyone is capable of learning how to fiberglass – it is not a very hard skill. It is also very forgiving – mistakes can always be fixed. It can be very laborious in the finishing off for a one-time build. It also generates a lot of unhealthy fumes during construction. However, it is very easy to look after when finished. I’ve tried small fiberglassing jobs and I don’t like it. Therefore I didn’t consider it a viable alternative (for me).

Timber looks great, but takes a lot of work and a fair amount of skill to complete. It also requires continual maintenance to keep in good condition.

Ferro-cement is a good material for custom building. If done well, it produces an excellent finish. I, personally, wouldn’t use it to build from scratch purely because it attracts a low resale value should I ever want to sell the boat. This is because many people don’t understand this material and therefore a lot of misinformation about ferro cement has been spread around the boating community. That said, I would have no problems owning a well built one, I just wouldn’t build one.

Mild-steel is relatively cheap, is easy to work and is well suited for custom builds. It’s downside is that if not looked after properly it will rust. Aluminum fixes the rust problem, but is much more expensive and requires a bit more skill during fabrication. If I was doing this again, I may consider aluminum over mild-steel.

Another option that I considered was strip-planking. This involves building the hull using narrow cedar or balsa wood strips, that are then covered in a layer of fiberglass. It is quick and easy to do, and can give a great finish. If I could have found a suitable boat design that used this material, I’d have used it instead of steel.

Which brings me to my last point. The boat design has to suit the material. The particular style I was after was only available in steel or aluminum, and so this had a large bearing on the choose of material. As I said earlier, there is no right or wrong, it really comes down to personal preference and what you feel comfortable working with.