Building A Narrow Boat

The subject of this project is a craft now fast disappearing, as the narrow boats, once so common on British canals, cease to be used for carrying freight and are superseded by heavy lorries.

Up to the Second World War it was a common sight to see a pair of gaily coloured narrow boats (not barges) being drawn by a blinkered horse.  All kinds of cargoes were carried, the chief being coal, bulk sugar and even liquid tar.  The latter boats had a wooden cover over the stowage section and, like sea going oil tankers, were difficult to handle.

Now it is rather an uncommon sight to see a pair of boats and in any case the leading boat is powered by a 20 hp motor, the horse having completely disappeared from the local canals.  The few boats left are painted in plain colours; the distinctive ‘castles and roses’ so beloved of the real ‘water gypsies’ have given way in the face of cheapness and the lack of skilled labour.

One of the best known local boat docks was at Braunston, some 16 miles from Coventry and I am particularly interested in it as my grandfather and great grandfather carried on the business over a period of years stretching from 1872 until 1945.  Now the dockyard is used entirely for building motor pleasure craft and whilst there is still a dock near the bottom lock at Braunston where the remaining boats are repaired, there is no demand for new ones and with my grandfather’s retirement in 1945 it is doubtful whether the necessary knowledge exists among the present workmen.  Although I have consulted a number of books on canals, I have yet to see a detailed description of how a boat was built.  From my grandfather’s notebooks in which he set out his measurements and rough diagrams I have gathered information on the building of a narrow boat.  No blueprints existed in those days but such was the skill of the often uneducated workman that it has been said each new boat was exactly similar to its predecessor.

I will now describe, stage by stage, the construction of a narrow boat.

Stage One

The boat is built under an open sided shed close to the water’s edge.  The length of the boat is 71’ and the width 7’ so a framework is constructed on which the flat bottom of the boat can be laid.  The boards used for the bottom are of elm 3” thick and may vary in width from 9” to 1’.  The shape of the boat is then chalked out on the boards and the surplus wood cut off.  The ends of the boat do not taper to a point but break off about 1’ short.

Stage Two

The two posts at the bow and stern are then fitted.  These are made of oak and are about 1’ x 10”, the length being, of course, sufficient for the desired height of the boat.  The post at the bows is approximately 4” higher than that at the stern.  The rake of the stern post is 2’ 3” and that of the fore post 3’.

A groove is cut 2” deep and 3” wide in each post to house the ends of the planks which make up the side of the boat.

Stage Three

The keelson is now fitted.  This is a piece of oak 10” and 3” deep which runs down the centre of the inside bottom of the boat.  It is spiked to the bottom planks and end posts.

Stage Four

Posts known as ‘knees’, shaped to the curve of the hull are now fitted at intervals along the bottom of the boat.  To these will be fastened the planks which form the hull of the boat.

Stage Five

Oak planks 2” thick are then placed in a steam jacket and when ready are bent round the ‘knees’ and fastened in to the slots in the end posts.  There are generally five planks to each side of the boat.  The first is spiked securely to the bottom of the boat.

Stage Six

The divisions in the hull are made as in the diagram.  These are made of deal and other soft woods and are 1” thick.

Stage Seven

The inside of the side planking is then covered with 1/2” thick oak boards which have been steamed for bending to the shape of the hull.  They are secured by 1 1/2” nails.

Stage Eight

A small deck at the fore end is next built on a beam fixed across the bows.  The deck is made of 1/2” oak boards and a trap door cut in to it.

Stage Nine

At the stern end the cabin is built 8’ 6” long and extending 1’ 9” above the hull.  This is made of softwood and contains fold away furniture, for example a table and bed boards.  As boatmen in years gone by frequently had large families, conditions must have been extremely cramped and uncomfortable.

Stage Ten

The boat is waterproofed by means of oakum which is hammered into all joints that are likely to come into contact with water and several coatings of tar are applied.

Stage Eleven

The cabin, interior and exterior are decorated with roses and castles and the name of the owner flamboyantly painted on the side.  Each boat had its name written on both sides of the bows and from my Grandfather’s records I quote such fanciful names as: ‘Empress of Britain’, Prince of Wales’ and ‘Cassandra’.

The tiller, which is also decorated in this way, is directly controlled, usually by the boatman’s wife.

The boat is launched sideways in to the canal.  All supports underneath are removed until only one block at each end remains.  Two heavy lengths of timber, specially greased, are placed under the boat so that they act as a slipway.  The two blocks are knocked away simultaneously and the boat slides down the slipway in to the water.

After tarpaulins have been made, fenders, plaited from rope, and other minor embellishments  added, the boat is ready for occupation.

Now alas, the days of the narrowboat seem numbered and it is doubtful whether any more will ever be built.

O level Woodwork project submitted in 1965 by Graham Nurser based on conversations with his grandfather.  Charles Nurser

     © Graham Nurser 2012