Wooden boat-building not a good career?

Discussion in 'All Things Boats & Boating' started by ancient kayaker, Dec 7, 2012.

  1. ancient kayaker
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    ancient kayaker aka Terry Haines

    The forum gets quite a few threads from folk looking at wooden boat-building as a career. From what I read most "successful" builders aren't exactly getting rich - barely getting by is more like it. Yet boat-building schools continue to enroll students and advertise their services.

    When an industry has few jobs to offer, pays less than living wages and continually loses workers but new people still want to join, what does that mean?

    Perhaps the romance of the wooden boat is being overplayed, the way war was romanticized a hundred years ago. Are the boat building schools being honest with their students about the actual chances of gainful employment?

    I like working in wood, and building boats even more, but I wouldn't expect to make a living at it.
     
  2. michael pierzga
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    michael pierzga Senior Member

    What you say is true.

    It would be interesting to learn the profile of a typical student and what industry they enter after graduation .

    Are they trust fund types , who only work as a hobby, or real people.?
     
  3. PAR
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    PAR Yacht Designer/Builder

    I'd imagine there are also many other specialty schools and organizations that do the same. Think of something obscure and see if there's a school, say . . . lute makers. Got to be reasonably out there right? Nope, if you'd like I'll pay for your first lessons . . . are you interested in medieval or modern lutes?

    I'm not sure what the typical profile is, though I could look it up, but wooden boat building schools aren't especially numerous. Most are left overs of a bye gone era or rebirths of old schools or manufactures. Regenerating interest in this sort of thing isn't new, especially as the baby boomers age. Opening a school at a larger shop is a business decision and a wise one, to generate interest and most importantly, establish a base of skilled labor. Every industry does this.

    As far as the livable wage thing, well this is a skill set thing, more than an industry standard. Be it a traditional or modern method shop, you'll find seriously skilled and economically appreciated labor. Most small shops have one or two craftsmen, with a handful of helpers. The larger shops generally have a gang of really skilled and well paid builders.

    Lastly, I think you've underestimated the size of this seemingly cottage industry. Do a search for wooden boat builders and see how many turn up. You'll find dozens, not just a few here and there. As the baby boomers die off, I expect this to cause the number to dwindle, but who knows, maybe a new technique or material will turn up and another resurgence will come along.
     
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  4. waikikin
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    waikikin Senior Member

    I think(or actually know) that it is possible, to be successful in any career needs a certain level of commitment. Boat building & repair goes through economic cycles, to maintain an income you need to be adaptable & over the last few decades I've worked in metal & composites as well as timber, the rates the same on most jobs but usually a bit higher on steel as they're often work boats that belong to people that actually need a boat. The skills gained in timber construction are adaptable to the other mediums with some new process to learn. Jeff.
     
  5. michael pierzga
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    michael pierzga Senior Member

    If boatbuilding school is a way to encourage young people to work in the marine industry then its good.

    How does a student go from this introdution to boatbuilding to become Pipe fitter, welder, cabinetmaker, fitter, electrician.......

    Those are the skills needed in boatbuilding. A typical shipyard may have two "Boatbulders" and 100 skilled craftsman.
     
  6. PAR
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    PAR Yacht Designer/Builder

    The term boat builder is pretty broad. I've worked in small and large yards and there was always the "old man" or two, who where by all accounts master shipwrights, but many of the lesser skilled individuals, where more than capable of building a boat. I was a spar boss in one shop, never touching a hull, but was and did build boats at home and in concert with others, so the definition isn't refined enough to nail down. What is required is a broad set of skills, which is what a boat builder actually is. You can learn most if not all of these skills in a medium or large shop. In most shops they elicit this "cross training" to help ease work load if someone is called off into another phase of the project.

    This is common in all trades. A high steel welder can also fit a girder, after he has some leg time on several sites. He may not like the idea of being asked to help align a beam or help guide a truss dangling off a crane, but an employer would be foolish not to take advantage, of the boots on the job, with cross training. Lastly, I think commitment is a given, if someone is going to acquire all the skill sets necessary to be a master whatever. You can be a house builder and not know a thing about electrical. You can be an aircraft builder and not know how to fly, but boat builders, usually have several distinctly different skill sets, which isn't unique, but isn't common among the trades.
     
  7. michael pierzga
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    michael pierzga Senior Member

  8. bntii
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    bntii Senior Member

    We have a couple of guys with their papers from schools in Maine & have a few traditional plank builds under their belt as part of the training.
    They end up doing general mechanical work. One of the guys did restoration work for a while at one of the maritime museums but needed more $ than he was getting.
    I keep hearing of large builds and steady rebuild work happening in Maine and of course NW has its wooden boat center.
    If one wants to make a career of it, I would go to those places first and spend some time talking to the guys to see what's up.

    Par has it- there is always room for one more specialist tradesman who can either make it on his own ticket or find employment in a shop doing traditional work.
    One of my buddies father was a harpsichord maker. Apparently world renowned and sought out for his hand built creations.

    I don't guess there is room for two more 'wooden boat builders' though so if you have your sights on this field- you better be good..

    I do "ships carpentry"- which means that I put bits of teak on FRP yachts...LOL
    I'm good, and have work, but it is more peripheral than the bog standard trades attending to engines, systems, rig, paint etc..
    When I first set out another shop owner I was chatting up told me to prepare to take any contract that pays and he was right.
    I have done every contract possible on yachts and some of them many times.

    One still sees a fine small build or two at the big boat shows- some seems to last others not.. I imagine that those who make it live out in the sticks and have wives who hold down steady work!

    To answer you question re-schools offering training.
    I suppose it's like the outfits offering training for a career in Navel Architecture.

    The world needs NA's.
    It just doesn't need that many.....

    Here is a small woodworking project I just did for a fund raising auction:

    IMG_1659.jpg
    Ornament2012.jpg
    IMG_1658.jpg
    IMG_1656.jpg

    I used the project to get up to speed with engraving metal on my old Gorton and had fun with it but would never set out to make a career of building widgits like this. I have long thought the same about building wooden boats- I can do the work but I wouldn't try the game to put food on the table.
     
  9. El_Guero

    El_Guero Previous Member

    War is only romanticized by the progressives ....
     
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  10. DCockey
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    DCockey Senior Member

    As mentioned above there are many different types of jobs involving "wooden boat building" including:
    Building new small, open wooden boats. Lots of interest in this but it appears to be very difficult at best to make a living from.

    Restoration/rebuilding and occasional new builds of expensive wooden boats. There are a number of shops which apparently are successful enough to keep the doors open and pay the employees.

    Restoration/rebuilding/new building or large, traditionally built schooners, etc. Few jobs and generally for museums, non-profits and similar. Pay may be low.

    General repair and maintenance of wood boats. I don't know much about this aspect of the business.

    Exterior and interior woodwork on fiberglass boats. There seems to be a number of folks working in this area.​
     
  11. DCockey
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    DCockey Senior Member

    Boatbuilding schools in the US which have vocational wooden boat building programs include:
    Landing School - Maine
    Apprenticeshop - Maine
    International Yacht Restoration School - Rhode Island
    Cape Fear Community College - North Carolina
    Great Lakes Boat Building School - Michigan
    Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding - Washington
    Seattle Central Community College - Washington
    Bates Technical College - Washington​
    These are schools with programs of 9 months to 2 years in duration with 40 hours or more of instruction and shop time per week. Most of these schools also offer short "recreational" courses.

    I've talked with students, graduates and/or staff from all but Cape Fear during the last several years. Students range from recent high school graduates, recent college graduates, folks who want to change careers, and retirees and others who don't plan to look for employment.

    I haven't seen any thing which suggests the schools are misleading the students about employment prospects in wooden boatbuilding. In general it appears that a high percentage of graduates who want to work in the marine industry are able to find jobs doing so, though there may be little woodworking involved. Others who want a job involving woodworking find related jobs outside the marine industry. There are a few students though who may have overly optimistic expectations about how they will be able to make a living building the types of wooden boats which interest them.
     
  12. DCockey
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    DCockey Senior Member

    Usually that the industry attacts people for non-monetary reasons. What percentage of serious students of music or art will ever make a living in those areas? Some of the students realize that it is very probable they will need to find another way to make a living, others will eventually have to face reality. And a few will be fortunate to work in the field that they want to.

    It also depends on how little income an individual finds acceptable, which can change with time.
     
  13. troy2000
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    troy2000 Senior Member


    Amazing how some folks can shoehorn irrational, partisan politics into absolutely any subject....:rolleyes:
     
  14. ancient kayaker
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    ancient kayaker aka Terry Haines

    I think David hit it on the head when he noted the schools are “vocational” - the word comes from a Latin word meaning “to call” and a calling is driven by commitment and desire. In a vocation, survival is a privilege not a right!

    - and of course, teaching folk how to build wooden boats is a double vocation.
     

  15. ancient kayaker
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    ancient kayaker aka Terry Haines

    - yep! I would have bet money that I had finally found a politicization-proof subject . . .
     
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