Building a boat yourself. This May help (or not!)

Building a Boat?

This may help (or not!)

Many of us have tackled home improvements in some shape or form. A few people have renovated or built an entire house. I have hacked around with a few properties over the years with varying degrees of success but when we bought a boat it was a whole different ball game.

I entered a new world, a bemusing land where a unique species of humanoid, in varying states of decay, spoke a strange language. 

Whether you are building a new boat or renovating a wreck, kitting out the interior is called the 'Fit Out'. If you decide to have a go yourself, take it from me, it's a challenge. The Fit Out encompasses a number of elements, some familiar, some less so. The following may prove useful. It may encourage you or it may serve as a warning. In isolated cases it may encourage you to buy a tent. So...........

Items required for a fit-out:







Planning and Organisation


Sense of humour

Liquid refreshment

A medical team

We’ll take these in order with a brief explanation of each.


The Gregorian calendar, Greenwich Mean Time, Eastern Standard Time and Tea Time all have something in common - they are (or were) recognised, trusted and quantifiable standards by which we live.

‘Canal Time’ (or ‘Waterways Time’) is something else all together. Invented for the waterways by the folk of the waterways it is a unique and largely mythic medium used to frustrate, amuse and confuse anyone unfamiliar with canals, rivers and boats.

Time is infinite, it has been going for ever and it will never end. The human mind cannot comprehend something that does not have a convenient start or finish. Because Canal Time is based on the principal that time is irrelevant, its wily creators have found a way to circumnavigate one of mankind’s great conundrums. 

When starting a fit-out you may as well sling your time-piece in the cut and invest in an artificial daylight machine because things rarely happen when you want or expect them to. You have to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves, whatever time of day or night, and be prepared to work around ‘flexible’ delivery times.

BUT, we as outsiders are entering an alien world and there is no reason why anyone already working to Canal Time should change to suit us.

The sooner we understand this basic principal the better.


Because ‘in the kingdom of the novice ‘fitter’ Canal Time is King’, patience is something you need in spades. Most of us have to learn a new language, swim, skeg, calorifier, tumblehome etc. etc. Old hands are delighted to spend a couple of weeks explaining the workings of a single cylinder Bollider engine but try and get someone to connect your gas regulator in a hurry and it’s a different ball-game. The difficulty is that you can’t complete chosen task A before you complete tasks B, C, D, E and F. If you can’t get assistance with task F, the whole lot becomes a part-finished muddle that lies in a tangled heap alongside last months part finished muddle.


Whether you buy a bare shell or a sail-away completed to whatever stage, you are purchasing a long, gaping tube into which you pour money. Nothing costs as little as you imagine unless it doesn’t work. Any boat-related purchase is ‘specialist’, ‘miniature’ or both - and you have to pay for it. A rough guide when comparing your original (wildly optimistic) estimate with actual cost is roughly equivalent to the Celsius / Fahrenheit conversion; double it and add thirty.

And never forget all those costly little items that make boating such a joy on an ongoing basis, such as insurance, fuel, maintenance, mooring fees and licence.


Some of the skills required are as follows; plumbing, electricity, woodwork, metalwork, painting, mechanics and design. If you have them, great, if you don’t, any work you can’t do yourself is going to cost you. In fact some of the costliest bits are where you have cocked-up and are forced to engage the services of a professional.

During diagnosis each professional head-shake is charged at a fiver and each ‘tut’ a tenner; following which there is disassembly, re-build and system test, all at £x per hour, plus parts, plus VAT – net result: for you, a badly bruised budget; for the professional, a fortnight in Florida.

You CAN do what we did and buy a ‘build-it-yourself’ book and just have a go. Our first weeks cruise was followed by a fortnight in dock screwing back all the bits that had dropped off, but the self-satisfaction is huge.

Any B.I.Y. book should contain a chapter on amateur problem solving such as how to stop that annoying dribble under the sink without having to take the kitchen out.


You will need access to a full set of tools. I say ‘access’ because most households have a basic set of equipment, some of which works and some of which we know how to use, but there are some expensive items that you require just for the occasional job. A copper pipe-bender for example. You’re not going to go and spend fifty quid on a new one just to bend a couple of bits of pipe. Another example is metal hole-cutters. you’ll need a number of different sizes – hole-saws for waste outlets, water fill and pump-out, plus an arbor to attach them to the drill, plus a drill with adequate power, plus some hole-cutting oil. All this lot for half a dozen holes after which they will never be used again. So, you either borrow the items (preferable) or get a professional to do the job knowing that the following morning they will be down the travel agent booking for Orlando again.

The two most crucial items are a hard hat and knee pads. Much of the time fitting out is spent working at low level with your head clacking around in a cupboard making electrical / plumbing connections or mending something.

One other item worth purchasing at the outset is a big hammer for use when all else fails.


If you’re like us you have probably spent hours looking at other boats trying to get an idea on a lay-out, then, from a practical point of view, how on earth do you shoe-horn everything into such a small space?

You’ve got roughly 6ft by 40/50ft within which to build a mini-house and somehow you have to avoid getting your tackle entangled with the fan belt while you’re watching Bargain Hunt. You really have to imagine everything working with some semblance of functionality from a starting point of a big ugly steel tube and a perplexing pile of raw materials.

Optimism and positive thought can be a powerful tool for the Fitter - even better than a router. The one thing that keeps you going through all the lows and lows is the thought of sitting proudly on the front deck in the evening sun supping your beverage of preference swapping tales with a fellow boater.

What you must avoid at all costs is the negative. Never, for example, imagine sitting on the loo in full view of Canary Wharf because you’ve sited the cassette loo near the largest window and you’ve forgotten to put up a curtain rail. Think positive or you’ll never start - or worse, you’ll get 6 years into the project and give up.

Planning and organisation

We spent endless hours and a dozen cases of Australian Red deciding on a lay-out - and we still made a mess of it. Before we started we laid out the proposed position of bulkheads and appliances on the floor using blue masking tape. We used numerous rolls of the stuff - testament to the number of rejected ideas. In fact, by the time we’d finished, there was so much of the stuff on the floor we left it in place and saved money on a carpet (which by the conclusion of the project was a welcome saving).

You can’t plan enough because adding or altering something after you think you’ve finished can be a nightmare.

For example, you’ve installed everything down one side of the boat and when you remove all your tools and ton and a half of off-cuts, the vessel develops a serious list, unnoticed as your tackle was acting as a counterbalance. All your stuff is in the back of the car (for the last time, thank goodness!) awaiting despatch to a car boot sale or the tip. The only way to alter the ballast and rectify the lean is to unpack the tools from the car, dismantle the TV cabinet and hack a hole in the floor to create a thoroughfare to the bilge. You move / remove as much ballast as you can, leaving some finger ends trapped under concrete slabs, but invariably end up with a few 56lb weights hidden in subtle locations such as the kitchen cupboards or the bath. All this is avoidable through a bit of careful thought (if you’re like me though, a stubborn, ‘intelligent’, smart-arse man, you’d rather get stuck into something male like screwing wood to the walls and ignoring that o-so-boring planning).

Likewise being organised and tidy in a confined space is imperative. I was forced to borrow a jigsaw on one occasion as mine had disappeared. It was unearthed more than a week later when my wife decided to have a clear-up and discovered it under a mountain of dust and wood-shavings. From that moment on we had a good clear-up once a month, every month, without fail.


I very much doubt if any original plan is adhered to without one or a dozen subtle alterations during ‘works in progress’. Usually this is down to poor planning. Everything looks fine on paper (or computer screen) but when you come to the build it becomes obvious that you may have overlooked the odd practicality issue - such as having to remove the fridge every time you want to use the washing machine. This has the potential to become somewhat irritating in the long term.

So you adapt, problem solve, make things easy for yourself. Answer - simply do away with both the fridge and washing machine. Because you can’t store fresh food or wash clothes it means your journeys will have to be planned around mooring alternate days outside pubs and launderettes. Where these facilities are unavailable you’ll be forced to eat road kill and wear disposable nappies.

Through this one typical example we’ve adapted both fit-out and lifestyle.

Sense of humour

This is undoubtedly the single most important weapon in our armoury. The ability to chuckle at a squashed thumb or chortle at a throbbing cranium will diffuse many a tense situation and is a skill born of painful experience. Don’t take things too seriously, important though they may be.

While at the ‘blue tape on the floor stage’ we were planning one of the most important bits, the position of the loo. The shell was completely empty except for an upturned Dandelion & Burdock crate which, for planning purposes, doubled as the bog. I was sitting on said crate waggling my arms about ‘Birdie Song’ style to ascertain if there would be enough elbow room. By the time I got to ask my wife which side she would like the toilet paper holder she was in such apoplexy she was rolling about on the floor clutching her tummy. She looked in some discomfort and it only made matters worse when I asked her if she needed to use the toilet.

We amateurs try very hard and, especially the males of the species, attempt to retain a modicum of pride throughout our endeavours. We do make cock-ups but the trick is to keep the doors shut and the windows masked up so no-one else can share your misery. The odd consoling word from an understanding wife certainly helps too, such as the tender moment I shared with my wife when she said, ‘never mind love, I’m sure the next cupboard will have the door opening outwards.’

Liquid refreshment

During the early stages of a fit-out the water tank, diesel tank, calorifier and bath were all redundant so we filled them with Australian Red wine. As the build progressed from aft to fore the antipodean nerve-agent was consumed. The first couple of glasses, immediately after breakfast, were merely relaxants allowing us to tackle any task, no matter how difficult, with casual professionalism. At the end of a day a considerably larger quantity was required so we were unable to focus on the days balls-ups. An unexpected bonus was that by the time we’d completed the back cabin, the weight of installed materials countered the weight lost from the now empty diesel tank, hence the integrity of the ballast was maintained. Not that we could see it at the time but one of the seven in-focus photographs (out of roughly eleven thousand) happened to catch the boat from the right angle and proved this hypothesis. 

Medical team

We retained a full medical team on permanent standby. Personnel included a triage nurse, a chiropractor, a psychiatrist and a substance abuse counsellor. As the months passed and the build progressed, all were called on with increasing regularity and arrived with looks of bewilderment at the astonishing variety of injury we suffered in such a small space.

The triage nurse used acres of bandages and plasters and two dozen tubes of savlon before we had to admit defeat and call in a mechanic to fix the leaky exhaust.

On one occasion the chiropractor was called on to extricate me from the cupboard under the sink when I’d developed a full body cramp while trying to connect the shower. Neither of us could work out why the shower had to connect under the sink but we’re back to the planning issue.

Six months on my psychiatrist and I are working through a recurring nightmare I’ve been having about a short, achy-jointed bloke trapped in a biscuit tin with an assortment of power tools.

Actually, to be perfectly honest, we had to let the substance abuse counsellor go. Not because she wasn’t good at her job, quite the opposite, she was excellent. The problem was that most of the time I was so pissed I couldn’t remember what we’d been talking about. Any time spent doing something I couldn’t recall was time I could employ better elsewhere.


We’ve done two fit-outs. The second is an improvement on the first, though considering we should have known what we were doing second time around, there is still the odd ‘anomaly’. I will mention one; for some reason (stupidity?) I have plumbed the cassette lavatory to the wrong pipe resulting in the unusual phenomenon of a hot flushing loo.

One chap did try and help on one occasion but inadvertently mixed up a small jar of milk with the setting agent from my two-part epoxy. He was summarily dismissed when a cupboard fell off a wall and my tea set solid. I was within two weeks of completing the job when it was pointed out to me by the same bloke (in an effort at spiteful revenge for his sacking) that I had been wearing my knee-pads upside down for the previous seven and a half months. He hadn’t thought to mention it earlier and, to my considerable irritation, he laughed till he wept.

While I was in the local hospital having my pencil removed from behind my right ear under local anaesthetic, he was undergoing more drastic surgery to remove an electric drill from his back passage.

Finally, you must unleash your finished project for appraisal by outside world, however successful your fit-out, expect no more than guarded enthusiasm from a fellow amateur or a ‘humph’ from a ‘professional’. Never was a truer word spoken in humph.

The above is an extract from A Barge at Large