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Ultralight Boat Building

Advantages of Ultralight Boatbuilding

Anyone who has tried to move and store a heavy boat, or tried to wrangle a tender onto a yacht deck single handed, appreciates the benefits of ultra light boat building.

Besides the on-land qualities, a light boat offers many advantages. It's easier to move on the water whether she is being rowed or sailed. Less wind or oar power is needed making a sail boat faster in light air, and a row boat less tiresome. An ultralight motor boat takes less energy to move, this could be useful when the power comes from solar cells or limited batteries. This would allow a light boat to go further on a charge than a heavier boat

A significant advantage of ultralight boat building is the extra carrying capacity. More cargo can be carried in the same shape but lighter boat.

Reducing scantlings can make the boat less expensive to build. It can also reduce the time to build since sometimes, there is simply less structure.

There are some disadvantages to ultralight boat building.

In any situation where having some momentum in the boat motion is useful, an ultralight will be at a disadvantage. Thus an ultralight row boat will not glide on as well as a heavier boat during recovery stage, or a sail boat might not have enough momentum to tack easily when the winds are higher. My Skerry behaves better in high wind when another person or a sandbag is sitting in the bow.

When modifying a boat to be ultralight often the builder does not take into consideration the fact that the boat hull was designed to have a specific waterline. Modifying the boat's waterline changes the way the craft handles and can compromise stability. An obvious case it old fashioned bank dories which need to sit lower in the water and did not stabilize until the fisherman had fish on board.

A lighter craft sits on top of the waves instead of slicing through, this can increase pounding and bouncing. My Skerry is a good example of this. When going into the wind it will be much quieter and smoother if it has some weight in the front end. At about 100 pounds the hull is very buoyant and can slap into waves unless some ballast is added.

Many boats use their weight to provide stability, Keel boats are a prime example. Reducing weight sometimes reduces stability.

Reducing structure can also weaken the ultralight boat. Certainly any skin on frame construction is vulnerable in its frames.

Workmanship and maintenance become more important in an ultralight construction because there is usually not so much redundancy in the structure and any damage can be significant.

Ultralight Boat Building Methods

Ultralight boat building is a GOAL rather than a METHOD. To produce a light craft designers recommend light materials, including fittings, minimum required structure and the most efficient bracing systems.

Some methods of boat building are lighter than others. I've already mentioned skin on frame such as Kayaks as being traditionally lighter and more economical of material. (It is certainly possible to make a heavy kayak but harder.) Lapstrake is lighter than Carvel usually. Plywood is often, though not always, lighter than solid planks. Many strip planked boats are exceptionally light.

Using ultra strong and stiff material, with exceptional weight to strength ratios, improves the chances that a boat will be lighter. Substituting carbon fibre for regular fiberglass can result in extremely stiff light craft.

Most designs and particularly those designed to be built by relatively inexperienced boat builders often have redundant strength and bracing to allow for mistakes and lack of skill. Increasing the quality of boatbuilding and reducing or eliminating extra bracing can significantly reduce weight. This means there is less margin for error though.

Ultralight boats often have little or no built in flotation. Because they are light they usually float anyway. This should be carefully considered when using an ultra light boat and extra strap-in floats might make the boat significantly safer.

Several boatbuilders and tinkerers have been experimenting with corrugated plastic sheets such as coroplast. The boats are turning out to be ultra light and easy to handle. Here is my page on Coroplast boats.

Birchbark canoe were light boats

Ultralight boatbuilding is not a new idea.

Some extremely light crafts have been made in the past using traditional materials such as cedar, birch bark or skin and frame. There are some admirable strip planked boats that are as light as any of the modern ultralights. It boils down to attention to details and construction, careful choice of design and materials and resisting adding extra, heavy stuff and finishes onto the boat.

Geodesic Airolite has a line of Skin on Frame Ultralights

Geodesic Airolite has designed a whole line of Ultra-light crafts. They are made by putting together a strong frame and covering it with Dacron Polyester which is heat shrunk on the frame. There is Kevlar roving criss-crossing the frame to improve the stability of the frame.

Geodesic Airolite row boat

The result are strong beautiful Ultra light boats.

The resulting boats weight between 10 and 75 pounds with most of their boats sitting in the 20-35 pounds range.

Time to build is estimated between 30 for a simple solo canoe, to 250 hours for the more complex sailing dinghies.

Geodesic Airolite row boat Geodesic Airolite sailing dinghy

Michael Storer built a 12 pound Balsa Canoe

Michael Storer Boat article on Balsa canoe

Feather Canoe builds Ultralight Strip Boats

Wee Lassie style canoe is only about 20 pounds and gorgeous. They have plans for many others

stitch and glue ultralight

Chesapeake Light Craft

Chesapeake Light Craft company has many stitch and glue boats that can be very light. Here the Sassafras canoe weight in at only 26 pounds and has flotation front and back.


The CLC Annapolis Wherry is only 65 pounds and is a full wood with fiberglass performance rowboat. No need to baby this boat.

It's a rowing boat that is 17.5 feet.

Thomas Hill Boat Designs

Thomas Hill offers plans for glued plywood lapstrake construction method for canoes, skiffs, and dories.

Ultra light boat from thomas hill, canoe charlotte

Charlotte is a solo Double Paddle Canoe that is just short of 12 feet long and an extremely light 27 pounds. The lapstrake construction makes for a very attractive boat.

Thomas J. Hill is the author of 'Ultralight Boatbuilding'. This is a comprehensive how-to book on ultralight Glued plywood lapstrake construction methods.

Dreamcatcher Boats

Dreamcatcher boats sells plans, kits and holds boatbuilding sessions. They offer a number of skin on frame boat designs.

Nick Shade from Guillemot Kayak has a good video on building one of his kayaks.

Guillemot Kayak has several design of kayak some of which are ultralight skin on frame designs.

This video is on lashing the frame together. Nick Shrade offers several videos on his website.

Many stitch and glue boats particularly kayaks can be built very lightly. Skin on frame boats also tend to be quite light. Polyester and Nylon are 2 fabrics that are often used.

Check out the top and side bar for more links to PLANS, Builders, and interesting articles.

Building and using boats can be dangerous if you are not careful, so be careful already. Some plans and ideas are quite experimental and untested. By reducing weight, strength is often reduced so be warned. Since I have not built or tested them I can't recommend them.

email me if you find mistakes, I'll fix them and we'll all benefit: Christine