Jim Michalak's Boat Designs

118 E Randall, Lebanon, IL 62254

A page of boat designs and essays.

(1Apr05) This issue will rerun the essay on joining plywood sheets. The 15April issue should get around to start the panel expansions on Bobsboat.



is out now, written by me and edited by Garth Battista of Breakaway Books. You might find it at your bookstore. If not check it out at the....


...which can now be found at Duckworks Magazine. You order with a shopping cart set up and pay with credit cards or by Paypal. Then Duckworks sends me an email about the order and then I send the plans right from me to you.


John Mansolillo on his way to the Coast Guard Acadamy in his Piccup Pram.



Contact info:


Jim Michalak
118 E Randall,
Lebanon, IL 62254

Send $1 for info on 20 boats.





Almost any boat you build from plywood will require panels longer than the 8' lengths you will find at the lumberyard. For an "instant boat" the usual manner of joining the panels together to get one long panel is with a butt strap or butt plate. I've tried lots of different ways to make the joint in the 15 or so boats I've built over the years. All the methods worked. I have a feeling that the butt joints on the usual instant boat hull are not highly loaded and not too critical to overall boat strength. Since I've tried several ways and they all worked I've gotten to be pretty nebulous about the subject on my drawings. Lately I've been specifiying a butt plate as something like "Butt plate from 3/4" x 3-1/2" lumber, or equal" which doesn't tell you much. Most builders get by pretty well with just that but recently one builder asked what in the world I meant, and rightly so. So let's start the discussion with one joint I've never tried in plywood.


scarf joint

Figure 1 shows the traditional plywood scarf joint. I''ve never done this in plywood although I've made a lot of scarf joints in plain lumber. The two overlapping faces are tapered and glued together such that both joined faces remain smooth. If you are building a traditional lapstrake boat from plywood you have to make the joints this way.

What good about it? The faces are smooth both sides. Essentially you have a single piece of wood to work with after making the joint. It's quite strong, as strong as the base wood provided the taper is long enough. I've seen the taper range from 6:1 to 12:1. The shorter tapers are easier to make and probably just as good given modern glues.

What's bad about it? The tapers can be hard to make properly although thickened epoxy has made experts of most of us. Some experts have special saw rigs to cut the taper. Most use power hand planes or belt sanders, I think. When gluing the joint you must press it up against a firm surface while the glue cures, making sure nothing glues to that surface, and making sure the two pieces are secured lengthwise so the tapers don't push them apart as you apply clamping pressure.

There is one more warning for instant boat builders. Almost all instant boat designs have panels layouts which assume you will not be using a scarf joint. If you join two 8' panels with a scarf joint you will NOT end up with a 16' panel. It will be shorter by the overlap amount. That might be just enought to negate the ply panel layout.


Payson butt strap

I think this type of joint was described in Payson's great book INSTANT BOATS. I used it on my Teal which was my first homemade boat. The side panels were 1/4" thick on my boat, the bottom 3/8". The butt straps were 3/8" plywood, 6" wide. So the effect of the joint was similar to a 12;1 scarf on the 1/4" ply sides and about 8:1 scarf on the bottom. The nails were supposed to be copper, but I think Harold might have also suggested copper rivets or short bolts for fasteners.

What's good about it? It's pretty simple to visualize and make. If the fastening is good you can make the joint and go right on building without waiting for the glue to set. You might do that with the sides, for example. Another neat thing about this plain butt strap joint is that, with a typical flat iron skiff type of assembly, the bottom panels need not be joined before assembly onto the hull. In that case you will have the hull inverted on sawhorses ready for the bottom. Then you put the first bottom piece on attaching it to the sides. Then you install the first butt strap at the end of that piece. Then you install the next bottom panel to that butt strap and the sides. And so forth until the entire bottom is planked, like laying bricks.

I might mention now that I think butt straps and plates should be well rounded at the ends to avoid trapping dirt and moisture. In boats that have taped seams I advise stopping the butt strap short of the edge of the panel so you will have room to run the tapes undisturbed. This is especially true of butt straps on the bottom. You must have a clear limber channel around the perimenter of the bottom. In that case I stop the strap about 1/2" short of the side, fill the little gap with epoxy to keep the water out, and tape over the bottom of the joint with glass tape and epoxy. Usually I don't put glass tape over the outside of the side panel joints. But butt joints in any deck should be well sealed with glass and epoxy. Here is an end view of the treatment:

joint end view

What's bad about the plywood strap? I think in Maine you aren't a man until you've made a boat with clenched copper nails or rivets. Not so where I live, can't buy them any place I know of. I got by with bronze boat nails but they really aren't flexible enough for the job. They didn't look too cool. And the edges of the plywood butt straps don't look too cool either, wanting to have gaps and splinters showing. It takes a while to finish them. And, of course, you have a lump at each joint and folks will ask, "What's that?"

By the way, when I built my Toto I used the simple plywood strap method with no fasteners. Just carefully lay the ply panels over the straps which were well buttered with glue, weighed it all down with concrete blocks to provide pressure, and stayed away for a few days until I was sure the glue was totally set.


When I built my Birdwatcer in 1988 I think I piled on more layers of plywood straps such that I wouldn't have to bend over the nails. And by that time I was more expert at finishing the edges of plywood. It worked but it was very obvious that I could have done the same thing with regular lumber and saved a bit of work.


lumber butt plate

This is I like to advise now. Not much to it. Very quick and easy to make. Some say it looks too clunky for their tastes.

If there has been any structural problem with the above butt plate it is at the ends of a plate that joins bottom panels, ending short of the sides to allow a limber path. If the ends of the plate are not solidly glued and fastened to the bottom panels the butt plate will eventually loosen at the ends. I think that is due to the rapid change in flexibility in the system where the plate suddenly ends. A better solution might be to taper the end of the bottom butt plates starting maybe 3" in from the end of the plate and tapering down to maybe 3/8" thick at the ends. That will allow a gradual change in the flexibility and prevent a stress riser at the end of the butt plate. By the way, for any bulky butt joint care must be taken in design to see that the joints don't fall in places where the butt plate will be in the way.


light glass joint

Both Harold Payson and Dave Carnell presented this one to U.S. readers in the '80's but I'll bet the English inventors of taped seam boats did it earlier. Simple as can be in theory. Just a layer of fiberglass on each side of the plywood.

Dave Carnell presents lots of details at his web site. He has done scientific load tests of these joints and says the joint will be as strong as the base wood if you use one layer of fiberglass cloth in epoxy on each side of 1/4" plywood, two layers on 3/8" plywood, three layers on 1/2" plywood, and four layers on 3/4" plywood.

I used the glass butt joint on my Roar rowboat but went back to wooden butt joints later. At first it would appear that the joint is easily made by laying the ply pieces on the floor, taping one side with fiberglass, waiting to cure, flipping the panel and repeating on the other side. But I found that plywood on its own often does not want to lay flat enough to get a smooth fit, so I had to place the joint over a board and screw the pieces down flat. Next the idea of flipping the panel with only one side taped doesn't work well because that one layer of glass has little strength by itself. But it can be done carefully. Better yet is what both Payson and Carnell advise: glass both sides at once. Lay the first side of fiberglass layers wet with epoxy on a protected flat surface, lay the plywood to be joined upon it, lay the second side of fiberglass over the top of the joint, cover with plastic sheet and weigh down with concrete blocks. The plastic sheeting not only protects everything from gooey epoxy, but it should provide a smooth final finish and if you are lucky no filling or sanding required afterward.


heavy glass joint

Harold Payson did a little more work on the glass butt joint. I'm doing this from memory and hope I'm getting it right. To hide the build up of glass on a thicker sheet of plywood he recessed the surfaces roughly with a sanding disk in a drill. Then he added a layer of light fiberglass matt to the wood before pasting in the glass. Fiberglass matt is generally thought to provide better adhesion to wood than glass cloth although by itself it has little strength. Harold is big on using polyester resin on his boats instead of epoxy so perhaps the matt is more important for the polyester users. But you can see the advantage of the system: the final joint can be more or less invisible as the multiple layers of glass are recessed.


We'll start figuring how much sail your boat needs.




Tom Raidna's Toto

The photo above is from Tom Raidna.

Toto has been my most successful design. Initially she was an experiment to test a new bow shape - a deep V bow that blends into a multichine well aft. There's a twist in the bow bilge panels and at the time I didn't know how to expand those panels on the drawing board. So I built her without them and then sized them by cut and fit. Then I recorded the shapes on the prints. Nowadays this sort of twisted paned expansion is routine on a computer to great accuracy (provided the input is accurate).

The boat is an easy prefab job from two sheets of 5MM ply. Marc Smith came to the 1994 Midwest Messabout with tow of these Totos strapped to the roof of his Birdwatcher. They were built by two twelve year old girls under Marc's guidance. Marc said the girls did all the work including using the power tools. And they paddled around the Messabout in them.

It's fun to compare Toto with the typical minimal dink because they usually come from the same pile of stuff and labor. Toto covered the 6000 foot long dam at Carlyle lake in 14 minutes with a moderate paddling effort for 4-1/2 mph. She's more seaworthy but she's wetter when pressed because of paddle splash. She has a buoyancy/storage chamber aft. It will keep your shoes and stuff dry while you splash around and I believe it has about 180 pounds of buoyancy volume if the hatch cover stays watertight. (But you can't "self rescue" in any boat like this without very special training. It's best to stay within a short swim or wade to shallow water.) The open cockpit is large enough to allow sleeeping inside, as I have done many times. She's shaped for easy cartopping. In good conditions she'll paddle two adults. The long lean bow seems to ignore an overload, unlike plumb bows which can become cranky when immersed. She'll take you through some very rough stuff if you are solo. But the dinks have their place too. They can have sailing stability and many will find their elevated seating more comfortable. By the way, a boat like Piragua with a simple wide flat bottom won't be as fast or as seaworthy as Toto, but you might be able to stand up in Piragua. Don't expect to do that in a boat like Toto.

I've rounded up some more Toto photos. Here are three by John Mulligan on Long Island. These three and Raidna's look to me to be build per blueprint. (I'd sit a little farther forward myself.)

Mulligan's Totos

Dale Dagger rides a wave in Nicaragua in his Toto.

Here is Bob Hoffert's Toto in Ohio, maybe the first boat after mine. Looks like he has added a fore deck and put a big access hole in the aft bulkhead. (Remember that the aft storage box is also supposed to be an emergency buoyancy air box to help save your butt in a capsize.)

Hoffert's Toto

Here is John Ellwood's Toto in Massachusetts. Crowned fore and aft decks and another access hole in the aft bulkhead, although this one appears to have a cover.

Ellwood's Toto

Here is Garth Battista of Breakaway Books with a small foredeck and some good company:

Here is Don Duquet with good company getting ready to watch a space shuttle launch:

Here is Bob Cole's delux Toto, totally decked with watertight storage in both ends way up in northern Canada:

And the fanciest Toto ever by Dean Souza in Washington, with watertight storage fore and aft, fancy coamings, cleats and line chocks, even the national flag flying on the stern!

Souza's Toto

Bob Hoyle in Florida:

And Al Fittipaldi (New Jersey) made this Toto and got a picture of it in Woodenboat magazine!

And Amanda in Barry Johnson's Toto in South Carolina. He has a Toto construction website at Barry Builds Toto

And Bill Turnbull's Toto on the Florida gulf coast:

And Stephen Dandridge's Toto delux out in California:

And we think this is Terry Lesh's Toto delux (seen at a boat show out West):

And here is one by Don O'Hearn of St. Louis, photo from the 2002 Rend Lake Messabout:

And Al Straub's Toto in Michigan:

That is all I can find photos for right now. I'm sure there are more.

Plans come with complete instructions including the details of taped seam construction and a drawing of a simple paddle that works. (Marc Smith's girls used double paddles made from old vaulting poles with plywood blades bolted on. I tried their boats and paddles and they were quite good.) No jigs or lofting required.

Blueprints plus instructions for Toto are $15 when ordered directly from me.


Prototype News

Some of you may know that in addition to the one buck catalog which now contains 20 "done" boats, I offer another catalog of 20 unbuilt prototypes. The buck catalog has on its last page a list and brief description of the boats currently in the Catalog of Prototypes. That catalog also contains some articles that I wrote for Messing About In Boats and Boatbuilder magazines. The Catalog of Prototypes costs $3. The both together amount to 50 pages for $4, an offer you may have seen in Woodenboat ads. Payment must be in US funds. The banks here won't accept anything else. (I've got a little stash of foreign currency that I can admire but not spend.) I'm way too small for credit cards.

The AF4G is done and launched. Writeup after testing:

Garth has the big Cormorant project to the point where he can run power to it and set it up with a mattress and TV set and Mr Coffee and make it a hangout for the New York winter!

The out West Picara has its roof and some major sail rig bits done:

The down South Picara is getting its innards done.

This long and lean project is a 19' version of Toon2. I don't have the drawings done yet. The builder is working from preliminary drawings and is about to pass me up. MDO plywood looks like cardboard now but it isn't.

The prototype River Runner is complete and waiting for good weather up North for a test:

We have an experienced builder starting a Mayfly16:





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Dave Carnell

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Brokeboats (archived copy)

Brian builds Roar2 (archived copy)

Herb builds AF3 (archived copy)

Herb builds RB42 (archived copy)

Barry Builds Toto

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