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The Essential Wooden Boat Reading List: Welcome!

Resources selected by wooden boat builders to be shared with all.

An Introduction to The Essential Wooden Boat Reading List

The Essential Wooden Boat Reading List represents an authoritative set of resources, mostly books, related to the craft and history of wooden boat building as identified by leading wooden boat builders on the Eastern Coast of the United States.  The list narrows the divide between craftsmen, scholars, and the general public by identifying authoritative titles and facilitating their access in United States libraries.

Wooden boat building, though not among the trades taught at the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA), aligns seamlessly with the College’s intention to educate artisans in the traditional building arts, to foster exceptional craftsmanship, and to promote the ideals of integrity of construction and stewardship.

Today’s trends in building tend toward impermanence for many reasons, and utilitarian buildings are expected to have only a short lifespan.  This dismal paradigm belittles the role of the builder and suggests that a life’s labor is disposable, a fairly recent development.  Traditionally, buildings and objects were designed to last far into the future.  Vincent Scully reminds us in his article Tomorrow's Ruins Today that past buildings were built in relation to those that were created generations before and were constructed to last many lifetimes beyond the lives of the builders.

Since ancient times, boats have been built from wood. Things changed, however, in the 1960s when fiberglass became the predominant material for boats.  Fiberglass offers an affordable alternative to wood.  Light and infinitely moldable, it is also easy to maintain; it does not leak or rot.  Yet fiberglass boats are disposable.  When broken or old, they are most often discarded or replaced.  Wooden boats represent a configuration of materials that will most likely outlive their creators and makers. In his book Wooden Boats, Michael Ruhlman explains that these boats are a “symbol of the natural world, of those things that are good and true,” counter to throw-away culture.  Our ancestors knew the everlasting nature of materials from the earth.  Take, for example, the brick ziggurats of the Mesopotamia or the stone cathedrals of Europe. One recognizes beauty in this work and in the craftsman’s or shipwright’s ingenuity and skill that went into creating it.  There is love for what the boat represents as much as the boat itself.  Wooden boats are not discarded but repaired and restored.  Scully asserts that “perhaps for things to last, one has to love their physicality in old, pre-modern ways.” Love makes things that last. 

A conscious decision was made to gather this list from ship builders and sailors themselves, despite the fact that some insisted that they only looked at the pictures.  As a professor of timber framing at ACBA says, one simply cannot learn a trade from a book.  And perhaps this is true.  However, as librarians, we recognize the crucial role that books play in preserving information, transferring knowledge, and inspiring people to try new things. It is our hope that this list will inspire another generation of craftsmen and lovers of wooden boats.

Jennifer France
Former Librarian, American College of the Building Arts

Rebecca McClure
Librarian, American College of the Building Arts

Assisted by Heather Richie, Graduate Research Assistant, Sewanee: The University of the South

All photos courtesy of Heather Richie.

Carnegie-Whitney Grant

Supported by a Carnegie-Whitney Grant from the American Library Association.

The Carnegie-Whitney Grant provides grants for the preparation of popular or scholarly reading lists, webliographies, indexes and other guides to library resources that will be useful to users of all types of libraries in the United States. 

American College of the Building Arts

The American College of the Building Arts, located in Charleston, South Carolina, is dedicated to educating and training artisans in the traditional building trades and to fostering exceptional craftsmanship via a four-year liberal arts curriculum in six craft specializations. 


Rebecca McClure
21 Magazine Street
Charleston, SC 29401
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