Over a decade ago I built the John Gardner-drawn 12’ Dion Punt below to use for swamp-logging in beaver ponds; a tender for setting the tongs and chokers used to grab the logs. The advantage of this design is that beaver ponds are full of stumps you often can’t see because of the dark swamp water, and they regularly hang up heavily-loaded conventional skiffs so badly you have to get out and push. According to Gardner, this boat was patterned after large cranberry bog punts used to transport heavy loads that sometimes included the draft horses they were towed with, and is purposefully more buoyant in the bow than in the stern. With this boat, when you get hung up on an obstacle, you merely move to the rear oarlocks and row off…without problems…one of those rare, “Voila!” moments, well worth the two weeks it took to mill the lumber and build the boat.
Boatyard owner Fred Dion designed and built the first one of these in the 1930’s as a tender for his two marine railways in Salem, Massachusetts, marine railways also having underwater structure prone to hanging up skiffs. The scantlings on this boat are extra heavy for stability, impact resistance and all-around commercial use. This is hardly a sport boat, as it weighs over 300lbs when wet. I followed the design almost exactly, only substituting Western Red Cedar over Douglas Fir for the original Eastern White Pine over White Oak. Not only has this boat been used hard, when not being winched from the water and onto a heavy-equipment trailer behind the skidder, it has lived at a mooring out in the weather 24-7-365. When not in use, we simply let it fill with rainwater at its mooring and even freeze in the ice as less work than winching it out regularly. You can see the average waterline indicated by the white algae stains on the boat’s sides. Further, the only care the boat has received in the decade+ it’s been in the water or moved around with heavy machines are minor topside paint touchups to protect it from the baking summer sun here. Finally getting around to beaching it for proper repair and repainting after a decade+ of abuse is a good opportunity to study which boatbuilding techniques worked well…and which techniques did not.
A migrating beaver family dams up a likely stream bottom at the end of a forested basin; the water rises and drowns the trees, which eventually rot off at the base and fall over. Over time the dam silts up and becomes a permanent pond, with some centuries-old dams a hundred feet long and forty feet thick looking like they were made using a bulldozer. The cottonwood, hemlock, willow, alder, maple, cherry, crabapple and other non-durable woods rot quickly, and along with tree litter from the surrounding forest, become the deep humus on the pond bottom. The more durable Douglas Fir and Pacific Yew become the mat of slowly-disintegrating snags floating on top of the water, and the cedars eventually waterlog and sink to the bottom. In these three recovered, old-growth cedar sawlogs bucked to 12’ above, there are (among other uses) around a thousand linear feet of vertical-grain siding custom-milled to match that on old houses, and represent a substantial return on investment.
Western Red Cedar. Often maligned as too soft and too brittle for optimum boat planking, I find in the 7/8” thickness used here to be incredibly tough, durable, resilient and easy to work. In fact, if I ever build another of these punts I’ll use either Western Red or Alaska Yellow Cedar in a slightly thicker scantling for the transom, bow stiffener, guards and even the inwales instead of Douglas Fir. Both cedars are more rot resistant, hold paint better, don’t check when left unpainted in the sun, and in collisions and abuse don’t split and splinter anywhere near as easily. It’s like hitting a stump with a bag of sand as opposed to a caulking mallet. Nor do I find Western Red to dent easily when properly coated; it tends to bounce off instead. That it doesn’t hold screws well can be fixed by saturating the pilot holes with epoxy thinned by solvents or heat before driving the screws.
I milled the lumber for this boat to Gardner’s exact scantlings with an appropriate shrinkage allowance without thickness-planing it, and airdried it for two years before use. The rough surfaces worked very well as a key for paint, bedding or fairing compound, were easily belt-sanded in the few places where smooth is desirable, and not having to run all that lumber through the planer while fussing with finished thicknesses saved a couple days in construction time.
Second-Growth Lumber. I had a few pieces of high ring-count, old-growth fir I used for the transom, inwales, bow stiffener, and thwart knees…otherwise all the cedar and fir was second-growth, generally 8 rings to the inch or better, and vertical grain from large, mature, 80-year-old trees. I found no advantage at all to the old-growth in resistance to rot, checking or splitting. Of the three knees I replaced because of rot, one was old-growth…and the part I’m having the most trouble with is the old-growth, quartersawn, Doug Fir transom, which doesn’t match the seasonal stability of the similarly-cut cedar sides, and accordingly, has minor splits in two places requiring repair.
Hot-Dipped Galvanized Fasteners.
If yours is to be a fresh-water boat, they can save you significant money over bronze or stainless providing you take some precautions. Bed the pilot holes in thinned epoxy or red lead and goo, and they will hold up better than those on the left in the photo. I was in a hurry, only bedded a few pilot holes, and a decade later you can easily tell which ones. Skip those steps and they rust like their counterparts on the right. Where you can use them, galvanized steel fasteners are a distinct advantage come repair time, as a common brace chucked with a screwdriver bit backs even the rusty ones out easily. In turn, the heads of softer bronze and some stainless grades like to strip, and bronze screws twist off much more easily. Depending on boat size and how it will be used, the cost difference between metals can be significant. The price ratio between hot-dipped galvanized to 18-8 stainless to silicon bronze is typically 1 to 3X to 5X, and this boat used a dozen or so boxes of #10’s, #12’s and #14’s from 1 ½ to 2 ¼ inches long.
For greater economy, the boat could be nailed together and have the same longevity, it just wouldn’t be as easy to repair. I prefer bronze ring-shanks because they are soft…a pry bar and a hacksaw blade make disassembly almost as fast as a brace and galvanized screws. Once cut, the head is driven out with a punch and the pointed stub is driven into the wood to stay. Stainless ring-shanks or box nails aren’t anywhere near as easy, and are almost as expensive. Galvanized boat nails are also an option, but nails don’t bed as easily as screws and won’t last as long as a well-bedded screw.
And if you like to use a brace for screw chores as I do, I recommend you find an 8-incher on eBay for driving to supplement the 10 or 12-incher you probably are using for removals. Few out there value braces as user tools today, and even the rare ones go relatively cheaply. Smaller, lighter and surprisingly handier, the tiny 8-incher replaces the Yankee Screwdriver entirely in many instances…only with much more power, more precise control, and less carpal pain…plus saving you the step of rigging a different tool for many tight spots.
They can both lengthen the life of the sheer guards by providing padding from bumps, and also shorten the life of those guards if you don’t properly bed the screws or marline holes used to mount the rope. I failed to bed all those #6 stainless screws, allowing lots of water ingress from the slow-to-dry rope…and the Doug Fir guards rotted well before their time.