Build Your Own Custom Boat

A master builder offers paint-by-numbers.

Build Your Own Custom Boat

If you are a dreamer whose focus is hopelessly locked on boats, you may want to skip my column this month — because the information I have to share has the potential to turn your harmless social boating into a full-blown addiction. If I still have your attention, you may as well find a good divorce attorney too, because your marriage will certainly sour thanks to your new passion. You are going to build your own custom boat with the help of a kit and instructions supplied by master builder Mark Willis.

Having cobbled together a mail-order kit boat when I was studying yacht design in the 1970s, I was at a loss as to what Willis had in mind. This is a guy who builds some of the finest custom tournament boats I have come across. His last 92-footer consumed more than 92,000 man-hours . Willis is a triple Type A when it comes to detail, and not the sort to tolerate anything less than perfection. I imagined him tracking down a ham-handed kit-boat customer and chain-sawing his project as a failure. Willis claims that will not be the case: “It’s up to our builder customers how much fit-and-finish they put into their boats.” Willis’ do-it-yourself project is no sheet-plywood shoe box; it is a drop-dead-beautiful, 18-foot cold-molded fishing skiff, with the potential to be a 10, given a builder with ability and about 1,500 man-hours to complete it!

The idea for a kit boat was born following the completion of an after-hours project boat, Willis explained. “The boats we build cost millions of dollars, and we thought it would be fun to design and build a boat that folks like us could afford.” Using the leftovers from a half-dozen tournamentboat projects, Willis built a 20-footer that he christened Scraps in 1997. The 18-foot kit boat is a refinement of this design and is something of a hybrid. She is large enough to be tagged with the popular “bay boat” classification yet small and light enough to be muscled across a flat with a push-pole. She measures 18 feet 6 inches, has a beam of 8 feet and draws about nine inches with the motor up. Her design is reminiscent of Willis’ larger creations with a gentle S-sheer, a rakish stem and a touch of tumblehome at the transom.

Willis designed the boat piece by piece on the computer — literally. The kit is cut from 65 sheets of okoume plywood using the same five-axis router that cuts the jigs and framing for Willis’ custom tournament boats. “We really took things much further with the kit boat,” explains Willis. Every piece of wood is cut to fit by the router, even the alternating, diagonally laid 1/16-inch planks used in the cold-molding process. “We actually discovered that investing this sort of time up front in design will save hours of hand-fitting and shaping on our large boats,” Willis said.

The 1,300-pound kit includes all the wood parts necessary to complete the boat, as well as two molded fiberglass bait/storage wells and a fiberglass helm console. Willis said the raw-material cost alone is $11,000. The kit’s $20,000 price tag includes a license to build one boat and a how-to DVD. Sources are provided for hardware and fittings as well as the epoxy, fiberglass and finish materials. The 150- to 175-horsepower outboard motor Willis recommends is owner-supplied. If you are confident you will make it that far, you might as well add the $4,500 for the teak deck kit and the custom ebonytrimmed teak dash with stainless-steel bezel.

Willis doesn't expect to sell a lot of kits and also offers the boat complete with motor for $85,000. "Craftsmanship and working with your hands is a dying art — most of my guys in the shop are over 50," he said. Still, Willis hopes that a few folks will step up to the challenge and discover the same satisfaction he has found in boatbuilding. Grab your tools and check out — you'll be hooked!