The Nutshell Pram

By Steve Killing

Joel White’s Nutshell Pram is over 15 years old, but it is still as fresh as ever. If you have an urge to build your own boat, this perky little number would be a great way to get your feet wet.

The boat’s late designer once wrote this about his nutshell pram: “Little boats are fun to develop, but not easy. The design constraints are so strong, and the requirements are so firm, that the plans for a small boat can be a real challenge.” He is so right. For one thing, controlling the aesthetics of a compact dinghy is rather complex – there’s not much length to develop graceful overhangs or elegant sheerlines. Add to that the restriction that the boat has to be easy to build for novice woodworkers, and the design task escalates.

Plywood panels are used to create this build­it-yourself boat – a single panel of 3/8- inch plywood on the lower surface and three-quarter- inch plywood panels up the side. They overlap and are fastened in a rather unique way during the construction process. The top edge of the lower plank is bevelled to receive the plank above and the joint is liberally coated with epoxy resin. While the resin is setting, small plywood tabs are placed inside the hull, overlapping the joint, while a screw is driven through from outside to hold each one in place. The resulting pressure holds the joint tight and ensures a watertight seal. This seemingly crude approach of using tabs and screw holes every four inches is actually brilliant. After the epoxy sets up, the screws are pulled out, the tabs are removed and the holes are filled with epoxy.

I had the chance to watch 14 of these tenders take form at a community building project here in Midland, Ontario. Ken Woods, a local boat-building enthusiast, launched the “Build a boat with your mom (or dad, or grandmother, or scout leader…)” program. For most of the participants this is their first boat-building experience and the Nutshell design worked well. The participants built the larger version illustrated here (the original is only 7’7”), which will handle a more substantial payload while rowing or sailing. Each boat had an adult and at least one child sawing, gluing and sanding side by side. I only had to watch this group for a few moments before my belief in the therapeutic power of wooden boat building was reaffirmed. There are few places where you can find a more diverse group of people, working in such close proximity, joking together and, unknowingly, testing their own limits. It was wonderful.

Some of the small boats designed for amateur building have a final appearance that somehow seems fragile – they look like boats, but you could never imagine tackling any serious weather in them. This is not the case with the Nutshell. Its solid gunnels, ample knees that reinforce the transoms and full-length outer keel make the boat robust. The bow and stern are both flat transoms and the only tricky parts to the construction are a laminated central frame and forward inside keel. The shape of the hull and that all-important sheer-line are just right.

The sailing rig is a simple 55- square-foot sail with boom and yard that your children could toss about with one hand. The daggerboard, although presented on the drawings as a flat plywood blade with bevelled edges, would perform better with a nice foil shape, but when you built the boat yourself, this kind of customization is easy to do.

If this boat sounds like a project for you, the drawings are available from Wooden Boat magazine. I encourage you to join the thousands who know the satisfaction of creating a fine-looking boat with their own hands.

Originally published in Canadian Yachting’s Sailpast 1999 issue.

Length 9′ 6″
Beam 4′ 5″
Weight 110 lb
Draft 5″ (board up)
2′ 3″ (board down)
Sail area 55 sq. ft.

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