Editors note: This article was a readers request. One of our forum members asked a question about Tolman skiffs, I transmitted the query to Renn and here is his reply. If there is something you will like to see in amateurboatbuilding ask, and I will try my best to get it for you.

Renn Tolman on the Tolman Skiff

NEW June 2007: a Seabright skiff hull version is in the works.

I was recently asked about what qualities the Tolman skiff has that sets it apart from traditional designs such as the Oregon dories, Carolina skiffs and the like. As a skiff builder and user, as well as a designer, I think I'm qualified to present a good picture of what makes my skiffs distinctive. For openers, Tolman skiffs (there are three models) have vee bottoms, whereas just about all the traditional skiffs I can name have flat bottoms. It wasn't always this way with Tolman skiffs, and as they say therein hangs a tale.

When I moved to coastal Alaska 35 years ago, I wanted a boat, and since I was a "low budget operator" (sounds better than "hippy"), it had to be cheap to buy and to run and safe to use on a large and often rough bay. In 1972 bought my first skiff, a double ended dory with the engine in a well. Safe and cheap it was, but it didn't plane, and it was pretty frustrating to see every other boat on the bay pass you twice every day, going and coming. So I built a Carolina dory skiff-not a big deal since I was carpenter by trade. Since basically I knew nothing about boats, I thought this was a fine skiff. It went exactly twice as fast with the same modest power I had used on the dory, and seemed seaworthy enough. If it pounded the fillings out of your teeth in a 12-inch chop and yawed so badly in a following sea you were in danger of being flung overboard, well, I guessed that was all part of the normal skiff experience.

During the decade of the '70s there were a lot low budget operators around and a shortage of cheap skiffs, and it naturally followed that I began to build skiffs for sale as a wintertime sideline. Show me a skiff you liked, and I'd build you one, from plans if there were any, or simply by measuring and copying. So it was that I got to observe a lot of skiff designs, including the famed Oregon dory. This skiff was a big improvement over the Carolina skiff in that there was a long and pronounced upturn in the bottom towards the bow, which made it somewhat more forgiving in following seas and actually seemed to mitigate a bit the awful pounding associated with flat bottom skiffs. It also had a very effective pair of spray rails affixed to the to the topsides, which turned a lot of the spray that developed when the wind piped up. Like the Carolina skiff, the engine was mounted in a well, and in our ignorance we skiff users assumed this was a feature which contributed to seaworthiness.

From my perspective as a commercial boat builder all these traditional designs had a problem which boiled down to one word: ribs. A skiff with ribs is slow to build. They say it isn't so much the size of a boat that takes the time, it's the number of individual parts that need to be shaped, glued up and fitted. Then there's the epoxy saturation. From the git-go I believed-and still believe-epoxy saturation and fiberglass sheathing (set in epoxy) is the way to go for plywood skiffs. Planing skiffs are like airplanes in that weight is absolutely critical to efficient operation, and how better to keep a skiff light that to seal the water out? But sealing the ribs with epoxy was a labor intensive task. I wanted to sell a lot of skiffs, and to do that they had to be reasonably priced.

About this time I noticed the plywood skiffs built by another builder in the area during the 1960's (he had since switched to fiberglass) were reinforced by longitudinal stringers and sawn "shelves" at the chine and gunwale. Like fiberglass boats, there were no ribs. In 1980 I designed and built the first Tolman skiff using his building system, and over the next five winters I built about 50 of them.

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This book contains very detailed plans for how to build all three of my skiff hulls and the information necessary for adding many options such as decks, storage lockers, steering consoles, and a variety of cabins. The book is 8 1/2 x 11 inches in size and has 250 pages. There are 175 drawings and over 100 photos.
The book and CNC cut kits are available from Skiffkits in Alaska. The book is also available from Duckworks.
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