Entrepreneurship and an enduring love for wooden boats

The year was 1974. I was in the pilothouse of a 65-foot wooden tugboat based in Ketchikan, Alaska, off watch and taking a few moments to pause in my workday.

The year was 1974. I was in the pilothouse of a 65-foot wooden tugboat based in Ketchikan, Alaska, off watch and taking a few moments to pause in my workday.


While drinking strong coffee fresh off the top of the oil range, I started reading issue No. 1 of WoodenBoat. My fellow deckhand had brought the magazine in, and there was something in the air that had a sense of magic. The ambience of the old tug and the open mind of a very young man on the doorstep of adulthood seized the moment.

I still remember very clearly looking up at the overhead of the tug, the tongue-and-groove decking showing the individuality of every plank, and musing to myself that being a wooden boat builder might be a very fine thing to do with my life. It’s now 41 years later, and the vision and that dream still whir about in my head and I am happy to report that I am more than proud to have devoted my energies and my working life to just that dream!

But even at that early stage I knew that it couldn’t be an easy journey, and I knew that I would need to be absolutely certain this was the direction I wanted to go. I imagined putting on the garb of the wooden boat builder from the ground up. The shoes, the pants, the shirt, vest and hat all seemed comfortable to me; they fit my personality and my own sense of what I was (or what I wanted to be).

I knew that in order to be successful in this career I would need to metaphorically jump with both feet and fully dressed into water that would most certainly be over my head and I would need to be so completely devoted to the craft, to the art and to the spirit of designing and building wooden boats that I could do nothing but be successful. Without allowing myself the option of not succeeding, the only direction was to rise up and break the surface of the water with a loud yell, announcing what I aspired to be and what I ultimately became.

The mid-‘70s were a magical time, when the rulebook for what to do with one’s life and career sort of got thrown out the door. It was during this time that I had the chance to go down a route that had no road map. I would need to make my own as I traveled this path.

With the passing of years I can now report what in the rear-view mirror has been an amazing journey. The boatbuilding method I originally seized on — stitch and glue — owns the lion’s share of the homebuilder market.

Very nearly all non-professional boatbuilders worldwide use it, and the amount of shapes and types of vessels that can be built with it is amazing. As for my own contribution with just a handful of skilled co-workers, my company has constructed more than 420 vessels during the 38 years we have been in business, all but four of them to my own design.

I have written several books on the stitch-and-glue method, and I am finishing another book that McGraw-Hill will publish next spring. We have shipped building plans to professional and amateur boatbuilders in 84 countries for more than 100 different models of Devlin boat designs from 6.5 to 65 feet.

Stitch and glue is a boatbuilding method that uses sheet marine plywood, epoxy glues, fiberglass and other synthetic cloth reinforcements to help weld the marine plywood of the hull of the boat together. For the smaller shop, it opens up a broad variety of designs that can be built quickly and easily because no tooling, molds or other expensive set-ups are needed before starting construction.

The method allows the boat user to have a product that is about as trouble-free as possible in the marine environment, and that translates to a better bottom line for the boatbuilder in a world where it’s hard to get paid well for such skilled labor.

If you ask how I was inspired to take my first job in the marine industry, I would tell you the truth — I had no option but to become a wooden boat builder and designer. I love boats and I love this craft so much that there was really never a question of doing anything else.

Sam Devlin is the founder and president of Devlin Designing Boat Builders in Olympia, Washington.


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