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Until the mid-19th century most boats were made of natural materials, primarily wood, although reed, bark and animal skins were also used. Early boats include the bound-reed style of boat seen in Ancient Egypt, the birch bark canoe, the animal hide-covered kayak and coracle and the dugout canoe made from a single log.
Bill Streever describes a boat made by the native Inupiat people in Barrow, Alaska as “a skin boat, an umiaq, built from the stitched hides of bearded seals and used to hunt bowhead whales in the open-water leads during spring…”.
By the mid-19th century, many boats had been built with iron or steel frames but still planked in wood. In 1855 ferro-cement boat construction was patented by the French, who coined the name “ferciment”. This is a system by which a steel or iron wire framework is built in the shape of a boat’s hull and covered (trowelled) over with cement. Reinforced with bulkheads and other internal structure, it is strong but heavy, easily repaired, and, if sealed properly, will not leak or corrode. These materials and methods were copied all over the world and have faded in and out of popularity to the present time. As the forests of Britain and Europe continued to be over-harvested to supply the keels of larger wooden boats, and the Bessemer process (patented in 1855) cheapened the cost of steel, steel ships and boats began to be more common. By the 1930s boats built entirely of steel from frames to plating were seen replacing wooden boats in many industrial uses, also for fishing fleets. Private recreational boats of steel are however uncommon. In the mid-20th century aluminium gained popularity. Though much more expensive than steel, there are now aluminium alloys available that do not corrode in salt water, and an aluminium boat built to similar load carrying standards is lighter in weight than the steel equivalent . Around the mid-1960s, boats made of glass-reinforced plastic, more commonly known as fibreglass, became popular, especially for recreational boats. The United States Coast Guard refers to such boats as ‘FRP’ (for fibre-reinforced plastic) boats.
Fibreglass boats are strong, and do not rust (iron oxide), corrode, or rot. They are, however susceptible to structural degradation from sunlight and extremes in temperature over their lifespan. Fibreglass provides structural strength, especially when long woven strands are laid, sometimes from bow to stern, and then soaked in epoxy or polyester resin to form the hull. Whether hand laid or built in a mould, Fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP) boats usually have an outer coating of gelcoat, which is a thin solid colored layer of polyester resin that adds no structural strength, but does create a smooth surface which can be buffed to a high shine and also acts as a protective layer against sunlight. FRP structures can be made stiffer with sandwich panels, where the FRP encloses a lightweight core such as balsa or foam. Cored FRP is most often found in decking, which helps keep down weight that will be carried above the waterline. The addition of wood makes the cored structure of the boat susceptible to rotting, which puts a greater emphasis on not allowing damaged sandwich structures to go unrepaired. Plastic based foam cores are less vulnerable. The phrase ‘advanced composites’ in FRP construction may indicate the addition of carbon fibre, Kevlar or other similar materials, but it may also indicate methods designed to introduce less expensive and, by at least one yacht surveyor’s eyewitness accounts, less structurally sound materials.
Cold moulding is similar to FRP in as much as it involves the use of epoxy or polyester resins, but the structural component is wood instead of fibreglass. In cold moulding very thin strips of wood are layered over a form or mould. Each layer is coated with resin and another directionally alternating layer is laid on top. In some processes the subsequent layers are stapled or otherwise mechanically fastened to the previous layers, but in other processes the layers are weighted or even vacuum bagged to hold them together while the resin sets. Layers are built up until the required hull thickness is achieved.
Boats or watercraft have also been made of materials such as foam or plastic, but most homebuilts today are built of plywood and either painted or covered with a layer of fibreglass and resin.
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