My Boat Building Experience

This is a brief summary of how to plan & work on narrowboats, wide beams and other boats.

I have more than 30 years, living on and building narrowboats and over 10 years, building wide beams. I hope the following can reduce your learning curve, help save you a lot of time & money and help you make a better boat.

The same rules apply, anywhere in the world for any boat.

Narrow Boats up to 57ft can travel on every navigable canal and river in the UK but watch the air and water draft. Any longer than 57-58ft and you get length restrictions in locks.

Wide Beams are for most navigable rivers and wide canals, they are not for narrow beam canals.

Although the benefits of a narrowboat are obvious for traveling, the benefits of a wide beam are huge for living on board and costs. “You can have a great life on either”. The two big benefits of a wide beam are the additional living space, and depending on dimensions, you can re-claim the VAT in the UK, which can add up to tens of thousands of pounds. There are various sites that you can use to check the VAT status. HMRC is a good start.

Note: On all boats, always take into account, air draft for minimum height of bridges, water draft for the minimum depth of water, beam of the boat for the minimum width of the river and length for the minimum inner length of locks. There are websites that you will find to check these facts out. For the UK, British Waterways have lots of information. Never travel in floods or on waterways that are deemed not navigable.

Air draft is the height of the boat above the waterline. Water draft is the depth of the boat in the water. Beam of the boat is the maximum width of the boat.

Above, you have a brief description of what I believe are the main differences of steel narrowboats and wide-beams.

Narrowboat or Wide-beam

  1. It’s a big decision!

Some of the things you need to take into account before you start planning your boat:

  • Where are you going to moor.
  • Can it travel where you wish to go.
  • How much space do you require inside.
  • And most importantly your budget.
  • When You know the Size & Type of boat you would like.

Look for a reputable boat builder. Give them the dimensions and description of the boat you’re thinking of buying and get a rough price for, fully fitted, sail away plus, sail away or a shell with paintwork & no engine or finally just a shell. There are lots of possible stages so be careful and plan wisely. Be sure to get the cabin size so that you can plan the living space.

  • Self-Build

The following are some of the questions you should to ask yourself if you decide to complete a self-fit sailaway or shell:

  • What facilities and equipment do I have and will I need?
  • Do I have the knowhow and determination to complete the work, to the level I would like?
  • Do I have the budget?


I consider roughly £15,000 to £25,000 parts and materials cost for a DIY completed fit out in the living area. Depending on your skill level and the amount of spare time you have, the job will probably take years not months. That doesn’t mean you can’t live on or use the boat whilst you are fitting it out and spread the cost relative to your income.

Add the fit-out budget to the cost of the part completed boat, quoted by the boat builder. Compare against a completed full fit boat of the same size and your capabilities before you start ordering.

Planning Stages

Below is a list of stages that will need to be completed, in roughly the order they need to be completed, living space only. I will try to explain the reason for each stage and give tips on how to complete them in the very near future. First find a mooring!!!

  1. Decide what boat you want and ask the boat builder for the dimensions for the inside of cabin.
  2. Planning including budget. “Double check everything before you order”.
  3. Order the shell with or without paint and windows. Decide double glazed or single windows.
  4. Receive the shell.
  5. Fit the base floor.
  6. Mark the rooms out on the floor.
  7. Battening.
  8. Insulation.  
  9. Wiring.
  10. Fit room bulkheads.
  11. Panelling, sockets and lighting.
  12. Utility’s.
  13. Flooring. Don’t forget to protect the final flooring!
  14. Cupboards and other furnishings.
  15. Any additional details.

There’s a lot more to come and I have no doubt I left a few things out. If you have any questions, I’ll do my best to answer them straight away.

Cheers Les

Published by oceanstrider2

An old boy with a plan to see the world.

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