Etymological Confusion

Some people are great communicators.  They can talk for long periods without really saying anything.  I’ve never had that gift, but this post will come pretty close.  You’ve been warned.


Some time ago I noted that boat builders developed their own vocabulary, and hypothesized that the reason was so that boat builders could confuse the heck out of cabinet makers.  But it may seem that boat builders like to confuse the heck out of each other as well, as the nomenclature is remarkably inconsistent.

Let’s take the hull construction as an example.  On this side of the Atlantic, the construction is referred to as glued-lapstrake construction.  But cross the pond, and you’ll hear references to clinker construction.  It means the same; the strakes on the boat overlap each other like shingles on a roof.

That’s one example.  But let’s get to the point.  In the last post I talked about gluing on the gunwales before turning the boat over.  That may or may not be a correct statement, depending on your definition of what a gunwale is.  The boat is reinforced along the sheer, the upper edge of the planking.  On wooden boats, the reinforcing consists of two strips of wood that run along the sheer, one on the inside of the sheer and one outside.  So which one is the gunwale?

Well, you can take your pick.  In the basic boating safety class I teach with the United States Power Squadron, the gunwale (sometimes written as gunnel) runs along the outside edge of the boat.  It’s the edge of the boat that gets rubbed on the dock.  In canoes, the outside edge is also commonly referred to as the gunwale.  So if the outside edge is the gunwale, the strip that runs along the inside edge must be the inwale.  At least one other boat builder follows this convention, a web site showing the construction of a Caledonia Yawl has a page showing installation of the inwales and gunwales (

Going back to the definition of the term, one source defines the gunwale as the uppermost edge of a ship’s side; originally a platform on the deck of a ship to support the mounted guns.  One would assume that the guns would be mounted inside, so the gunwale must lie inside the planking.

So, let’s hear from some other boat builders/authors, all of whom are a lot more knowledgeable than myself:

Iain Oughtred (“Clinker Plywood Boatbuilding Manual “; also designer of Tammie Norrie):  Iain defines the gunwales as the main structural members running fore and aft at the sheer, usually inboard of the sheerstrake.  Iain states that there’s no such thing as an outwale; the piece outboard of the strake is called the gunwale rubber or guardrail.

John Brooks (“How to Build Glued-Lapstrake Wooden Boats”)  In his book, John refers to the inner strip of wood as the gunwale and the outer strip as the rail.

Greg Rossel (“Building Small Boats”)  Greg’s book is about traditional construction, as opposed to glued lapstrake.  Nonetheless, his book is a treasure.  Greg, in my mind, takes the most pragmatic approach, referring to inwale and outwale.

Arch Davis (designer of numerous small craft including Wee Lass)  Arch refers to the inner strip as the sheer clamp, while the outer is referred to as the rub rail.

In the end, I suppose you can call them what you want.  Despite my use of the term gunwale in the last post, I’m going to use the terms inwale and outwale in the future, and at least make an effort to stay consistent in the nomenclature.


Time to do some real work.  In the last post, I made a test strip for the lower rubbing strip; this gets glued along the lower edge of the sheerstrake.  The real strip is made from 5/8″ square cherry.  I planed a 1/8″ chamfer on each edge, then sanded to round the edge.  The curve that the rubbing strip has to follow is compound, and the dimension of the strip is about as large as I’d want to bend without having to laminate or steam.  The widened clamps that I made in the last post were put to good use.

2016-11-20 Gluing on the lower rubbing strip.

Now to the outwale.  It too must follow a three-dimensional curve, and it’s dimensions are large enough that a single piece of solid stock won’t make that curve without some help.  So I’m going to use a variation on how I built Wee Lass.

Wee Lass had the same issue on the outwales, so I solved that problem by laminating the wale.  The inner piece was douglas fir, which was less expensive and also more flexible.  The fir was covered by a thinner piece of ash, which was more resistant to dings from being banged around on the dock.

More resistant, but not totally.  Despite the religious use of fenders whenever the boat is dockside, the outwales still show signs of dock rash.  So on Tammie Norrie, the outer layer will be bedded and screwed, rather than permanently glued in place.  It will be considered sacrificial, and can be replaced when needed.

So the outwale will consist of two pieces, an inner layer that is 5/16″ thick which will be permanently glued to the boat, and an outer layer 1/4″ thick which will be removable.  The inner layer gets installed now.

First we’ll make a test strip out of Not Cheap wood to make sure the piece will follow the curve of the sheer.

2016-11-20 Outwale test strip.

The test strip seemed to follow the curve of the sheer without too much complaint, so now we can cut out the real outwale from 5/16″x1″ cherry.  The bottom edge is given a sandpaper round, stained, and glued using spring clamps.

2016-11-24 Gluing on outwale.

So that step is done, but we’ve still got more to do before the boat can be turned over.

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