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Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

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  • Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

    I've seen boats as young as 10 years old with rotten floors and transoms.
    I can't help but think wood must be the worst material ever for boats but then I thought of tall ships, schooners and man of wars.
    Some of these ships lasted longer than the men that sailed them.
    Better wood? Treated wood? Solid wood is better then ply? Maybe they were constantly rebuilt?


  • #2
    Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

    I think tar and pitch was used to waterproof them.
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    • #3
      Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

      Dark + moisture/dampness + exposed to air = terrible conditions that promote the types of things that rot boats.

      Many types of wood are naturally rot resistant; some don't rot when they sit in the water, and some are actually better off sitting in salt than anywhere else. I believe fresh water is the enemy to wood, whereas salt-water boaters don't have the same issues as often.

      Regular ol' wood stuffed down in a dark, damp spot of the boat = growth/organisms attack it. Under a carpet or something and it's just an awful breeding ground and bound to spread.
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      • #4
        Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

        Pitch and tar for sure - but then again they didn't use SPF lumber either.

        When I was a kid in the 1950's we had a wood boat. She was built in 1939. Kept her in the water all Summer. Covered, but water in the bilge for sure. When Grandpa sold the cottage in 1961 I asked Dad to buy a trailer so we could keep the boat at home and still use her. He said couldn't do it because the boat needed soak time to seal it up, thus it couldn't be a trailer boat. Then I suggested we trade her in for a fiberglass boat and he laughed. He said they were no good because they rotted apart.....LOL. Those glass boats had a bad rep back in the early days. People bought them because they were marketed as maintenance free, not like a wood boat. They soon found out it wasn't the case. Besides, he said I should never buy a fiberglass boat until I first built the boathouse to store her in out of the sun and rain.

        The old girl was made out of cedar - naturally rot resistant. On top of that all the wood was varnished on the inside and painted on the outside. The second owner kept her outside with a flimsy plastic tarp - even with that abuse she still lasted another 15 years. Back in the day every boatman knew that you covered a boat with canvas if you wanted her to last.

        As others have said, dark, fresh water, dampness - that's the killer. But most of all its the crappy fir plywood they use.

        My wood boat is 60 this year. Not a spot of rot anywhere. Of course she's been garage kept since new. Ditto for my 28 year old glass boat, even with its crappy plywood. But, I listened to Dad and built the garage first!
        2009 Starcraft 14' FLSS & Yamaha 25
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        • #5
          Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

          Originally posted by JimS123 View Post
          Pitch and tar for sure - but then again they didn't use SPF lumber either.

          When I was a kid in the 1950's we had a wood boat. She was built in 1939. Kept her in the water all Summer. Covered, but water in the bilge for sure. When Grandpa sold the cottage in 1961 I asked Dad to buy a trailer so we could keep the boat at home and still use her. He said couldn't do it because the boat needed soak time to seal it up, thus it couldn't be a trailer boat. Then I suggested we trade her in for a fiberglass boat and he laughed. He said they were no good because they rotted apart.....LOL. Those glass boats had a bad rep back in the early days. People bought them because they were marketed as maintenance free, not like a wood boat. They soon found out it wasn't the case. Besides, he said I should never buy a fiberglass boat until I first built the boathouse to store her in out of the sun and rain.

          The old girl was made out of cedar - naturally rot resistant. On top of that all the wood was varnished on the inside and painted on the outside. The second owner kept her outside with a flimsy plastic tarp - even with that abuse she still lasted another 15 years. Back in the day every boatman knew that you covered a boat with canvas if you wanted her to last.

          As others have said, dark, fresh water, dampness - that's the killer. But most of all its the crappy fir plywood they use.

          My wood boat is 60 this year. Not a spot of rot anywhere. Of course she's been garage kept since new. Ditto for my 28 year old glass boat, even with its crappy plywood. But, I listened to Dad and built the garage first!
          That was a great description. I had no idea small wooden boats could last 60 years. Do you have pics of her?

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          • #6
            Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

            Originally posted by ricohman View Post
            Some of these ships lasted longer than the men that sailed them.

            Better wood?
            Yep, not too many (if any) boats are made of white oak, like the ships of old.

            I had a white oak trolling motor mount on my old boat and it didn't show any signs of weathering after 10 years. A slathering of Thompsons (yeah I know) every spring and it was good to go. I ripped that nice chunk of lumber off a rotted glasser, before hauling it (the glasser) to the dump.

            On that old 72 glasser, the plywood stringers and transom were rotted out. BUT!, there were a couple bare, rough sawn 2x4's below deck that were in good condition. I'm not sure what type of wood the 2x4's were (cedar, redwood, cypress, oak???) , but they were still solid and rot free after sitting in soaked foam for 30 years. Hit them with a hammer and they were solid like a fresh piece of lumber, instead of crumbling to bits like the other wood.
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            • #7
              Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

              Originally posted by Philster View Post
              Dark + moisture/dampness + exposed to air = terrible conditions that promote the types of things that rot boats.

              Many types of wood are naturally rot resistant; some don't rot when they sit in the water, and some are actually better off sitting in salt than anywhere else. I believe fresh water is the enemy to wood, whereas salt-water boaters don't have the same issues as often.

              Regular ol' wood stuffed down in a dark, damp spot of the boat = growth/organisms attack it. Under a carpet or something and it's just an awful breeding ground and bound to spread.
              You nailed it, wooden boats in salt water that have rot, actually rot from rain water.

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              • #8
                Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

                Originally posted by Philster View Post
                Dark + moisture/dampness + exposed to air = terrible conditions that promote the types of things that rot boats.

                Many types of wood are naturally rot resistant; some don't rot when they sit in the water, and some are actually better off sitting in salt than anywhere else. I believe fresh water is the enemy to wood, whereas salt-water boaters don't have the same issues as often.

                Regular ol' wood stuffed down in a dark, damp spot of the boat = growth/organisms attack it. Under a carpet or something and it's just an awful breeding ground and bound to spread.
                Ayuh,.... Have to Agree,.... Saltwater is a Good place to hunt down a Project hull,....
                So long as yer intention is to completely gut the driveline, 'n go back with New/ freshwater used....

                Wooden sailing ships were more often sunk by Worms, than rot....
                I believe the pine tar is a Worm, more so than a Water barrier...
                Any Grease is Better,..... Than No Grease at All.......

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                • #9
                  Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

                  Originally posted by ricohman View Post
                  I've seen boats as young as 10 years old with rotten floors and transoms.
                  I can't help but think wood must be the worst material ever for boats but then I thought of tall ships, schooners and man of wars.
                  Some of these ships lasted longer than the men that sailed them.
                  Better wood? Treated wood? Solid wood is better then ply? Maybe they were constantly rebuilt?
                  I think that there is something unique and perhaps not fully understood about taking wood and then encapsulating it in resin and/or fiberglass. In ways it probably promotes rot as much as it prevents rot.

                  I just got thru reading a thread on OSO this morning about a guy with a 10 year old boat from a quality manufacturer and the boat had developed stringer and bulkhead rot after about 10 years. There were no voids or exposed edges, it just rotted from within.

                  Most ships of old were made from hardwood. Even small boats of yesteryear were made from hardwood. Much of the wood spent a lot of time in the water, but it was also exposed to the air, so it could breath. I remember having a wood cat boat when I was young . . . the boat was probably 40 years old and pretty much original structure (mostly oak). Can you imagine the wood in a production fiberglass boat after 40 years?

                  I am in the early stages of a stringer and bulkhead repair on my boat and I am contemplating what sort of material to use. Conventional wisdom says use wood, but I'm thinking a composite would be better. The current stringers look like they are Douglas fir. If I did use wood, perhaps I should use oak.

                  It is also often advised to replace with what was there, because you get a predictable strength that is similar to the original design. However, my boat has a stress crack at the top of of the port stringer. So, perhaps the original stringer is not adequate.

                  Anyway, the more I read about stringers and related repairs, the subject becomes clear as mud.
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                  • #10
                    Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

                    rot is a freshwater problem. among wooden boat people, fresh water is called "sweet water" and it's death. Those of us salties who keep our boats in the water for years don't sweat it. problem comes with fresh water trailer boaters.

                    Next door to my house, the one I grew up in, is a wooden row boat built by my great uncle around 1920. All wood. No rot. Ha.
                    A man of constant boat tinkering.

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                    • #11
                      Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

                      learn something new every day, Thanks

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                      • #12
                        Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

                        Wooden ships also get regular maintenance. Constellation and Constitution are two very old ships (~200 years). But they periodically get major overhalls on top of more frequent preventative maintenance. Not that long ago Constellation was laid up for a couple of years while a lot of the timber was replaced. After a number of major overhauls I doubt that much of the ship is actually original parts.

                        Same thing occurs for ships on dry land. The HMS Victory (UK) is also very old and hasn't been in the water for a long time. They will admit that most of it has been replaced.

                        While hardwood will last longer than the softwoods used in recreational boat manufacturing. It will not last forever.

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                        • #13
                          Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

                          You can get wood that is lifetime guaranteed not to rot. It's specially treated ply construction. If you then encapsulate it in resin there is nothing that will change it and you've got a very strong base for fibreglass.
                          I love wood in boats. it floats, dampens vibration, is light and very strong.

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                          • #14
                            Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

                            Originally posted by rallyart View Post
                            I love wood in boats. it floats, dampens vibration, is light and very strong.
                            Absolutely! Better yet if the whole boat is made out of wood. It beats any other type of material. The extra maintenance is merely a labor of love. That is, if you're a boatman, not just a guy with a boat.
                            2009 Starcraft 14' FLSS & Yamaha 25
                            2005 SeaDoo GTX 4-Tec 155
                            1984 Stingray SVB190SS & Mercruiser 3.0 Liter 140
                            1964 Sea Nymph 14R & 1970 Evinrude Sportwin 9.5
                            1960 Mulray 100 Dinghy, equipped with Beaver Oars
                            1952 Lyman 15' Mid Steer & Evinrude Big Twin 25
                            63 Outboards: 1919-2008, representing 11 manufacturers
                            -------------------------------------------------------------------
                            Member ACBS, LBOA, AOMCI

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                            • #15
                              Re: Why does wood rot so fast? Did tall ships rot this quick?

                              A boat made out of cedar I would think would last for who knows how long 100 years??... I still have old stumps on my property that are still hard as a rock where the pine stumps rot within about 6-8 years or so. I tried to burn a cedar stump out, what a mistake, that thing smoked worse than a pile of green leaves. There must be some serious oil resin within a cedar tree. I finally had to hose the stump down with water, it was taking forever to burn that stump. This Spring I'm going to just hook a chain to it and pull it out with my Jeep.
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