Thursday, 9 September 2010

Building the boats

image courtesy of

Much has been written over the years about the McGruer dynasty, narrating how they got started, building small boats at Glasgow Green before moving down river, and the subsequent exploits and achievements of this most talented and inventive family. I thought it would be interesting to put together some notes about the methods which they used and the workers involved. Over the years I have met many former employees, indeed it was suggested by a friend who lived in Helensburgh that formerly most of the local craftsmen were   trained at McGruers.

It was a tragedy that latterly there were no younger people coming forward to be trained, or possibly the company was not offering apprenticeships, just when there was a world-wide resurgence of interest in wooden yachts. When the original company finally went into liquidation at the end of 2001, having not built any new wooden boats for about ten years, they were the last of the famous Scottish yards to shut down. (That company is not to be confused with a new company of the same name, which carries on surveying and other services.)

When the McGruers moved from Tighnabruaich to Hattonburn at Clynder in 1914 to establish themselves for the first time in their own yard an attraction was said to be the burn with its running water, which gave the power for a mill to generate electricity. Whether or not this is so, by the time the Islanders were built the yard was served by a steam donkey engine driving a wide range of electric tools. Early on the family had realised the benefits of electric power. They had purchased not only powered saws, but more specialised devices such as electric screwdrivers. Some of these came from abroad, France being one place where there were specialist manufacturers. Some were invented and made locally by engineers working in the various industries in the Glasgow area.

Having access to powered hand tools slung from overhead cables must have made the work less arduous and uncomfortable. One of the most useful tools was a spindle cutter set in a workbench, on which planks could be cut out conform to a pattern. This was operational when the yard started to build Dragons about 1926. They would cut complete sets of planks for a Dragon, three copies of each plank, so that they were always left with patterns for the next boat. The hulls were of course planked up on standard moulds, so truly what      was going on was an early version of mass production. The safety aspects of such installations before such things were fully understood would be an interesting subject for further research.
The family did appreciate the dangers of making large lead castings and only the smallest keels were made on site. Normally a pattern would simply be sent to one of the numerous shipyards in Glasgow, Port Glasgow or Greenock. Latterly Morris & Lorimers were casting most of the keels. There was a master pattern for each type of keel, Dragon, Scottish Islander or whatever.
There were also plenty of local blacksmiths and engineers to turn out the required metalwork. When the Islands Class boats were built the practice was to use iron bolts, even thought these were incompatible with lead keels. Probably this was because the local blacksmiths could not work with bronze, which is usually turned rather  than forged. When eventually the company started to use aluminium bronze, which is easier to work, they made their own. McGruers did operate various steamboxes, latterly using a twenty foot long tube with a double boiler. 
Although innovative, McGruers did not try building boats upside down, which is much easier than right way up. Indeed this seems to have been pioneered by American rather than European builders. Shadow moulds would be set up in traditional fashion, the hulls planked up, then the stringers and any steamed frames put in. 
When the order was received for the first five Islanders in the winter of 1928 the possibilities for mass production were fully exploited. The hulls were quickly assembled from standard moulds and patterns and the boats then finished side by side. They were all ready for their new owners to select their boats by lot in time for the 1929 season.
At just over twentyeight feet Islanders were the largest boats that could be built from continuous planks without joints. The hull shape is so easy that no steaming was needed. Conform to the traditional Scottish (and Scandinavian) practice there was no garboard. The planks were allowed to taper forward to a feather edge as they met the wooden keel. There was no fuss, stress or complicated joinery work such as is needed with boats built to the Anglo-American tradition with a wide garboard strake. The topsides were planked first, the planks slightly wider forward to meet the stem nicely, then the bottom was planked up simply as one would build a brick wall. The only disadvantage of this method that I am aware of is that the feather edge can be easily damaged when the plank has to be removed to allow subsequent repairs. The method lends itself, of course, to the use of narrow planks such are harvested in the North of Europe.
A variety of timber was used in building the Islanders. The keel, stem and stern -post were of oak, the horn timber of teak, the hull planking of pitch-pine and the timbers American rock elm. The transom, cabin-sides and furniture were  of mahogany, the decks planked with tongue-and-groove yellow pine. The large components would be difficult to build today in the same materials. For example the transom has a radius of almost three inches and would have been chopped from a massive slab over four feet long by eighteen inches  deep. It is interesting to note that Isla, built thirty years after the first boats, has a flat transom, which would have been much more economical.
Old-growth pitch pine was imported from Canada up to 1939, when supplies stopped for the War and did not resume thereafter. It is excellent for hull planking, there being several examples of boats still afloat after well over one hundred years. Enormous teak and mahogany logs, up to four feet square, would arrive by sea and would be rendered into workable boards at Gilmour & Aitken's yard in  Jamestown, Alexandria. They still supply excellent timber.
The hulls were fastened up with a mixture of metals, suggesting that the yard had little understanding, or more likely little concern about the effects of this in salt water, and of course the boats had no electrics. The major components were held together with iron drifts, the bolts in the lead keel were also iron, while the hull planking was secured with copper nails, bent over rather than rooved. This practice is again consistent with the Scottish and Scandinavian rather than Anglo-American tradition. It leaves the timbers cleaner and neater, is easy to do as well as lighter and cheaper. The deck planking was held on with iron nails driven into deck-beams which were not dove-tailed, but simply nailed into notches in the shelf. The chain-plates were simply bolted through the shelf, unbelievable given that the boats were to be raced hard.
Comparing the boats as built with Alfred Mylne's plans shows a  number of variations. For example the front corners of the cabin were drawn curved, but were built square. Alfred Mylne and the McGruers worked together constantly, indeed at the time the yard mainly built to his designs, so one can assume he approved of what they did. The Islands Class plans were cleverly drawn for cheap construction and perhaps Alfred Mylne was having a little joke with the corners.
Certainly it was touch and go with the Class getting built at all, because McGruers had said they needed seven orders to hold their price and they only got five. By using what metals could be got and doing without dove-tails etcetera they were trying to preserve some profit.
By contrast with the other metal- work, which was made locally and was somewhat agricultural the rudderhead fittings were skilfully cast and fabricated from bronze. It would be interesting to know how and by whom this was done.
Around the time the boats were built the workforce would have numbered about thirty permanent workers, local residents and usually the family of older employees. In Spring local painters and labourers would swell the ranks to deal with fitting out the fleet of racing and cruising boats that wintered at the yard. Many of these were paid hands on the yachts.
Most of the tools used in boatbuilding are special and the workforce had to make their own, many of which of course passed down within families. These included shaped planes with wooden soles and various jigs and gadgets.
Although conditions must have been hard, working through the winter in sheds only partly protected from the weather, the workforce is reputed to have been extremely happy. I was told by a long-retired boatbuilder that when a boat was reaching an interesting stage everyone would be desperate to get in to work in the morning. Of course at the same time ship-building in the Clyde yards was going on entirely in the open, so perhaps McGruer's men felt themselves lucky. Both types of activity involved exciting creative work which sometimes had to substitute for proper pay. McGruers' workforce could also reflect that they worked for one of the best-known yards and even in bad times there would be a reasonable order-book and job security for the permanent employees at least. At one of the smaller yards in the area it was not uncommon for there to be no wages at the end of the week and the local publican had to offer an informal banking service.



  1. Have any books been written about Mcgruers? I live near the yard and know Walter Brown's grandson and Ian Nicolson who worked with Milne; I have often thought about starting research for such a book, but finding the time is difficult and I've never done anything like that before, and the longer it is left more of the people who worked there die or move on.

  2. Hi David

    I don't think so, but Ian Nicolson has been talking about it for years and maybe is doing something now. I think that Kathy Mansfield wrote some articles for Woodenboat and/or Classic Boat some years ago. The purpose of this blog is really to encourage anyone who may know anything to come forward so that as much as possible can be preserved and maybe published.

  3. I'll have a chat about it the next time I see him. Great site so far; very well written.

  4. Hi Ewan,

    Excellent article

    The articles on McGruer to which I think you are referring are from Classic Boat and have been published with permission on

    You can find them by clicking on the main site then "articles index"

    There are also the articles on Mylne...from Classic Boat. Have there been any Wooden Boat articles about Mylne/McGruers?