Wednesday, July 6, 2011

More on building a fly fishing pram...

[Editor's Note: This is a follow-up to an earlier post. You may wish to read that post first; if so, click here. If you believe you've reached this blog in error, and wish to get out as fast as possible, click here.)

The purpose of this post is, largely, to provide some heretofore neglected details about my pram, particularly for those considering such watercraft. Whether a pram is right for your fishing is something you'll need to decide, since no vessel is perfect for all kinds of fishing. I'll also neglect the question as to whether you should buy your pram or build it yourself, except to say that if your only goal is to have a pram and you've got unlimited funds, there are plenty of people out there willing to sell you one.

If you are thinking of building one, then your first consideration is what sort of design. I can only speak to the particular boat I built, which is the D4 (now called the D5 on their website, because of minor updates) from To me, this is a perfect design for a number of reasons. First, at seven feet, ten inches long and three feet, ten inches wide, it's plenty big for one person but no bigger than necessary. Second, the hull has enough "V" to cut through a bit of chop, but is still wide and flat enough that I find it plenty stable for casting and fishing while standing up. Some time ago, I saw a comment from somebody that the D4 pram is not stable; I find this completely untrue. I'm only five-seven and about 155 pounds, and because of my large testicles I also have a very low center of gravity, so perhaps these are the reasons I find the boat so stable. But I doubt it - this comment came from a pram manufacturer who loses a potential customer each time somebody builds him- or herself a pram, and I can't help but suspect this is the reason for his comment. Finally, the D4 plans were simple and the website has a useful discussion board. But, should you wish to consider other boat plans, they are out there.

Once you decide to build, you’ve got to choose the wood. I used what is called “BC” plywood, which simply means that one side is “Grade B” and the other side is “Grade C”, with plywoods typically being A, B, C, or D grade, A being very well finished, sanded, free of blemishes, etc. “BC” is pretty good plywood, better than typical construction-grade CD plywood. But…and this is an important but, BC is far from marine-grade plywood (typically AA grade). A pram made with BC plywood and good epoxy will be perfectly serviceable and cost much less, but the wood is less attractive, will be prone to some “checking” (developing small cracks – which might, possibly, need some future attention; see image below), and heavier. If I could (or when I) do it all over again, I would use quality marine plywood, such as Okoume or Meranti. These plywoods are considerably more expensive, and not always locally available (meaning you may also have to pay shipping costs) but superior in all other ways to “regular” plywood, such as the BC I used.

"Checking", i.e. small cracks; good marine plywood does not do this.

According to the plan designer, the D4 pram should come in at around 55 pounds – this is assuming no more epoxy than necessary, and light-weight, quality marine plywood. In addition to better, lighter plywood, I think I could have built the entire boat from 1/4 inch plywood. The plans called for 1/4 inch for the hull and 3/8 inch for frames and seat tops, which is what I used. However, the boat is much, much stronger than I’d expected it to be – there is simply no “flex” or “give” in the hull when I stand in it. This is, in part, because when you bend plywood pieces, then join them, the tension of all those bends working “against each other” adds rigidity.  So, I suspect that if I’d built the entire boat from 1/4 inch plywood (or marine plywood, which comes in 4mm thicknesses…actually a bit less than 1/4 inch thick) it would have been considerably lighter, yet still plenty strong, for me at least. 

I’ve never weighed my boat, but I am certain it weighs considerably more than the 55 pound “designed weight”. This makes little difference on the water, or even when I’m loading the boat on the car with the help of somebody else. But because the pram is, in some ways, already awkward to carry because of its dimensions, the added weight does not help. When I built the boat, I had a pick-up truck and loading it was simple. Now, with my small wagon and roof rack, I have to lift the boat to load and unload. I can do this, as shown below, but I always swear a bit when doing so.

If necessary, I lift the pram this way...

And carry it this way; can be done, but lacks a good balance point

The old days, when transport was easy.

I car-top it these days.

You’re going to need some tools; that said, you probably already have some or most of them (screwdrivers, for example), and could borrow the others. No “specialized” tools are necessary. I made virtually all of the cuts with a hand-held circular saw. The curves are such that the blade did not bind. For a few cuts, I used a jigsaw. A hand-held belt sander was a godsend. I also did some sanding with a small random-orbit sander. The holes for the “stitches” required a drill. I already owned most of these tools, but those I purchased for the boat still see plenty of use for other projects. Go ahead – you deserve some new tools. 

A few steps, particularly the installation of the multi-layered rub rails, required a lot of clamps. I had a few clamps already, picked up a couple more strong clamps, but then made all of the other necessary clamps out of short (2-3 inches) sections of PVC pipe cut down the middle - a terribly clever idea that I wish I could take credit for, but alas, I cannae. The rub rails are made from three layers of long strips of plywood, and regularly spaced clamps were necessary to hold them to the boat’s curve while the epoxy cured.

An assortment of clamps

The homemade PVC clamps holding rub rail in place

 You’re also going to use up a lot of “expendable” supplies. The fiberglass tape is one of these things, and the epoxy is another; here you do not want to cut corners. Use epoxy designed for this kind of boat building. I used System Three, which is what sells. You’ll need “wood flour”, which you’ll mix with epoxy to fill the gaps between plywood panels. I purchased fine wood flour from for most of the work, but I did save the finer sawdust from my random orbit sander’s bag as well. If you have a source for fine sawdust, you might be able to avoid buying wood flour. The epoxy is messy, so I found it usually easier to throw away things like gloves, plastic bags, mixing cups and plastic spoons, t-shirts, etc., rather than worry about cleaning epoxy at the end of each work session. Figure you’re going to spend some money on this sort of crap.

Don’t forget those little things, such as oarlocks, if you intend to row the pram. If you’re going to power it with a small electric (or gas) outboard, you’ll want to reinforce the transom a bit with another layer or two of plywood. When the boat is finished, you’ll have to decide whether to stain it to preserve the natural look of the wood, or paint it. If you like the natural look, you’ll need to treat the epoxy with a UV blocker, else the sun will damage the epoxy. If you paint it, use good primer and paint designed for boats. This stuff ain’t cheap, but I think it’s worth it. I’ve had my boat eight years, and it’s nowhere near in need of a paint job.

It's also nice to have a way to wheel the pram from place to place.  I tend to store the boat with a set of wheels clamped to the transom (stern).  These are handy for getting the boat from, say, the garage to the car.  But they don't work well on anything but the flattest surface, and the boat is hard to maneuver with these wheels.  A modified kayak or canoe cart - the kind with larger spoked wheels - works better.  A pram is too wide to fit one of these carts very well, but I've seen a few clever modifications that work well with prams.  With the spoked-wheel cart in place, such that the pram is balanced, you can wheel it around with little effort and, since it's right-side up, you can load it with your stuff.

Stern-clamp wheels; they work, but not terribly well.

Finally, here is a somewhat random list of some of the things that I either know I would do differently, were I to build another pram, or that I might consider doing differently.

 - Use marine plywood (absolutely), all in 4mm thickness (probably)

- Cut bow and stern transoms flush? As you can see in some of the photos, the bow and stern transoms have a curve along the top. I don’t know if this is functional or just aesthetic, but I find that sometimes these extra inches catch on the roof rack during loading and unloading. On the other hand, when upside down the boat rests on these “points”, thus reducing how much of the boat gets scratched up. I’m not sure how I might handle this in the future.

- Storage compartments? Sometimes, I pile too much shit into the boat, which then catches the fly line while casting, and just results in too much clutter. During the building, I considered either making or buying some sort of hatch covers so I could use the spaces under the seats for storage, but I was too impatient. In hindsight, I wish I’d done that. I still could, I suppose, but I probably won’t now that the boat is finished.

Too much crap in the boat (fish is a spotted bay bass, by the way)

- Glass the entire bottom? For larger boats, and even some smaller boats, many builders will cover the entire bottom of the boat in a layer of fiberglass and epoxy. This helps protect the boat against scratches, dents and dings from rocks. As you’d expect, though, it will add considerable weight. For me, this added protection has never seemed as if it would have been worth the added weight, but were I to use the pram regularly on rocky, swifter rivers, then this might make sense.

- An anchor system? I simply carry a cheap mushroom anchor in a bucket, and tie the anchor rope to the boat through one of the various holes built into the “knees”, and this works well enough. However, I have seen some nifty little anchor pulleys mounted on the bows of some other prams that allow the user to raise and lower the anchor without ever getting up off the seat. The possible downside to such a system that I can imagine is that it will catch on the roof rack during loading or unloading – but an anchor system could be a nice little luxury if it would work.

 Finally, consider that the boat will get dirty and will need to be washed.  Small children like to do this, but you must consider them a long-term investment.  I'm not sure I've gotten my money's worth yet.

Small child washes pram


  1. Cool pickup truck dude! Sorry about the station wagon. [I think we know who really wears the testicles in your family].

    I wonder, do you have a rough idea of what the boat cost to make? You can't put a value to your efforts/joy in creating such a beauty, but I'm curious.

  2. I think at one time I figured out that the wood, epoxy, and all other miscellaneous things that actually went into or onto the boat - that is, not including the tools I bought - came to about $340.

    Were I to do it again, I'd use more expensive wood, thus raising the cost...but I'd build more efficiently, thus lowering the cost. Don't know where that would leave me in the end.

    I think one could estimate cost from the building website based on the wood and epoxy/fiberglass costs (then adding a bit for the other stuff), or inquire of more recent builders.

  3. Nice boat man, i wanna build one to, but then a little different, i want it to fit upside down on our trailer, so when we go on holiday we can stick tons of stuff under the thing. thought that would be very handy. thanks~ G. Robertson

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  5. Ever thought about building with XPS foam, gorilla glue, wood rails for stability/oar locks, and covering with epoxy?