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Boat builder crafts more than 100 vessels

By Lindsay Johnson

Homer News

Published: Thursday, July 7 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

Colin Tolman stands with his unnamed 20-foot Tolman skiff in Homer, Alaska on June 30, 2011. Tolman works with his cousin, Renn Tolman, who has built more than 100 since establishing the design in 1984 and sold more than 6,000 do-it-yourself books on the topic.

Homer News, Lindsay Johnson, Associated Press

HOMER, Alaska — The Tolman skiff was designed in and for Kachemak Bay. Renn Tolman has built more than 100 since establishing the design in 1984 and sold more than 6,000 do-it-yourself books on the topic. The semi-vee bottomed, dory-style plywood/epoxy/fiberglass boats may be found around the bay a plywood/epoxy/fiberglass boats may be found around the bay and the world. As the diversity of owners indicates, Tolman skiffs perform well in most situations.

Tolman retired from building skiffs commercially in 2000, but every few years another boat has emerged from his shop on Kachemak Drive.

The most recent boat — the 104th to have come out of Tolman's shop — is a back-to-the-basics boat made better by years of experience and the hands of two Tolmans, Renn and his younger cousin Colin.

"Colin has wanted to build a skiff for a long time. I put him off, but eventually it occurred to me it might be a good thing to pass on some of my knowledge," Renn said.

The two started the project mid-April and the boat made its maiden voyage on summer solstice.

Weighing in at 700 pounds without the motor, Colin Tolman's 20-foot Standard Tolman skiff is about 50 pounds heavier than plans predict. High-quality exotic marine plywood and more fiberglass increase the weight, but even more so, the durability of the stitch-and-glue construction.

The keel on Colin's boat is three inches deeper in the front, a difference those who know Tolman skiffs will notice. The heavier, deeper design makes for an even more sea-worthy vessel than the original.

"It really handles the chop. He thought it'd be fun to put a little more vee. I think it makes a huge difference. It just feels stout," Colin said of Renn's modification.

Besides making the major design change, Renn said they made many small adjustments to the original, mostly how they reinforced the wood with fiberglass on every surface instead of just epoxy.

Renn Tolman pauses while working on Colin's skiff in his shop in April. The 70-year-old boatbuilder holds one of his custom epoxy trays.

"This is sort of a culmination, it's an improvement on the earlier boats," Renn said. "The workmanship is outstanding," he said, giving most of the credit to Colin, a carpenter.

Colin has helped Renn over the years on various phases of boat projects, but this is his first to see from start to finish.

"Colin is a master wood-joiner, but building a Tolman skiff is about more than just wood — one should be able to use fiberglass and epoxy resin with neatness and efficiency and of course achieve structural integrity," Renn said.

He said the process of building a Tolman skiff has more in common with welding an aluminum boat than with conventional wooden boat building, offering many learning opportunities for the trained woodworker.

Topping off five weeks of work in the shop, Colin spent another few days installing a 60-horsepower Honda four-stroke outboard. With that, he is set to haul more and go farther than he ever could in years of taking his kayak camping.

The practical vessel has already taken Colin and crews on multiple trips across the bay, where it will be sure to return for carpentry jobs, sport and recreation.

"It's a dandy little boat," Colin said.

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