May / June 2021

Building a Tolman Wide-Body Skiff: Part 1

A rugged, handsome, and easy-to-build boat
Tolman Skiff

Renn Tolman developed sturdy but simple boats that were well adapted to use in Alaska, and their worth has made them prized far and wide. Author John Marples built this one for a client in Vermont.

The cover of the book Tolman Alaskan Skiffs by Renn Tolman shows the pedigree of the boats he designed: in the photo, a skiff with a small cabin and protected helm tears along a waterway with snowy peaks beyond. A buoy in the stern indicates this is a workboat, perhaps on its way home with the day’s catch. The outboard motor is modest in size but appears to be producing speed efficiently, since the hull is leaving little wake and not throwing much spray.

Tolman designed his skiffs to be rugged and cost-effective to operate but also wanted them to be simple and therefore quick to build. The instructions and dimensions for structural pieces in his book (titled A Skiff for All Seasons in its first editions) are easy to follow. He calls for a minimal amount of framing to support the bottom and sides. The setup calls for only two molds. The hull gets its shape when the builder bends planking panels and joins them to each other.

With his “knock it together and go fishing” philosophy, Tolman employed a combination of construction methods that relied on large galvanized nails and stitch-and-glue epoxy seams. The builders have a lot of latitude in finish quality and style. The Tolman Skiff owners’ website ( shows many boats, most of them built by amateurs, with numerous variations to suit individual needs. Tolman claimed that for a fraction of the price, you can build a better boat than one you can buy. He may have been right.

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