CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Devon Life today CLICK HERE

HJ Mears & Son: keeping wooden boat building alive

PUBLISHED: 14:55 13 February 2017 | UPDATED: 14:55 13 February 2017

Mears boat builders

Mears boat builders

Matt Austin

Landlubber Sue Cade meets a father and son working hard to keep the tradition of wooden boat building alive

In a world obsessed with the need for speed, there’s something calming about a wooden boat. The varnished gleam of wood in the sunlight conjures images of The Wind in the Willows and a slower pace of life.

I’m in Axmouth to talk all things wood with boat builders Paul Mears and his son Alex at H J Mears & Son boatyard. The ‘H’ denotes Paul’s father, Harold, who founded the business in 1945 after learning the trade as a builder of wooden motor fishing vessels during World War II. The boatyard started life in Beer before relocating to Axmouth. It’s been at its current location at the harbour since 1982.

“We’ve just sold a wooden boat my father made that very year,” Paul tells me. “A chap from Taunton owned it for twenty years, sold it in 2003 and now it’s going to Warwick.”

Mears-made boats often come back home to be sold, as the boatyard is a magnet for wooden boat fans. “People just walk through the door in search of a wooden boat,” Alex says. “They love the look of the wood, and they know it handles better. Each boat is truly unique.”

The boatyard also produces modern, fibreglass boats; Alex explains that the yard wouldn’t survive on wooden boat production alone. It would be more profitable to switch over solely to fibreglass production, but money isn’t really the point; wood is the lifeblood of the business. For Paul and Alex, building a wooden boat is ‘simply a joy’, even if a labour intensive and gruelling one.

“We always like to have a wooden boat in build even when we don’t have an order. I keep threatening to get myself one. One of these days,” Alex chuckles.

A wooden boat can take 18 months to build. Alex and Paul build by eye, without drawn plans – they prefer relying on an instinct for the right lines from years of boat building experience. And although they do repair wooden boats, Alex says that restoration projects can be tricky.

“Often we start just to find that people have carried out their own DIY repairs or modifications. It’s down to us to make sure the boat is made right and seaworthy.” He points out a lovely old boat that even I can see would prove a heck of a challenge to restore.

I ask Alex which wood is best for boat-building. “Larch is probably favourite – it’s sustainable and locally produced. One of our boats in Lyme Regis, Hannah, is made from Devon larch.”

Mears boat buildersMears boat builders

Paul adds that at one time boats were made from Brazilian mahogany, or a local favourite, wych elm. “But not anymore, because of Dutch elm disease. That makes it tricky for the Cornish gigs – the rules say they have to be built out of elm.”

Some boatyards work with ash or European oak to make the ribs which form the skeleton of a boat, but the Mears boatyard uses English oak. To make the ribs, the wood is bent in a steam pipe to create different angles and lengths. It takes four people to steam ribs and they have a 30 second window to get them into the boat while they’re still hot, using pre-drilled copper nails to fix them in place. Paul shows me a rib, and I’m impressed that you can bend a piece of wood like that without snapping it. “The grain has to be perfectly straight or the rib would break instantly,” Alex explains.

So, what type of person prefers a wooden boat over a sleek, modern fibreglass vessel? Alex thinks as well as the retired, younger people also appreciate craftsmanship and the appearance of wood.

Paul bemoans the loss of traditional boatbuilding in Devon. “There used to be three or four in Exmouth; those boatyards are flats, now.”

But there’s hope. Alex spent five years qualifying as a structural engineer and could have opted for a high-flying career.

Yet something convinced him that a desk job wasn’t for him, that what he did want was a more relaxed way of life maintaining his family heritage, and the sense of achievement from making something that would last. And there must be others who have a similar ethos, who will keep the traditions alive.

As I step on to a Mears’ boat, I feel I’ve made a step back in time, and I’m tempted to set sail under Axmouth Bridge and make my way out to sea. It would be a sad day if wooden boats were no longer launched from here.

Mears boat buildersMears boat builders

Mears Boatyard favours use of wych elm timber for planking on boats – so why is it so good? Wych elm actually gets tougher with age in salt water as the timber gets pickled in the salt. It’s the fresh water from rain that will cause the rot to begin in planking. As a result, planking under the waterline will generally be sound for years while planks higher up that are exposed to rain water will need attention after 30 or so years. So a Mears-built boat doesn’t come with planned obsolescence like most overpriced gadgets nowadays, instead they build something you can hand on to your children.

mearsboatbuilders.co.uk 01297 20964

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Devon Life visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Devon Life staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Devon Life account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from People

Friday, December 7, 2018

Devon Life received this heartfelt letter from Mr Michael Thompson, of Torbay, which is felt particularly poignant to share with our website audience at this time of year

Read more
Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Bursting with festive inspiration, KATE WILLIAMS seeks out the best presents for a perfect Devon Christmas

Read more
Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Devon has had more than its fair share of high achievers over the years but how well do you know our county’s singers, authors, sportspeople, explorers and TV personalities? This is an edited version of a quiz compiled by MARGARET BRECKNELL in the December 2018 issue of Devon Life

Read more
Tuesday, November 27, 2018

PHILIP DALLING recalls two Exmoor legends who shared a deep love of the moor and its natural resources, and gained national fame through the media

Read more
Tuesday, November 20, 2018

In the month when we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, STEVE ROBERTS highlights the terrible cost in human lives it inflicted on the county of Devon

Read more
Friday, November 16, 2018

Actor Tom Burke talks to JUDI SPIERS about his production of Don Carlos staged by his own theatre company Ara, in association with Exeter’s Northcott Theatre

Read more
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

In the latest in her series throughout 2018 profiling inspirational women, KATE HASKELL talks to England Women’s Cricket Captain, Heather Knight

Read more
Friday, October 26, 2018

There is more to Georgia Toffolo than an award-winning TV show, as HOLLY EELLS discovers

Read more
Friday, October 26, 2018

Striving to be the best in the world, homegrown Devon professional squash player Lyell Fuller is seeking sponsorship to help reach his goal. KATE WILLAMS finds out more

Read more
Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Tavistock Rugby Club in Devon is celebrating after being awarded a grant of £2,500 to fund private showers for referees at their Sandy Park ground, as part of rural energy provider Calor’s annual funding scheme

Read more
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Devon’s Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, also known as The Black Farmer, tells KATE WILLIAMS about his new book, Jeopardy, encouraging the embracing of risk to enrich life

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

As five members of Dartmoor Search and Rescue Ashburton celebrate 125 years of collective volunteering, we look back on their time with the organisation

Read more
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

CAROLYN SEAGER reveals how long after her mother’s death she discovered her amazing career in the service of her country

Read more
Tuesday, September 18, 2018

An author known for her novels depicting life on the Channel Islands is nonetheless happiest writing from home here in Devon

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy



Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Subscribe or buy a mag today


subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search