Philippine Boat Builders and Plywood – aesthetic and sophisticated

Well, we all have our expectations …

I came to the Philippines for the first time last year – it is a great hub for cheap flights throughout Asia – so my plan was based on that premise.  I was here on an off for a six month period.

I met with the local group who were tremendously motivated and interested in building wooden boats and productive at it … Wharram Catamarans, B and B ketch dinghies, OzRacers, PDRacers, catamarans, motor boats, skiboats, a daysailing trimaran made of coconut lumber and carbon fibre (a very cool looking beast) and even a Goat Island Skiff.

pinoy boatbulder group with Michael Storer - home boatbuiling in the philippines - plywood epoxy sails

They are much like other groups that meet on the internet in other countries.  I recommend you look at their website and very active forum and attend their regular events.

One of the first places I jumped to on a $40 Cebu Pacific Air discount fare was Kota Kinabalu in the state of Sabah.  It is KK to the mainland’s KL – it is on the island of Borneo.

map kota kinabalu - article on indigenous wooden boats

While it is the 7th largest city in Malaysia, KK it is much newer, more planned out and seems to have cracked the problems of other places as different groups of people manage to get along with little stress – you can see mixed groups walking on the streets in the evening.  Mix of  Malay, Kadazan-Dusan (original inhabitants), Indian background, Chinese background and a mix of religions – Catholicism, Islam, other christian denominations, Buddhism, Taoism and much much more.

Kota Kinabalu fishing boat

One of my friends there said that part of the reason is that all the kids spend time together – go to the same schools are invited to each other’s birthdays, sleepovers – all the normal kid stuff.  Everyone is aware of each other’s food requirements so take care to be inclusive.  My best friend there is from the Kadazan people, is catholic, follows all the chinese holidays and feast days, speaks perfect English, Kadazan and Mandarin.

Fishing boats and wooden boat building Kota Kinabalu

As far as food goes it is an irresistible melting pot of Malay style coconut curries, steamed buns, seafood to die for, roti chennai, Sambals, Roast Lamb with mint sauce and Masala Dosa.  And I’m totally understating it – and there is plenty of vegetarian food too – phew!  Ask the locals what they miss when they travel … FOOD!


So … boats … this is a Maritime city.  The British claimed a base there sometime in the late 1800s and renamed the village Api Api to Jesselton after the boss guy.  It was chosen because of its strategic access to the Malaysian, Indonesian and Philippines archipelagos.

Photo of Kota Kinabalu during British times. Article on wooden boats

Sabah itself shares a land border with the Philippines.

OK … lets get to the boats.  The best way to introduce them is to show you one of my many walks around the town .. my favourite thing to do when travelling alone (which is much of the time – I really like being away from hubbub in English – getting lost in exotic syllables.  A small part of the waterfront …

Kota Kinabalu - fishing fleet and water tank boats to take water to island communities

A wonderful little launch

plywood utility launch or fishing boat - Kota Kinabalu Malaysia

Variety of utility boats

colour of plywood boats in Kota kinabalu - article on boat types and design

I found out that, on the edges of a new riverside development/gentrification there was a Filipino barangay and the previous day had seen a number of boats briefly as I shot above on an overpass.  The houses are on stilts in what would have been a swampy area but my eyes were on the boats.

View from Filipino Barangay to gentrified side of the river in Kota Kinabalu

Boats are my thing and I was pretty keen to see what had been done and offer my opinions … maybe even give a pointer or two.

First I walked along the foreshore … there was a hut on piles in the river with boats moored around.  I could see about 15 local men inside and a new looking boat in the middle … so I walked up.

Building plywood raceing boats - Philippines style - kota kinabalu, Malaysia

The story was the boat is a new raceboat – and my idea of offering pointers just vanished when I saw the sophistication of the construction.  It is simple nail and glue but the hullshape is complex and they well understand using the plywood to absorb the loads and that the timber is there to hold the plywood together.

Amazing plywood racing boat built by Filipinos in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Plywood was 5mm  Light timber scantlings

One really neat feature is how the bottom ply was joined – a series of steps on the bottom.  It is not enough of a step to be a really stepped bottom but it is a really neat construction solution.  This is an example on another boat.

Clever plywood construction by philippines boatbuilders - stepped bottom instead of butting or scarphing plywood

The other men pointed out the builder and called him the “builder guru”

Builder from the Philippines - plywood racing boat - more like a canoe - light plywood construction

I asked about power and they pointed to a Briggs and Stratton air cooled motor and introduced me to another man – the “Engine Guru”.   Apparently he gets about 28hp by modding a stock motor – I think the base horsepower was 12, but it might have been 18.

souped up briggs and stratton air cooled motor for philippines raceboat. Nominal power 12 or 18hp - they tune and mod 28 out of it. Screams like a banshee

You sometimes hear one of these go past – they howl like a wild thing.

The boat has a life after racing.  They are used as ferries for paying passengers and the rudder is a simple push pull – often with a hinge so that it can be swung out of the water for net fishing – the prop is taken off too when netting

Rudder and tiller arrangement on Filipino racing powerboat from light ply construction

fast plywood boat with rudder up and propeller removed for net fishing

Walking along the shore there was a bewildering array of different hull styles

dory powerboat by Philippines boat bulders - lovely proportions

A cut down dragon boat type shape

dragon boat hull form for powerboat - by Filipinos in Malaysia - article on plywood boat building

A piece of sculpture

Amazing modernist sculpture in plywood - actually a plywood powerboat built by Filipinos in Kota Kinabalu

You can see the structures from the boats being repaired or abandoned – but it hints at the diversity of approaches and the experimental ethos of Filipinos.  A creative, can-do, make do with what you have culture.

Structures of Filiipino boats built in Malaysia

I was humbled.

A few weeks later I went to Labuan Island – three hours by ferry away – another former British colony and a place lots of Australians saw action in WW2.  It is now one of the hubs of oil production for Malaysia (and the best Mee Goreng I’ve had for years).

Most of the boats I saw on a driving circumnavigation were a variety of outrigger canoes of about the same size.  Construction was radically different from boat to boat, ranging from dugouts to plywood, timber planked and other materials.

outrigger fishing canoe on Labuan Island, Malaysia

dugout canoe on labuan island, malaysia

Fishing gear for canoe fishing on Labuan Island Malaysia

There was one beside this next that had its bow propped up so that water wouldn’t pool in the bottom 🙂

planked fishing canoe from Labuan Island, Malaysia

Neat anchor fairlead on dugout canoe - labuan island Malaysia

Additionally there are other rather nice utility boats for outboard power.

utility outboard boats for fishing on Labuan Island Malaysia.

Also fast little ferry boats – I really dig the styling – like the hottest modern production powerboats .. .but all plywood!

Fast plywood ferry boat in plywood - labuan island Malaysia


Modern powerboat - no, its a plywood one designed and built by filipinos

But something else too.  It was in a Filipino area, but I saw a bigger ice carrying one heading out to the island resorts from KK. Hints of Paraw, but  devoted to motor boat design.

Stunning timber and plywood powerboat from Labuan Island Malaysia - long lean fast economical

This was inside another Filipino area on the Island – mostly people who had been in Malaysia for a generation or two – so were much more established and part of the general community.

long lean passenger and cargo boat - makes me think of bolger tennessee or idaho

Note the two outboards of differing vintages.  I would be guessing that it starts off with a single outboard and then as the family makes more money they get a second outboard … just a guess … or it could just be luck of the draw.

see the deep vee of this narrow efficient powerboat from Malaysia

Here is the bigger ice carrying boat, though they used the size above for the same job.

Elegant cargo boat carrying ice out to resorts and towns on the islands - kota kinabalu

Another shot … that’s not a sleek production fibreglass boat beside it – it is a homemade plywood boat by Filipinos

elegant wooden cargo boat for carrying ice - kota kinabalu

Sliding ice down the gangplank

Loading ice into a stunning wooden cargo boat to take to the islands - Kota kinabalu, Malaysia

I don’t know if these boats are more Malaysian or more Filipino or have some input from other regions.

All in All I was totally boggled by the range of boat types and the sophistication of design and methods.

And not knowing what to do about the dozens more photos I took … we say farewell to Kota Kinabalu and its communities from the regiou.

Sunset at kota kinabalu - article on wooden boats, building and design

To return another day

Article on wood and plywood boatbuilding in Kota Kinabalu Malaysia. Many builders from the Philippines too

Slideshow of Labuan boats on Flickr


More Filipino boats in my article about Pagsanjan Waterfall trip.

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