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Traditional Boatbuilding in the South Hams

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Traditional Boatbuilding in the South Hams

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From re-building a Salcombe Yawl to replacing a keel on a yacht, constructing beautiful new cabinets inside that yacht to building a brand new wooden boat to order. John McShea in Frogmore is a truly skilled and creative craftsman who has done it all. Here’s what you need to know... 

How did you get into boat building? 

I left school with no clear direction and spent my late teens climbing on the mountain crags and sea cliffs of Britain . My first ever over seas trip saw me on the beaches of Thailand where I spend every day on the beaches climbing beautiful limestone and looking down on the Andaman sea, turtles sharks, all manner of colourful fish and lots of peapod shaped “long tail” boats. These boats were the only transport on the peninsular we were based to ferry us to the local town or to the cliff islands. I grew to appreciate these boats and their forms whilst at the same time growing a little tired of climbing and wondering what path to take in life. It became a pivotal moment for me and on my return to the uk inspired by the forms of the long tails I sought to learn how to make boats, thus began my career 23 years ago. 

A year at the Lyme Regis School of Boatbuilding lead to me landing a job at Peter Freebody’s and co - a very prestigious 300 year old boat building company near Henley on Thames. This gave me a wealth of knowledge and experience re- building river launches and working on Riva restorations. I worked with Peter Freebody for about a year before deciding to move to Devon with my partner Naomi an artist who I’d met at college. It wasn’t long before I met Jim Stone who invited me out to East Portlemouth to help with his Salcombe Yawls. We worked in the fog up at High House Barn for years whilst I also had my own workshop in Dartmouth, my time was split between working on Salcombe Yawls and bigger yacht work. This led to rebuilding many of the salcombe yawls that are now on the water each summer. My workshop has moved for a time to Portlemouth but has settled here in Frogmore where it has developed to what it is now. 

Tell me about the team

I’ve been working alone for a long time really until the beginning of 2020 but now there’s three of us full time in the workshop one of whom is an apprentice and another who’s part time (also originating from Freebodys) Tamsin who manages Frogmore boatyard is also involved now managing the office side of things. So the year ended very differently to how it started, having a team is new for me so I’ve had some fast learning to do myself but it all feels right. 

What services do you offer?

We are a workshop. We build, restore and repair wooden boats. That’s the bulk of our output. I do however indulge in distractions and we do turn our capabilities to artwork, furniture and architectural work that suit our particular skill set. 

If you could give one maintenance tip to a wooden boat owner what would it be? 

I would say make sure the foundations are well laid painting and varnishing. If it is correctly carried out in the first instance than . That goes for woodwork, upkeep is minimal, this is true whether you are a professional or are carrying out the work yourself, and enjoy it, caring for wooden boats should be really rewarding and enjoyable. 

For John's full contact details visit his listing on

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