View Full Version : Learning Sailmaking

03-06-2009, 02:35 PM
I know nothing about sailmaking but would like to learn. Without spending allot of money right away (to see if I'm going to really enjoy this) can someone recommend a path? What should I buy, what should I read etc. I read some of the posts here and just ordered the "The Mainsail Manual Book" from Sailrite. I've also read "The Working Guide to Traditional Sail-Boat Sails but was not overly impressed. My intent is simply to make a few sails for myself and to learn this craft as a hobby not to make money. I thought it would make me a better sailor.


03-06-2009, 03:15 PM
Buy the "sailmakers apprentice" . Get a couple of canvas working books. Learn to use a sewing machine and make about a hundred tote bags and try to make each one better and different than the previous one.

03-06-2009, 04:40 PM
Sail makers like boat builders own a specific art, both of which I feel should be left to those with these special skills.
Take a sail repair course from a reputable sail maker, or go to the Wooden Boat School,I think they offer a course.
As I can repair or remake just about anything in a wooden vessel and also own a sail making sewing machine for repairs. My brain does not compute when it comes to building either from scratch.
But as in all fields,if something really interests you, pursue some knowledge and see where it takes you.

03-06-2009, 04:59 PM
Go to the best sail maker in your area. Volunteer to help out and in exchange get some insight into the art. Respect the trade. Its not just sewing. Make a traditional ditty bag to get a good idea of general stitching. Knowing advanced first aid or going online to Web MD doesn't make you a Doctor but it does come in handy when a minor fix is needed.

03-06-2009, 05:58 PM
I've always liked Pete Culler's take on stuff like this. he said "learning begins when you begin". Between the Apprentice and the book you have, you'll have enough IMO to get going. Assuming you have a strong sewing machine available, buy some material - dacron, canvas, polyester, tyvek - and sew up an awning for the boat first. It will give you practice with long straight seams, heavy corners, and big chunks of materials. While you're doing that, the stuff you read will begin to make real sense.

Also, there have been some really good recent threads on sailmaking, materials and methods. Here's just a few - there are many more:


03-06-2009, 06:53 PM
I don't have a heavy duty sewing machine yet but I have access to a regular one I think. I'll find out what model it is.


03-06-2009, 06:58 PM
Sails by Jeremy Howard Williams

03-06-2009, 10:01 PM
I would say first figure out what kind of sail making you want to do. then find the guy who does it best and ask them if you can help.

03-06-2009, 10:11 PM
I was fortunate enough to work for a sailmaker for a couple of months a long time ago. My jobs were to sweep the floor twice a day, do general cleanup, and to do the handwork on sails. Put in the grommets for the tacks and clews and install the headboards. Put on sail hanks. I think that I even got to put on some numbers and insignia.

My main job was supposed to be customer service and sales, which involved schmoozing with the customers and going sailing on their boats. I didn't like that part because, well to be honest, a lot of them were dumbarses who wanted to tell my boss how to do things, and believe me when I say that NONE of them could tell my boss anything about making sails. He knew/knows his trade. The other thing that I didn't like was that you would have needed a 20 foot extension ladder to have seen the poverty level from what I was getting paid, so when another offer came I took it. My boss understood. Apprentice sailmakers (and seamstresses) make very little in the way of wages. It's cool if you love boats and you don't mind Kraft boxed dinners, but it is a tough way to raise a family.

Of course, you didn't mean that you wanted a job as a sailmaker, but I thought that I'd share. It is a fascinating business.

Mickey Lake

Todd Bradshaw
03-07-2009, 01:50 AM
Unless you are seriously interested in a multi-year apprenticeship leading toward professional sailmaking, I think the idea of learning sailmaking by "helping out" your local sailmaker is extremely unrealistic. If it's a big loft, most of the workers, even those who have been there for some time, probably don't know how to design and build an entire sail. They are assemblers, not sailmakers. If it's a small loft, you might learn a lot more, but in this economy the small-volume, local sailmaker probably can't afford the time to teach you much and they can't afford to turn you loose on a sail to learn at their expense. If you're actually going to learn to build sails, you need the freedom to be able to learn all the jobs involved and even screw some stuff up in the process. Big lofts won't teach you all the jobs and small lofts can't afford the risk of an apprentice wrecking half a week's work and/or $300 worth of fabric. Unromantic as it may sound, that's the reality of the situation.

By all means, take advantage of any professionally-sponsored opportunities that you might have available, but it's also possible to teach yourself from books and through practice. That's how I learned. I grew up in central Illinois. There were no local sailmakers and there was no internet, but there were books available. Jim Grant's sailmaker series (Mainsail Manual, Jibsail Manual, Spinnaker Manual, Stormsail Manual, Staysail Manual, and Sail Repair Manual) were worth their weight in gold and are still the books that will teach you the most in the least amount of time. They don't tend to be long on explaining things, but if you want to start with a roll of cloth and walk away with a sail, they will probably give you the best chance of doing it. The Sailmaker's Apprentice is a wonderful book with many illustrations and it's certainly worth owning. To a beginner, I think its greatest value is all those great descriptions and drawings showing how to construct specific details.

My "vast" sailmaking library also includes the following. Some are about making sails, others have helpful information on getting sails and sailboats to work properly, which is an integral part of the sail design/sailmaking process.

Tom Whidden: The Art And Science Of Sails
Jeremy Howard Williams: Sails
Dennis Conner: Sail Like A Champion
Dave Gerr: The Nature Of Boats
Imhoff/Pranger: This Is Boat Tuning For Speed
Frank Rosenow: The Ditty Bag Book
Sail Magazine: The Best Of Sail Trim
Jim Grant: The New Canvas Worker's Library
Bowker & Budd: (an old sailmaking book that deals mostly with cotton sails)

Dacron is thin enough that the test of your sewing machine is more likely going to be it's ability to punch through multiple layers of fabric than it will be one of it being able to handle great thickness. Most of the sewing on a sail is done through two to four layers, though there are places where you may need to sew through seven to ten layers, even on a small sail.

I wouldn't worry about canvas work yet as that comes later and most of it doesn't really relate all that well to actual sailmaking. The same could be said for making ditty bags, unless you plan to make all your sails by hand-sewing only (I freely admit that I make my ditty bags with a machine and most traditional sail hardware is to expensive and too hard to find these days to waste it on ditty bags).

Likewise, I don't think alternate materials like Tyvek, polytarp of fabric store offerings are going to teach you much and they're lousy for "prototyping" sail cuts. If you want to learn to make a proper Dacron sail, you need to learn to work with Dacron.

Luckily, small sails (even really small sails like 4' tall mizzens or dinghy jibs) have pretty much all the same parts and all the same design and construction steps that any big sail has. They simply take less material and less time. You would learn a lot more about sailmaking by scratch-building a dinghy jib following the instructions in a good book than you will building a ditty bag or sweeping the floor at your local sail loft. If you don't own a dinghy, but do a decent job on it, you can probably sell it on eBay and at least get your costs back to pay for the next one. That's how you learn to build sails if professional instruction isn't available.

Duncan Gibbs
03-07-2009, 02:33 AM
This could be one of those great threads. ;)

Pictures please!