Introduction: Row Boat Stage Prop
If you feel like you may never finally kiss de girl, you need to build this Prince Eric style row boat modeled after Disney’s The Little Mermaid and pictured above from their theme park attraction. I built this for a stage production of The Little Mermaid for a local dance studio. While my life would have been much easier building a boxy triangular boat, I really loved the idea of a curved bow and upswept side rails. My original design was to recess large casters up under the bottom where it seemed to glide across the floor but the request was later made to have it elevated so supporting dancers surrounding the boat during the performance didn’t block the characters in the boat from view.
Step 1: Design and Lets Go!
I traced one half of a design for the belly or bottom onto butcher paper and folded in half to trace the other side to ensure it was symmetrical since I was hand drawing it. I then outlined it onto the half-inch plywood.
I cut a 2x4 to length as a keel for strength with an angled cut on the bow. I then added some bulkheads at the places I would attach the two seats to and the back of the boat (stern). These bulkheads will be what we attach the side walls to. I used 1/2” plywood for this too.
I supported the base of the bulkheads with 1x1 to give more to glue and screw to than just the 1/2” plywood.
Step 2: Curved Prow
I was intimidated by the curved front of the ship called the prow but loved the look too much to leave it out. I simply held up a tape and visualized how high it would need to be to look proportional and again traced a design onto a piece of butcher paper. I then transferred the shape I was happy with onto the plywood. I used my first cut piece of plywood as a traceable template for the remaining four copies. I used counter sunk screws and wood glue and as many clamps as I could find to glue them together. Cut carefully my friends. What you gain in speed cutting you loose in sanding and wood filling time later... so I’ve heard.
Another note here is that I now own a 24 pack of 2 1/2” opening spring clamps from Amazon.com to make sure I have plenty in the future because I had some areas that didn’t have enough and didn’t stick together well enough the first try. Overall was happy with the finished “prow”.
Step 3: Carvel Boatbuilding
Carvel was another new term I picked up meaning the frame was built first and the outside mainly just keeps the water out. This boat is far from water tight but my point being the quarter inch thick plywood used for boat walls is very thin. But first, let’s discuss the top rail... This was the most discouraging aspect going into this project as I had no idea how to bend wood. So, my solution was several sheets of thin plywood glued together at the desired curve. I cut a notch in the prop at the bow to slide the rail into for added strength. I then spread glue a cross the entire sheet and slid the next sheet on top of the first. After I added three layers of plywood and was happy with the total thickness of the top rail, I cut out the center making the opening of the boat again.
The side walls were challenging because of the curve of the wood being transferred onto a flat piece of wood while keeping the whimsical shape of my inspiration created an unusual shape. I held taped up a large sheet of the butcher paper and traced the required and desired shape of the bottom “board” and transferred and cut out the first board. I used a pneumatic nailer and wood glue to attach to the frame. At the prow I made several cuts 3/4 of the way through in a 1x2 to be able to bend to the curve of the prow at the bow to create the desired curve. I then nailed the side wall boards to it and trimmed the imperfect lengths to match each other as good as possible at both the front and back of the boat.
Step 4: Below the Waterline
Below the waterline we had to add some wheels and like I mentioned earlier they were requested to be more prominent rising the boat higher off the surface. At this point I had ordered a blue fabric skirt with Velcro sewn across that had a second layer of streamers to give the impression of water while hiding everything below The fictitious waterline. I therefore didn’t care too much about how the wheels and the table leg like structures I attach them to looked since they would be hidden but I did try to push them is four to the four corners as I could for stability.
Step 5: Get Ready to Break the Champagne Bottle!
At this point I wheeled The row boat into the yard and used a paint sprayer to paint the base coat of brown. I just used a middle of the line big box home improvement store paint plus primer in one and a latex satin sheen. After I put the second coat on, I attached the Velcro skirt around the bottom of the boat but later added staples because the adhesive wasn’t strong enough. I used fabric scissors and trimmed the skirt to the appropriate length. The last step was to drill holes for the oar guides for the oars which were just the cheapest paddle I could find at the sporting-goods Store. I eventually sanded off the gloss and stained them darker brown to match the color of the rowboat better. I then used some black paint and added a dab of brown to go back and add contouring and shading to give the boat a more three-dimensional look under stage light. I exaggerated somewhat since the stage lighting will likely wash out many of your details otherwise.