One man’s abiding passion: liberating wood from its nostalgic image

WORKUM – Steel plates are cut, bent, shaped, and sold to shipyards. Would be nice if we could do this with wood too, no? Welcome to Dutch boatbuilder Roelof van der Werff’s mission.

Roelof van der Werff
Roelof van der Werff

Wood’s significance faded as composite and other materials came into popular use on shipyards everywhere, he says. “That’s when wood became more labor-intensive, therefore pricier. But it’s a valuable resource and that’s interesting as sustainability gains significance.”

At age 72, Van der Werff speaks passionately about wood in shipbuilding. He has worked at several Dutch shipyards, owned one and built wooden fishing vessels of 20m and 25m (66 and 82ft) in Denmark. A few years back, he launched the 6.4m Werffboat-21, an uncomplicated tender of Accoya, a type of pine, treated with acetic acid to harden the cell structure making it impervious to rot and mold.

“Today, steel is tamed into curved plates, laminated bulkheads, milled out trusses and what not. If we could do that in wood, the price would drop,” says Van der Werff. “For many people, wood is nostalgia, i.e. beautiful, but not very functional,” says Van der Werff.  It is the latter I fight against. Yes, wood is beautiful and nostalgic but with the new processing techniques, it can compete with other materials. And as a renewable raw material, wood is sustainable. Wood will be an important building material of the future.”

Wood is naturally flexible, but once cut, it loses moisture and hardens. When this happens, it takes time and effort to bend wood. So how do we get large, curved sheets of wood?

Van der Werff turned to Curve Works, a Dutch composite specialist. Using an adaptive mold as a tool, it shapes laminated wood panels into singly and doubly curved shapes without steaming or kerf cutting. With adaptive mold technology, the shape is no longer a limiting factor.

Curve works’ wood panels contain diverse types of timber that can be pre-cut to different shapes. It makes panels of up to 3.5 x 1.6m (11.5 x 5.3ft) in various wood types as well as bamboo. A new, electrically powered 24ft (7.3m) cabin model Werffboat is being built. Van der Werff acknowledges that, for now, production capacity is still modest and that commercializing curved wood in boat and shipbuilding will require significant investments in large adaptive molds, robotization and customized CNC milling.

“Still, wood is not just for pleasure craft,” says Van der Werff. “It can also be used in commercial shipping, for unmanned lightships, for minesweepers and fishing vessels.” /