Nick Atkins

As a third-generation boatbuider, and now a software developer, I seem to have spent my life surrounded by boats, mainly wooden ones at that.

Although I was born in far north Queensland, Australia, I moved with my family to Melbourne when I was 4 years old.  This was a good thing as my grandfather had been running the Wooden Boat Centre there for some years. 

Holidays and weekends were spend either in the workshop building or assisting on various projects or in a variety of small boats fishing and sailing.

I think initially my most useful attribute for the family business in the early days was my small size. Being able to access small spaces to hold/retrieve bolts, paint obscure corners and spread epoxy was a very useful skill.

During those years my grandfather, Brian, and his son Daniel, built many boats. From Daniel, a gifted craftsman and designer, I learnt about the pursuit of high quality work. He always maintained “There is no excuse for building an ugly boat as a beautiful one takes the same amount of effort”. From Brian I learnt the importance of the business side of the enterprise. He constantly emphasized that a clients’ interests were important and that we wanted to be still in business tomorrow.

Consequently, during the years from the age of six till today I have been seeking better results and higher quality results to satisfy Daniel and “better’ and “quicker” and “more efficient” processes to please Brian.

This showed itself firstly in the ability to complete very high grade joinery, and secondly, after many years of effort, the achievement of an approach to fairing and painting boats that enables me to achieve a high quality spray-paint like result by hand..

For Brian any project had to make business sense, for Daniel it was about the art, the craftsmanship. These debates informed me of so many issues that are involved in any business enterprise.

Core to my learning from Brian and Daniel was the fact that there are many different methods to to go about achieving an objective, and this must be based on your priorities. I was also never told what was not possible, only that there is always a way "So find it".

In addition to building boats the Wooden Boat Centre operated as a School. Conducting specific classes in woodwork and boat building, and various programs for aspiring boat builders , as well as renting space to individuals to build their own boats. Over a 25 year period there have been in excess of 200 amateur built boats from the Wooden Boat Centre. Mixing and often working with those individuals provided an insight into both the technical requirements of boat building and the human attitudes to work.

It may sound like a form of slavery, but those years of work with a range of dedicated craftsmen, both professional and amateur, were very enjoyable and I have fond memories of them.

After high school I returned to Queensland and worked for some years on charter boats out of Cairns. This was a great education, working with mainly Japanese clients from whom I learned a basic use of the the language, finally being sent to Japan to represent my charter boat  company and the charter boat industry in a series of promotions.

When a down-turn in the global economy started to affect the charter boat industry I had to think about the long-term direction my future should take. I decided to return to Melbourne and re-engage with wooden boatbuilding. After long discussion with the family I signed up for an apprenticeship and became a qualified shipwright.

Before, during and after the apprenticeship I was thrown into the work of the Wooden Boat Centre. This not only involved every type of wooden boat building but also tool-making for fiberglass molding and even major restorations of historic fun-fair rides for Luna Park.

It was a very broad and comprehensive introduction to a future career.

During those years at the Wooden Boat Centre it was obvious that there were a lot of individuals who wanted to build their own wooden boats, but they seemed to have less and less available time to indulge in their interests.

It became obvious that I needed to make it easier for these individuals to achieve their dreams.

Having grown up in the age of computer technology, and having had access to computers from an early age I developed a deep fascination with the possibilities they offered. In fact I became quite a nerd.

Over the last 10 years I had been the technology “guru” for the family. My responsibilities to the family included, but were not limited to, cameras, phones, computers, web sites and all things internet, photo editing and CAD programming. At the Wooden Boat Centre I was the sanding/painting and IT department. I began quite early on to use CAD software and assist with planning a variety of projects.

In order to pursue the need for increased efficiency we had been experimenting with an internally built CNC machine for some time. We had had some success cutting boat frames and planking. From this we had a good idea of the possibilities of CNC cutting and explored different ways of cutting and joining clinker planking. We tried joining planks with different systems, from fingers to hidden puzzle joints, always looking for a better, more cost efficient solution. 

After many boats and prototypes it became clear that the time involved in accurately digitizing individual boats was too high; no one could afford it, especially us.

At this time I decided to adopt the motto “Either do it all or do none of it”.

With my in-depth knowledge of how to build a boat from lofting through pattern-making, jig building, component production, of the the technical and aesthetic requirements of planking and internal fit out why could we not have a computer based system that would generate all these parts. One that was simple to use,  would cater for any boat that was presented and gave accurate results in a short time at an affordable cost.

This led to an intensive period of expensive development (combined with the need to earn a living) that produced “THE SYSTEM”.

I now spend much of my time custom digitising one-off boats for CNC cutting.I think I prefer it to sanding and painting.