Isabella - You Can Do It!


Home Page


Shell Spec

Boat Layout

Construction at Liverpool Boats

Delivery / Crane In


Interior Specification


Lessons Learned

Chelmer Canal Photos / info

Associated Link Pages

Tow Boat!!

A little about us

Like the idea of fitting out a narrowboat yourself…. Want to know more? Read on....

Before you start there are three key questions you have to ask yourself, then before you can order a shell you have to determine:-

A) What size / length of narrowboat you want? 

B) What type of narrowboat shell you want?

C) What engine would you like?

D) What windows would you like? 

E) Other Options

First, the key 3 questions:- 

1)  Do you have the time needed to complete the boat?

2)  Are you capable of completing the boat to a standard you are comfortable with?

3)  Do you have sufficient funding to complete the boat, to the level you expect?

If you are sure the answer to question 1 & 2 is a definite ‘yes’, then skip to question 3, if not expect the cost to increase proportionally and read on.


  1. Do you have the time needed to complete the boat?

For a 35ft boat, allow around 60 working days (eg 30 weekends) assuming you spend 8hrs working per day on the boat. For a 60 – 70ft boat you probably need to double this time. For each day I spent working on the boat I probably spent another 6 hrs (evenings) during the week in preparation, planning and buying materials needed for the weekend. It is important to buy materials needed for working time on the boat before hand, if left until the weekend it is all to easy to spend half a day in B&Q, and not get started until late afternoon!!!!!

If you do not have this time to spare, then you can always reduce the time spent on the boat by getting other people to do some of the work, but unless you know some very friendly helpful people there will likely be a monetary cost to this. You also need to be sure that your friends / helpers are competent in whatever jobs you ask them to do.

If you are not sure on your competency to do some of the jobs, you will also need to allow a little more time, in reading up / learning the skills.  

  1. Are you capable of completing the boat to a standard you are comfortable with?

If you are an absolute perfectionist, but have never cut a piece of wood in you life the answer is most probably no. If you have done some home improvement works and satisfied with the results then the answer is most probably yes.

There are a number of different skills needed, Woodwork, plumbing, electrical, painting and gas are the key ones:-

Woodwork / Carpentry. If you can cut a piece of wood with a normal saw, you will be surprised at how accurately you can cut a piece of wood with a precision mitre saw. These saws are available for around £10 from B&Q etc. They are fantastic, indispensable. With this saw you will be able to cut any timber up to around 5” x 2” in size, square and true with an accuracy of around 1mm, including mitred frames like picture frames. 1mm accuracy is ample for most tongue and groove roof and side claddings linings. Katie and Leigh did over 50% of all the side and roof T&G linings, including some of the most difficult ones, and had close to zero woodworking experience before we purchased Isabella. They found skills they did not realise they had.

If you buy flat pack kitchen cupboards and wall units from MFI or the like, you will have little need of cabinet making skills. You will have to modify the carcases a little, to make allowances for non-vertical boat sides etc. But generally if you have done a little carpentry and made flat pack units you should be able to do this. 

Making bed frames and dinette seats is very easy, again using the mitre saw.

Plumbing. If you can plumb in a washing machine, then you will probably be able to do all the plumbing on a boat, with a little bedtime reading of some books and magazines detailing pipe flow diagram’s etc. I used predominately push fit plastic pipes for all the hot and cold water supplies (available from B&Q, screw fix direct etc). The fittings are a little more expensive than copper, but much easier and quicker to install. Also I believe they are more resistant to bursting in below freezing temperatures.   

Electrical. 12v electrics is simpler and safer then 240v. If you have done some home wiring, with some bedtime reading of different boat books and magazines having articles on boat electrics you should have no problems if you keep the electrics simple. I made a point of keeping all the electrics simple, and made all the cable sizes larger than probably needed. But it is important to read up on the subject, and from time to time the canal boat magazines have articles on boat electrics.

If you want 240v, either from a generator or hook up it may be best to seek help and advice, especially if you want automatic switch over controls. This can be dangerous and needs care and attention, only do this if you are competent. If you have rewired a house ring mains you probably have the skills...... with some more bedtime reading.

Painting. Painting is hard work. With just one coat of paint a further 7 coats is needed. You need to have fairly strong upper arm strength to prepare (sand, wire brush, clean etc) before painting. It is tiring, hard work but rewarding. You will need some help, preferably 3 people total. I used self adhesive coach work stripes and boat name, a little fiddly applying them, but they look good and show no signs of coming off 18 months later. 

Gas. Unless you have a lot of of experience with gas and are fully competent you should not contemplate doing this yourself. Gas on a boat is potentially more dangerous than gas at home, the reason is because gas is heavier than air. If there is a leak the gas will sink to the bilges of the boat and gradually build up without you knowing about it. On caravans they have vent holes in the floor to let any gas escape, but obviously this is not recommended on boats! 

  1. Do you have sufficient funding to complete the boat, to the level you expect?

Complete a detailed list, itemising everything you can think of you will need. Compile the list on a spread sheet and update it on a continuous basis. Use my cost page link to help. Then add 20% to cover for incidentals, things missed etc. Also add a more if you think you may need professional help in any area, or if you think you may not have time to complete the job yourself.

There are also lots of magazines, books and people to help you complete your fit-out. It will require a lot of reading and studying. The more you read about the upcoming weekend work beforehand the easier and quicker you will be able to accomplish the work on the boat, especially with safety regulations, most are common sense...they are all there to protect us. 

So, you are still interested, and now want to think about ordering a hull / shell


A) What size of Narrowboat?

The length of the boat should be dictated by what internal space you need, plus the length of bow and stern. To determine internal space you need to draw a layout, or look / copy other peoples layout. The length of bow and stern is governed by the style / type you require. All narrowboats are the same width.

If you intend to live aboard, the boat should be as long as possible. Restricted only by the lock sizes, which are mostly 70ft, but some are as short as 60ft, if you are thinking of a boat over 60ft you need to check the canals you will not be able to use, and make a decision whether to compromise on living accommodation or cruising.

If the boat is to be used for leisure purposes, then size will be governed by how much you wish to spend and ease of boat manoeuvrability. The shorter the boat, the easier it is to handle, turn around and moor. It can be quite difficult turning a 70ft boat around on a 40ft wide canal!!. If you are thinking of doing a lot of cruising with a boat over 55ft, think about installing a bow thruster to help with manoeuvrability. If you are thinking about a bow thruster, have your boat builder fit a bow thruster tube during shell fabrication. It will cost around £300, but it will give you the flexibility to fit a bow thruster later on without having to lift the boat out the water and getting someone to cut a large diameter hole under the waterline of the boat. A bow thruster is a sideways installed propeller under the front of the boat, when used it simply moves the bow / front to the left or to the right. Most are battery powered and cost from around £1000 (alternative is hydraulic, but double the price). The disadvantage of electric is that they will drain a single 100ah battery in around 3minutes, and can only be used for around 3 mins in every hour.

B) What type of Narrowboat?

Apart from the length, there are also different styles, particularly with the stern where there are 3 types to choose from (cruiser, traditional and semi-traditional). Isabella has a round cruiser stern (square is also an option).

When we were looking to buy a boat and visited boat manufacturers we were not suitably educated to know the difference of the sterns, but we knew what we wanted when we saw it. We visited nearly a dozen companies, only at one did we see the boat style we liked at the price we wanted to pay. Difficult to explain, but both of us liked the lines and style of the Liverpool boat more than any other we looked at. The proportion of usable interior and exterior space looked right and was the most practical. Of course everybody has different tastes (otherwise we would all be dressed alike). My point is, narrowboats of the same length are different, and each manufacturer has their own uniqueness, so visit a pre-determined selection (write to as many as you can for details, photos and information, browse the internet and make up a shortlist of those you wish to visit), some you will like others you wont, when you see one you like and the price is right, you will have found the right type for you.


C) What type of engine?

A diesel, no other viable practical alternative is available. What manufacturer and size is difficult to judge. Most boat builders will put in whatever engine you wish, but most have an arrangement with just one or two. Unless you know a lot about engines (and I do not) I would suggest you go for the engine the boat builder recommends, you know then he is familiar with that engine, its installation and functions, and that if must be fairly reliable, as if he were to have a lot of problems with it under warranty would he not continue with it. The last thing any boat builder wants is warranty problems from a supplier. Ask the builder what size he recommends, then ask how much it would cost to have the next largest engine in the range. If it is only around £100 extra it will be worth, you never know when you may have a strong wind and current against you. Same thing with instrumentation, for an extra £100 you would likely get some gauges (temperature oil etc) instead of just warning lights.


D) What type of Windows?

Unless you specify differently you will get standard aluminium single glazed windows. We specified gold anodised windows (and paid a little extra for them). We think they look much better than aluminium, black or anything else, but everyone has different tastes. After two years they look as good as new, no sign of any deterioration. We have Caldwell’s, we did not specify them by name, but we have seen others that look equally as good (Channel Glaze etc). You can get double glazed windows, but it is the frame that attracts the most condensation. If you plan to live on board then double glazing is worth considering, but if its holidays only, predominantly in the spring, summer and Autumn then probably not worth the quite considerable extra cost.


E) Other Options

There are many other options you may wish the builder to complete, these may include mushroom vents in the roof, plank and pole rack welded to roof, spray foam insulation to interior sides, cladding of interior roof and sides, additional coats of exterior paint, etc. etc. The choice is yours.

More Information

This site has many photos (compressed) taken during various stages of the fit-out. If you are interested in fitting out a narrowboat I am sure you will find them interesting. Click here to go to the main fit-out page. Also I would recommend you buy a copy of the Narrowboat Builder's Book, written by Graham Booth, available for around £15.


<<< Previous Page    Next Page >>>