Boat building with Black Prince

We are often asked what makes a Black Prince narrowboat so special.  So we thought we would interview our chief boat builder, Neil Southall, in order to provide the insider information about how our narrowboats are designed and built.

Hi Neil.  So tell us, are you a fan of narrowboats yourself?

Well, I currently live on a narrowboat.  It’s one I built myself called Patches Pad, named after my springer spaniel, so yes, I am quite a fan!

How long have you been a canal boat builder for Black Prince?

I’ve been working for Black Prince for just over 8 years now.

What’s your background, how did you get in to canal boat building?

I initially started my career with fairly straightforward painting and decorating in houses but I had the opportunity of working in America and ended up working in Florida at a boat-building yard there.  I simply walked in and asked for a job and began working on five million pound yachts! We would lift them out of water and do general maintenance, including painting and woodwork varnishing.

Any well-known boat owners?

Well, I painted the boat of Jimmy Buffet, the American songwriter and singer, best known for ‘Margaritaville’.  That was a pretty impressive boat!

How long does it take to build a Black Prince narrowboat from start to finish?

We start here at the Stoke Prior boatyard with a ready made hull. We buy the steel hull from a company called Coalcraft Boats who build the model to our specifications.  We’ll spend time with them after each season discussing what could be improved and they are able to adjust where necessary.  As I’m building the boats it’s very much in my interest to get the hulls right!

It takes around six weeks to produce a hull and then from receipt of this it takes three to four weeks to complete the boat build.

Where do you source the narrowboat engine from?

The engines come from a company called Canaline Marine Engines, which supply many hire fleets across the UK.  They are much quieter than our previous engines and are smoke free which is especially good for going in and out of the locks.

For those interested in the techie detail it features the following:

  • A 42 Kioti 4 cylinder diesel engine
  • PRM 150 Marine hydraulic gearbox
  • Twin 50A & 175A alternators
  • Electric fuel lift pump for ease of priming
  • Deluxe engine control panel

How many people would work on a canal boat?

We have four people on boat building team and we all have the ability to cover everything, although we tend to have our own jobs, for example one guy fits engine, another fits the bathroom etc.

The exterior takes about one week to paint, whilst the interior needs to be spray foamed and then have the walls, bedroom, kitchen and dining area installed. The installation can take some time; although they are the same interiors it’s not quite as simple as just slotting it all together, you still need experienced craftsmen to fit the interiors well.

Who designs the interior of the canal boat?

The Black Prince boats have been fairly established for a while but we will suggest tweaks and changes each year to improve the design.  We listen to any customer feedback on return from a holiday on one of our boats and see if we can improve the boats.

Most recently we changed the front steps, improved the front seating area, took the window out over the double bed and installed some new LED lighting features.

What do you think makes a Black Prince boat better than other canal boats?

Because we build the boats ourselves I think we are more able to understand how the boats work and how they can be improved, so it’s all in the detail really.

Our boats feel more modern and we have the extra plushness with the carpet floors and walls.   I probably shouldn’t say this but there are other hire companies who buy our boats for their business as they consider them to be so well made!

You say you are able to improve the boats from customer feedback.  Have there been any strange requests you’ve had to turn down?

We have been asked for a bath but that’s a question of space and the capacity of the water tank – there’s only so much room on a narrow boat!  Oh, and a Jacuzzi.  But I’m not convinced that we could guarantee the plumbing on that one!

When customer buys boats from us we are able to make alterations to their requests though.  For example, we’ve taken out the second bathroom and turned it into a laundry room with washing machine etc.    We also been able to sound proof the bedrooms and install bigger beds, make the kitchen area bigger or make the lounge areas bigger to fit in comfy sofas.

What would be a little-known fact about putting a canal boat together that you know and nobody else does?   

When building a boat you can’t use a spirit level, so planning is key!  Also you have to cater for the hull changing as heat expands steel.   You need to know how to compensate because if you build a boat in the summer or build in the winter, the build will be slightly different.

Any mishaps whilst building a boat?  Like people falling in? 

Yep, we’ve had those.  Plus the odd occasion where someone has drilled into the side of boat where he wasn’t supposed to – I’d better not say more than that!

How do you choose the names for the boats?

Anyone in the team can suggest a name, we’ve had various wives, daughters and granddaughter etc.  who have been honoured with a boat being named after them.   I’d highly recommend it as a way to get into the good books of a member of the family!

Thanks Neil, carry on with the good work!