Last winter, Richard Nichols could be heard tap-tapping in the vinyl Quonset hut he had set up in his yard, side-nailing about 50 pounds of silicon bronze ring nails into white pine strips to form the hull of his first West Point Strip Boat. He hopes there will be many more.

The boat’s design, lifted from an 18-foot West Pointer built for Nichols’s father in 1968 by Alton Wallace, required precisely nailing together one-and-one-sixteenth- by-three-quarter-inch clear pine strips. Nichols had cut the strips in his basement workshop from 500 board feet of raw lumber cut into boards one-and-one-eighth-inch wide by 12 to 14 feet long. As the hull took shape, he hand-planed each strip to fit precisely to the one below.

The project has been a great “adventure,” Nichols says, one of the best in his life, a dream come true. He had always hoped to build boats, but circumstances were such that until now, he wasn’t able to do it. Although he has an MS in Natural Resources Administration and Management, he says he prefers boatbuilding and hopes to continue, producing two each winter for sale.

Recently he began construction of a frame workshop on his property, which is just a short ways down the road from the former one-room schoolhouse where Alton Wallace had his workshop. For Nichols, a frame building will be a great step up after a winter of working in the vinyl shelter, where condensation would rise with the temperature and sometimes, “it was like getting rained on.”

West Point, situated on a ledgy point that overlooks Carrying Place Head, Wood Island and Little Wood Island and is bordered on the east by Small Point Harbor, is part of the town of Phippsburg, which takes pride in being home of the Popham Colony, where colonists built Maine’s First Ship, the pinnace VIRGINIA, in 1607 (WWF May 2005). In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous ships were built throughout the town. The Phippsburg Historical Society’s town history, Phippsburg, Fair to the Wind, notes that between 1914 and 1921, a total of 198 vessels totaling 65,515 tons were launched into waters bordering the town.

Ever since fishermen settled in Phippsburg, they have fashioned their own wooden fishing craft, or purchased them from a local boat builder. Alton Wallace, who was born in 1909 and died in 1995, was one of the best-known working boat builders along the coast. Wallace lived his entire life in West Point. When he was young, there were only a few homes on the point, most of them occupied by his relatives. As a boy he fished with his father and helped him build boats. Then he started his own business and developed his own boat designs. Over nearly 50 years, he produced versions of the West Pointer or West Point Skiff, which came to be the favored skiff for inshore fishing among local fishermen and others up and down the coast, supplanting traditional dories. Wallace built more than 200 West Pointers; more were built by fishermen whom he allowed to lift the lines from one of his own boats.

After Nichols lifted the lines from the skiff Wallace built for his father, he constructed plywood molds. His boat is a rare 18-foot Wallace design that Wallace later supplanted with a model that has a seven-inch higher bow and slightly higher stern. Like all West Pointers, the boat has a rounded bow and flat stern, which Nichols believes helps contribute to its stability in choppy water. He recalls that Wallace’s brother, Benny Wallace, was well known for using his West Pointer to fish for tuna in an area locals call the “gully,” which is near Halfway Rock, a considerable distance from West Point.

Many versions of the West Pointer are still being produced, some in fiberglass, but all are from Wallace’s later design with the higher bow. Nichols believes his is the only working 18-footer of the earlier design. To differentiate his boat from the other models, including one with a center console built by Jonathan Keyes on Carrying Place Head, he has decided to call his the West Point Strip Boat.

Nichols was stationed all over the world during 20 years in the U.S. Army, but he always knew he would return to settle in West Point, where he had spent most of his boyhood living next to the water. While he was growing up, he and his father, Ernest Haskell, fished for lobster during the summer and fall from their West Pointer until it was lost in a hurricane in the early 1960s. Alton Wallace built a new West Pointer for his father, and at his father’s death in 1973, Nichols inherited the boat and put it in storage until 1980.

When he returned to the Point in 1980 after serving in the Army, he used the boat to fish for lobster and also went out groundfishing and shrimping on other boats. He returned to active service in the Army in 1986, putting the West Pointer back into storage until retiring from the Army for good in 1994.

Once he was out of the Army, Nichols spent six years earning a Bachelor of Science in environmental science (he needed it because the field had changed so much since he had earned a BS in forestry in 1969) and a masters degree at University of New Hampshire, but he says he always had in the back of his mind that if possible, he wanted to build boats.

All along, he continued to use the West Pointer to fish for lobster in the summer and fall. After completing the degrees, he built a house, doing most of the work himself, and then finally, he began to build a boat in the basement, a small wooden skiff to row out to his West Pointer. The next year, he tackled the more ambitious project of reviving the early traditional West Pointer. Having witnessed the many changes that have altered the simplicity of the original West Point fishing village he knew as a boy, he wanted to preserve this part of West Point history that was so important to the fishermen who made their living on the water.

Like Wallace, Nichols has built his boat with lumber provided by John G. Morse and Sons, a Phippsburg mill that has been active for over 200 years, and along with other mills, supplied wood for many sailing vessels built and launched in Bath and Phippsburg.

Nichols says WoodenBoat magazine has been a “priceless source of information on boatbuilding.” In it he found plans for an ingenious but simple steam box that was sent in by a reader. He has used this to soften the boat’s red oak ribs before bending them to fit the shape of the hull. Wallace, he says, had his own unique steam box (actually, he boiled the oak), fashioned out of two hot water tanks welded together and fired by a flame thrown from a furnace burner.

Greg Rossel’s Building Small Boats has also been an invaluable resource, Nichols adds, as have local people who had spent a lot of time hanging around at Wallace’s workshop, which was a community gathering place.

Like Wallace, Nichols has built a no-frills working craft. He plans to sell this one for “well below $9,000,” fitted with washboards and seats, but without motor, hauler, varnish or final paint. (It has an interior and exterior primer coat.) On this or subsequent boats, he is open for negotiation on additional customizing or finish work.

This summer, when he is not out tending traps in his 18-footer, Nichols will be building the new workshop. Then, he’ll be ready to lay the oak keel for the next West Point Strip Boat and tap-tap his way through the winter.