Many years ago, while building small craft, I sought a solution for securing a hull under construction in different positions. It occurred to me that V-shaped sawhorses would maintain a V- or round-bottomed skiff in a secure working attitude whether upright, inverted, or in between. This would also work for a flat-bottomed hull, as long as the bottom was narrow near the ends, as a dory is.
Consequently, I quickly and haphazardly conceived a simple design that could be implemented rapidly and cheaply, using standard 2×4 lumber. I build most of my sawhorses with legs cut to an acute angle on the flat on the upper ends, and cut to an obtuse angle on the bottoms, parallel to the shop floor. The upper angles are hard to cut through the width of a 2×4, so you rarely see sawhorses made this way. I do it because the horses are light, simple and strong, and use a minimum of material. I often gusset the ends with whatever scrap plywood is lying around the shop.
To make conventional horses, I cut four 2×4 legs to the height I desire—usually 24″ or 27″, and one 2×4 crosspiece to the width I desire, usually 36″ or 48″. To cut the upper ends of the legs, I use a bevel square set arbitrarily to an angle of about 25 or 30 degrees. I mark one side of all four legs and cut the line carefully with a circular saw set to near maximum depth. I cut the rest of the way through using a bandsaw with a wide blade (3/8″ or 1/2″). I screw the legs to the crosspiece using 2″ to 2 ½″ self-drilling exterior-grade screws or, in some cases, air-nail them with #10 ring-shank nails. I set the horses on a flat, level surface, and trace the feet parallel to the floor with a carpenter’s pencil or Sharpie pen. I set my circular saw to that angle and cut the feet. This makes them more secure but encourages rot from rainwater. If I am in a hurry, I just leave the bottoms of the feet square. These sawhorses seem to last well, and I have some that are at least 20 years old, having been in constant use, much of it outdoors. Occasionally, the bottoms of the legs rot, and I simply cut them a little shorter and keep using them.
To make drop-center sawhorses, I make the legs the same way, but make the crosspiece from two components, joined in the middle by plywood gussets on each side. The angle of the V can be tailored for a specific boat project or can be generic for general use. I have only made one or two sets of drop-center sawhorses, and I can’t remember when, or for what project. They are more than 20 years old.
To make the V components, I cut my 2×4 crosspieces to an angle of about 55 degrees where the halves join, and I trim the top outer edges to 35 degrees for the 3-1/2″ width of the legs. I do this so that I have flat surfaces at each side of the finished sawhorse for resting plywood or temporarily adding a plank across the top to use as a conventional sawhorse. To protect the boat, I carpet the tops of the horses with synthetic carpet stapled in place.
The horses are versatile in that they will secure a boat project in various attitudes and positions. The coarse carpeting aids this as it prevents slipping.
Reuel Parker is a yacht designer, boatbuilder, and author who regularly contributes to WoodenBoat and Professional BoatBuilder magazines. A lifelong cruising sailor, he currently lives in the Bahamas aboard PEREGRINE and sails seasonally between Maine and Florida. He ventures farther as time and tide permit.
For many of my boat-repair projects I used ordinary sawhorses with straight crosspieces on top. To keep boats from rolling around, I used the foam cradles designed for carrying a kayak on a car’s roof rack. They worked marginally well but didn’t hold the kayak securely. Reuel’s drop-center sawhorses are perfectly suited to working on small boats, so as soon as I had his text and photos in hand, I made a pair for my shop.
I made a few departures from Reuel’s instructions for a better fit for me. I wanted the boat to be held a little bit higher, so I made the legs 32″ long. Angled at 30 degrees they would make an equilateral triangle with an equally wide base. A 32″ span between the feet seemed a bit wide. I settled on a 24″ span and, using an online right-triangle calculator, plugged in a 32″ hypotenuse and a 12″ base to get the 22-degree angle for the top of the leg and 68-degree cut for the bottom.
An 8′ 2×4 will provide three legs with no waste. A full set of eight legs will consume all but 32″ of three 2×4s. The leftover piece and a fourth 2×4 will provide the rest of the lumber required.
I opted to used a 12″ chop saw for most of the cuts. In retrospect, a band saw would well too, cutting by eye to lines drawn with a bevel gauge. The chop saw lent itself better to guides and stops for quicker, more uniform cutting.
A chop saw can’t be at 22 degrees to the fence for the acute angle at the top of the leg; angles are measured from 0 for a square cut. I set the saw to 22 degrees and cut a scrap 2×4, on the flat, to make a guide. With the chop saw set back at 0 degrees, I clamped it to the fence with a piece of plywood to serve as a stop. (Without it the saw could easily bind if the workpiece shifted, as it likely would if merely handheld.) I set the guide back about 1/8″ from the line of the cut to leave some enough of the 2×4 to stay secure against the plywood stop.
When I first saw photographs of Reuel’s drop-center sawhorses, I knew it would be well worth building a pair. They exceeded my expectations and my only regret was that I didn’t know about them 40 years ago.
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