Updated 6 May 2022

How much does it really cost to build a boat?

A question I often get asked is; what is the cost to build a boat like Tokyo Express?

The cost to build a boat can quickly add up. It’s a good question and one I spent a long time pondering before I started.

If you are considering building to save money, buying a second-hand boat is also a way to save money, and could be even cheaper than building. Although, second hand cats hold their prices pretty well, usually better than a keel yacht.

Doing the work yourself, you only have to pay for the materials. But if you put an hourly rate on the time you spend building and add that to the cost of materials, it may seem an expensive exercise. I put in close to 8,000 hours of work making my boat. Although, that also included building a shed, designing a lot of my own things – everything.

Some suggested I was wasting my time, putting in so many hours when I could surely find a 2nd hand boat cheaper. Just buy one! If you have a good-paying job and the only reason for making a boat is saving money, then maybe working longer in your day job and buying a boat is a better option.

Comparing apples to oranges

But, my reasons to build were not just about saving money. For a long time, I’d dreamed of building a boat. Saving money was certainly a high priority, but the journey was just as important as the goal. So I built, and as a side benefit I actually did end up saving a lot.

Adding the cost of hours worked to the final price to compare with buying a boat is not a true comparison. It is like counting the hours spent playing tennis or doing a hobby, and calculating how much money it costs in lost work hours. Maybe it’s not quite the same, but I think you understand what I mean.

Making something to live on and sail across an ocean is a rewarding exercise. The satisfaction of launching a boat I’d spent three years building is not something money can buy. And in the end, I owned a new boat, not a secondhand one… And it was built to my standards. I knew every inch of my boat. Something that is no small deal when you are riding out a storm, out of reach of help, in the middle of the ocean. A situation I lived through more than once…

Now, to answer the question.

The cost of raw materials and equipment to build TE added up to around $75,000 (AUD) in 1995. Things have gone up since, especially in the last year (2021/22), but something’s not so much. In fact, some items are cheaper these days. A few comparisons below.

– Epoxy cost me $13AUD ($9USD)/litre back then – buying 200 litres bulk at a time. (A quick look online in 2022 in Australia for small amounts, 10 to 30 litres (not bulk price), the price = $18 to 26 USD/litre).
– Wood has gone up a lot in the last year (2021/22).
– Electronics are less expensive (and better).
– Solar panels now cost about 1/15th of what I paid back then.
– Tools are cheaper today, thanks to the flood of Chinese stuff, (although the quality is questionable).

I sold the boat for about 3 times more than the material costs, after living on board for 5 years. The rule of thumb I’d heard many times was that material costs are half to one-third the value of a boat, and that works out about right.

I think it’s rare to get the same satisfaction working for someone else compared to being your own boss. So comparing giving up my day job to build, with working and paying someone else to do it, while my “hourly rate” was not that high I did finally get paid for my work when I sold the boat. And they were the most enjoyable 3 years “work” I’ve ever done.

Read the book…

I wrote a book about my experience, called “Building Tokyo Express“. Inside, I talk about the costs and how I did it. I had more time than money. I made a lot of the systems and major components myself, things you would usually buy or have made. It saved me a considerable amount of money. You can weigh up for yourself if it is worth it or not.

If you have more money than time, you can get some, or all of that work done for you and finish the boat quicker. There’s a timeline in the back of the book detailing how long it took me to complete each part of the boat. Use it to make your own calculations. There are also many ideas from things I learned. You can do it more economically than you may first think.

I hope this helps, and gives you a little more to think about.

Tim Weston