Canadian Woodworking

23 Tips on How to Design, Build and Maintain Your Dock

Author: Rob Brown
Published: August September 2018

Docks are the focal point of many cottages, cabins and chalets. A well-designed and built dock will offer years of great service, so take the time to plan your next dock build with your specific situation in mind.



Make a list of all the functions you want from your dock design before proceeding. Is it just for swimming and diving from? Maybe a boat docking area? Do you need any canoe and paddleboard storage? Sunbathing? Storage for PFDs and paddles? Considering these and other points can drastically change the scope of the project and help you zone in on how you will build the perfect dock for your family.

General site characteristics and water depth will dictate your dock layout. How stable your dock feels depends on the width of the dock sections, dock structure and layout. Long, straight sections may need to be wider, have more anchoring, etc. When possible, design sections with an “end” section for stability, such as L, U, H or T shapes.

If you’re building your own dock ensure you have enough people-power to assist in lifting of heavy materials and moving pre-assembled dock sections into place.

If you’re going to be using the dock to dock a boat, ensure the water is deep enough to handle the draft of your boat – it’s safest to go at least 2′ deeper. Also consider the seasonal changes in water levels when designing and building a dock.

If you’re building a floating dock, don’t under build. You’ll be left with a dock that moves far too much and easily and may even sink under the water if too many people are on it – waves only add to the problem. A general rule for a floating dock is that dock stability increases with size.

“Freeboard” is the distance from the top of your dock to the water. Increasing the number of floats in a floating dock will keep a more consistent freeboard and will also protect against the weight of people causing the dock to shift or tilt while they walk on it.

Double check the composite deck materials for adequate traction (especially when wet or covered with a very thin layer of ice), that they don’t lose strength in the hot sun and that they have a decent warranty.

Surge protection – storms, or even high wind locations, can add a lot of tension to a dock. If your dock will be located in an area that is prone to this type of weather, ensure there’s enough strength in the design and construction of the dock to stand the test of time.

Hire someone reputable if you’re not going to do it yourself.

If you’re dealing with a saltwater environment, purchase the proper hardware for the task at hand.


Use high-quality hardware, especially in high use and high wind areas, or if larger boats will be docked at them.

Ensure all underground utilities are located before starting to dig in the area. Most of cottage country is free from underground utility lines, but this isn’t always the case.

Be sure to anchor a floating dock properly, considering the strongest storms your area has. Erring on the strong side is a good approach, as you never know what the weather will bring. If you’re away from the dock, this is only going to give you more peace of mind.

Add enough quality bumpers to the right places, and you’ll love docking a boat at your dock even more. Bumpers are no substitute for learning how to properly dock a boat, but they are sure to add a level of security to mastering this great skill. They will also keep your boat safer all season long.

Plan to build as much of the dock on land as possible, and then move it into location when appropriate. Unless you have a relatively flat, sandy lake bottom, this will likely save you lots of grief, not to mention ruined power tools.

When you build that deck you want to use top quality lumber- you’re deck will last longer, and look better, giving you a much better return on your investment. If you live in the Greater Toronto area it’s worth taking the time to visit Century Mill Lumber – they’ve been serving the local DIY and woodworking community for over 160 years. You’ll find all the lumber you need at competitive prices.


Remove lichen, moss and other unwanted flora from growing on or near your dock because they attract moisture, increasing the likelihood of rot. They also pose slip or trip hazards.

If you’re going to remove your dock during the winter, make sure to mark it in a way so you can easily and properly reassemble it the following spring. It’s incredible how similar the sections look once they’re out of the water.

Closely inspect the dock annually and repair or replace missing or damaged hardware and components. Not doing so will severely increase the likelihood and speed of more damage down the road.

If you notice a weak link – possibly the hinges fixing your dock to land, or other crucial connector hardware – take steps to strengthen that weak link right away, as the next storm could be the one that wreaks havoc on your dock. The labor and money to fix it will very likely be much higher than making a small upgrade beforehand.

Replacing rotten or damaged boards will go a long way toward ensuring the dock is safe to use and looks good. Getting your leg caught in a hole while walking on a dock can cause quite an injury.

As woodworkers, we know the joys of getting wood slivers all too well. A quick check of your dock’s deck boards now and then, followed by a bit of sanding, will help you locate and fix rough areas before you have to resort to doing minor surgery with tweezers.

At least once a year, preferably in the spring, check your dock for raised nail or screw heads and ensure they’re driven below the surface of the dock. Your family’s feet will thank you.

Teaching your family to keep the dock relatively neat and tidy will go a long way toward making sure everyone has a safe and fun time while on the dock. If your family is anything like mine, this might be easier said than done.

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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