Canadian Woodworking

Docked and Loaded

Author: Allan Britnell
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: August September 2018

A how-to guide to building the ultimate dock for your cottage, cabin, camp or chalet.


How to Design the Perfect Dock

At home, your outdoor congregation spot is likely the deck or patio, but if you’ve got a cottage, the daylong hub is usually the dock. No two docks are identical. The style, shape, size and location will depend on the type of activities you plan to use it for, the terrain along your shoreline, zoning bylaws and various other factors. So let’s get down to work planning the perfect dock for your cottage.

Wish list

Building a dock starts with pencil and paper. First item to tackle: Your wish list. Consider all the things you’d like to use the dock for, such as docking, swimming, diving, and lounging. Next, figure out all the various accessories you’ll need to do those things. For boats you’ll need bumpers and dock cleats, and perhaps a storage rack for canoes and kayaks; you’ll want some sort of open lounging area and maybe an umbrella for shade; swimmers may want a diving board to leap off of, and you’ll need a ladder to get back out of the water.

With those ideas in mind, head down to the lake to assess your shoreline. It’s rare for cottage waterfront to drop off to deep water right at the shoreline. Most likely you’ll have to build out from the shore to reach water deep enough for diving and docking.

Make a detailed drawing of your shoreline, taking note of weedy or rocky areas, water depth offshore, any obvious signs of wildlife habitation and potential mooring points to anchor your dock onshore. You’ll need this info when you go to apply for your permit (which we’ll get to shortly).

Permanent or removable?

There are two basic options for docks: Permanent and removable. Permanent docks built on concrete slabs, wooden piers or rock-filled cribs can be cost prohibitive for typical cottage usage, difficult (in some cases, impossible) to get zoning approval for, and usually require some sort of mechanical system to protect the dock from ice damage in the winter.

The biggest downside to a removable dock? You’re going to want to leave it in the water until the very end of the season. That means you – and one or more buddies you coax into helping you – will have to wade into the frigid lake in the fall to remove it, and repeat the task to reinstall it in early spring.

In most cases, you’ll want a removable dock for a cottage, so that’s what we’ll focus on. The two basic options are floating and pipe docks. In both cases, you can buy complete kits – and even hire someone to install it – or buy off-the-shelf components to build your own.

Floating docks

Floating docks are built atop some sort of buoyant material – rigid board insulation or moulded plastic drums – to keep the deck boards above water. One end is usually connected to a ramp leading to shore, while the other is tethered to the bottom with removable anchor weights for stability.

Floating docks move with the waves, not to mention when someone dives off the end, but on the upside, if the water level changes drastically, the dock top will remain a constant distance from the water’s surface.

Pipe docks

Pipe docks sit on, appropriately enough, aluminum pipes that rest on the lakebed. One advantage with pipe docks is that they tend to be fairly stable. Someone leaping off one corner won’t push the opposite end up in the air. The deck itself is usually kept out of the water, reducing the damaging effects of rot. Pipe docks can be raised or lowered as water levels fluctuate throughout the season.

Many pipe dock kits come with a set of wheels to help with the chore. For docks with a large surface area, you’re wise to break it down into several lighter-weight components that you latch together.

Want to avoid that task? If you’ve got some extra money in the budget, and space along the shoreline, you can invest in a cantilevered system that allows you to lift the dock right out of the water from dry land.

Design time

Time to get to the drawing board. The terrain, water depth and planned uses are key factors in determining the size and shape of your dock. You may need a long walkway with an L-shape at the end to reach deep diving water, for example. A T-shape design allows for docking on either side, with boats – and their sharp props – safely tucked away from swimmers.

Floating docks should be, ideally, 6′ wide or more for stability. Pipe docks can be a bit narrower. For walkways connecting the dock to shore, you’ll want them to be 3′ to 4′ wide so people can comfortably pass.

As mentioned earlier, you’ll need to put the dock in every spring and pull it out in the fall, so you’ll want to keep the various pieces down to a size that can be relatively easily lifted.

For the framing and deck boards, pressure-treated lumber is the cheap and durable option, but you’ll want to make sure it’s allowed on your lake. (If you do use PT wood, make sure you cut it and apply offcut sealant well away from the waterline.) Cedar is nice but needs maintenance. Composites are durable, but you’ll want to invest in good quality material to avoid hot-footing across the dock on sunny days.

A dock is the last project you want to cheap out on with hardware. The foot traffic, jarring boat dockings, and constant pounding of wave action put a lot of strain on the frame. You’ll want to invest in good quality galvanized brackets, corner braces, hinges, nuts and bolts.

Ideally, you’ll have a large enough, relatively flat spot near shore where you can do the actual construction. If your lot is on steeply sloping terrain, you may need to consider building it elsewhere and then floating it across the lake once assembled.

Healthy habitat

The lake is what draws you to the cottage, so you want to be respectful of the wildlife that lives in and around it. Unfortunately, the most desirable place for a dock, the area extending from the high water mark to a few metres offshore, also happens to be the most critical habitat on a lake. This area, known as the littoral zone, is one of the most active parts of a lake. Fish and amphibians feed there, waterfowl build their nests along the water’s edge, and all sorts of wildlife use this stretch as a corridor around the lake.

Your local conservation authority or staff from the provincial ministry of natural resources can help ensure your ideal location isn’t critical wildlife habitat. Which leads us to building permits…

Permit pending

Depending on where your lake is there could be various layers of jurisdictional red tape you have to cut through to actually build and install your dock. The first place to start is your municipal building department to find out about the local building rules. But don’t assume you can copy the design of your neighbour across the lake. The rules on one side of the bay can be different from the other, depending on where the municipal boundaries fall.

Given that you want to place this structure in the water, you’ll also be referred to the local conservation authority or resources ministry for further approval. They’ll want to make sure, for example, the spot you’ve chosen isn’t a fish spawning bed or adjacent to nesting habitat for birds or amphibians.

You may even need to get approval from Fisheries and Oceans Canada if your cottage is along a federally regulated waterway, such as the Trent–Severn Canal.

This is definitely one project you want to clear all the hoops for. The authorities can not only force you to remove an illegally installed dock, the fines can be astronomical for damaging lakebed habitat.

You’ll need to submit detailed drawings of your planned project and a property survey with the application – the latter so you don’t accidentally build on the neighbour’s property or Crown land, which is surprisingly easy to do in areas where fences and clearly marked lot lines are rare.

Down by the bay

A well-designed, well-constructed dock will be the focal point for activity on the lake for years to come, so it’s worth investing some time in planning it properly. But enough work now. Who’s ready for a swim?

Allan Britnell - [email protected]

A long-time freelance contributor to Canadian Woodworking, Allan Britnell is now the Editor-in-Chief of

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