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How to Build a Dock on a River

Barbara Hazelden

The river winds lazily past your house, and provides a relaxing backdrop as you wind down for the evening. This would be a perfect time to hop into a little boat and take a spin. However, you don’t have a dock on the river, so boating at sunset has not been an option. This year will be different.


Under no circumstances should you attempt to build the dock without contacting the Army Corps of Engineers (and local jurisdictions) and applying for your permits. Discovery of unapproved dock construction could lead to hefty fines and orders to return the site to its former condition.

You're going to build a dock.

  1. Decide on a fixed or floating dock. A fixed dock is comprised of pilings sunk into the riverbed to provide the base for dock supports and planks. Planks are fastened together to serve as a walkway. There may also be smaller side docks branching off from the main dock. Fixed docks are stationary, and may be difficult to use in areas with large tidal swings. In these conditions, fixed docks can be several feet higher or lower than the water level.

  2. In contrast, floating docks consist of modular sections that collectively make up a long walkway. Smaller side docks are also possible with a floating dock configuration. Floating docks are distinguished by their ability to float up and down with the tide. A floating dock is much easier to use in areas with large tidal swings. Consider the “draft” of your vessel when designing the dock. For example, you might have a sailboat that “draws” (or needs) six feet of water in which to float. This means the dock will need to extend far enough into the river to accommodate the six-foot boat draft.

  3. Learn about community development restrictions. Before spending money for permits or dock building materials, find out if your community or homeowners’ association has restrictions or guidelines relating to dock construction.

  4. Educate yourself on permit issues. The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the maintenance and oversight of navigable waters within the United States. Within that framework, the Corps issues permits and ensures regulatory compliance for construction of “piers and wharves.” The Corps also administers wetlands management throughout the country. The Corps of Engineers provides a “Frequently Asked Questions” page with general answers to permitting questions (See References 1). In addition, the Corps maintains district offices that can educate consumers on local permit regulations. In addition to Federal permits, your state or local jurisdiction may require permits as well. Permit information should be available from your local building inspector’s office.

  5. Construct your dock. If you are building a fixed dock, you will need pilings, associated hardware, and piling caps. Many pilings are chemically treated to minimize rot and extend the life of the wood. Use marine grade hardware to reduce the potential for rust and corrosion in the marine environment.

  6. According to Dream Docks Marine Construction, there are two common methods of installing the pilings:

  7. (1) Jetting uses high pressure water pump to blow a hole in bottom of the river. The piling is set into this hole, and the soil settles around the piling.

  8. 2) Hammering (or pile driving) uses a hydraulic “hammer” to repeatedly drive the pile into the bottom until the desired depth is reached. Depending on the bottom composition, this process can take some time (See References 2).

  9. For either method to succeed, you will need heavy equipment to force the pilings into the river bottom. You will also need a work barge to provide a stable platform from which to drive the pilings. Because few homeowners have this type of equipment, or the expertise to use it, many people choose to hire a marine construction company to complete this part of the project.

  10. Once the pilings are anchored to the bottom, install wood supports to tie the network of pilings together. Finally, fasten wooden planks in long rows perpendicular to the wood supports. These planks will form the dock walkway.

  11. If you are building a floating dock, supplies can be purchased through EZ Dock, the largest manufacturer of modular docks and accessories. Modular floating docks can be custom designed for the owner’s needs. For example, floating dock configurations can include personal watercraft ports, fishing or swim platforms, and boat launch areas (See References 3).