Industrial design professor writes book on boatbuilding techniques

September 29, 2021

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Thomas E. Ask teaches his Pennsylvania College of Technology students that industrial design connects art with engineering and that they must employ multiple tools, materials and processes to develop creative solutions and products, often for people different from them.

For proof, the industrial design professor can point to his recently published book — "Wooden Wonders: Traditional Malaysian Fishing Boats" — a 162-page work examining the ancient boatbuilding techniques that remain a staple in the Southeast Asian country.

Thomas Ask

Thomas Ask

IMAGE: Penn College

“My book is focused on designing for the other — that is, designing things for people different than us. That requires techniques rooted in both engineering and anthropology to achieve successful and appropriate designs,” Ask explained.

Derived from his doctoral dissertation, the book examines the technical and social factors that have influenced the design and building of wooden boats, a vital form of transportation dating back centuries in Malaysia. The country — consisting of two noncontiguous regions bordering the South China Sea — is referenced in ancient texts for its pivotal role in sea trade.

“Wooden Wonders” blends ethnographic study and technical evaluations and presents unique boat designs. Ask also hopes it serves as an archive for the state of wooden boatbuilding. One chapter offers the onsite hull measurement of an 18-meter fishing boat and detailed photography.

Intended for scholars of ethnographic design and maritime history, the book is published by the academic press of the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, considered the country’s top engineering school. Ask spent a semester there in 2009 as a visiting professor of mechanical engineering.

In October, the school plans to host a webinar featuring Ask to coincide with his book’s release.

“Wooden Wonders” is Ask’s eighth book. He’s currently writing science-fiction short stories geared to young adults, published on Kindle Vella, Amazon’s serialized reading platform.

A licensed professional engineer, Ask has taught at Penn College for 20 years. He advises the Society of Inventors and Mad Scientists on campus.

Ask holds a doctorate in industrial design from Middlesex University, a graduate management certificate from Cornell University, a master’s degree in liberal studies from Excelsior College and a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois. He is a member of the Industrial Designers Society of America and the American Society for Engineering Education.

Penn College offers bachelor’s degrees in industrial design and engineering design technology, as well as an associate degree in engineering CAD technology. For information about those and other majors from the School of Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520 or visit

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Last Updated September 29, 2021