October 2016 - PADDLING
Build Your Own Kayak
By Alan Mapes
I admit it, I’m a dyed in the wool do-it-yourselfer, not to mention being a cheapskate. When I got into kayaking, I made my own first kayak. My wife bought a nice plastic kayak, but I ordered a kayak kit from Chesapeake Light Craft Company.
Over the years, the building bug has found me six more times, four more kit boats, and two fabric-covered kayaks built from scratch. Let’s look at the experience of building a wood and fiberglass kit kayak and see if it’s something you would like to try.
Building your own is not hard, but it takes time and dedication. You wind up with a boat that is lighter in weight than either plastic or fiberglass commercial kayaks, and it is way prettier! The “wow” factor of a wooden boat has one disadvantage – you have to allow more time for launching and landing. Whenever you are out in public with it, strangers will walk right up and want to know all about your beautiful kayak. In other words, wooden kayaks are not for anyone in the witness protection program!
Easiest to build are the “stitch & glue” kits. Panels of okume marine-grade plywood come pre-cut and ready to assemble. This wood is plantation grown in Africa and is similar to the luan plywood common at home improvement stores, except that it is finely made with no voids in the interior layers. The panels are stitched together with soft wire and the wires are twisted tight like the ties on a bread wrapper. Because the panels are cut just right, they quickly pop into the shape of a kayak! The wooden boat is then covered with fiberglass cloth and epoxy, inside and out to make a composite sandwich.
The other system commonly used to build kayaks and canoes at home is “strip building.” Narrow strips of wood, usually cedar, are assembled on forms, glued together, and covered with glass and epoxy. This technique produces perhaps the most beautiful and elegant boats, but takes about three times longer than stitch and glue, and requires woodworking skill.
The two major kit companies provide a variety of models, ranging from small recreational kayaks, to full sea kayaks that are 17-18 feet long with bulkheads and hatches. Kits are also available for canoes, sailboats, rowing boats and even motorboats. For a kayak, the cost is a little less than a good plastic commercial kayak and about one-third the cost of a new fiberglass kayak. By adding your labor, you get a boat that is similar to a good fiberglass kayak, but a little lighter in weight – quite a bit lighter than plastic. Wooden kayaks are not generally available already built because of the labor time needed.
The kit typically comes in two boxes. One long and skinny box holds the plywood parts and another smaller box holds epoxy, fiberglass cloth, some hardware and other small items. My wife’s comment when the kit arrived was, “Is this all you get for the money?”
What do you need to build your own kayak? First, a space to work that is a bit longer than a kayak and wide enough to work on both sides. For the initial gluing up of the wood panels, a long work table is helpful. I made one out of two used interior doors I had on hand. You could cut a sheet of plywood in half the long way and make a narrow work table supported by three or four saw horses. Kayaks have been built in living rooms and breezeways, as well as basements and garages. Plastic sheeting to cover the floor will catch epoxy drips.
The hull or bottom of the boat is assembled first. Once all the wires are installed and twisted tight, everything is checked for alignment and it’s time to glue the joints. The epoxy that came with my kit is mixed up in a ratio of two parts resin and one part hardener. The gallon bottles come with handy pumps that put out the material in the right ratio, so you just use the same number of squirts of each. Thorough mixing is important – the detailed instruction booklets tell you just how to do it.
Epoxy goes into a plastic syringe and gets applied between each of the wire ties. It hardens overnight and then the wires are removed. Another round of epoxy fills the spots where the wires were. Next, epoxy is mixed up with some thickener added – usually fine sawdust called wood flour. The thick material is pressed into the joints as a filet, strengthening the joints and smoothing them out, so they’re ready for the fiberglass.
Fiberglass cloth is carefully draped inside the hull and wetted out with epoxy. After an overnight to cure, the outside of the hull gets the same treatment. Two more fill coats of epoxy are applied to the outside of the hull to fill the weave of the fiberglass.
Working with epoxy and fiberglass is the major part of the learning curve for kit boat building. Fortunately, the epoxy has very little smell, though good ventilation in your work area is a good idea. Read the cautions on the label, but the epoxy from Pygmy Boats does not even recommend use of a respirator. You need to keep the epoxy from getting on your skin, as it can cause a rash.
Further steps involve building the deck over the completed hull and eventually joining the halves together. The cockpit rim is installed, hatches are cut, and bulkheads are installed. Hatches and bulkheads are sometimes optional extras to the main kit, but I strongly recommend adding them. They provide sealed chambers in the front and back of the kayak, providing safety floatation and protected storage for your gear.
How long does it take? I never kept track until my last building project. It took about 120 hours to complete the boat to the point that I could take it to the water and paddle it. That did not count the eventual sanding and varnishing steps that add maybe another 25 hours. Epoxy needs protection from the sun, and it comes in the form of UV protectant marine varnish. The final steps of sanding the outside surfaces smooth and applying four to five coats of varnish seem to take forever, but it makes the boat look even more beautiful!
A good random-orbital sander is a great help with the sanding. The good news is that you can paddle your new kayak for several months before it really needs the varnishing step – just keep it out of the sun when you can.
Not sure you can handle the building process? There is a lot of help available. Each of the two companies below has instructional videos on their websites that cover the whole building process. Chesapeake has a builder’s forum where you can ask questions and both companies are glad to help over the phone or by email. For the ultimate in support, you can attend kayak building workshops sponsored through the kit makers, and also by wooden boat schools and maritime museums. You can test paddle the boat models at demo days sponsored by the kit companies, or you can contact kit builders listed on the company websites.
Some people manage to build just one kayak, but many of us get bitten by the boat-building bug, and can’t wait to start another one. There is nothing quite like paddling a sleek craft of your own making!
To check out kit kayaks and other small craft, go to: Chesapeake Light Craft (Annapolis, Md.) at clcboats.com, and Pygmy Boats (Port Townsend, Wash.) at pygmyboats.com.
Alan Mapes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sea kayak instructor and guide, certified by the American Canoe Association and British Canoe Union. He lives near Delmar and offers kayak instruction through the Capital District Kayakers Meetup Group.