Your Own Boat - Distinctive
Canoes And Kayaks From The Miracle Material: Wood!
Chris Kulczycki / Chesapeake Light Craft, Inc.
Photos by Chris Kulczycki / Chesapeake Light Craft
There are few things in life as satisfying as launching a boat you've
built. It seems that more and more paddlers learn this simple truth
each year. If you've been paddling for a few years, you're sure
to have noticed more home-built boats each season. No doubt you've
wondered about those gleaming varnished craft. They're certainly
better-looking than plastic and fiberglass boats, and they seem
to be lighter and faster as well. But how hard are they to build,
and how expensive? Could you make one? What sort of materials and
tools and skills would you need?
there are many good reasons for building your own boat, one of the
best is that you'll get a better boat for your money than you could
buy. My 19-foot sea kayak weighs 34 pounds and is faster than most
other boats I've paddled, yet it cost less than $500 to build. I
would have to spend at least four times that amount to buy an equivalent
glass boat. And the canoe or kayak you build will be truly your
own boat; you can make modifications and add special features. Some
companies will even alter their stock boat kits for extremely tall
or heavy customers, paddlers with little or no knee movement, or
folks needing to carry a lot of gear on an expedition. Still, the
best reason to build a boat is that it's fun.
of woodworking experience shouldn't stop you. Precut kits enable
even the first-time woodworker to build a boat. Kit manufacturers
package all the parts, glue, and hardware needed, along with plans,
instructions, and free technical help. You simply assemble the parts.
If you need still more help, many boatbuilding schools offer classes
in canoe and kayak building. Of course, if woodworking is already
your hobby, you can build from plans. Dozens of boat designers offer
all types of canoe and kayak plans, from world-class racing boats
to children's boats. So what exactly is involved in building your
own kayak or canoe?
It may surprise some paddlers who've grown up in a world of plastics,
advanced composites, and other space-age goo to read that wood is
still one of the best boatbuilding materials available. Many of
the world's fastest-sailing yachts, racing powerboats, and even
sprint kayaks are still built from wood - and not for sentimental
reasons. Wood is stiffer, has a higher strength-to-weight ratio,
and is better-looking than most materials.
decades back we thought wooden boats were going the way of the birchbark
canoe. But then epoxy/wood construction was developed, and wood
became a high-tech material. Epoxy is a clear two-part plastic that's
both a glue and a waterproof coating. It not only revolutionized
wooden boatbuilding but also simplified it. Before epoxy, building
wooden boats took considerable skill, and wooden craft didn't seem
to last too long unless they were maintained with religious fervor.
But epoxy allowed us to saturate the wood with a tough plastic resin,
sealing it to prevent decay and increase strength. An occasional
fresh coat of varnish is the only routine maintenance that most
wood/epoxy boats require. Epoxy's strength and gap-filling properties
allowed parts to be simply glued together, whereas perfect and complex
joinery had once been required.
why don't we see more wooden boats in stores? The reason is time.
A plywood kayak requires 40 to 80 hours to build, and a strip-built
canoe can easily consume 150 building hours. To the manufacturer
accustomed to popping a plastic boat out of the roto-molding machine
every 27 minutes, those numbers equal quick bankruptcy. Sure, there
are plenty of professional boatbuilders who'll build a boat for
you, but their prices make graphite seem cheap. Fortunately, wood
construction is ideal for amateur builders. Wood is readily available,
is relatively inexpensive, and can be worked with a minimum of tools
and skills. It is satisfying material to work with: the texture,
appearance, and smell of wood are pleasant. You would probably regard
a bit of cutting, sanding, planing, and varnishing as a thoroughly
agreeable way to spend a few weekends. The labor-intensive process
that the production builder avoids is recreation to us amateurs.
The stitch-and-glue building technique is the most popular of the
new methods of boatbuilding made possible by epoxy. Most wooden
kayaks, and some canoes, are built using this method. Stitch-and-glue
boats are built from plywood, and not just any plywood, but usually
a high-grade marine plywood made from okoume, a type of plantation-grown
African mahogany. In building a stitch-and-glue boat, you, or the
kit manufacturer, will cut the plywood sheets to precisely shaped
panels that form the hull. The boat's designer developed the panels'
shapes using special computer programs or prototypes to ensure that
the panels will bend exactly to the desired design when joined along
their edges. But first you'll glue the eight-foot panels to the
full length of the boat. This should be done with a special joint
called a scarf. You'll then ¦stitch² the full-length panels together
with twists of thin copper wire. A short piece of wire is inserted
through each of the small holes that you've drilled every few inches
along the edges of adjoining panels. With a twist of each wire you've
temporarily joined the panels. As the panels are wired together,
the boat assumes its intended shape. You can now see if your creation
does indeed resemble a boat. After checking a few measurements to
ensure that everything is straight, you'll permanently join the
inside seams with epoxy, then cover them with fiberglass tape and
more epoxy. When the epoxy cures, you'll snip the wires off and
cover the entire outside of the hull with fiberglass cloth and more
you're building a kayak, you'll glue in the bulkheads and, perhaps,
some beams to support the deck. The deck can be installed stitch-and-glue
style or tacked to an inwale that's glued inside the hull. Decks
can be made of several flat panels, or better yet, from a single
panel bent over the bulkheads or deck beams. Once the deck is in
place, you'll glue on the coaming. On a canoe, the gunwales, inwales,
thwarts, and seats are glued or screwed into place. Finally, the
boat is sanded, painted, or varnished, and the fittings, such as
deck rigging, rudder, and grab loops, are installed.
boats are the simplest type you can build. There are, however, limitations
to the hull shapes that can be created from flat sheets of plywood.
Angles, or chines, form where the panels join. Most stitch-and-glue
boats have a vee bottom and a single chine, as in a Greenland-style
kayak. This is one of the best possible hull shapes for sea kayaks;
however, it's not so efficient for wider recreational kayaks and
canoes. Some designs try to overcome this limitation by using more
panels to form a shape that approximates a round-bottom hull. The
resulting multi-chine hull shape works well, particularly in wider
craft, but the extra panels increase the difficulty of building.
Plywood panels can also be severely bent to produce round-bottom,
or compounded plywood, hulls, but, like multi-chine hulls, these
are more difficult to build. For a true round-bottom hull, strip
planking is the logical building method.
Although strip planking is usually thought of as a method of canoe
building, it is also used to produce many handsome kayaks. Strip
planking, just as the name suggests, involves gluing together many
thin, flexible strips of cedar or other light wood. But first you'll
need to build a mold that outlines the shape of the boat.
mold consists of a strongback and a series of plywood forms, or
station molds, that outline the shape of the boat in cross section.
The station molds are attached to the strongback at intervals of
a foot or two, called stations. Typically, the boat's designer will
provide full-size drawings for each of the station molds, which
you'll trace onto thick plywood and cut out. In a kit the station
molds will be precut. It is imperative that you take great care
in attaching the station molds to the strongback; they must be aligned
the mold complete, you'll begin to staple the wood strips to it.
Each strip has a hollow, or cove, along one edge that mates with
the rounded edge, or bead, on the adjoining strip, so no gaps are
visible. If you're an experienced woodworker you could mill your
own strips, but it saves considerable work and time to buy premade
bead-and-cove strips. You'll continue to staple and glue one strip
above the other, cutting the ends to length, until the mold is covered.
You might alternate light and dark strips and change their alignment
to form handsome patterns in the hull. With all the strips in place
and all the epoxy cured, it's time to remove the thousand or so
staples that hold the strips to the mold. Next, you'll plane and
sand the hull smooth and cover it with fiberglass cloth set in epoxy.
the boat can be removed from the mold and sanded and glassed on
the inside. If building a decked canoe or kayak, you'll make the
deck in the same manner and attach it to the hull. Finally you'll
glue the gunwales, inwales, keel, breast hooks, thwarts, and seats
into the hull, and your boat will be ready for varnish.
boat is very strong and light, though not as light as a plywood
boat. If the builder is skilled, it's also strikingly beautiful.
Obviously, strip planking requires more labor and skill than stitch-and-glue
construction; a home builder can usually complete a boat in 150
to 300 hours. Building a strip boat, particularly from a kit, is
fundamentally different from building a stitch-and-glue kit. Though
the kit contains precut mold parts, strips, and other parts, there
is a great deal of cutting, planing, and shaping required.
In addition to the two modern boatbuilding methods described above,
several more traditional techniques are still popular with home
number of kayaks consist of wooden frames with fabric stretched
over them, much the same method used in traditional Eskimo and Inuit
craft. Typically, they are built by lashing together a frame of
thin wooden pieces. Skin boats were originally covered with animal
skins. Today, the frame is covered by a nylon, canvas, or Dacron
skin, marine mammal skins being environmentally incorrect. The fabric
is painted with a waterproof substance. Though most skin boats are
kayaks, a few canoes are also built in this manner.
lapstrake, or clinker, construction the hull is made of overlapping
planks. Lapstrake boats are built over molds like those used to
build strip boats. There is a great deal of joinery, shaping, and
beveling involved in making each plank, but as there are relatively
few planks, it is a fairly fast way for an experienced woodworker
to build a canoe. Lapstrake canoes are very light and beautiful,
but the complex joinery required is too much for most first-time
plywood boats, too, are built over molds. Often the panels are joined
with thin strips of wood called chine logs rather than by the stitch-and-glue
method. I cannot think of any reason to use this method unless the
particular design you like is not available for stitch-and-glue
Many boats have been finished by paddlers who had no woodworking
skills - at least when they started - but a basic knowledge of woodworking
will make your building project more enjoyable and faster. Even
a few evenings in a friend's shop learning to use common tools will
be a big help. You'll need to be able to measure, and accurately.
You'll need to know how to trim off a little - but not too much
- wood with a block plane, and how to make a straight cut with a
small handsaw or saber saw.
to make a smooth paint or varnish finish is often more difficult
than the woodworking required to build many kit boats. Hardly a
day goes by without someone stopping by to show us a completed boat.
Almost every one is fundamentally strong and seaworthy, but only
about half have really good paint or varnish work. Marine painting
is not like house painting, as the paints and varnishes are thin
and very glossy. You'll need to forget everything you know about
painting and follow the instructions diligently.
amateur woodworkers already own all the tools they'll need to build
a boat. A drill, a saber saw, and a palm sander are the only power
tools usually required. Ordinary hand tools - a block plane, hammer,
small handsaw, clamps, and the like - round out the tool list. The
non-woodworker should have little trouble borrowing this modest
tool collection, or he or she could buy them all for about $200;
they would certainly be handy for home repairs. You'll also need
a pair of sturdy sawhorses. Of course, every boatbuilder must have
basic safety gear: eye protection, dust mask for sanding, disposable
gloves for working with epoxy, and possibly a respirator for painting.
a place to work is the biggest challenge for many builders. A garage,
large shed, or barn is ideal. You'll need a heated space if you
plan to build in winter; epoxy won't cure below 45 degrees. The
basement will do if there's a door or window that's big enough to
remove the finished boat. Most epoxies don't have much odor, but
the sanding dust and smell of varnish might annoy your housemates.
I know of many boats built in spare bedrooms with tarps on the floor,
and a few builders who work outdoors and carry their craft indoors
for the night.
Boat kits introduce thousands to boatbuilding every year; with precut
parts and good technical support, you're all but assured of completing
a usable boat. Kits vary widely in type, content, quality, and ease
of construction. For the novice woodworker, a hard-chine stitch-and-glue
kit would be the best choice. Though building a stitch-and-glue
kit is mostly a matter of assembling and gluing precut parts, it
does require some drilling, cutting, planing, and sanding. Multi-chine
stitch-and-glue kits and most skin-on-frame kits are also within
the capability of novice builders, provided that they're willing
to spend a little more time. The moderately experienced woodworker
might try a strip-built kit.
selecting a kit, talk to the manufacturer about what's included.
Stitch-and-glue kits should contain marine-grade mahogany plywood,
not fir plywood. Strip kits will typically contain cedar strips,
but other strips, such as Honduran mahogany, may be added for accent
stripes. Ask for a sample piece of strip. If looking at kayak kits,
ask about items such as hatches, bulkheads, seats, and deck rigging:
are they standard or optional? With canoes, ask about cane seats,
bow strips, and optional wood for accents. Be sure that marine epoxy
is included in the kit - it can be difficult to find or expensive
in some parts of the country. The best kits contain non-blushing
low-viscosity epoxy, which is a type that's easier to use. Calibrated
measuring pumps to dispense the epoxy at the required ratio should
also be included, as they are faster and easier to use than paper
measuring cups. Be sure that all the required fiberglass and stainless
steel or bronze hardware is also included, or the cost of your boat
may rise. A large part of the cost of a kit is in technical support.
The better kit manufacturers will have a staff of professional boatbuilders
to answer your construction questions. The cost of a stitch-and-glue
kayak kit is usually between $500 and $700. A strip canoe kit can
cost from $800 to $1,200.
you're an experienced woodworker, you may want to build from plan
sets rather than kits. But if your only reason for building from
plans is to save money, you may be disappointed. Unless you skimp
on the quality of your materials, you'll probably save only 20 to
25 percent of the price of a precut kit, while doubling your building
time. The reason to build from plans is that you enjoy woodworking
and the process of building a boat; in that case, you'll have a
very rewarding experience indeed.
plans as carefully as you would a kit. They should consist of at
least four large-scale sheets, typically 24 inches by 36 inches,
and a step-by-step building manual with photos. Most builders find
hand-drawn plans easier to read than computer or CAD-generated drawings
because of the additional explanatory details the draftsman usually
adds. Don't pay extra for full-size patterns, except in the case
of station molds for strip-built boats. They may sound helpful,
but when my company offered them, our repeat customers overwhelmingly
preferred the traditional scale drawing. Crawling around and tracing
eight-foot-long sheets of thin paper proved much less accurate and
much more time-consuming than making a few measurements from well-drawn
plans. As with kits, or perhaps even more so, first-rate technical
support is vital. Many boat designers don't advertise in paddling
magazines. You should also look in WoodenBoat, Boatbuilder, and
Messing About in Boats for sources of plans.
hardest part of building your own boat is deciding to do it, or
perhaps convincing yourself that you can do it. In my job as a boat
designer, I talk to dozens of novice builders each day. Virtually
all of them are surprised by how nice a boat they were able to build,
and many have gone on to build two or three of them.
Kulczycki is a boat designer and founder
of Chesapeake Light Craft, specializing in plywood kayak kits and
plans. Over 6,000 boats of his designs have been completed by home
builders. He frequently lectures and teaches courses in stitch-and-glue
kayak building and design. For more information contact Chris