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Home >> Paddling >> Build Your Own Boat << Back

Build Your Own Boat - Distinctive Canoes And Kayaks From The Miracle Material: Wood!

By 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? 

While 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.  

Lack 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. 

A few 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. 

So 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 epoxy.  

If 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.  

Stitch-and-glue 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.  

The 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 perfectly.  

With 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.  

Now 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.  

A strip-built 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 builders. 

A small 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.  

In 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 builders.  

Some 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 construction.  

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. 

Learning 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. 

Most 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. 

Finding 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. 

Before 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. 

If 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.  

Select 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. 

The 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. 

Chris 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 at http://www.clcboats.com

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