Building a Wooden Kayak [36]

By Murray Watt

I recently experienced a magical sea kayaking trip off the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, at play amongst the grey whales and running salmon. It seems everyone has a healthy appetite for the great outdoors there.

I reluctantly boarded the plane back to Oz. Weeks passed back in Melbourne town with a recurring nagging feeling that something was lacking in my life… of course! ….. a sea kayak.

Always one to make things difficult for myself, I decided to build rather than buy. Being a keen woodworker, naturally my chosen material was wood, inspired by some wonderful examples seen in Canada. I am no expert when it comes to boat building but what follows is a brief description of the strip-building process.

Western Red Cedar, Silver Quandong, and King William Pine were selected. Firstly for their strength and lightness, and secondly for the beauty of their colour and grainage.

After much deliberation, my chosen craft was a nineteen-foot (5.8m) Expedition Single, twenty one inches wide, and efficient for long distance paddling. Having moderately hard chines to help carve a turn, it is quite responsive for its length.

The stations attached to a ‘string-back’

The building process involved laying thin quarter inch thick and three quarter inch wide lengths of timber over a series of stations. These stations were spaced along a strong back (usually a long length of four by two). I cut my timber on a Triton sawbench, with a thin curved blade to minimise wood wastage. The timber needed to be supported at both ends as it is important to get a uniform and even cut. Dealing with twenty foot lengths of timber required a friend to help with the cutting. The strips were laid longitudinally along the “skeleton”, and adjacent strips glued to each other. The hull and deck at the shearline are not glued to each other at this point, since the “skeleton” will need to be removed later.

Part way to completion of laying the strips for the hull

Depending on how much time and effort one wants to expend, creative patterns can be achieved with the various timbers. Once the hull and deck were completed, and the timber planed and sanded to a fine finish, the exterior was coated with fibreglass cloth and epoxy resin. 1 used six ounce cloth on the hull exterior, and four ounce on the deck and interior. Fortunately as a young teenager, I’d had experience building two fibreglass fiat water kayaks with my father and brother (mould courtesy of Jack Miller). Once the epoxy had cured, openings in the deck for hatches and cockpit were cut out, and combings built for them. The framework was pulled out at this stage and the interiors were glassed.

The next stage, and at times, a difficult one, was joining the hull and deck back together with fibreglass cloth tape along the seam, inside and out. The hull and deck can distort from curing and shrinkage of the epoxy. Brute force, plenty of tape, and occy straps usually pull the join back together. End pours of epoxy and sawdust strengthened the bow and stem.

Wetting down the fibreglass cloth with resin

You should now have something that resembles a sea kayak. After much sanding and fairing of the epoxy, six to eight coats of marine varnish were applied, giving the kayak a protective coating and sheen. All the odds and ends take some time, but the hard work is all over. I used three inch thick foam, epoxied on both sides, for bulkheads. Foot rests, seat, deck fittings, and rudder (optional) are an individual choice and can be built or purchased.

Selection of timber is quite important, ideally you want timber slightly longer than the actual boat, although strips can be butted together. It should be knot free and straight.

I did not accurately record the hours taken to build the kayak, but all up, approximately nine weeks off and on from start to finish. This included having to build the framework and source my wood and fibreglass materials.

For anyone that is interested in building their own kayak, I highly recommend it. A couple of hours spent here and there during the winter months in a back shed or garage, and you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful craft ready for its summer launch.

The completed ‘Expedition Single’

There is a wonderful sense of satisfaction paddling your own hand crafted sea kayak with the wood giving it a very special character. So, if you happen to see a wooden sea kayak out on the east coast of New South Wales / Victoria… somewhere, paddle over and say g’day.

Murray Watt

For further info, see Guillemot kayaks