It seemed like the obvious time and place to build a wooden kayak. Major home renovations. First baby on the way. A tiny narrow inner city terrace with a backyard 4m deep. Why not!? It’s all about the journey, he said. All about the process of just working with beautiful wood. Not a race to the finish. It won’t take me away from you and the new baby.
And it won’t cost much. Cheaper than buying the single kayak that was now a necessity after pregnancy made the double kayak a frustration more than a freedom vessel.
So just how many hours and how many dollars did it take in the end?
I’ll let Dave tell you the details. But I want to say that this is a very, very beautiful boat. And that it’s been built by a guy who’s never built a boat before makes it doubly impressive. Sure, I found it frustrating at the time, but I’m now really proud of this magnificent boat that David built.
During idle moments I’d been looking at websites showing these fabulous shiny sleek boats built in people’s basements. About the time that we were two thirds of our way through a renovation, with our first baby on the way (well, about to arrive), the desire to build one for myself crystallised into a plan. I had successfully completed the pencil case and the drill bit holder during year 9 high school woodwork, done a bit of research online, found some plans that I liked, felt pretty comfortable with the overall process and I wasn’t going to let the fact that I had no fibreglassing skills stop me. Nor was the fact that I had nowhere to build a 5.5m long boat.
I chose a design call the Outer Island from designer Jay Babina in the US. It is based on West Greenland kayak designs modified for larger European paddlers.
Luckily my employer agreed to let me use the delivery dock at work as my workshop over summer “as long as I kept the dust out of the server room”.
So I ordered the plans and got to work. I hunted around in speciality timber suppliers all over NSW for decent lengths of western red cedar and ended up finding two good sticks frm the timber merchant in the next suburb. I bought a 5.1m and 6m length, 300mm wide and 24mm thick with the grain running int eh direction specified in Nick Schade’s book The Strip-Built Sea Kayak. No knots and straight grain – perfect.
I took the planks downstairs to the sawmill and asked the guys to cut them into 6mm strips. At first they offered incredulous looks and a flat refusal and suggested I buy some less impressive pieces if I was going to cut them into tiny pieces. They took some reassurance that I’d be using this beautiful timber for something extraordinary. Later that week I got a call from the guy on the machine just to reconfirm that he really was cutting this timber into 6mm strips. They take timber seriously. A few days later a truck pulled up and my workshop was filled with the beautiful aroma of freshly cut Western Red Cedar.
By this stage the workshop was looking pretty good as it also contained our lounge room furniture, rug, stereo, and occasionally, dog, from home (renovations in full swing by this stage).
I had decided that I would try and make this boat as well as I could. That meant I wouldn’t rush and since I really had no idea what I was doing I had no idea when I would finish. This was not something I felt I needed to share with my employer. It was to be an example of what can be accomplished with myself as the client and deadlines are not pressing. To some extent it was also about taking personal responsibility as a paddler-if something goes wrong on a boat you built yourself who are you going to blame?.
There’s a fair bit of work to do before you actually start building the boat. I built some trestles from recycled timber and a strongback (the spine) from salvaged MDF. Finally I cut out the forms themselves and arranged them along the strongback in accordance with the plans. I was impatient to get going with sticking the strips onto the forms, but it’s essential to get the forms aligned correctly and fair as it will determine the shape of the boat you end up with.
First I laid out the gunwale strips and then, strip by strip, laid up the hull. I glued the strips together edge to edge and pinned them to the forms. When the hull was stripped I removed the forms from the strongback, turned it over, rested it in cradles on the trestles, and started on the deck. Once the deck was finished, I removed all the pins, replaced them with toothpicks (to fill the holes), creating a pretty bizarre spiky boat. It looked like an echidna art installation.
I trimmed the spikes and brought the boat home to sand, propping it up on $15 camp chairs wedged up the little walkway up the side of the house. After sanding it was back to the loading dock for fibreglassing. By this time our baby son Archie had been born and it was getting harder to schedule time for the tasks required to finish the boat. Luckily I had 24 hour access to work, which I utilised.
This was especially useful during the glassing process. The process goes something along these lines:lay the glass fabric on the boat, pour resin over it, brush / squeegee the resin into the fibre cloth, and 45 minutes later you remove the excess resin with a squeegee. Eight hours later you pour on a fill coat to give a smooth finish. 45 minutes later you squeegee off the excess. Repeat for hull, deck, inside and outside. The point is, once you start, you are committed to a 10 hour period of work plus clean up. In my case I had to fit this period in between work hours and walking the streets at night with the baby strapped to my chest trying to get him to sleep. The other important thing about fibreglassing is that you ideally shoud have a temperature- controlled environment that is also dust-free. Luckily that’s what I had been offered, together with good lighting.
It must have been interesting for my colleagues to arrive at work to see the development of this installation in the loading dock overnight. While they’d been sleeping (like most people except our son) I’d been fibreglassing and cleaning up.
By this stage the boat under construction in the basement had become one of the stops made by visitors and clients on tours of the building
After an eternity of fibreglassing and sanding I was finally ready to cut out the cockpit and form a coaming. I followed the instructions on Ross Leidy’s website (www.blueheronayaks. com) and built a carbon fibre coaming.
Then it’s joining the hull to the deck. Along with sanding the outside to a smooth surface, taping the inside seams is one of the least rewarding tasks in the whole building process. Basically you have to unroll an epoxy soaked roll of fibreglass tape using a variety of improvised tools, none of which you’re aware you are going to need until you try, along the deck to hull seam.
Sounds easy enough until you take into account that you are wedged into the epoxy thickened atmosphere inside the cockpit, wearing a respirator, with a torch and fan much more likely to end up in the rapidly rising pool of epoxy than any of the tape which is stuck everywhere except where it’s supposed to be.
The day arrived when I could put the boat in the water for the first time. I was relieved that it tracked straight, and surprised at how low in the water it sat. I realised I would need to get myself a reliable roll as it was very tippy to re-enter compared to our Dusky Bay double. In hindsight I really do not know why this came as a surprise. It also exhibited one of its undocumented attributes: the capacity to attract crusty old yachties for a yarn.
It’s easy to underestimate how long outfitting the raw hull to a seaworthy standard can take.18 months later the hatches still haven’t met that standard. 4 different seal materials and methods later I’m ready to abandon my quest for flush timber hatches and install VCP hatches front and rear. This would have been much easier before the hull and deck were joined. Come to think of it the year 9 pencil case lid didn’t shut properly either.
The majority of the building work took about 14 months of intermittent work with a couple of pretty solid weekends in there. Almost all the work was extremely satisfying and enjoyable, after a short time becoming the thing I wanted most to be doing. I would encourage anyone with the desire to build their own wooden boat to go for it. For me it was one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve undertaken.
For the record the baby survived, the marriage survived, we’re even going back for seconds. Babies, that is, and building work at home, not wooden kayaks at this stage.. Although I have got that feeling again but this time I’ve decided the freedom machine is a motorcycle. Anyone know of any websites showing how to build a bike from scratch in your shed? Maybe I should just buy one this time.