By TRENT HANSEN
I’m amazed to think my journey began way back in 1989, when I was in my late teens. I had decided after reading numerous Wooden Boat magazines that I wanted to build a wooden, so I went to have a look at the North West School of Wooden Boat Building and to buy a set of plans at the Wooden Boat Shop in Port Townsend, Washington. The road and ferry trip from Vancouver, British Columbia to my destination was amazing, and well worth the effort! The plans I bought were never used, but I will never forget that day.
People who came to the 2010 Rock’n’Roll event may remember my huge grin as I rocked up with my newly built Chesapeake 17LT, neither the green paint on the kayak nor the tung oil on the Greenland paddle were fully cured. It was my first build, twenty years after buying that first set of plans… a quick’n’dirty get-in-the-water-now-boat. It served its purpose admirably, and was an excellent kayak to learn basic building and paddling skills with. It is retired now, after an epic wooden kayak weekend in Batemans Bay with Trevor & Helen Costa, Andrew Eddy and Matt Leonard (see Wood and Water article by Trevor, this issue).
In a twist of poetic fate, it turns out the kayak I really fell in love with is also from a company in Port Townsend… The King, a strip-plank design by Redfish Kayaks. It really appeals to me – not only the lines, but also because I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. It is a kayak that connects me to the images of my childhood memories – running in the wet sand in Boundary Bay, the sound of seagulls and the smell of the ocean wind at the ferry terminal in Tsawwassen. The following paragraphs are a narrative of my experience building this kayak and are not intended to go into construction details too deeply.
After researching the wood options available to me, I decided to use renewable plantation Paulownia (Kiri), sourced from Whitewood in Tyalgum, NSW, with highlights of Western Red Cedar (WRC) and Spotted Gum (both kindly supplied free of charge by Matt Leonard). Near Canberra, the most reasonable source of WRC I found was at AJAA in Queanbeyan. They allow you into the yard to sort through their wood to find the best cuts! All wood was cut into strips 19mm wide by 5mm thick. I ordered my fibreglass (200gsm) and epoxy through Boatcraft Pacific.
A strip-plank kayak requires a frame to put forms on. There are only two choices, and I decided on an internal aluminium beam strongback. There was one major issue with this decision – the Redfish King has a recess behind the coaming to allow for easier layback rolls… and the strongback holes in my forms were cut about an inch too high, meaning I would have to find a solution to the problem of my strongback blocking the middle section of my rollers recess! Perhaps I should have gone with an external strongback… Will think carefully on this before starting my next build. Forms were kept square using Nick Schade’s technique of placing L-shaped spacers between them.
I decided on a staple-less build… no holes will be visible in the finished kayak. To accomplish this, hot-glue was used to clamp the wood strips to the forms. Hot-glue is nice for this because a simple tap with a mallet is all that is needed to separate forms from hull/deck.
Laying wood strips over the forms was a fairly straightforward process. I hand bevelled each strip with a block plane, used Aquadhere to glue the strip edges together and a dab of hot-glue on each form to clamp each point in place. Cheap tape from Bunnings was used to hold strips together between the forms. Once the hull was finished I applied a seal-coat of epoxy, squeegied off the excess and then epoxied one layer of 200gsm fibreglass cloth. In addition, I needed one fill coat of epoxy to completely hide the weave of the fibreglass.
Once the outer hull was complete, it was time to solve my aluminium beam problem. After discussing options with other builders and the designer of the boat, I decided to remove the internal strongback and hot-glue the forms back inside the hull. A hull that is fibreglassed on the outside, with forms hot-glued on the inside, is strong enough to act as a strongback all by itself. The process was simple and worked extremely well.
The deck took a lot more time than the hull. The shape was more complex, with coaming, cockpit opening, rollers recess and hatches to think about. After laying the strips, I covered the deck with a seal-coat of epoxy, a layer of 200gsm fibreglass, followed by two coats of epoxy.
Prying apart the deck and hull took some effort, but a mallet and a long wedge of wood convinced Jennifer that I was still the one in charge! What amazed me at this point was just how light the kayak was without any forms in it!
After sanding and fibreglassing the insides of both deck and hull, I made carbon fibre hatch recesses using Ross Leidy’s instructions (available at blueheronkayaks.com). I also attempted (and failed) to make a carbon fibre coaming (instructions at oneoceankayaks.com). This was extremely frustrating, as carbon fibre is so dear in Australia. ACT Fibreglass charges $100 per metre! I doubt I will use it again, at that price. In the end, I decided to make a coaming riser from wood strips and a coaming ring from plywood. I covered that with a mix of graphite powder and epoxy. I also had some dramas with my day hatch opening, and ended up having to change my original plans for it. I ended up making a slightly bevelled opening out of wood instead.
The next big step was to join the deck and hull together. Matt kindly came by to help me out – and by the way if you ever build your own kayak having help during this stage is almost essential. Using strapping tape from MagnetMart, some nylon straps and a putty knife, we managed to force the two halves to conform into their final shape. Four strips of fibreglass tape were used to permanently seal the seam, first by rolling epoxy-soaked tape along the inner seams, followed by the outer seams a few days later (extra time to allow the epoxy to cure properly in the cool winter temperatures we were dealing with).
After joining the two halves together next came the long slog of sanding everything smooth. The spots where fibreglass showed through required more epoxy. I added epoxy as needed until I was happy. Hand-built kayaks will never be perfect, however, so I kept this in mind. I ordered my seat from Redfish Kayaks while I was doing all this, since I needed to have it available to calculate the correct placement of my front bulkhead.
The project is in its final stages now. My bulkheads are installed. My seat fits perfectly. I am making footrests from foam and wood (velcroed against a bulkhead). My hatches are done. I’m busy preparing the surface for a clear single-pack varnish (Feast & Watson Spar Marine). It’s surprising the amount of time it takes to prepare the kayak during these final stages. Once I finish with varnish (about 6 coats), I will install my deck lines. I need to have everything finished by Dec 12th, because that is the day I have booked for rolling training!
I would like to thank all the people who have helped and encouraged me on this journey. Lengthy projects like these are major investments in time and effort, and many aren’t completed for lack of support. My wife was incredibly patient and understanding during the build.
Mark Sundin supplied me with Valley hatches. This man deserves an award for having them on my doorstep in Canberra only 4 hours after I received my email invoice!!! Fastest Deliver Ever! Lawrence Geoghegan provided me with excellent advice on a day hatch (sourced from Adelaide Canoe Works). Mick MacRobb supplied me with reflective deck lines and also provided excellent advice. Trevor Costa and Andrew Eddy also provided advice and encouragement. A lot of ideas came through the builder’s forum at blueheronkayaks.com. Thanks also go to everyone in the NSW Sea Kayak Club for making me feel so welcome and at home!
Finally, I want to give a special thanks to Matt Leonard, who loaned me tools and gave me supplies, heaps of help, support and advice throughout the build. Matt, you’re a legend!
If anyone is interested in reading the entire build log, with many more details, dozens of photos and some forum drama, it is available online at the Blue Heron Kayaks forum (my handle is MrGreen).