(This is an article that i wrote about the process, i will get the photos in soon)
For most of my life, I have been involved in boats in one way or the other. Earlier years I was on fishing boats out of Point Judith, RI and later owned several of my own commercial boats as well. Then I moved to Maine and was living rustically in a small house. That was where the canoe model kits was born. I wanted to build a full size canoe so I bought Gil Fitzpatrick’s book, Building the strip canoe, the original bible of wood strip canoe construction. That was in the early 90’s. I was very excited about building the canoe but there were a few problems. One, lack of money and two, no place to build it. I dragged my feet over this dilemma until I said, “well, if I can’t build the real thing, then I will build an exact scale model. So I did. It cured my obsession for the moment as I pictured myself building the full size canoe. It was great! I used to say to my friends when they asked me what I had been doing, I would reply, “I have been building a canoe” and would laugh. So the Canoe Model Kits idea spawned and all my friends wanted to do it, and their friends. I never did get to building a full sized canoe as I had wanted. Instead, I built scale models of the canoe in a range of sizes, and then I got into different kayak models as well. Strip built kayaks, skin on frame kayaks and the stitch and glue kayak. Like building the canoe models, the kayak models answered many questions as if I was building the full size one.
I had always wanted a real kayak so I bought a used one, a Dagger plastic kayak which actually worked great. But I wanted to build my own and customize it, making it unique to me. I also was hoping to have something lighter than the 57 lb plastic kayak. How much trouble would it be to build a real kayak? Is it worth it? Will it come out good enough? Will it be worth anything if I wanted to sell later? Will I finish it? Questions after questions I had about the process pestered my thoughts. I thought that I could take a class and build one of the pre-made kits, but it was so expensive, or even buying just a pre-cut assemble full size kit was in the low thousands, then hours and hours to build it. So building my own from scratch was my best option, but where to begin?
While researching the many You Tube videos and google articles on the subject, I came across a website called www.CANOEMODELKITS.com , an online store that sells small kayak and canoe kits, ranging from 24” all the way up to 96”, plus plans and light kits, loads of step by step videos and more. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the kayaks that I wanted to build except in scale model kit size. I said to myself, “it would make sense to try building a scale model of it first and then at least I will know more about when I tackle the real thing. So the adventure began when I ordered the 42” stitch & glue kayak kit from Canoe Model Kits. A very easy process and the shipping was fast, arriving to my home in 3 days! It was a scale model very similar to the famous stitch & glue icon, the CLC 16 stitch & glue kayak which there have been 1000’s built for the last 20 years. The kit was reasonably priced at $129. I couldn’t wait to get started on it. I went right to work ,building it right on my kitchen table. I could easily take it away and clear the table till the next session. on it, completing it in a week of spare time. It was a hybrid, which means it has thin mahogany plywood sides with strip construction on the deck. It is the best of both worlds. It went together very easily. It came with everything to do the kayak except glue, sandpaper and any tools needed. There was even a complete step by step video on building it, along with the great instructions, made the process easy, straight forward and most of all so much fun. Canoe Model Kit’s motto is “just like the real thing” and “ya know, it really was”. I could actually picture it as a full sized kayak and for a few minutes here and there, it looked like it was. I was very pleased with my small kayak and already felt like I knew the process of building one. I decided to try their bigger kayak kit, the 72” Hybrid kit, which is only $80 more. It came fast as well, in a very large box. CNC cut panels, just like the full sized versions from the popular kayak kit manufactures that are out there. I now knew the ropes of building one and I had some knew thoughts in my head of what I wanted. Just like the first kit, this one went right together. Nothing difficult at all. The panels come in two sections and have a mortise and tenon joint, similar to the full sized kits. Once that is glued together and dry, then the building process commences. This time, I really felt like I was building the real thing, and said to myself, “I am ready”. After this I am going to get a set of plans and build a full sized one. I felt like I was a boat builder! I built two kayaks, even though they were just models, they are identical to the full sized kayaks. The process, the pieces and even the hatches. Their canoes are the same way. All strip construction over a set of forms that are glued into a strongback. Very easy to build, and you end up with a beautiful scale replica of an E.M. White Guide canoe. Pictures of the models in the water are undecipherable from a full sized one. That is how realistic they are. Okay, bake to my kayak.
So, I bought a set of plans that comes as a sheet with all the offsets on it. What that means is there is a drawing of the all the panels with the measurements to “plot” or real terminology is “loft” on to the plywood panels. I chose to do the drawings onto a cheaper version of 5mm plywood common at Home Depot called LUAN plywood. I have only great things to say about LUAN plywood. It has a long list of uses. I have used on many building projects over the years. I have even built a small wheelhouse on a fishing boat out of it and covered it with polyester resin, mat and then cloth. That little wheel house lasted 20 years, and would have lasted longer if it hadn’t been abused. It is very inexpensive as well at around $14 to 15 a sheet. I even contemplated building the kayak out of it if I was not able to get the 4 mm Okoumee marine plywood for a good price. Fortunately, a local plywood supply in the state was able to order it for $50 a sheet. That was a great price. Since I was not going to make the deck out of it, I only needed two sheets. Great, I was on my way. But I still made patterns on the luan in case I flubbed up on the drawings. Plus, there would be all the lines and marks on the patterns instead. It is an extra for sure. Also my friends can make one easily with just the patterns. One fault of the Luan is that it is not perfectly flat, and also it doesn’t have a nice thick veneer or color as the quality plywood’s. As far as durability, as long as it is sealed inside and out with epoxy, it will last a long time. Plus the multichine construction is very strong in itself. So to answer that question, Would I consider using the LUAN to build a kayak or any boat for that matter”? The answer would be “that if I was short on money, yes I would”. But if you get a quality plywood for $35 or so a sheet more, then why not. It will look prettier. So the decision was made and I now knew exactly what I was going to do. I felt confident at building the models. Another issue was lack of big open space like what all the workshops of the You tube videos show. So I cut the panels in 2’ widths and drew them on the table before gluing them together on the floor. This worked out great because I had better lighting and I was not on my hands and knees. The plans call for dividing your plywood into 1’ sections vertically. So I used a high school drafting square (real framing square would be good) and drew the lines every foot. Then it is a matter of measuring over a certain distance and up a certain distance and putting a mark. One thing that I laughed at though, was that many of the measurements were in 32’s which is comical since a pencil line is 32 of an inch. If you push the tip of your pencil into the grain of the wood and goes one side or the other, then there is 32 of an inch. It actually slows the process down a lot as I tried to decipher was 3 & 26/32 actually was. So I made a table with all broken down into the next closest measurement. This worked great and is how the plans should be. There is no need to be that complicated. Once all the markings were in place, I cut a ½” x ½” by 14’ long board and drilled small holes every foot for a small nail. I tacked the board in place and drew my lines, making them as dark and clear as I could because I knew I would have a hard time seeing them when it came time to cut them. I did one 8’ section on the table at time, leaving the area where they will be butted together blank until I have them glued together. Moving right along. I now moved the 2’x8’ panels of Luan to a cleared area on the floor which was clean and flat. I put wax paper underneath the joint and applied two strips of 3” & 4” cloth with epoxy on it. I didn’t buy the precut tape but made my own by cutting the cloth with a sharp scissors. I saturated the cloth well till the cloth disappeared. I put wax paper over it and used a squeegee to smooth it out as flat as I could. Then put a flat board on top and then weighted it down. It cured overnight and then did the other side. Now I was able to finish connecting the lines, being sure that it was all very smooth curves. Take the time to look down the lines to make sure it is a nice swooping smooth curve. I was satisfied with how it looked! Now I was ready to cut the panels out. The plans call for cutting the long 16’ lines with a sabre saw, but I knew that would take a long time and would be a very jagged line, so I bought a great little 4 ½” corded skill saw at of all places, Walmart tool section for $60. Made by Worx tools, it is a beauty and worked perfectly for the job. Easy to hold and control with excellent visibility of the line. I placed the 16’ x2’ sheets on top of several 1” slats so I was able to cut right through them without stopping. I was very pleased with how well this went.
The next step was to smooth out the cut to the line. I used a small hand plane as well as an electric hand plane and sand paper. I cleaned them up so they would be good patterns. I was ready to do the transfer.
I cut the 4 mm Okoumee into 2’ wide sections and glued the butt together as I did the Luan. I only used one layer of cloth though on each side, but did use wax paper and a weighted board on top. It dried overnight and then I was ready to draw the lines using the patterns. This worked out great as well. Once again, I set the long panels on slats on a big table and carefully cut the final pieces out. Then I doubled them up and nailed them together so I could clean up the edges together. Each panel is the opposite of the other side of the kayak. Two of each. This all moved along at a good clip. Now I was getting very excited. I was ready to start stitching the panels together. Since space in my basement is at a premium, I decided to do it right on a big table, while supporting each end with a sawhorse. I stacked two of each panel on top of each other and drilled a small 1/16” hole about an 1/8” of inch from the edge every six inches. I did use a simple little piece of wood with a nail in one end, and a hole at six inches the other end. It moves along fast. I didn’t do all the holes of top and bottom, though you could. I chose to do it once I started to assembling it. I put the two bottom panels together. I noticed some sections didn’t fit that tightly together, so I ran a small hand saw in between the panels to smooth them out until they fit together. I did this throughout the build. Once the bottom panels were stitched together, I stitched in the 3 forms that I also cut out of Luan, even though the plans calls for cutting them out ¾” plywood. I don’t think that is needed. With the forms in place I proceeded to install the side panels, lining up the butt seams. This all went very fast and is very exciting. I did have some worries about whether I did a good job on drawing the panels, but apparently I did and it was coming together. Just like the model kit I built except many more panels. Over the course of a few nights working on it did I have the panels stitched together. Closed up the ends. I noticed that a couple of the panels moved slightly while stitching them up, so I had to trim a couple of the panels at the end to match them up. I don’t think that makes any difference.
So now it was time to tighten all the wires and put the kayak down on the floor with a very straight 2x4x8’ board underneath the keel. I put 2” wide boxing tape over the outside keel seam so the thickened epoxy wouldn’t go through. This is a good idea and the tape is inexpensive. Dollar stores sell it for $1 a roll and it is more than enough to do the whole kayak. I positioned the kayak upright on it’s keel and did put several small brads to hold it all flat or straight to the board. The instructions said this was a crucial step, making sure it is straight and flat. I also leveled the edges of the kayak from one end to the other as well as I strung a string from the center of the bow to the stern. Put marks in the center of each form and lined everything up.
This is a topic that should be in bold letters. I had the kayak on the floor, so it isn’t that easy to site down the kayak, but I did, on my hands and knees. I tried using a plum level to be sure the stem and bow were vertical and the same. Take your time here. I had it all where I wanted. I checked everything over and over. I chose to do all the seams from the inside at this time. I mixed about a full 2 cups of epoxy thickened to peanut butter consistency with West System Micro Light and pushed into empty caulking cartridges. The cartridges can be bought at West Marine or other marine supply stores. I cut the tip to a small hole and did all the seams in with one full cartridge. I used the slow hardener but it still heats up and will kick if you don’t get it out as fast as you can. I had a small squeegee cut to a semi-circle that I used to smooth it all out. I applied the epoxy right over the stitching and around it the best I could. I was able to squirt the thickened epoxy out of the cartridge in a long tube and let it drop right in place on the stern and bow, which is a very tight area. This worked great. It laid right in and I built it up with a couple thick layers. I smoothed out all the lines of the epoxy and tried to make them equal size to each other. I checked, and double-checked the alignment of the kayak in every way. Once the epoxy cures that is it. No going back. It all looked good. I was done with that major part.
Next day I removed it from the floor and was amazed at how ridged it was just from that step. I could only imagine how strong it would be with a layer of 6 oz. on the outside and the inside. I set up on the saw horses up side down. Peeled the tape and had to clean up the seams, though some areas still needed filling. I used the small plastic syringes and filled with thickened epoxy. Filled the rest of the seams, trying to be neat about it. Looking down the boat now, there was a section in the midship which was not as smooth as I thought it should be. I didn’t think I could sand it out. I decided to cut the seams with my trusty little skill saw. This worked great. I restitched it and made the bottom look just like I wanted. Glued the seams again. Now it looked fair and smooth.
The next step was to remove all the wires, which do get glassed in place. They will break before they come out, UNLESS! I had a small butane lighter, touching each wire just for a few seconds. Then they would slip right out. No problem. I cleaned up all the seams afterwards and sanded the seams round and flush. I shaped the bow and stern as well. It was really looking up and was very rigid. I sanded the seams and rounded everything over. Cleaned up the stems and did any last minute filling of holes and gaps. Got it ready for the covering of the epoxy cloth.
Now I was ready to tackle epoxying the hull with a layer of epoxy and cloth. The instructions call for putting a sealer coat on first, but that would take another day, and I am not sure why they want you do that. I draped the cloth over the bare plywood. Held it in place with clothespins and then trimmed excess cloth off, leaving about 3” hanging down from the edge of the kayak. I mixed up 30 pumps of West System and 30 pumps of the slow hardener. Mixed well and poured it on the cloth, quickly moving it around with a wide plastic squeegee. I used a 4” paint roller and pushed it around as I dumped more on. It goes fast. I go from one end to the other and then work my way down the sides. I let the cloth run by the bow and stern till the very end. I trimmed the cloth about an 1’ longer than the stem. Then fold one side over, then the other side back over it. So there is actually two layers there at the bow and stern. I later put on another layer over that for impact resistance.
So I was done in a short time. Fumes are a consideration and wearing a respirator is a good idea. I had a fan going sucking air out and blowing it outside. It should also be warm and dry. I came back down in about 4 or so hours. The glass was semi-hard, so using a razor blade, trimmed the excess cloth right off, clean and fast.
Next day I went over the surface with a sander and then recoated it with just epoxy, giving it a third coat later in the day. As I did the third coat I also put another strip of cloth over the whole keel and stems. I will sand it all smooth later. I am planning on painting the kayak instead of varnishing as most people do. The plywood looks nice, but I want the visibility of a bright colored hull along with not having to do varnish work periodically. The deck was going to be varnished which is enough.
I sanded the hull some and turned it over. I cleaned up all the seams of micro-light and sanded them all smooth. There were a few areas that I missed with filler but the epoxy will fill them. After cleaning the dust out, I draped another layer of cloth on the inside and did the same process of moving the epoxy into the hull and smoothing it out. It doesn’t take very long. At the bow and stern I cut the cloth so it doesn’t overlap. Then adding a wetted out strip of cloth at the end to finish the area. Less chance of the cloth bunching up. Now I was really on my way!