Adventures in Kayak Building

Might as well start out with one of my more interesting adventures!

Five years ago, I made my own kayak. Two of them actually, but this story is about my firstborn, Selkie.

My friend V is mad about boats, and we had wanted to get kayaks but had two seemingly insurmountable obstacles: One, a decent recreational kayak costs at least $1500; and two, most of the kayaks that we liked weighed at least 55-60 pounds.

We are both cheap and weak.

The answer of course was to make them. (Of course, ’cause that’s how we roll, yo.) Kayak Way had plans for a 12 foot recreational kayak that was a modified version of a “Hooper Bay” kayak that had been used by the Inuit in Alaska for generations. (Unfortunately they’re not selling plans right now, but their site is still cool! Maybe you could email Skip and beg.) I also bought a cool book called Hooper Bay Kayak Construction that was a great companion to the plans.

“Skin on Frame” means that you make a frame (skeleton if you will) of wood – usually red cedar or hem-fir – and cover it with a “skin” of polyester or nylon. They are extremely lightweight, and pretty damn durable.

And cheap – Selkie cost me less than $300, and weighs less than 30 pounds. No more obstacles!


This is the frame. Almost everything except the ribs on this boat are either poplar or hem-fir. The ribs are quartersawn white oak, and the the bowpiece, with its distinctive carry-hole, is made from birch plywood.

Nothing is nailed. NOTHING. Everything is pegged with dowels and lashed together with artificial sinew.

I bent the ribs by steaming them in a piece of dryer venting that was hooked up to a clothes steamer. Take out a steamy rib (with tongs), stick it in the jig and clamp til dry. Worked like a charm.

What’s cool with this style of kayak building is that it is very visual – you look for smooth, clean lines, and if it looks right, it usually is right. The plans give you measurements, of course, and a general look, but it’s amazing that you can shift bits around and suddenly it looks “sweet”.

I lavished a lot of love on this boat, adding extra details and artistic flair:

Selkie is the name for the mythical seal-folk in Scottish folklore. So, I carved little seals to serve as spacers and joiners. I love the little ‘tude the seal on the right has – it’s like it’s saying, “Yeah, I’m cute, I’m holding the stern together, I’m awesome.”

I used a woodburning tool and burnt various Celtic designs on the support pieces.

The “hatchmarks” on the deckbeam are Ogham, an ancient Celtic script. The words are in Gaelic, and translate to “Not all who wander are lost”. (Oh yeah, meet Belle the Kayak Inspector Kitteh.)

This pic really shows all the lashing that is going on in the boat – the deckbeams are lashed to the gunwales (sides), and the ribs are lashed to the long “stringers” that run fore to aft. The ribs are pegged with bamboo skewers to the gunwales.

This all got coated with a mix of tung oil and mineral spirits, to help seal the wood. I added a little burnt sienna oil paint to give it a nice color.

We had some fun when we did a test run – to make sure everything felt comfortable, the foot rest beam is in the right place, etc. This is accomplished by wrapping a tarp around the frame, leave an opening where the cockpit should be, and wrap the hell out of it with plastic wrap. Yes, Saran Wrap. I am proud to say that I got THREE HOURS of paddling before started to get soggy. And everything was fine, go me!

So then it was time so sew on the “skin”… it’s 13oz polyester, and feels about as thick as a good pair of jeans. The seam is along the top, and needs to be done with really strong fishing line. So you stretch and sew, recover from your blisters, stretch and sew, and after the initial seam is done you trim the excess (with a woodburning tool), roll it and do a criss-cross stitching to hold it all down.

And yes, the carry-hole was a pain in the ass to sew. But it looks SO COOL! And hey, it’s a built-in handle.

The cockpit gets sewn in place. It’s an 18″x30″ oval, which is nice for several reasons: It fits most large asses (mine included) and if the boat tips over, I tumble right out. I proved my kayak moxie and did “Eskimo rolls” when I was a teenager; I’m in my late 40s now and no longer feel the need to roll. Rock n’ roll, yes. Eskimo roll, no.

So at this point you’re probably scratching your head and saying, “But how do you keep it from leaking?” Patience, padawan.

This is where a gallon of exterior polyurethane comes in. SEVEN COATS of it. Zar makes a great one, and you can tint it with some oil paint. I chose a nice royal purple. I rolled it on with a super-smooth paint roller, let it dry for 12 hours, rolled on another coat, rinse and repeat. And repeat. And – well you get it, seven coats.

After all those coats finally dried, I was left with one sweet little boat. She’s pretty fast, and turns on a dime. And she’s one hell of a conversation starter – whenever I take her out, there’s always at least one boater/fisherman who will come over and check her out. While the boat has not turned into a guy magnet (damn it!) it’s fun to have her fussed over.

This was not a quickie project – I would guess it took me about five months of weekends and weeknights, doing other stuff in between as well. But $300, man, and it’s sweet.

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