When I set out a few months ago to build a wood-core fiberglass
sea kayak from a Chesapeake Light Craft kit, I did so firmly believing
that whatever skills I lacked in things like, say, woodworking and fiberglassing
could be overcome with elbow grease and romantic perseverance.
I was right, mostly, and the project rapidly became my favorite
thing to do. On summer evenings I’d head out to the garage and spend
hours getting sawdust in my hair and running calloused fingers along
sleek lines that grew truer each day. The chines took shape. The bow
stood crisp and proud.
But then reality stormed in on a cool fall day, just after I’d entered
a critical fiberglassing stage on the hull’s interior. I’d spent an entire
Saturday trying to position blankets of composite fibers into a U-shape
along the cockpit and then soaking those sheets in epoxy that would
harden to give the boat its strength.
It was a horribly unwieldy and messy process. I needed a dozen hands to hold the material in place,
and the sheets wrinkled as I tried to wet them with a roller. The next
morning I was horrified at what I-the boob who once called himself Epoxy
Man-had done. Bubbles had formed in the glass overnight, making
the cockpit blister with ugly pustules that did nothing for strength.
Worse, the weather turned icy, making it impossible for additional
fiberglass to cure. The boat languished in my ineptitude and sat
idle for months. Doubt seeped in. Why had I even bothered?
And then one day, flipping through our local paper, I come
across a picture of a boat builder teaching students how to fiberglass
the interior of a beautiful strip canoe. Whereas I’d tried to
hold the fiberglass sheets in one hand and paint resin on with the
other, the teacher had used clothespins to secure the material in
place. The genius! With a warm shop! I called him immediately
and muddled my way through a plea for help. He barely blinked.
“Sure,” he said. “Come on
Now 37 years old, Greg
Bridges first started working
with wood at age seven.
Since then he’s built
houses, tables, cribs, and
at least 10 canoes and
kayaks that are so unfathomably
strips of luxurious Peruvian
walnut and rich Alaskan cedar
coaxed into crafts he
can unload for upwards of
$10,000-that a one-hour
paddling trip will turn into
two hours of gabbing with
jealous onlookers. My boat,
wrinkled and coarse, has all the splendor of a leper next to his
works of art.
But Greg is patient and understanding, having already
coached a whole community of aspiring boat builders like me
through the process. From 14-year-old Cris Smoot to 87-yearold
Harvey M. Waldron Jr., Greg’s shop fills up several months
each year with noobs like me desperate to learn. He’s shown us
how to weigh resins and hardeners to mix epoxy properly and
the miracles a one-inch belt sander can perform. He’s helped me
mount the deck beams without nails and explained how a spritz
of white vinegar will take wet epoxy off your skin. Most of all, he’s
been encouraging. “It’s your first boat,” he says, as if there will be
more. “You got those bubbles because of gas in the wood. Don’t
worry, we can fix it.”
And fix it we do. Over the next few weeks I fall head over
heels in love with my boat again, warts and all. I duck out often
and early to Greg’s farm on the outskirts of Bend, Oregon, where
I stack juniper into the shop woodstove and play with his yellow
labs while it warms up inside. Eventually I move around his shop
like I halfway know what I’m doing, deftly removing a beer from
the fridge before I get epoxy all over my hands. I cut out the bubbles
and fiberglass the hull again in a process that takes a tenth
of the time. “It looks like a new boat,” Greg says when it’s done.
The deep wood tones fill my heart with fatherly pride. Before long
I’ll be ready to put on the deck. Even better, I know I’ll never have
to paddle alone.
Next time on Building the Boat, it all comes together.