How to Build A Kayak – Part 1 of 3



This is part one of a three part article

Part One: Un-Boxing Day

In seventh grade shop class I once made a birdhouse that turned out so terribly that my mother thought it was a flower planter. Since then things really haven’t improved much for me, at least not in terms of skills like “making things” or “fixing them.” Just last spring I installed gutters on our new house. I got something wrong, though, and for weeks afterward rainwater drizzled directly into our hot tub, which is broken, too.


So I was acting very much out of character when I called Chesapeake Light Craft to order a build-it-yourself tandem sea kayak kit that I do, in fact, plan to build all by myself. The genius of the kit is that the pieces are pre-cut, which takes out most of the measuring and the guesswork, which is comforting, because I usually guess wrong.


The plan is to stitch together the plywood pieces that come in the box with copper wire, seal the whole thing with fiberglass, nail on a deck, sand and varnish. In a few months, I’ll have a beautiful wooden boat with a keel that is fair and true. I really want the kayak, but I want the project more. Going out and just buying a boat doesn’t seem as fun.


I’ve set aside today, a beautiful Saturday, to start building. Three boxes weighing just over 100 pounds total contain all the pieces I’ll need. Like a kid ripping through Christmas, I slash them all open. Splayed out before me are a dozen strips of okoume plywood that are so fine and thin you’d think I’d ordered a cello. Another box contains three huge sheets of fiberglass cloth that are itchy to the touch. The last carton is full of spooled copper wire, dozens of brads and, I notice with trepidation, a long roll of plans, like blueprints construction workers might use to build an office tower. I have plastic tubs of wood flour and silica powder and what I think are bulkheads and foot braces. Is that epoxy? A mild panic sets in.


I’m fully expecting challenges. The thing is, I’m already running into problems and I haven’t done anything yet. The sides and the bottom of the kayak are nothing more than a dozen narrow strips of plywood that I need to glue together to form a hull 23-feet long from tip to tip. The place where I plan to do this, our garage, measures 23 feet long from tip to tip, at least when it’s clean. It isn’t.


And so I learn my first lesson in boat building—work before work—and the day I have to set aside to start my masterpiece becomes the day I clear out the garage. For hours I move bikes and skis and coolers, hibachis, chairs, and tables. I sweep the floor, clear tennis rackets off work spaces, and ferry two huge loads of paper and cardboard to the side of the house to wait for recycling day. I shove stuff off to the side. Heidi, my wife to be, says she likes my project.


What remains of the day becomes an introduction to scarf joints. It’s a good, simple lesson in boatbuilding—line things up, make them stick—and to make it even easier, the ramp-like joints are already cut. I just have to glue them. I read the instructions carefully and make a potent glue by mixing up a small batch of epoxy thickened with silica powder, a dust so fine it sloshes around the container like milk. It’s a slow, messy process but finally I have the right mustard consistency and slather on the goo.


In the process, I get epoxy all over the place, on my arms, on my shirt, all along the workbench where I mix it. But I work steadily and soon my victory is assured. I stand up and look. Sure enough, I’ve done some gluing. Job well done, I call it a day. Thank goodness my work looks nothing like a birdhouse. Or a flower pot.

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