Home-built kayak requires wood skills, patience
AMSTERDAM My neighbor Sergio Bana ventured into our dank shared basement in a bathrobe and flannel pajamas.
“That’s looking great,” he said, nodding toward the skeletal beginnings of my skin-on-frame kayak. “I see you’re using pegs instead of something like screws.”
It was early one Friday morning in February, a few weeks into the build. I was pounding bits of oak dowel through the bent gunwales into the boat’s deck braces. The echoing crack of mallet on peg probably woke Sergio up through his apartment floor.
He scratched a few days’ chin stubble as snow drifted against the ground level basement windows. Wind blew through gaps between frame and stone foundation, but a poorly insulated furnace kept the cave of my workshop warm enough for bathrobe comfort.
“Aren’t you worried the pegs will fall out?” he asked.
This skepticism wouldn’t have worried me under normal circumstances. I’ve built boats for years and I know it’s hard for people to believe anything constructed by a basement dweller with bad hair could reliably float.
Sergio though, is an engineer — a good one, trained in mathematical techniques with names I cannot pronounce. His qualified, if bathrobed mistrust of wooden pegs had to be weighed against the unnamed author of a Google “how to build a kayak” search result — a hefty bearded fellow from somewhere in the Midwest.
This bearded guy used pegs. My brilliant engineer neighbor suggested screws.
“Pegs are best,” I said. “They were good enough for the Inuits.”
After he left I drilled extra holes through all the gunwale/deck joints and lashed each one with a few yards of mason’s twine just to be sure.
The kayak project started in a hurry. There’s not a whole lot to do in Amsterdam. Somewhere around the 30th consecutive evening squandered on Netflix, my patient and beautiful wife, Emily, said I should build something.
Looking back, she probably meant a table or a book shelf — something practical.
I went with a boat. The basement window and eventual path to water for my vessel is just 31 inches wide, making a kayak the only reasonable option.
Three days and several dozen phone calls later a gray-haired workman at Northern Hardwoods outside of Lake George showed me to the only 16-foot board in his barn, possibly in the state.
Most people think boat building is hard. It’s not. Anyone with a saw and reasonable fine-motor skills can do it. Getting the materials, though, takes the detective skills of Mr. Holmes himself, or at least those of a Gazette reporter.
My boat is of the skin-on-frame variety. It’s pretty simple but requires 16-foot lengths of straight grain wood, which turned out to be as rare as certain precious metals.
This workman shifted stacks of red oak with hands like catcher’s mitts — not wearing gloves in the lung-burning cold. By some miracle a career in the lumber industry had left him will all 10 fingers.
“Here it is,” he said, pointing to a beautiful oak board.
It was straight as an arrow and just over 16 feet long. I had him rip it down into 2-inch-wide strips for gunwales and a 1-inch keel and strapped the bundled 16-foot lengths to my Civic roof.
The boat grew on sawhorses in my basement over the winter. Through the many thaws and snowfalls, oak turned into something graceful, despite my mutton hands and fits-and-starts ambition.
Skin-on-frame is a simple style. Two hefty gunwales are bent to the boat’s outer shape, where the hull meets the deck. Then there’s a keel, the straight spine that curves along the bottom of the hull, and about 20 ribs each bent in tightening half circles, bedded into the gunwales for support.
It’s the ribs that confuse people. Wood is pretty much rigid, especially hardwood, but with the proper application of water and heat even a forearm-sized chunk of oak can be made to turn right angles.
There’s an intoxicating joy to it, to beating nature. Years ago in Minnesota my father taught me how to steam-bend lumber into a rowboat.
He taught me to soak each piece for three days, then heat them one by one in a Coleman stove and PVC pipe contraption. It’s probably ill-advised to use indoors, but worked just as well on my kayak ribs as on my father’s rowboat.
By early spring the frame was complete and shiny with varnish. I stretched a sheet of 12-ounce nylon fabric around it, stitching the stout weave right down the middle of the deck. Over the cockpit area, the cloth had to be shorn up to my deck coaming, a loop of wood steam-bent with the ribs and lashed in place. A few layers of varnish saturating the fibers finished the thing off.
As the last snow melted I ventured from the dark basement into the sun for a bike ride. Sergio was sitting on the curb messing with bits of his car.
“The boat’s looking great,” he said. “You’re just about done with it.”
Only the deck lines were left to install, a trivial job.
“So nothing else is going over that cloth?”
I said no.
“Don’t hit any rocks.”
Last Saturday Emily helped me lift the kayak from the small window and tie it to the roof of my car. She packed us a lunch and rode with me up Route 30. Then, as we skirted along the Great Sacandaga’s rolling shoreline she pointed out over the water.
“Are those whitecaps?” she asked.
She knew they were whitecaps, three foot rollers of early spring water whipped up by strong cold winds. We launched the boat anyway.
A friend lent us the use of his Sacandaga cabin, mercifully positioned in a secluded, relatively wave-free nook.
Water rose dark around the varnish-soaked skin as I lowered the boat and felt it bob back under my hands. I slid in and paddled.
For a 21-inch-wide knife edge of a boat, the kayak felt stable, yet turned with a flick of the paddle. I stayed away from the rocks.