Build from September through November 2020
Stuck at home, teleworking, and social distancing during the COVID 19 pandemic has been trying on everyone. I have been fortunate that I am still employed and able to telework, and my family has avoided getting infected ourselves. From that perspective, I could be petty and whine and complain about my challenges getting through this time when so many others are struggling with unemployment, unable to buy food or pay bills due to the shutdowns and restrictions, or those who have struggled with illness or death of loved ones at the hand of the virus. I am thankful for the dumb luck that has so far spared my family and me from this pandemic’s harsh struggles and heartache.
This spring, with the shutdowns and social distancing in place, my wife Amy and I spent weekends hiking, exploring the trails along the Susquehanna River in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Amy had long wanted a kayak to explore the river and the bay and suggested we look for used kayaks on Facebook Marketplace. With the COVID-19 restrictions, many people must have had the same idea because the local stores quickly sold out of kayaks by early summer, and reasonably priced used plastic kayaks on Facebook marketplace were sold within hours of posting. It was the beginning of summer before we finally found a good used Kayaks. Amy was content enjoying being outdoors on the water, exploring the Susquehanna and Chesapeake. I also enjoyed the experience, but I was not content with my plastic kayak. It served its purpose getting me onto the water, but it was heavy and left me wanting for something else.
I continued researching kayaks and looking for something interesting to pop up on our area’s Facebook marketplace. Being new to kayaking, I had a lot to learn and understand. I liked the sleek aesthetics of sea kayaks but knew from my 16-foot plastic kayak that it could be a chore to turn around without a rudder. I also didn’t want a 10-foot plastic kayak because I thought it would be too small to handle the waves and currents to explore the waters around us. I looked at plastic, fiberglass, and wooden kayaks before stumbling across Skin-On-Frame (SOF) kayaks. I was particularly excited with the potential to have a kayak weighing no more than a bicycle. I liked the low cost and simplicity of a fuselage frame style SOF design from Kudzu Craft. Growing up in Georgia, I could also relate to Jeff Horton’s laid-back style and southern accent. Several very interesting and reputable SOF companies on the northwest coast offer students classes to build their SOF kayaks. Still, with Covid-19 restrictions, long-distance travel was not an option. I was particularly inspired by the YouTube videos by Brian Scholtz at Falcon Kayak. His instructional videos seemed to speak to me at my level, and his passion for the subject was contagious. I also liked what I read about the Cape Falcon F1, inspired by the Marina Coaster fiberglass kayak. Brian had fine-tuned the design over the years and could explain in his videos why he built the F1 as he did while also sharing the traditional kayak history and construction techniques.
I was intimidated by the idea of building my kayak and had many reservations. I was excited about the idea, but I worried I might lose interest before finishing, spend too much money on tools and materials, or not like the finished kayak. I thought I had the woodworking tools and skills but was unsure how much work would be required.
With Amy’s support, I decided to build the Cape Falcon F1 kayak. I purchased the plans and video course and started the scavenger hunt to source western red cedar and green-white oak, and I decided to go ahead and build two F1’s, one for me and one for Amy. I thought it would be great to build them together with Amy. (Amy worked part-time as a carpenter when in college and has respectable woodworking skills.) Amy chose to let me build the kayaks while she spent her spare time writing a memoir.
The Scavenger Hunt for Wood
The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to find supplies. Many stores had limited hours and limited inventories. Clear straight grain Western Cedar was challenging to locate. I found several high-end specialty wood suppliers in the area who would order and mill anything I wanted, but their prices are relatively high. I found a specialty wood supplier and sawmill, Groff & Groff Lumber, nearby in Quarryville, Pennsylvania, that had ash and was willing to set aside some green boards the next time he had fresh white oak to mill. I found reasonably priced western red cedar from a guy on Facebook Marketplace. The red cedar was not the best quality, but I could pick out enough 14′ and 16′ straight-grained boards to avoid scarf joints.
Prepping the Materials
I followed Brian’s videos’ outline to prepare the materials for construction, which included ripping and planning lumber, building jigs, cutting mortices, and laminating curved deck beams. I was surprised by how challenging and how much time this process took. In retrospect, this was my first significant woodworking project, and it required me to learn how to organize my work area and really get to know how to use the tools.
I watched my father take up woodworking when he retired. He started out building relatively primitive woodworking projects. He then progressed to more fine woodworking skills to the point he was taking commissions to construct high-end heirloom quality bedroom suites. When he died four years ago, I took many of his woodworking tools, and this was the first time I was beginning to use them. I discovered some of the tools were wearing out or in need of maintenance. I was also learning how to really use them for the first time. I found my skill level was not as great as I thought it was. I had to accept making mistakes along the way. At the prepping stage, the cost of a mistake was minimal. If I cut a piece of lumber too short, I could just cut another piece, and I might need to buy more lumber.
Building The Deck
It was exciting to cut all 104 mortises into the gunwales without a mistake and put the gunwales into the spreaders and forms. Finally, two pieces of wood were joined together that would be part of the kayak.
I struggled with the curved laminated deck beams. When I placed the thin laminates into the jig, they refused to bend and cracked. The video class did not prepare me for this. I had cut the laminates to the correct thickness. I overcame this problem by soaking the strips of wood in water overnight and allowing them to dry before gluing and bending them on the jig. It was exciting to see the finished deck as the lumber was beginning to look more like a boat. But my wife’s frame did not look right. It was not symmetrical. I had struggled to keep the gunwales even with each other while scarfing and pegging the ends together at the bow and stern. One of the gunwales did not want to flex the same as the other, even though they seemed to have a similar amount of flexibility when I started. I spoke to Brian and debated starting over with new deck beams. I rationalized this was a learning experience. I decided to continue building my wife’s F1 as a practice build and decide to scrap it and start over once the rest of the frame was completed. Brian suggested that the ribs and stringers might just counter the asymmetry that was in the deck.
Completing the deck, I had learned to use mortise and tenon joints, lashing, and pegs for the first time to join pieces of wood together. I also started to appreciate using the Japanese saw, even though I cut most of the tenons on the band saw. I learned I needed to pay closer attention to matching the deck beam lumber before cutting miter joints and assembling assembly.
Bending ribs was a bit intimidating. After finding green, white oak and milling it into rib stock, I concluded that buying the rib stock directly from Brian was not a bad value. I let my green, white oak boards dry a few weeks before milling them and then kept them moist in plastic when their moisture content dropped to about 20%. In milling the ribs, I also learned about tigerwood. My boards were quarter sawn, and when I cut the boards into rib stock, I had these beautiful broad stripes across most of my ribs, which I learned is called tiger oak. The broad stripes are caused by medullar rays in the wood that are visible when the wood is quarter sawn. Unfortunately, the ribs tend to fracture or separate along with these bands when bending.
I experimented with bending ribs to get an idea if I could create the tight bends required for the first three ribs. I experimented kerffing the ribs where I wanted small radius bends and using a cam strap to compress the rib while bending.
In the end, bending ribs was not so difficult. It required a lot of preparation, practice, and patience. I broke a few ribs along the way, but that was expected. I cut one rib to the wrong length when replacing a broken one, only to discover and correct my error after lashing the keel and stringers.
After lashing the keel and stringers, it is advisable to check that the ribs don’t extend past the stringer or keel, where they might touch the skin when it is stretched and sewn. I missed this on rib number 20 on my wife’s F1. Brian said it was more of a cosmetic issue and should not affect how the boat would paddle.
With no sewing experience, I was afraid of cutting the fabric too short or sewing the fabric too loose and having wrinkles that would not shrink out. I watched videos from the Cape Falcon course as well as those from Kudzu Craft and the Skin Boat School and took a more conservative (and time consuming) approach.
My older model 8200-N Weller soldering iron with a cutting tip cut the fabric quickly and cleanly.
I practiced several stitches at the stern with the extra length of fabric before committing to a simple running stitch followed by a whip stitch. For the top deck seams, I followed the example from the Skin Boat School and Kudzu Craft videos, sewing a few inches of running stitch with about a ½ inch gap and then pulling the thread taunt to draw the seam closed. I then trimmed the fabric and followed up with a whip stich. I was able to take additional bytes of fabric with the whip stitch where the fabric still loose.
I struggled to understand why I found sewing so tiring and frustrating until I realized I just needed magnification and better light. I was pleased with my stitches and my rate of progress once I started using a lighted magnifying glasses headset. Overall, I was delighted with the skinning of the F1s.
Dying the skin
I struggled deciding which colors to dye the skin. Amy doesn’t like to pick out colors because she is partially colorblind. I liked the colors of some of the F1s in the video class but was not sure how to achieve those colors. Once the skin is dyed, there are very few options to change the color. Perhaps it was my texts and emails, or simply good timing, but while I was struggling with this decision, Brian and Liz created a new video showing a pallet of recommended colors that looked good and aged well when the coating yellows with UV exposure.
Following the video class instructions provided no surprises dying the kayaks. Ironing the deck set the dye color and also shrank the fabric tight, leaving no wrinkles.
Coating the skin
I purchased three orders of the two-part polyurethane from the Skin Boat Store to have enough material for an extra coat on the hull for 2 F1;s and spoke to Corey Freidman the day before I started coating them. Cory explained the process, which was the same as explained in Brian’s video instruction. I was confused because the Skin Boat School online video applies the coating with a hard plastic spreader, while Brian and Corey’s verbal instruction was to use a foam roller. Corey explained that he finds the foam roller better but has not updated his video.
I completed the previous steps building the two F1s in sequence, completing one F1 before starting the same step on the second. Since there is a waiting period between applying coats of polyurethane, I decided to coat the second F1 during the waiting period between F1 coats. This was a mistake for me. It turns out that I needed to pay closer attention during the waiting period between coats to correct sags and drips until the coating sets. Alternating between the two F1s caused me to feel rushed and to miss easily correctable sags and drips. I completed the bottom of the F1s with four coats, and although they were not perfect, I was satisfied with the result.
The next day, I flipped the kayaks and coated the decks. Perhaps I was just having an off day or made a mistake mixing the 2-part polyurethane, but I struggled to get even coats on the decks and coaming. The coating was not even around the seams and adjacent to where I removed the masking tape to prevent the previous day’s coatings from running onto the deck. The polyurethane did not want to build up in those areas. I also struggled with what appeared to be fabric fibers being pulled up by the roller preventing a perfectly smooth finish. At the end of the day, I was exhausted and felt defeated. The finish was not as smooth and even as I wanted, and I had no idea what I did wrong.
A few weeks later Brian added a new video providing additional guidance to address problems that might be encountered in applying the 2 part poly coating.
I used a soldering gun to burn holes in the skin to install the leather deck lines. When installing the seat backs, I trimmed the vinyl strap to be flush the top of the coaming when sitting in the cockpit. Rigging the deck went well with no problems.
As disappointed as I was with the coating finish not being as smooth as it could be, it was only a cosmetic issue and something that someone else might not even notice. Outside in the daylight, both F1s look great, and I can hardly wait to get them into the water.
In the meantime, I Brian added a new video providing additional guidance to address problems that might be encountered in applying the 2 part poly coating.
The Finished F1s
I finished the F1s just as the local weather and water temperatures dropped beyond my comfort level for the possibility of getting wet. Amy and I will wait for warmer weather and water temperatures in the spring. In the meantime, we stowed our F1s in the shed and made room to access the snow blower and emergency power generator as we prepare for the winter.
This has been an incredible adventure, and I admit that I am a little disappointed that the work is done. I learned a lot about traditional kayaks and developed some unique woodworking skills.
Finishing by build in 90 days, I find it difficult to imagine completing an F1 within a 5 day in-person class. While I did not have the benefit of Brian by my side building my F1, through his videos and texts and emails, I was able to experiment and try to understand things along the way at my own pace.
I would recommend the Cape Falcon plans and video course for anyone who enjoys learning new skills and building things with their own hands. Brian is a gifted instructor.
If you are a perfectionist and you want a perfectly built F1, you might consider commissioning Brian to build one for you. Building your own, especially the first time, you will make mistakes along the way. You could build an excellent boat but be too distracted by the mistakes and let that get in the way of enjoying the boat on the water.
What would I do differently?
- I would pace myself more
- Improve workspace lighting
- Pay more attention to wood quality
- Buy a better-quality Japanese saw and block plane
I will be checking in during 2021 spring or summer with a report once Amy and I get the opportunity to paddle our F1s on the water.
On the Water!
Waiting for warmer weather and finishing projects around the house, my wife and I finally put our F1s in the water!
Getting in for the first time, the F1s felt a little tippy, but that is to be expected based on what some others have said. My wife’s first comment on the water was how well her F1 tracked! My first thoughts paddling was how smooth and quickly the F1 moved through the water.
Paddling with the Greenland paddles was almost effortless. I really liked the ability to secure the paddle to the F1 for stability getting into the F1. However, I found it difficult to keep up with my wife when she was using traditional paddles.
I think the pictures and videos of our first paddle tell the story.
Building my own SOF Kayak is an experience that has changed me. I will never be able to look at a plastic kayak the same way again. In the back of my mind, if I build another F1, I will try to make it a little lighter, but for now I am looking forward to exploring the river and the bay in our F1s.