Axel’s F1 build in Arles, Southern France

I built my first kayak in 2017. It was a cedar-strip “Frej”, designed by Björn Thomasson (https://www.thomassondesign.com/en/katalog/mina-kajaker/frej). I love it and go paddling whenever I can. For those interested, my build is detailed here: https://www.thomassondesign.com/en/news/another-two-frej-launched

Still, as soon as I finished it I felt like building a new one. And wanted to try another construction method. I started looking over the internet and got my mind set on the F1. But as I was about to order a plan, I badly damaged my Frej when a gust of wind snatched it from my hands as I was tying it to my car roof. So instead of building a new kayak, I spent quite some time fixing the one I had.

Then, life made other plans for myself and my family, including an amazing year in Vancouver, BC. With lots of paddling!

When we came back to France in the summer of 2019 I was ready for another build. But there was a lot of things to do, putting the kids back in the French school system, getting back to work, fixing the house… And then there was the Covid-19 lockdown in the spring of 2020… So after a much-needed summer vacation in Corsica, I started making plans to build my F1. I was not in a hurry so I took my time. What I love is the process of building.

There’s a lot of blogs on the forum now, so I’ll try to especially outline what I did differently, what I found difficult or fun or strange. My approach to building, other than taking my time, is that I am not very well equipped and I try to keep the costs rather low. And I love finding ways to do things with what I have available. Which does not always lead to the best results!

A slow start

After I ordered the plan and video course from Brian, my first concern was finding the proper wood.

I knew softwood wouldn’t be a major problem. I had checked that the construction store in Nîmes still had the red cedar beams I had used for my Frej in 2017. In any case I could have gone with white fir, as most European builders do since it is readily availabl here. One interesting fact: other than Brian’s courses, I had also bought Frederique and Christophe Claeys’ book called “Construire et utiliser les kayaks de l’Arctique” where they detail how to build 2 different models of traditional kayaks. They advocate the use of fir over red cedar, feeling that cedar is not strong enough. Different people, different approaches. Anyway for you French builders-to-be, you may know that “Point P” stores offer 4.90-m long 20×10 cm beams (“avivé””).

First bad surprise at the store: the price of the beam had gone up 30% in 4 years. Oh well, no choice. And I managed to find a nice clear and straight-grained beam.

The guys at the sawmill next to my job in Saint-Martin de Crau had been really nice when I needed to cut my cedar strips back in 2017. So I naturally went back to them. Except, this time they were not quite as nice… They readily accepted to cut the beam into 1.7-cm planks for “a very reasonable price” (they had turned my beam into 2×0.5 cm strips for 60 €). When I went to get my planks, not only had they cut the planks the wrong way, but they asked 120 € for it. I complained that this was not really what I called a reasonable price compared to what they had offered for my strips, so we settled on 80 €. Oh well, last time I do business with them, then…

Now the REAL problem was the bending wood. South-eastern France is far from being a lumber country. Most of our dry forests are “green oak” (Quercus ilex) which is way too small for timber.

White oak grows pretty much everywhere else in France, and I thought I could get my hand on green white oak when we went to visit my brother in the Loire Valley. But the largest sawmill in the area would only sell me dry oak.

The Provence nettle tree of course!

That’s when I realized the solution to my problem was actually right at home. I work in a nature reserve grazed by 40,000 sheep, where shepherds still put bells (Sonnailles) on their ewes and goats. Now whereas in most areas bell collars are made of leather, in Provence they are made of wood. Bended wood. Two species are most commonly used. One is ‘Cytise’ (Laburnum alpinum), a small tree from the mountains. The other one is the ‘European nettle tree’ or ‘Mediterranean hackberry’ Celtis australis we French call ‘Micocoulier de Provence’. It is a cousin of the Common hackberry Celtis occidentalis found in the USA, and to many other species of Celtis around the globe. In Europe, nettle trees are widely used as ornamental trees in cities, all the way from Paris to Prague. In southern France they even manage to settle in the bush or in forest margins. But they never make entire forests and are not used for timber. Except by our bellmakers!

So I called up the only bellmaker left in the area. Damien is a young man who recently took up his uncle’s workshop. Damien told me he would gladly cut me a few planks, but unfortunately he was out of wood for the year and would only cut his fresh stock in January. That was 3 months ahead, so I was back to zero again.

Then in early november, at the beginning of our second lockdown, I had a bad bicycle accident coming back from work. Nothing broken, but my leg turned blue-yellow-black from hip to knee, and for days I could barely walk. Standing up remained painful for weeks so there was no way I could start my build.

Prep work in December

In late november, when I was able to stand again, I went to ask advice to a carpenter near my place in Arles. He kindly gave me a very nice leftover piece of straight oak to make bending trials. I went back home to cut it in strips and let them soak for a week in water mixed with a bit of fabric softener as I had read online. The result was really great as the strips bent nicely to shape.

In the meanwhile, I had started to prepare my workshop . That is… my neighbor’s yard. They had lent me their garage for my Frej, but now they were fixing vintage motorcycles in it, still I could use their yard, where the Frej was sitting. I started by getting it out of the way, and bought four sawhorses for my build. Then I reassorted my planks in the order they were cut, so I could select a pair of clear adjacent planks to make the gunwales for each of my boats.

As I said I try to work with whatever tools I have. I did however buy a nice Bosch circular saw. I also borrowed a small table saw from fork, but a few tryouts showed it was absolutely not adequate for 5-m long planks. So I made myself a jig to cut all my long pieces with my circular saw. Not so easy with 9-cm wide planks but it worked out great. Slow but great.

Next step was the curved deck beams. Again the table saw proved no use, couldn’t make a nice vertical cut whatever setup I tried. The circular saw was not much better for that task, but I still managed to get enough strips for the 6 beams I needed. Glueing was messy. God I hate these PU glues.

Time came for Xmas break. We retreated for a week in the southern Alps, just by ourselves, so we could go visit our parents the second week without fear of contaminating them. A great, refreshing week.

January 2021, getting on with it!

Back home in January I started to work on the gunwales. I selected 2 adjacent pairs of planks and cheked for even flex. No problem there. Then on to mortising. I don’t have a router, and simply bought a cheap Wolfcraft drill guide. I screwed on a square wood base, and it went quite well. Now of course it is far from being as clean as a router, and the drill wobbles in the guide quite a bit, but for the price it was good enough. The guide can be adjusted at the right angle for the curved beam.

Setting up the gunwales and kerfing the ends went swiftly. Same thing with cutting the tenons, except for the first boat I forgot to angle the last cut of the tenon on the curved beams. But it has little effect and the beams fit well enough in the mortises.

Bending the ribs

Now back to my bending wood puzzle. The carpenter told me I could get nice clear oak from the construction store for… 3500 € a cubic meter! But before I went to buy the planks in Avignon, I thought I’d check on Damien. And sure enough, he was just back from cutting his first stock and gladly accepted to sell me a few planks of nettle tree! That was great news, as I had really grown keen on building my kayak out of local bell collars… The only downside was that Damien cuts all his trees into 1-m long chunks to haul them easily, so that would not do for my coamings. I thought I could try scarf jointing the strips, but Brian adviced against it because he feared glued green wood joints would be too fragile. I still ordered Damien enough 3,5-mm thick, 1-m long planks for my 2 boats plus some extra for 200 €, and I was a happy man. The funny part is that the trees come a farm right next to my nature reserve in the Crau plain (farmers offer him to cut wood on their land in exchange for collars).

Damien told me he usually let his planks sit for 3 months before bending them, otherwise they would crack. He bends by boiling his planks in water. The first one is boiled for 15 min, the last ones for over an hour, without any noticable change in bending capacity. The planks for bell collars are 1.3 cm thick.

More about the Provence nettle tree

The nettle tree has a long and rich history in the Mediterranean. In the 1st Century, Pliny the Elder tells of a specimen planted more than 500 years before by Romulus, the founder of Rome himself. Nettle trees used to be grown as fodder for cattle, and was commonly planted in villages and cities before it was progressively replaced by the plane tree. As plane trees are now plagued by disease and cut down, the nettle tree is making its comeback.

The nettle tree used to be appreciated for its rot-resistant, strong and flexible wood. So rot-resistant that in Italy and Southern France it was used as stakes in vineyards. So strong it was used to make oars, and handles for various farming tools. And so flexible that in the village of Sauve, 50 km west from Arles, it is still grown to make wooden pitchforks (See video). And near Perpignan a small factory employing disabled people still braids fine strips of nettle tree trunks to make highly prized whips and riding crops (See video). All these qualities obviously make it a great choice for kayak ribs.

Cutting the ribs

Now on to cutting. First mistake I made was letting the fresh planks sit for 2 or 3 weeks while I was working on the gunwales. Even though I had laid them down properly with spacers, some were badly crooked. Damn, I should have cut them straight away. The downside with nettle trees is that the trunks obviously don’t grow as big as a lumber oak tree would. They were somewhere between 25 to 35 cm in diameter. So there was plenty of knots in some planks, (which Damien had not counted in my order), and grain orientation was not perfect, hence the crooking. Again that ruled the table saw out, so I had to somehow manage with a complex circular saw jig. I had to reject some strips that could not be cut straight, and some that went totally wild after they were cut out from the plank, but overall it went better than I had imagined. The wood was far from Brian’s advocated standards, but when I saw how much bend I could force into lower than average fresh strips, I was not too worried about steam bending.

I sorted the strips according to grain for the different sections of the boats. Cut them to length, planed off the corners, thinned the ends, numbered them and clamped them until I was ready to steam bend.

Bending the ribs

I really made sure I was ready before the big day I bent the ribs for my first boat. And I’m glad I did. Made trials with the wallpaper steamer and a PVC tube I had bought, just to see the tube melt on me. The trial went fine though, as far as wood bending goes. I had an old iron gutter in my cellar, was a nice replacement for the PVC, should have done that in the first place except it has a small diameter and I can only fit 3 ribs in it.

Steaming and bending went fine. Much slower than Brian of course, but I certainly didn’t feel ready for 1-mn intervals. Got only a tiny bit of tearout, not so much in the front, but at the side bends of the very flat ribs at the back of the cockpit. Glued them back with CA glue. The main problem I experienced were cracking mortises, all the way to rib 7 or 8. Used CA glue again, but it was not a pretty sight. One mistake I probably made was adjusting the fit too tightly when thinning the end of the ribs. On the second boat I thinned them much more and had less cracks.

But overall my less than perfect nettle tree ribs bent beautifully, even though they were usually more on the 0.8 cm side.

Lashing the keel, stringers and stems

I was quite weary of my less-than-perfect ribs starting to warp, so I followed Brian’s advice to tie the keel, stringers and stems on the same day.

Pegging the ribs, setting and lashing the keel on was straightforward and fun. Same for the stems, apart from one incident: on one of the sterns I forgot to mark which piece to cut out , and sure enough I cut the wrong part out and had to make another stern. Believe me, the little crosses and smiley faces Brian tells you to scribble on these may look a bit silly, but they can save you some trouble…

On the larger boat, the stringers were a real pain. The back sections didn’t rest on the ribs and stern the same way on each side. The upper corner touched the ribs on one of them, for the other one it was the lower corner. And when I tried to force them to sit on the ribs properly all the clamps bolted out and the whole stringer fell off. That was really frustrating. It was a real problem too, because when the stringers were positioned at the same height, the difference of orientation caused the outer ridges to be at different heights. I ended up lashing the stringers from the front, and progressively adjusting the position of the stringers at the back, as the tension of the lashings helped me force them in place. In the end there was still a slight difference in position between both stringers, but it was way better than what I could achieve with the clamps only, and I made sure the outer ridges were exactly at the same height. Didn’t have the same problem on the smaller boat, and I have no idea what caused it, maybe a slight difference in the location of the bends on the ribs? Brian told me it happens on some of his boats, too.

On both boats, I realized afterwards that I didn’t have a smooth shape on my keel line. The back section is dead flat but transitions into a hump in the front. Not something I anticipated when I was checking the lines as I was bending the ribs. I could see that the ribs just back from the cockpit  had curved down after the keel was lashed on. I tried to counter that by forcing planks transversally between the keel and stringers and letting them sit there for a few days. That lowered the keel by about 1 cm. Brian told me the flat bottom would actually make it paddle better, but I should install a temporary stanchion between the keel and beck beams 4 and 5 to prevent it from crushing down more when sewing and coating the skin.

Making the coamings

During all this time I kept wondering if I would try scarf joints on my coaming despite Brian’s advice, or do it totally differently, like using some leftover cedar strips from my Frej, just like I had done for its coaming. I finally decided that I’d make it simple and try the scarf joints. That would just be 3 scarf joints on the coaming and lip instead of one, I figured it couldn’t be so bad. One mistake I made, though, was trusting my memory for strip thickness for the coaming and lip, when I know I should never do that. I Thought the coaming was a 0.7 cm strip like the ribs, and the lip was 1 cm. When they are actually 1 cm and 1.3 cm thick. Dumb ass… I managed to find some thicker ribs around 0.9 cm, and I had cut my lips at 1.1 cm so I figured it would have to do. The leftover pieces of planks I had were really too knotty to try anything. So coamings were going to be both thinner and jointed, probably making them even more fragile. But I don’t intend to paddle in rough conditions, and I’m thinking if they look too weak I’ll coat them with fiberglass and epoxy.

The additional scarf joints were to be on the sides of the coaming. So one of the strips would be bent right in the middle to make the front of the coaming, and its ends would be jointed to the two other strips. As Brian pointed out, one of the questions is “how will you glue your joints since they won’t hold the steaming well?” My approach was to bevel the ends of the 2 back strips so they’d be ready for jointing, steam them and bend them on the jig. However, the front strip would be steamed, bent on the jig and clamped to the back pieces, but I would only bevel its ends and glue them to the other pieces when cooled down and stiffened. Obviously all these steps and adjustments made it longer and more complex to build, but in the en it worked out well. My bevels on the sides were 20-cm long, and that was a lot of bevels to plane by hand! I sweated and cursed but I was extra careful and they came out right. Beveling the curved front strip was not easy either but it still came out right too.

 I glued my scarf joints with thickened epoxy. Now, since all my coaming strips were thinner, my 2-cm ringed bronze nail (bought online at “A l’Abordage” in La Rochelle) were obviously too long and sticked out on the inside of the coamings. No big deal, I sawed and filed and sanded them. And these shiny dots inside the coaming actually look rather nice.

Finishing the frames

Nothing particularly difficult there. I oiled the frames with linseed oil diluted in pure terebenthine, with a first coat at 50% oil, and a second coat at 75%.

But now the woodworking part is over and that’s really sad…

Then I had to let the frames sit for a few weeks, as I had volunteered to conceive and build a box for a sculpture we were about to receive in the museum of my nature reserve. It had to serve both as a stand and as a box. I thought I would get it done in no time, but it proved much more difficult to build than I had anticipated and I ended up working on it 3 week-ends in a row before I could deliver it. The sculpture is an augmented reality setup that works with iPads, come take a look at the Ecomuseum of Saint-Martin de Crau if you ever travel through the area.

Sewing the skin

I had ordered a 840 X-tuff skin and some goop from Corey Friedman months ago, before I decided to build a second boat for the rest of the family. So at some point I had to decide what skin and varnish to get for the second boat. Ordering from Corey was really straightforward and he was really nice, throwing lots of additional stuff in the package. However, ordering stuff from the other end of the hemisphere feels a bit unsustainable, and comes in really costly. For a $200 order, the shipping was $100, and when the parcel arrived I had to pay an extra 70 € in tariffs. For the second boat I therefore decided to buy a 850 denier nylon cloth from Extremtextil in Germany, and Coelan urethane varnish from “A l’Abordage” in La Rochelle. The extremtextil cloth is quite cheap, as was shipping, however as I discovered later it is much more difficult to lash on than Corey’s Xtra-tuff nylon. The Coelan varnish was very expensive, but shipping was free.

I started by skinning my own boat with the Xtra-tuff nylon. Being the one who sows and mends stuff at home, I was not particularly afraid of the task. I still made a few inches of stitching on some scrap cloth to get a feel of it. Hot-cutting the cloth really terrified me, however. I was both frightened of badly messing up my cuts, and of accidentally burning a hole in the skin, which is really the kind of thing that happens to me. I overcame the first risk by marking my cutting lines with a pencil. In his videos, Brian shows how to go to get the cutting lines right but I felt it would not be so obvious without his experience. A pencil line at the right place was really reassuring, until I became comfortable with the cutting.

I had spent quite some time wondering what kind of thread I would use for lacing and sowing. Interstingly, “Seine twine” doesn’t exist as such in France, even though its name comes from the river that flows through Paris. After much research on the Internet, I found out that the main sporting goods retailer “Decathlon” actually sells a 1.2 mm sticky thread for sails called “fil à surlier” (whipping twine). Probably available in all Decathlon stores in Europe or online, and cheap (8 €). For sowing, I did buy upholstery thread from the local store, but it felt way too weak. So I reverted to my first idea: braided fishing line from the times I used to fish for pikes. I used the thickest one I had, probably about 0.25-0.3 mm. Very thin but very resistant, and it worked just fine. Two downsides to this, though: first, it cuts into your skin like butter, so I had to wrap my fingers in masking tape and still got cuts in my pinkies; second the color leaked on to the fabric, especially when I sowed the Extremtextil nylon wet. Nothing too bad, though.

Everything went smoothly with Corey’s nylon cloth on my boat. I sowed the front on the side of the deck stringer (I’m anxiously waiting for Brian to put up his sail building course), and found that it was quite easy (nothing more difficult than sowing on top of the stringer, which is what I did on the kids’ boat). The stitching line on the back deck ended up wavier than I would have liked despite trying to be extra careful with it. Oh well…

It also seemed like I was a bit overzealous with tightening the lacing and stitching. The skin was drum tight after stitching, so much so that I asked Brian if there was a risk of overtightening the skin before wetting it. That’s when he advised that I set up some stanchions to reduce the risk of rib crushing upwards.

Sewing the coaming was straightforward, too. Again, I marked the cutting line on the skin to be sure I would get it right.

Sewing with the Extremtextil cloth

The second boat got the Extremtextil cloth. I read blogs by Markus from Austria and Franz in Bavaria who both sewed the cloth dry. Both got issues, so I decided I’d try to sew it on wet. Didn’t work better, even probably worse…

First of all, of course, hot-ccutting a wet cloth is not as easy and fast as a dry one. But it works. Then lacing revealed that the expected overlap at the stern was non-existent, even though I proceded exactly the same as with Corey’s cloth. Despite my initial intention not to tighten the lacing and stitching as strongly as for the first boat, I was forced to do the exact opposite. With terrible effects on the cloth, its weave being waaaay looser than Corey’s cloth. I ended up with huge pinholes (I’m not sure the word is adequate at this point). The situation on the back deck was so terrible that I immediately decided to sew on a patch of Corey’s cloth over the disaster. Not great looking, but probably better than the battlefield below.

It was just a bit better at the front, and even though the holes were still large I decided not to patch it.

Brian was terrified by the pinholes pictures I sent him. He immediately put up a warning to canoe builders to be careful not to overtighten this cloth and to sew it on dry. He advised that I should think about reskinning altogether. But I was not keen about that, both because of the price, and of the prospect of throwing away an otherwise good skin. And I must admit, other than the holes the skin conformed well to the shape of the frame and ended up drum tight when it dried. Moreover, the kids and my wife decided to paint Haida or Tlingit artwork, which would help conceal the holes.

I really didn’t mind the looks of the holes that much, I was more concerned about managing to seal them up. I first tried on a scrap piece of cloth to see how small patches glued with the varnish would hold and look. I tried round patches (as for bike tires) cut out with a hot iron tube. Didn’t look great, especially because they didn’t hold flat on the cloth. Then simple rectangle patches cut with scissors, which were barely noticeable. That’s when I realised something. This boat will be coated with the Coelan varnish, and this thing is VERY thick, way more that Coery’s. Plus I have plenty of it. I became quite sure that 2 or 3 coats of Coelan would seal these holes. Plus, I ordered a huge tube of Aquaseal alternative advocated by Andreas from Norwegian Wood Paddles, called Tec7 Trans Clear Glue. Got it for 16 € on Amazon, a good deal since getting my hand on aquaseal during our 3 lockdown would have been complicated. I probably have enough to seal holes on 50 kayaks with this 300 ml tube!

Now talking about Andreas, I came across his Youtube videos and website too late. He sells a 60% polyester/40% nylon frabric that looks just great. The only worry I would have is that one of his videos shows that the cloth is not wide enough for a Greenland kayak (let alone for a F1 I guess), so you have to sow a patch on at in the middle of the boat. Couldn’t find the width of the cloth anywhere, so anyone with precise info feel free to comment.

Coating the skin

I first coated my own boat with Corey’s 2-part urethane, following Brian’s instructions. Only one thing to stress out here: unless I did something wrong I can’t think of, a full order of Corey’s goop is not enough for the application procedure on Brian’s videos and plans. As advocated, I went 6/3 + 6/3 + 6/3 + 4/2 for the 3 coats on the hull, then 6/3 on the deck. But then was left with about 3/1.5. So the deck barely received 1 and a half coats instead of 3. If you want to go for the full 3 coats on the deck, you have to get the 1.5 order of varnish. Not a big deal, except maybe that the pinholes left by my tight stitching were barely sealed by the 1.5 coat on the deck, so I had to work quite a bit with my huge tube of glue. But the varnish is quite easy to apply following the instructions, and really odorless (especially compared with the Coelan).

Rigging the kayak

First in was the back band. Couldn’t find a Snap Dragon in Europe, so went for something a bit similar, but with the usual soft attachements. Instead of drilling holes in my coaming, I had drilled 6-mm holes in the gunwales on each side of rib 12, and threaded a cord in there. Then passed 2 pieces of whipping twine around deck beam 4 to attach the elastic bands at the back. Also put the footrests back on their racks.

Damien the bell maker also uses lots of leather for his collars, both as the cross pieces of our local wooden bell collars, or for the leather collars more typically used on cows in the Alps and sheep in the Central Range. I ordered 6 strips of 8-mm wide, 4.5-mm thick, 1.60-m long strips of leather, 5 € apiece. Contrary to the latigo shown by Brian, the strips I got were “treated” on both sides. Damien also stripped the corners to make the rounding process easier. Rounding the leather strips was still really really hard, I guess the 2 “tanned” sides made the strips stiffer. But it did work in the end, as shown on the pictures they got both thicker and narrower after successive passes through those holes. They also gained a bit more than 10 cm in length.

No way to fit them through the 6-mm holes in my gunwales, though. I had to widen each hole with a round file.

I made the toggles and rub strips from a 1.5-mm thick HDPE cutting board. Nothing complicated there.

Then I got into my boat for the first time! Just to check about where my heels would sit to install the camping mat. Ridgerest is not so easy to get in France, and not so cheap either. Again, Decathlon makes somewhat similar closed-cell mats for 12 €, that was an easy choice. Easy to cut, fits perfectly into the kayak. I’m rather heavy with my 95 kg, and my touchy tailbone could just somewhat feel a slight contact with the keel. So I cut 2 extra pieces of mat to fit under my butt and it was just fine.

In France, perimeter lines are mandatory, along with other security equipments, it you want to stray more than 300 m off the coastline.

I can’t remember anyone on the blog using this technique, but I thought soft webbing padeyes would fit well on a skinboat. I simply cut a strap into 7.5-cm pieces (4 for each boat) with a heated blade, and folded it over twice so the last fold reached half the length of the other folds. Then burned a hole through the 3 layers with a hot nail to fit a 3.2-cm stainless steel screw with a small washer. Piloted 1-mm holes in the gunwhales (60 cm from the back of the boat, and 1 inch in front of deck beam #1) and that was pretty much it.

I used a 5-mm sailing line. High quality polyester, but a bit too stiff and heavy. Followed Brian’s instructions to attach the perimeter line.

And that’s it!

For the first boat, at least. I still have to carve and glue some knee braces. The frame was 9 kg, the skinned and varnished boat was 12 kg, and 13.4 kg fully outrigged. I love the looks of the boat.

Somehow the lineseed oil stained the cloth in some areas, which is strange considering I waited more than 3 weeks to skin the boat after it was oiled. Maybe I didn’t wipe the oil welll enough. No big deal anyway.

I’m happy with the white color, the frame shows well, which is what I wanted.

Maiden voyage

My F1 maiden voyage was on the Rhone river. That’s the easiest from the center of Arles where I live. I put the boat on the cart, walk 5 min to the river and down I go. The current was rather strong for the season, but the kayak managed it upstream with no fuss. I felt it as about as fast as my Frej, but tracked slightly less well (the Frej has a skeg, or rather a “skeel“). But it was fun to paddle, and comfortable. What surprised me most was the drum beat at each paddle stroke, as water dripping from my paddles hit the deck! I found that fun, it felt like I was in a galley (which was probably no fun at all…)