In the winter of 2020-2021 I built a
Cape Falcon 66 pack canoe. I enjoyed building the boat so much, and have loved paddling it, so this past winter I decided to build a kayak.
I’ve earned a living for forty-five years doing various types of woodworking in my small shop. The shop is well equipped, and I’ve adapted some of the steps building the boat to take advantage of the tools I have on hand.
The first step building the kayak is to make the cockpit coaming. White oak, the local wood of choice for the coaming and the ribs, is a fairly common tree here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon where I live. There’s a local mill, Zena Forest Products, that specializes in cutting this wood, where I was lucky to find the perfect board! It’s ten feet long, an inch-and-a-quarter thick, with perfectly straight, vertical grain. On top of all that, it’s as green as a board can get, fresh off the saw blade. The greener/wetter the wood is, the easier it is to bend. This board was so heavy, being oak and also being so wet, that I could barely lift it. I decided to cut off a manageable size piece to haul into the shop to saw it up into pieces to start building the boat.
Running the roughly sawn board over a jointer to get a straight, square edge.
Ripping the oak into thin pieces on a bandsaw to make the coaming. I’m using a bandsaw, rather than a tablesaw, because I don’t have room in the shop to rip 10′ boards on my tablesaw. I ran the pieces through a planer to smooth them and get them to the finished dimensions.
This is the jig which the oak will be bent around to form the coaming.
My setup for steaming the oak prior to bending it around the form. A wallpaper steamer and a piece of plastic sewer pipe.
The pieces will be pushed back into the pipe, and the end sealed up with a rag for steaming.
After the wood was in the pre-heated steam box for ten minutes, I pulled it out, wrapped it around the top of the form to the left, then pulled the two ends down and overlapped them. The piece of wood is about 7 1/2′ long. The ends are tapered for about a foot where they overlap, so that part of the coaming ends up the same thickness as the rest of it. When the wood comes out of the steam box you have to work fast. You’ve only got about half a minute when the wood is at its most flexible, when you want to make the sharp bend at the top of the form. After that there’s another minute or so to finish the bending. If the wood cools too much it might crack or split as you’re bending it. Once the wood was bent I un-clamped the overlapped part, applied glue, and then re-clamped. Really happy with how the bending went.
As soon as the coaming was glued and clamped, I pulled it off the form. The stick going across and the bar clamp will hold the coaming to an exaggerated shape while it cools and dries overnight. When the stick and clamp are removed the coaming will spring back a little, hopefully ending up with just the right shape.
A second piece of oak is steamed and bent around the first, forming the lip that will hold a spray skirt. The ends of this piece are tapered and glued, same as on the first piece.
Ring-shank copper nails that will be used to fasten the two pieces of the coaming together.
Holes are drilled before driving in the nails, to prevent the oak from splitting.
Next step is to make the gunwales. I found a clear, straight-grained 15′ western red cedar board at a local building supply. Like the white oak, this is another wood that grows near where I live.
Running the rough sawn pieces through the planer.
Laying out where to put the mortises for the ribs.
This is the router setup for cutting the mortises. In this picture the router bit is raised above the mortise that it just cut.
All the rib mortises, ready to go.
Next is routing the mortises for the deck beams. Bigger slots, so a bigger router.
The deck beam mortises for the back of the boat are routed at an angle.
This is the router jig for making the angled mortises.
The gunwales are close to finished now. The ends where the two gunwales meet will be tapered so that they mate together without the big gap at the top of them. The plywood crosspieces and squares at either end of the kayak are temporary forms that hold the gunwales to shape while the deck beams are installed. You can see a couple of the mortises for the deck beams on the inside of the left gunwale. The straps that the cockpit coaming is sitting on are used to cinch the center of the kayak in to the dimensions specified in the plans. There will be deck beams supporting the coaming later; I just set the coaming there to see what it would look like.
Next step is to make the deck beams. These are the cross pieces that go between the gunwales. The deck beams behind the cockpit are flat, and the ones in front are arched to make room for your legs. To get the arch, the front deck beams are made of five thin layers of cedar that are coated with glue and bent around a form. Here I’m bandsawing the cedar layers.
Planing the layers to final thickness.
Jig for laminating the arched deck beams.
Applying glue to the layers.
In his how-to videos, Brian bends the stacked layers to an arch, using just his gloved hands and strong arms, and then places them over the pegs in the form. I struggled with getting them bent enough, so I came up with the idea of using this old wooden bar clamp to pre-bend them. It worked great! I laid the stacked strips on the wooden beam, turned the crank, and they arched right up. I then could lift the clamp with the strips, place them over the form and loosen and remove the clamp. No grunting and straining involved.
Once the glue set up, I planed down the edges of the beams to get rid of the excess glue and to even up any layers that weren’t quite lined up.
I now had all the parts I needed to start assembling the deck of the kayak, i.e. the gunwales and above. Since I don’t have room in my shop to assemble a fourteen foot kayak, it was time to head up to my friend Mark’s shop. (Mark is retired now from building commercial cabinets. He got rid of all his big industrial machinery, so now there’s plenty of room to assemble a boat.)
You can see at the very front tip of the gunwales in the photo above that they only touch at a small point.
The next step is to saw down between the gunwales, over and over again, removing a little wood with each pass, until the gunwales met with a much wider contact area. After every couple of saw strokes the plywood form was moved back to bring the gunwales back together before the next couple of saw strokes.
After the ends of the gunwales fit together well, it was time to lash them lash them together using artificial sinew. (It’s a heavy, waxed nylon thread.)
Once the gunwales are lashed together, the clamp and form can be removed.
Ends lashed together, ready for the next steps.
The deck beams are laid in place on the gunwales where lengths and angles they will be cut to are transferred in pencil onto them. Measurements are also taken for the tenons that will be cut into the ends of each deck beam. The tenons will slip into the mortises that you can see below each beam.
Sawing a tenon on deck beam #1, which will be in the front of the kayak. The part of the tenon that will be cut away is marked with X’s on every side in order to avoid confusion. Being easily confused, I wanted to be sure not to saw off the piece that was meant to stay.
A finished tenon. It took some test fitting and a bit of shaving with a sharp chisel to get each tenon to fit into its corresponding mortise.
A lot of angles to cut. You can see the ends of the laminated deck beams where the glue squeezed out from between the layers.
All the deck beams are in place. The ends of the gunwales are pegged together. Though the lashing holds the ends of the gunwales together, it won’t keep them from sliding past each other, which would distort the shape of the boat. The dowels lock the gunwales in place. The dowels will be trimmed off flush with the outside of the gunwales. The deck beams will be pegged through the tenons into the gunwales.
This is where the cockpit coaming will go, resting on deck beams. Once the tenons are pegged, it’s time to move on to the ribs.
Planing the oak down to what will be the width of the ribs.
Then I “rip” those boards into thin pieces that will become the ribs. They’re roughly cut on the table saw, then planed down smooth and to dimension, 1/4″, using the planer. Though I have pretty good dust collection on the table saw, there’s still some oak dust in the air, which I don’t want to breathe.
Rounding the edges of the ribs on a router table. (This picture is from my canoe build. The ribs for that are longer than for the kayak.)
After the ribs are planed and the edges are rounded, they’re cut to length. These are in order, from the front to the back of the boat.
Time to bend the ribs. This is the steam box. It’s just a roughly build plywood box, a couple inches deep. The towel draped over the top helps to insulate it a bit. The ribs are inserted into the box through the slot in the front, and the towel is draped over the opening to hold in the steam. There are a couple dowels inserted inside the box that hold the ribs up near the top of the box where it’s the hottest.
This is the back of the steam box, showing the wallpaper steamer that generates the steam. When it going, there’s quite a lot of steam flowing out of the front of the box.
Now to the actual bending. In this series of photos I’m bending a test rib. The amount of time a rib needs to be steamed has to be determined by trial and error, and can be anywhere from four to twelve or more minutes depending on the moisture content of the wood. This wood is very green, so I thought I’d start off at six minutes. The bend looked good at first, but then as it progressed to the point that I would have to bend some of the ribs to, it cracked. If you look closely at the last picture on the right, you can see a kink in the rib where the crack is. I’m holding an old leather belt on the back of the rib. This helps to prevent the wood from splitting, though it didn’t succeed in this case. A logical assumption to make might be that since the rib cracked it should have been steamed longer to make it more pliable. That isn’t always the case. Maybe if it’s steamed too much the wood gets “soggy” of something. Anyway, since this wood is so wet, I decided to try shortening the time in the steam box. It turned out that 4 1/2 minutes worked well.
The shapes of the ribs are all determined by eye, with specific parameters in mind. The ribs in the front of the boat come to a sharp peak so that the bow will have a nice sharp ridge to cut through the water. That then progresses to a fairly flat bottom in the middle of the boat, which lends stability to the boat, preventing it from being “tippy”. Towards the stern the ribs become more rounded. Once you get one or two ribs in place, you can sight down the boat and see if the shape of the next rib blends in well with the ones preceding it.
After all the ribs were in place I could see that there were a couple that didn’t blend in well with the overall shape. I had plenty of extra ribs on hand to re-bend and replace these. There were also a few that split a little, and I replaced those too.
Pegging them into place. There are only five of the twenty ribs pegged on each side. This allows the un-pegged ribs to float up or down in their mortices when the stringers are tied on, which helps make the overall shape of the hull smoother. If, for example, a rib is a bit low, it will be pulled into line with it’s adjacent ribs with the keel and stringers are lashed on. That’s the keel laying on top of the ribs.
View from inside the boat showing the keel lashed in place.
After the keel is lashed in place the cedar “stems”, bow and stern, are roughly cut to shape and fitted to the gunwales and the keel. The strap is holding the keel to the height above the gunwales that’s specified in the plans. The outline of the keel gets marked on the rough stem.
Here you can see the bow stem, cut to the basic shape, lashed and pegged to the keel and gunwales. It’s pretty basic work lashing the parts together. I’ve drilled holes in the keel, stem and gunwales. Then the artificial sinew (waxed nylon, actually) is threaded onto a big sewing needle and passed around and around through the holes. Each leg of the “V’s” gets three or four passes. The ends of the strings are secured with a half-dozen knots at the apex of the “V”.
Next come the stringers, long cedar sticks that get lashed to the ribs, that run from bow to stern between the keel and the gunwales. Here are the two stringers clamped to a heavy plank so that bevels can be planed into them. Wood will be planed away down to the pencil marks on the end of the stringers. That’s a powered planer sitting on top of them, which will remove a lot of wood fast, though not necessarily accurately.
After rough planing the bevels with the power planer, I trued them up with a hand plane. It may be a little hard to see in the photo that these are “winding bevels”, this is they start at the angle at the end of the board and twist back to parallel with the top of the plank over about thirty inches. The purpose of the bevels will be clear in a picture below.
The stringers are clamped into place before they are lashed on. The plans specify the distance from the gunwales to the stringers at five or six places along the length of the boat.
Stern of the boat with the stringers clamped in place. Here you can see how the bevels I had planed into the stringers land on the stem. It would be impossible to twist the stringers around enough to land flat on the stems without the bevels. The ends of the stringers will get rounded over.
Artificial sinew for lashing. It’s wound onto the sticks to make it easier to pass over, under and around the ribs and stringers.
Lashing a stringer.
The stringer lashed to the stern stem.
This is the top of the deck beam directly in front of the cockpit. There will be a stringer that runs from here to the very front of the boat. The stringer will fit down into the mortise I’m cutting with a chisel.
The deck stringer fitted into the mortise. This is the last piece of the frame to be fitted and lashed into place! The groove cut into the top of the stringer is there to help guide a hot knife for cutting the fabric for the skin. The seam will be on top of the stringer.
The bow with the keel, the stringers, the gunwales and the deck stringer all lashed together and sculpted into a nice shape. Still a little squeezed out glue to clean up (though nobody will ever see it once the skin is on).
From the cockpit looking towards the bow.
After finishing the assembly of the frame, it needed to have a sealer coat of some kind of finish applied to it. I got a natural, non-toxic oil finish that I thought would work well. Unfortunately it took a very long time to dry, much longer than the directions said it would. It was supposed to dry in a day or two, but after a few days it was still really gummy. Mark’s shop is fairly cool this time of year, so I decided to bring the boat home so it would be warmer and maybe dry more quickly. So, we’ve had a 14′ kayak frame in our living room for a week or so. I liked having it there when I did my morning stretches every day. Anyway… The frame finally dried enough that I was able to get started putting the fabric skin on it. Back up to Mark’s shop.
Unfolding the nylon fabric over the frame.
Once the fabric was draped evenly over the frame it’s pinned in place at the stern in preparation for sewing the seam down the stem.
Cutting the fabric with a hot knife, a tool made specifically for this sort of work. I’m following the outline of the stem, cutting a half-inch or so beyond it so that the fabric from each side will overlap down the middle of the stem. The hot knife seals the edge of the fabric as it’s being cut, which prevents it from unraveling.
After the stern is sewn, it’s pulled loose from the frame, and the entire skin is moved forward two inches towards the bow.
Next the seam over the bow stem is sewn. The fabric is cut and sewn more-or-less the same as at the stern.
After the bow is sewn up, the fabric needs to be stretched back over the stern. Because the fabric was released from the stern and moved forward two inches prior to sewing up the bow, the skin is now two inches shorter than the frame. It took some brute force from my able assistant, Mark, to do the job. His feet are up inside the boat, pushing against one of the deck beams so that he has some purchase on the boat to pull against. My job was to stick the pins in once the fabric was in place. I think Mark worked harder than I did on this step.
The skin is now nice and tight over the length of the boat.
The seam running down the bow is offset where a rub-strip will be added after the coating is applied.
That’s as far as I got that evening. Lights out.
So now the boat is flipped over, ready to start cutting and sewing up the deck. (The coaming won’t actually be put on until after the center seam is finished. I just like to see it there.)
Cutting the fabric on one side of the front deck. There’s a shallow saw cut down the middle of the deck beam, which acts as a guide for the hot knife.
First side cut to width. There’s no deck beam running fore-and-aft in the back of the boat, so a temporary one, with a groove cut in it, is clamped in place to guide the hot knife when cutting that section. After cutting the first side, it’s folded back over the outside of the boat, and the second side is cut just like the first.
Before the center seam is sewn up, lacing is sewn into the fabric. The lacing is used to pull the skin tight around the width of the boat. As it’s being sewn in, the lacing is barely pulled tight at all. Once in place it’s pulled progressively tighter, one zig-zag at a time, from the back of the boat to the middle, and then from the front of the boat to the middle. This process is repeated three or four times, pulling the skin tighter each time. It was surprising how much slack I could get out of the lacing with each pass. The lacing now holds the tension on the skin while the center seam is sewn. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to pull the skin that tight and sew the seam at the same time.
With the skin pulled tight over the length and width of the boat you can really see the shape of the hull. Once it’s all sewn up, the fabric will be soaked with water and ironed dry, which will shrink the skin even tighter and pull out any remaining wrinkles.
After the fabric is pulled tight with the lacing, it has to be re-cut to get the proper overlap for stitching. Rather than using the temporary batten I used for initially cutting the fabric, with just one groove to guide the hot knife, I made another batten with two grooves. By cutting the fabric from one side in the groove opposite that side, and vise-versa, I got a perfect 3/8″ overlap.
Stitching up the center seam on the rear deck. The puckers are where there’s lacing under the fabric, pulling it tight around the width of the boat.
I was a bit worried about stitching it up with all the ruffles in the edges of the fabric, but as I progressed forward and pulled the seam tight with each stitch, the ruffles would lay down as I went along.
All stitched up.
The last major piece to be added was the coaming. This is coming full circle, since making the coaming was the first step in building the kayak. The strap and clamps hold the coaming in place while I cut the fabric to the inside of it.
Fold the edge of the fabric over, pull it tight up against the coaming and pass the needle through. I’m stitching it with tarred twine. The tar makes the twine slightly sticky, which helps to keep the stitches pulled tight as you go.
After two passes around, the coaming is sewn into place. It rests on deck beams at each end.
The next step is to shrink the skin. Just prior to taking this picture I took the boat outside and soaked the fabric with water from a garden hose.
All the puckers and wrinkles were exaggerated when the fabric was wet.
This is the same section of the boat as in the photo above after ironing it with a steam iron. The fabric would shrink some just by wetting it and letting it dry, but the heat from the iron shrinks it even more. The fabric is still fairly wet, and it will shrink up even tighter as it’s left to dry.
Ready to apply the coating.
Well… Two steps forward, three steps back. Bad day putting the coating on the fabric. The coating is a two-part formula, part-A, part-B. The two parts are mixed together, and the coating cures via a chemical reaction. I had ordered two sets of the coating, the amount required for the job. It’s important to have enough of the coating on hand because the entire coating process has to be finished in one day. If a coat sets up too much before the next coat is applied, the following coat won’t adhere. I was part way through coating the boat when I used up all of the one set. No problem, I thought. I grabbed the second set of containers and noticed that both containers were Part-B, no Part-A. Crap. What to do. It’s Sunday afternoon. The only supplier of the stuff is in Anacortes. I thought to call Brian at Cape Falcon Kayaks to see if he had some part-A I could buy. (Brian lives just an hour away from me.) He did, so 4:00 Sunday afternoon I take off for Brian’s in Portland. Lots of traffic for a Sunday afternoon. Made it back home and finished putting the required coats on the boat. Went up to Mark’s to take a look at it this morning. Looks like crap. Shit. Not sure what happened. Really rough texture, some spots look bare. I suspect it was too long between coats. So today I’m going to peel the skin off and start over. I’m not going to take as much time as I have building the boat and have it look that bad.
What I now think happened is that the extra B container I had was actually a mis-labeled Part-A. I had mixed up the Part-A I got from Brian with some from one of the (supposedly) Part-B’s I had on hand. The next day that coat was not set up at all, and it never did set up.
Removing the fabric. Hard job. There were two coats of cured coating and one un-cured coat. I cut through the fabric with a razor knife, and then had to warm it with a heat gun where it was in contact with and bonded to the stringers. It took many series of applying paint stripper and scraping the coaming to get all the coating off of it. Something I learned is that the fabric with the coating is darn tough. It wasn’t easy to cut with the knife.
Success on the second try!!!
A note about installing the deck lines: Four or five days before I installed them I had pulled the leather straps through progressively smaller holes drilled into a piece a scrap wood, as Brian shows in the video, to make them small enough to fit through the pre-drilled holes in the gunwales. I had a really difficult time getting the first one pulled through the holes. Then it occurred to me to pull the leather through the holes in the scrap wood again, immediately before I installed them. After that they pulled right through the holes in the gunwales, no problem. It seems that they had expanded back a bit after sitting for some days, which made them nearly impossible to get through the holes in the gunwales. Launch Day! 27 pounds!
Really happy with how it paddles!
Next up, build a Greenland paddle.
Here’s Brian trying out my kayak on a beautiful spring day in Portland, tilting the boat on edge to make it turn. Brian is the designer of the kayak, and the proprietor of Cape Falcon Kayak.
April 17, 2022
Thanks Ken, a great blog, with enough drama to make it real.
I’m really jealous of your perfect green white oak, although I’m stirring to learn how to bend kiln dried scrap and sort lots of scarf joints.
April 18, 2022
Great local materials and a beautifully crafted kayak. Well done Ken. I hope you get as much fun using it as making it. I enjoyed your clear photos and blog.
April 18, 2022
Excellent, informative blog
May 7, 2023
once i got started i couldn’t stop reading.