March 14th, 2023.
A few weeks ago my wife, Kate, came back from a shopping trip and handed me a paperback book she’d picked up for me. The cover read “How to Build a Boat” by Jonathan Gornall. I started reading that night. The book tells of how the author, with absolutely no experience or knowledge of carpentry, sets about building a traditional clinker sailing dinghy. Like Jonathan Gornall, I have absolutely no carpentry experience or knowledge but, by the time I’d finished the book, I’d decided to build a skin-on-frame kayak. Having already come across Cape Falcon Kayaks many years ago, I knew exactly where to look for plans and instruction.
I’ve purchased the builder’s course and the F1 plans. I’ve ordered the all-important green bending oak but I haven’t actually seen it yet. My fingers are crossed that it will be straight-grained and knot free but I’m having to trust my sawmill on this one. I was bracing myself for a shock with the cost of the oak but it was actually quite reasonable. The western red cedar, however, is very expensive at £280 for the boards I need! I’m guessing that it’s a fair bit cheaper in its native North America! I could use something like Douglas fir but the forty percent cost saving would add a lot of weight. I think I’m just going to have to cough up!
I bit the bullet and ordered the western red cedar from the same sawmill as the green oak. Like the green oak, it was ordered unseen; not something Brian recommends. It has arrived, so what are my impressions? The oak does seem very heavy, so I’m optimistic that it retains sufficient moisture. It has a few small knots but I don’t think they will reduce yield too much. The board has vertical grain across its width but my greatest concern is the amount that the grain undulates along its length. I don’t think this will be too detrimental to the ribs because of their short length but I’m not so sure about the eight foot cockpit coaming. Lastly, the oak does have some small insect boreholes. I don’t think there is still anything living in it but I’m not sure if the small holes could become an issue. Watch this space I guess. The cedar feels lighter than any wood I’ve ever handled before. It’s also clear and straight-grained and has to undergo less contortion than the oak so I’m pretty happy with it.
Today I tied my 14ft bundle of boards to the roof of my car and drove the fifty minutes to my parent’s place. I don’t have anywhere to build a 14ft long kayak, nor do I have much in the way of tools but my dad does! My dad, now 74, has an amazing workshop facility in his back garden. He actually trained in traditional boatbuilding in the 90’s and built a Herreshoff, Haven 12.5ft dinghy in it. On the way, I also picked up a length of drainpipe to use as a steam box and a quarter sheet of OSB to make the cockpit jig with.
By the end of a short day I’d made the cockpit coaming jig and generally had a poke about the workshop. As well as any hand tool you can think of, I’ve got the use of a bandsaw, table saw, drill press, stationary planer and a router. It’s great to have everything to hand and plenty of space.
The plan today was to plane down my green oak to thickness, cut my cockpit coaming, scarph the ends and then steam the coaming to shape. With some guidance from Dad, I got to grips with the planer. We worked hard to improvise support for the long, heavy board as it was fed in and out of the machine. The same process was repeated with the table saw. I used a hand-held power planer to take off the last of the thickness, checking with a calliper gauge as I went along. I ended the day by having a practice run at planing a 13inch scarph. The results were okay but not perfectly straight. I need a bit more practice before I attack my coaming. I’m a bit dismayed that it took all day to make one straight, flat bit of wood! This kayak certainly won’t be taking five days to build but I never thought it would. I’ve learnt to use three of my key tools and I’m enjoying myself. Before I headed home, I chucked my cockpit coaming into Dad’s pond so it won’t dry out.
May 1st, Cockpit coamings one and two.
I immediately tried planing down another piece of scrap wood to a 13″ scarph. It took very little time and the end result seemed good to me. Placed face-down on a flat surface I could see no light through the join and there was no tell-tale rocking that would indicate curvature. I did one more, just to check that the first wasn’t a fluke, and then made the scarphs on the two ends of my coaming piece.
Next, I set up my steamer. I used a length of underground drainage pipe connected to a wallpaper steamer, as suggested by Brian. I strapped the pipe to a length of timber and raised one end to encourage drainage from one end. I watched the video one last time, performed a little rehearsal, made sure I had all the required supplies to hand and then flicked the on switch. I let the pipe get up to temperature and then inserted my timber and checked my watch. I gave the piece 12 minutes and we were off. Snap! Of course. The wood had felt flexible and had been easy to bend but it just gave way, kind of like soggy cardboard.
I had a bit of lunch and considered this unwelcome development. Now, Brian does tell me that steam-bending the cockpit coaming is twice as hard as any other stage of the build, so I had no right to expect to be successful first time. Starting over didn’t bother me too much, it was more the fact that I had no idea what to do differently. I also feared that I had failed because my wood wasn’t good enough.
With no other option, I set to making another. I sawed another strip, planed to thickness and scarphed the ends. This time however, it didn’t take a day, it took about an hour and a half. I’m getting quicker at least. I fired up the steamer again and started heating coaming two. This time I went for 14 minutes. When time was up I removed the wood, applied my belt and persuaded it round the curve of the jig. This time, it actually survived the bend. I wrapped the tails over one another, glued them and clamped them but the clamps weren’t strong enough and the whole thing began to open. I pulled it all back together and this was when coaming two failed.
May 6th, Cockpit coaming third attempt.
Today, while the rest of the country were watching the coronation of King Charles the Third, I had a third bash at a cockpit coaming. I tried clamping a wooden block, with a matching concave curve cut out of it, to the outside of the tight front bend for added support. I also gave up on gluing, figuring that I could glue it after the bend had cooled but none of these measures improved matters and mark-three promptly snapped as well.
I considered my options. My dad was quite keen on laminating a coaming but, with twenty ribs still to bend, I feel that I need to master steam bending. I looked at my oak board and concluded that I’d already used the best of it. I think I’m going to have to pay a sawmill a visit. The idea of being as picky as I need to be, for the sake of one 8ft board is not very appealing. I can’t really imagine the mill owner being thrilled.
May 20th, Cockpit coaming 4.0.
Well shame on me for underestimating the good nature of my local suppliers. Last weekend, I drove for an hour to visit Aldridge and Sons sawmill in Snetterton. I was confronted with the most overwhelming mountain of timber, in all stages of processing. Luckily, one of the Aldridge sons was most helpful and pointed out a stack of oak boards the had been sawn just that week. He left me alone for fifteen minutes and I made my selection, a length of 4″ x 3″, completely clear of knots and, to my eyes, as straight a grain as I could ever expect to find in a natural product. Another £40 poorer, I headed home with renewed hope.
Yesterday, I sawed a strip off of my new timber, planed to thickness and scarphed the ends. I steamed a test strip for 12mins and then the real thing for 14: Success, finally. I allowed it to cool on the jig and then glued up afterwards, in a separate operation. I just found that this was easier for me to manage so hope I don’t find some obscure reason why this wasn’t a good idea.
May 27th, Coaming lip.
Steam bending the coaming lip onto the coaming was successful first time. I took the nailing process slowly and meticulously and felt that it was all closing up nice and tight. I even used a spoke-shave to feather the scarph tails and avoid a step. Once finished, however, the join between coaming and lip was still a bit gappy. It feels like the quarter inch of nail penetration just isn’t quite enough to counter the spring. I was tempted to nail from the inside, giving half and inch instead, but chose to follow the instructions, in case there was some good reason that wasn’t occurring to me. The end result bothered me a bit but I put it aside, hoping a bit of distance might improve how I felt.
June 3rd, Cedar prep.
On Saturday, I ripped down my main cedar boards to form the gunwales, stringers, secondary stringers and keel. I then planed the lot to size. It felt good to know that I had got all the long timbers from the wood I had, avoiding some knots and damage along the way. Actually, I’ll confess; I have incorporated one knot into a gunwale, as shown below. I’m going to have to live with that. Hopefully, it won’t compromise strength too much. It doesn’t pass through the timber; it grazes the corner.
June 10th, Work benches and mark up gunwales.
With work about to start on my long timbers, it was time to make a couple of work benches. I used reclaimed fencing timbers for the legs and frame. They would have been firewood at work but had plenty of life in them. My dad had an old sheet of chipboard in the workshop. It was a little over five foot long, rather than the full eight, but should do the job; the bow and stern will just have to overhang a bit. I screwed my gunwales together and trimmed them to length, being careful to position my knot away from any mortice placements. I marked for all the rib and deck beam mortices and then spent my last bit of time cutting a couple of router baseplates and a couple of 25 degree wedges for the straight deck beam jig.
June 18th, Morticing the gunwales.
Yesterday, I used the plunge router for the first time. The rib mortices went okay but I noticed that they got a bit deep towards the end. My depth gauge seemed to have shifted over time, which was annoying. I used a sharp pencil to mark up the length of each slot, rather than just going a bit over the sharpie line which seemed a bit approximate. I also replaced spring clamps with G-clamps, when my spring clamps shifted a bit. Mine just aren’t as stiff as Brian’s. The router does a good job but it’s a ferocious beast and every tiny slip leaves its mark! I felt I’d got a better feel for it by the end. Setting up the 25 degree jig for the angled deck beam mortices was pretty fiddly but I got there. In the end, I used a 1/4 inch bit twice to get a 3/8 inch mortice, adjusting the jig slightly in between passes. This was because, despite buying myself a 3/8 inch bit for this job, my dad didn’t have a 3/8 inch collet and I just wanted to get on.
At the end of the day, I looked at my pair of gunwales with their 26 mortices each and something started to bother me. My gunwales had displayed significant crown when sawn. I had considered sawing this out but that would have wasted so much timber that I wouldn’t have had enough. I checked the videos and Brian made light of the issue. His instructions were to orient them so that the curvature follows the shear of the boat. So all was good… except one gunwale is crowning more than the other. With the bow and stern clamped together, there is about an inch discrepancy in the cockpit area. The discrepancy can be pressed out without too much pressure but no asymmetry can be tolerated in the finished boat and I just wasn’t sure the build was going to pull it out as it progressed. I’ve emailed Brian nervously, so watch this space.
June 24th, Laminating the curved deck beams.
So, Brian seemed a bit nervous about the asymmetry of my gunwales but, once he found out that I’ve used Western Red Cedar, with the associated cost, he has taken the line: “I can’t guarantee that it will be fine but I’m almost certain that it will be”. On this basis, I’ve chosen to crack on. I really can’t face sourcing more wood, since I feel I would have to see it before parting with cash this time.
Last Saturday, I set up the table saw and ripped all fifteen laminates for the curved deck beams. My first five came in at exactly the right thickness so I just kept ripping away. A stack of five felt pretty stiff. I really wasn’t sure that they would take the required bend without breaking but I glued them up and went for it anyway. I used G-clamps to add pressure and was able to remove the beams from the jig after about an hour; it was a very warm day. While I waited for the glue to go off, I made the two capture forms and the two spreader forms.
July 1st, Taking kayak shape!
Using the spreader forms, capture forms and cam straps, I flexed the gunwales into the shape dictated by the plans. I then used a Silky pruning saw to kerf the ends. The end result isn’t great. The mating surface isn’t very flat. I think the whole assemblage just moved about a lot during the process and the super aggressive saw got the thickness down to spec before I was able to rectify this. Then I mis-read the notes I’d taken from the video and drilled for my lashing in the wrong place. I moved the position but this left an unwanted extra hole at the bow. It will all be covered in the end and I don’t think it will have any undue effect on strength. Every mistake feels really important as you make it but I think they will all be forgotten once the project’s finished.
Before pegging the bow and stern into place finally, I looked along the lines to assess symmetry. I was concerned about the gunwale crown but it looked… pretty good to me. Against Brian’s advice, I then ran a string line down the centreline and measured the widths. This revealed that the kayak was actually fairly significantly asymmetrical. Like, about an inch out. This was a bit worrying but Brian insists that, if it looks okay, you should leave it alone; I did. I finished the day by planing down the laminated deck beams and selecting the timber for the three straight ones.
July 8th, Cutting the deck beam tenons.
At the end of my previous session, I placed all six deck beams in position on the gunwales. The curved beams didn’t sit flat. The reason for this, I worked out, was that they have a twist built in as a result of the pegs of my bending jig not being truly vertical. Since I wasn’t at all sure that I would have enough cedar to make new ones, I decided to have a go at the tenons and see if I could correct for the twist as I did.
I really enjoyed cutting the tenons. Using hand tools to cut such complex angles was very satisfying. They began somewhat over size but, with a bit of careful adjustment, I achieved a good tight result everywhere. I ran a straight edge along the centre of the foredeck to make sure the curved beams sat at the right angle before cutting slightly twisted tenons that compensated for the twist in the beams perfectly. By the end of the day, I was starting to the lines of the F1 emerge for the first time.
August 25th, Prepping rib stock.
I’ve been a bit lax at updating this page recently. I’ve been away for a couple of weeks but, before that, I did peg all the deck beams with both downward and diagonal dowels. The downward dowels were straightforward, except that I had failed to get hold of the tiny eighth-inch dowel stock and instead manufactured some by sawing up eighth-inch, square section and hammering through a round hole drilled in steel plate. Well, it’s possible but it took a long time and involved snapping many. The wood is just very weak at this thickness so I wouldn’t recommend the process. I was nervous about getting the angle right with the diagonals since a mistake would be irreparable at this point. I used a plastic 45 degree set-square to line up the drill and it went pretty well. One slight regret is that the length of drill bit required means that it is impossible to pilot with a smaller diameter. The result is that however little pressure you use, the cedar always splinters outwards as the bit emerges. Maybe someone knows a handy trick to avoid this. Another task that I accomplished was to rip down all my ribs from my green oak. As Brian suggested, I did buy a thin kerf blade for my table saw and I’m glad I did because I still only got 28 out of my stock (Brian recommends 20 plus 10 spares). I cut them all to length and numbered the ribs and mortices.
I took a day off from work on Friday so I could have a two day push. I thinned the ends of all my ribs by using my stationary planer as… a jointer I believe? The ribs are fed in above the blade, rather than below. This felt more precise than using the table saw since I was able to adjust the chip depth with a screw wheel rather than by moving the saw’s fence. A little bit of adjustment of the rib width allowed them all to fit their mortices snugly. The last bit of prep was to cut the rolling bevels on the stringers and round all the edges. I found the bevels to be harder than Brian led be to expect. In the end, I used a combination of power planer, block plane and spokeshave to achieve a satisfactory result. I also used a Sharpie to mark out the taper before I started because I was scared of taking too much wood away. I found that the freehand use of the power planer on a curved, rather than flat, surface gave me tapers that curved quite a bit across their width. I placed a small straight edge across the tapers at regular intervals and took out the convex portion.
August 26th, First go at steam-bending ribs.
I made an early start, aspiring to bend in all the ribs and lash on keel and stringers. I fired up my steamer and Inserted three test ribs at the same. Following Brian’s lead, I took them out at six, seven, and eight minutes and attempted a V-bend on them all. Seven minutes seemed optimal. I set my interval timer to 2mins 20 secs so that three ribs would be in the steamer at a time; I just didn’t want the pressure of one minute intervals! And we were off. Brian warns that rib-one is the hardest but I achieved a good tight V with only a small crack. Ribs 2, 3, and 4 – fine. Rib five requires a new circular bending technique and this went in fine too. The length of the ribs, combined with the shaping guidance allowed the hull to develop fair lines quite naturally and all was looking great. Sadly, it all started to go wrong in the cockpit area. Around rib 10, the hull has to become flat-bottomed for stability. The instructions are to swap to a new bending technique, bending one hand’s span of rib over the thumb of each hand to create the ‘corners’. It just wasn’t working and ribs kept cracking. After about six failures I stopped replacing ribs in the steamer and turned it off.
I took a break and assessed my situation, a strange mix of success and failure. One the one hand, I was very pleased with the smooth hull shape that had emerged and I had achieved the infamous rib-1 V bend. On the other hand, I had failed to achieve the flat-shaped ribs almost every time. I had six broken ribs to replace and exactly six spare ribs to try it with. I also still needed to attempt ribs 17-20 for the first time. It was starting to look like I was going to run out of oak. Concerned, but unsure of what else to do to improve my chances, I refilled the steamer with water and tried again. At the end of the second shift I had got a few more in but still had about six breaks. I faced the unwelcome reality that I had used up all my best oak. I did still have some wood left over from my first purchase but I knew that this had proved to be worse than the wood that I had just used. I was tempted to call it a day at this point as it seemed pointless to spend time machining up more sub-standard ribs and then breaking them too. With no choice though, this is what I did in the afternoon, with the expected result. At the end of the day I had used about 30 ribs to get 14 in place and run out of oak.
September 2nd, Another go at steam bending.
During the week, it occurred to me how to salvage a bit more oak. I had one board left that I had discounted because I had over-planed it to a sixteenth of an inch too thin but by cutting my ribs horizontally, rather than vertically, I won another dozen-or-so. I prepped five, only to break them all. Feeling pretty despondent, I prepped another five and… got three in. Without allowing the steamer to cool, I prepped three more and got the final two in place.
September 16th, Keel and stems.
The rib steaming process had been pretty stressful and had taken two sessions, a week apart, so I’d been unable to lash keel and stringers to the ribs when still soft. Brian strongly warns against my approach but I hadn’t had a choice. Once the ribs were all in, they did look pleasingly fair so I was hopeful that the long timbers didn’t have too much shaping to do. I laid the keel along the hull and centred it. I was still pretty confident they would all flex into the required position without too much stress. I shortened the final rib in the stern, number 20, by the smallest sliver possible on the bandsaw and this gave a spot-on keel height. I fixed the six ribs Brian suggested, with pegs, but also a few more; I just felt that it was better to flex the ribs a little, rather than withdraw them from their mortices. The lashing process was quick, easy and fun.
I marked up bow and stern stems and shaped them with the bandsaw before lashing and finally pegging them into place. It had been a welcome day of easy-won progress. I flipped my boat upright, balanced the cockpit coaming in place and admired the view.
September 16th, Foot brace mounts.
After a lot of looking around, I decided to buy a sliding, twist-lock style foot brace kit from the Piranha factory shop website for under £40. The Sea-lect system Brian favours is unavailable in the UK but the Piranha unit seems to be very similar. It seems to be sturdily constructed and features foot plates that are vertically orientated (so gunwale mounting leaves them within reach of my feet) but that don’t project into the kayak too much (for ease of packing gear). I finally decided not to fit the rearmost track endcaps so the footrests can actually be removed completely. The fittings supplied were not long enough to bridge the gunwales so I had to buy Stainless bolts and the T-nuts separately. These are silly money when bought individually so beware of that! Brian is pretty insistent that the T-nuts have to be fitted precisely perpendicular to the gunwales and at millimetre-perfect spacing so I made a hardwood jig, using the pillar drill and the track itself as a template. With the jig, fitting went smoothly.
September 23rd, Hull and deck stringers.
The main hull stringers and secondary hull stingers were straightforward. I needn’t have worried about the delay in getting these on. There was very little space between the ribs and the stringers and the lines remained good once the lashings took it up. The rolling bevels also worked a treat and married with the stems well. As soon as I laid my foredeck stringer in place though, it was obvious that I was going to have to do a bit of corrective carpentry. The picture below shows how the three curved deck beams and the bow were misaligned. I cut my shallow step mortice in Deck Beam Three but this didn’t improve matters much. After a bit of head scratching, I decided to eliminate the gaps with a combination of trimming the bow-end of the stringer and adding shims to Deck Beams One and Two.
October 21st, Finishing and oiling the frame.
I went over the whole frame, from bow to stern, rounding edges and planing the green Sharpie from obvious places. The stems got the most shaping; the exact curve seemed visually important so I took my time with that and stood back to assess. Satisfied, the whole frame got a coat of oil. I used Owatrol’s “Deks Olje” for no reason other than that I happened to be in a chandlers that had some and my dad likes it! I bought a one Litre tin and used more than half of it.
October 29th, Starting skinning.
I turned up with my skin fabric in hand and, to be honest, went through Brian’s suggested “pre-skinning checks”, feeling that they were pretty much a formality. “Check that the skin will clear the ribs” said Brian – Problem! Rib number-20, the sternmost, had been bent a bit asymmetrically and was set to contact the skin on one side.
I re-watched the relevant video and considered my options. First, I tried to wiggle the stringers up by an eighth of an inch. I felt that I could also afford to nudge the keel towards the bulge. These measures did improve things but they weren’t enough on their own. The next suggestion was to unlash the stringers from the offending rib and shim them out a bit. I made eighth-inch shims and, to my relief, they wedged in without the stringers protesting too much. A straight edge told me that I’d got away with it, which was a relief, because the next step would have been removing the rib and shortening it a bit.
After this slight delay, I was able to drape my fabric over the hull of the kayak. I pinned it to the stern and then used my improvised hot knife for the first time. I had access to a gun-style soldering iron with an interchangeable, looped tip. I have no idea what soldering purpose this fulfils but it appeared very similar to Brian’s hot knife. I hammered the loop flat and altered the curve to give a convex edge. Lastly, I ground a sharpish edge. Now I am not recommending this approach and have no idea of the safety implications of my modification but it did work like an absolute dream. I really couldn’t imagine anything working any better. Before starting this whole project I was far more confident with a needle and thread than with a chisel, having made my own clothes in the past, so I threaded up and went for it I followed the instructions closely and was very happy with my first seam. I sewed the bow up, stretched the stern back into place and pinned in place. I had to watch the instructions for cutting fabric along the centre of the deck several times but finally opted for a truly central seam and cut away. It wasn’t hard. At this point I hadn’t purchased my sein twine so I called it a day.
November 5th, Lacing the skin and sewing the deck seam.
Well, you can’t buy number #9 sein twine in the UK and I wasn’t about to import it from The States. A roll of ordinary, black, 1mm nylon twine would have to suffice. I threaded a needle and zig-zagged along the deck, pulling the two sides of the skin fabric towards one another. I tensioned the lacing with several passes, until it was as tight as I could readily get it. I then replaced the cutting guide on the stern deck and used this, and the bow deck stringer, to check what overlap I had achieved along the seam line. There was no overlap in places. I don’t really understand why this was, since I’d cut the fabric to zero overlap and then pulled it together hard with the lacing. I wasn’t too concerned, guessing that the stitching would do the job. In contrast, some of the seam had a bit too much overlap. I trimmed this away with the hot-knife.
The next step of the process was to sew the centre seam along the deck. I’ve obviously seen a lot of pictures of skin-boats by now, so I have a realistic expectation of the sort of finish I’m likely to achieve. The seams are a bit chunky and never really straight. If the seams were down the sides of my trousers, I wouldn’t be thrilled but I came to terms with this when I chose the skin-on-frame technique. It’s a feature of the construction and a reflection of the hand-built nature of the craft. Like finger marks in a hand-thrown pot. Keeping this in mind I set off. I followed Brian’s advice to get into a rhythm and not fret over every wrinkle and it progressed without upset. The stitches easily pulled the fabric into sufficient overlap. The seam wavered about a bit, as expected, and there was really nothing to be done about it. Some of the wrinkles where the lacing was stressing the fabric were pulled out but a fair amount of side-to-side wrinkling remained. Hopefully heat shrink will sort this.
November 12th, Sewing in the coaming and heat shrinking.
I cut the hole for the cockpit and laced the fabric to the inside as instructed. It was a little fiddly but perfectly achievable and the end result looks okay, which is to say no more rough and ready than any other F1 cockpit I’ve seen. I will say that repeated tugging of my twine over the harsh edges of holes drilled in oak took its toll and the twine started to look rather worn. I’m sure the specified ‘Number 9 Sein Twine’ would have fared better. I’m hoping the coating will firm everything up.
I hosed down the boat in the garden, left it to soak for a bit and then went for it with the steam iron. The fabric shrank beautifully. All wrinkles disappeared straight away. One problem, that I thought I’d got past, did rear its head again. Ribs 19 and 20 were proud of the skin line when the frame was completed. I shimmed the stringers away and believed I’d solved this issue but, after heat shrinking, the two ribs just make contact with the skin again. It’s not enough to affect the lines of the boat or cause tracking issues but it may be a point of premature wear. The skin’s not coming off now anyway!