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.