FINISHING TOUCHES ON THE FRAME: Finishing touches on the frame may include attaching the cockpit coaming. Other boats may have artwork burned or painted on the decks.
FINAL TOUCHES: Finishing touches may include adding leather straps to the hull, or making custom paddles. I have also explored adding sails.
APPLYING THE SKIN: The skin may be leather hides sewn together, tar and canvas, or ballistic nylon. Other eco-friendly fabrics may also be available. These days I use ballistic nylon, which is kept cool and wet while stretching and attaching it to the wooden frame. The fabric is then ironed or dried with a heat gun to encourage shrinkage.
Handcrafted Skin-on-Frame Boats
HAZELWOOD HARVEST: Hazelwood is everywhere in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Not only are there thousands of acres of domestic hazel orchards, but volunteer hazel bushes are ubiquitous. I have learned to spot long, straight hazel sticks from a distance. For this reason, it's better not to follow too closely behind me when I’m driving. Most wood is harvested in winter when the leaves have fallen off and the trees are dormant. If harvested with leaves, they need to be pruned. The wood is seasoned for a few weeks and maintains its flexibility for several months.
DRAWING PATTERN: Sometimes I draw full-size pictures of boats to help me visualize what the final boat will look like.
TESTING THE FRAME: Once a kayak frame is complete, I often wrap it in plastic and duct tape and test it in the river for a few minutes. It's easy to discern if the boat is going to track straight and be stable using this method.
SHRINKING, COLORING, AND WATERPROOFING THE SKIN: I use urethane or polyurethane to waterproof the fabric. Some builders use exterior latex house paint. New eco-friendly technologies are being developed in this area, too.
Building a boat often comes from daydreaming. In my mind, I imagine what kind of boat I may be able to make with hazel sticks or oak ribs as a building block. I visualize the boat, make sketches, and draw a full-size lofting on paper to get an even better idea of how the actual boat will be shaped. Once visualization and planning is complete, I begin the boat building process—gathering and prepping wood, assembly, sewing on the fabric skin, and waterproofing—all the processes below.
– Boatbuilding Process –
MAKING THE FRAME WITH MILLED WOOD: Boats may be constructed on wooden frames called strongbacks and specific wooden forms to be sure the builder makes a uniform boat. Milled wood, such as ribs that form the hull, may be steamed and bent to desired shapes to form the frame and gunwale. Strakes, also known as stringers, are attached along the length of the boat to add more strength to the frame. They are fastened with ties and screws. For kayaks, the cockpit frame is made by steaming and bending wood around a cockpit form.
MAKING THE FRAME WITH STICKS AND MILLED WOOD: Once the shape and dimensions of a boat is determined, the gunwale may be shaped with milled wood. After that, round sticks may be used for ribs instead of milled wood. Green ribs are flexible, do not need to be steamed and bent, and will hold their shape once they are stabilized with lashings. Round ribs form a solid, yet flexible hull in skin-on-frame boats.
MAKING THE FRAME WITH STICKS: The traditional method of making a boat with hazel or willow is to place the rods in the ground in the shape of the boat, with the ribs spaced 5-6 inches apart. The boat is constructed upside down as the gunwale (pronounced “gunnel”) is woven with willow or hazel sticks at ground level. Once the weaving is complete, the ribs are folded over, then the stringers are bent over the top of the ribs. The boat is tied like this to form a basket shape, and heavy weights are placed on top to hold it in shape and keep the bottom flat. After one week, the boat is dug up and may be covered with a skin.
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