Andrew Clink

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Kayak Build: So I Decided I Want a Kayak

02 June 2016

Phoenix Gets Hot

The bus needs a friend. Now that we can actually get a Eurovan to climb a mountain without complaining, Northern Arizona and its awesome summer climate are within convenient reach. That's not even to mention California or Colorado. But while we can peruse Weather Underground to pick a destination, there has to be a better justification for taking off than "we can sit in a camping chair outside without struggling to remain alive."

Thus the kayaks. In February Bustie's Bus Club organized a camping trip at Bartlett Lake (although it was geared more towards real VW Buses; there was only one other Eurovan there). It was a great cruise up, and once we got there it was awesome to see all the poptops rise up. Some people brought small boats and kayaks, and I connected the dots: I can totally persuade my wife to go camping on random lakes in Northern Arizona (at least) this summer to escape the heat!

Different Kinds of Kayaks

I started watching craiglist for kayaks in the desert. Believe it or not, we do have lakes here (mostly reservoirs from dams), and so there were a few available. After researching what to buy, though, I came across a very salient point: since kayaks go forward, the wider they are (the beam), the harder they will be to paddle and to tip. Since I am not interested in fishing and have a perfectly cromulent ability to balance myself, let's concentrate on the difficulty to paddle aspect.

Since buoyancy is a function of displacement, and displacement is a function of width and length, the width of a kayak is often inversely proportional to its length. A wide kayak doesn't need to be very long to float a person and gear, whereas a long kayak can be very skinny and still float the same person and gear. Since friction against the water is negligible, but forward displacement of water is not, the skinnier longer kayak will require less effort to move forward than the short, fat kayak.

Shorter kayaks have their benefits, of course: they are arguably more maneuverable in a river situation and they might end up being lighter. The latter point is surprisingly important for those of us who don't live on water. After all, if you can't easily load a kayak for transport, your desire and chances for getting out on a lake are diminished.

Sea Kayaks Are Sort of Expensive

I landed on the Greenland-style sea kayak for a number of reason. The biggest is effort required to move long distances. I'm a long distance runner— if I'm going out I like to get far away from home and see what there is to see. I'm a programmer— (a certain form of) laziness is a virtue. A boat I (and my wife) hate to paddle will not get used. We already have to drive nearly an hour to the nearest lake; if it's not enjoyable to paddle we won't end up doing it. 

The sea (or touring) kayak can handle ocean waves gracefully and enable us to learn to roll and play in the water. Plus they just look awesome. There aren't many in Phoenix, and when they are within a ten hour (one-way) drive they are often listed for $800-$1000 or more. That's a big investment for what is, after all, a whim.

Plywood to the Rescue

So while I can't reasonably build a drum injection mould to create a plastic sea kayak, or form (or even obtain?) kevlar, or find used boat locally (much less a reasonably priced one), I can still have my cake and eat it too. I can make one using the "stitch and glue" construction technique.

This technique involves using 3mm plywood "stitched" together with copper wire, and then "glued" with a thickened epoxy resin and fibreglass tape. The entire boat is then sealed with epoxy for water-tightness and rigidity. Constructing a kayak this way can result in a 17-foot boat that weighs only 40 lbs (a 5 meter boat that weighs only 18kg). 

If, by chance, the fibreglass is breached on a rocky shore, you can simply sand down and re-apply a patch with virtually no visible effects left over. What do you do if you crack your $1200 plastic boat? Probably something, but I haven't researched down that path far enough to regret going down this path!


Building a stitch-and-glue kayak requires cut panels. You can either make these yourself after planning, or purchase a pre-cut kit from one of many manufacturers. Given that the kits are all in the $1000-$1200 range (a large reason I wrote off a used store-bought kayak earlier) I decided to build something from plans. Look (and shop) around; there are numerous offerings with different capabilities with costs ranging from free to several hundred dollars.

I ultimately decided on the Shrike, scaled down to 95%. The plan is to create an extra large rear hatch for our toddler to ride in until he's old enough for his own 35% version.

I'm a little apprehensive about learning woodworking on a project I'd like to float in, but epoxy has been purchased, plywood has been scarfed, and I guess it's really happening. Stay tuned.