Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Building Lifestyle

This is a project I did a while ago, inspired by the idea to mess around on the water in a self propelled craft. After two months in my shop, I was able to take pleasure in outings on mountain lakes here in the Rocky Mountains. Today it is white with snow outside, so naturally I'm provoked to reflect on seasons past and the summer to come. (I do enjoy being outdoors in the snow, as well, but that's another story.)

The idea of a kayak light enough to put on the water by myself grew in appeal with having a family member spending a huge amount of time training and competing in the sport of rowing.  Myself, after over a decade of racing bicycles, well, I wanted no more of the slavish routine of training and racing. That was fun while it lasted but I've moved on from that mode. 

 I've been a woodworker by trade, and have built a couple of other small boats. When I saw Ross Miller's modern skin kayak idea, I knew I would give it a go. (Ross Miller Designs is out of West Mystic, Connecticut.) This is not a kit; I like to build from scratch. But I'm not averse to learning from others, so I bought blueprints for Mr. Miller's "Egret" kayak. The frame would be out of clear pine, douglas fir, and "lauan" mahogany plywood for the bulkheads.

 One compelling thing about this design is its use of modern materials for the skin or hull of the boat. Using Dacron aircraft fabric, a light and very taut skin can be achieved. After building the wood frame on a strongback, this fabric is attached (glued with special adhesive) at key points and then shrunk with carefully applied heat. A drum-tight creation emerges through this process. It makes a very pleasing sound when you tap your fingers on the deck or the hull; yet I was surprised to note that when moving through the water, there doesn't seem to be any extraneous noise or reverberation. The skin is coated with either marine paint, or epoxy, or in this case, special two-part marine urethane over a base of epoxy.

I snuck out to a mountain reservoir for a test paddle before I had finished with all of the scantlings and deck trim. In later photos you can see pin striping and some cherry and    mahogany cockpit trim.    

In building this, I made some modifications to the design. The original calls for a snug Eskimo style coaming that allows for a sealed spray skirt around the paddler in ocean conditions. However one reason I chose this particular design is that I'd read that its shallow vee-hull has pretty decent secondary stability and it actually isn't that easy to roll. Since I wanted the features of a skin design, coupled with the versatility of a more open cockpit, this overall hull seemed ideal for my mostly flat-water paddling intentions. The 17 foot length looked like it would have some speed. But I wanted more room and easy access to gear for photography and quick launching. Knowing that the uncovered canoe-style cockpit would admit water, I built watertight bulkheads amidships between the paddler's seat and at the footwell. Essentially all of the aft and forward portions of the hull are considered flotation chambers. Even with water in the cockpit, the boat will float. These bulkheads also have sealed round hatches that open to small floored areas with bungee straps for minor stowage.

When the frame was finished, it almost seemed a shame to cover it up. I enjoy the sculptural beauty of the frames of buildings, the ribs and stringers of boats, the skeletal foundations of things. The dirigible bones of this boat, covered in varnish, smelled good and pleased the eye. 

I named her, "Hei Matau," which is supposed to mean "safe passage" in Maori.


Last summer, a highlight was paddling in a high mountain lake (10,000 foot elevation) at the foot of impressive mountains that make up the Continental divide of North America. 

Gliding along in my kayak was a thrill. I had a chance encounter with an aspen-towing beaver, who was nibbling on green leaves even as he moved along, headed toward the west inlet to the lake. The quiet hull had allowed me to get near him without immediate notice. I don't like crowding wildlife, and only belatedly saw his wake in the glassy water. I gave way to this superior water denizen, holding my breath. When he did notice me, he gave the classic "slap" of the tail, and submerged. I'd only ever read about this signal that beavers make in the presence of intruders.  I headed further out into the lake, leaving the creature plenty of room.

-all photos by the author.


  1. Wow, you did a great job on its construction. I agree that uncovered frame has its own appeal.I have wanted to construct something like that for a while but I moved on to metal working tools, as I found that I am more likely to keep my thumbs opposible if I avoide table, and band saws.
    Please post more pics of your projects.

  2. Thanks for the comment, analogmanca. I too enjoy metalworking, something very satisfying about a well fabricated joint and the seeming permanence of a welded fixture. As to safety and saws, I guess I read enough "Drama in Real Life" stories when I was a kid to the point where I am a willing adopter of good techniques and jigs. That, and the fact that someone got their hair stuck in the woodshop grinder in junior high, which made next year's class closed to girls! Dumb response on the part of the school but it didn't stop me. More importantly, I've found that a power stock feeder on a table saw (see green 'baby feeder' mounted on fence in first photo) is a true aid to speed, quality, and safety. Not only does it improve working solo, it moves the stock consistently while doing long rips, no burn marks from blade as happens if you pause to walk around saw to receive stock

  3. I agree the equipment is not to blame.Funny thing is I read those same readers digest stories, but the lessons never took in my youth.Pain on the other hand has made lasting impresions.

  4. Thanks for the hundreds of viewers of this Building Lifestyle post. I hope you all know I'll be happy to answer questions in the comments. You may see that I've had to fix disappearing photos recently. I've replaced them and even added a couple more. Recently many key photos were occupied by a "?
    in a blue box. I learned that this is a glitch from Google: If you open a "Google+" account, and are also an existing Google Picasa photo storage user, your Picasa photos automatically get populated into Google+, I don't think you have any choice. The social infrastructure of Google+ means that this led to documents, odd photos I hadn't post-processed, etc. just appeared in Google+. (I'm not using G+ anymore if I can help it.) Many other users have commented on this issue, and like them, I just started to delete any extraneous photos from Google+. Come to find out, they weren't copies from Picasa--they were the actual archive photos ON Picasa. Since Blogger (Google product) photos are stored on Picasa, I was unwittingly scrubbing important photos here on my blog!

  5. Nicely built! What weight dacron cloth did you use, and what was the final weight of your kayak? I built a 16' "Jozebote" with plywood hull and fabric (dacron) decks, weighs 38 lbs.

    1. Thanks! I used 2.7 oz Dacron cloth from Aircraft Spruce. Final weight is 56 lbs, but that weight only came after some mods I did; the boat was seaworthy at 38 lbs including sealed bulkheads and a nylon padded kayak seat, though minus the cherry cockpit trim and the large black coved cockpit splash trim, and the mods listed below.

      The mods:
      -two 1/2" x~6" x~16" clear pine planks epoxied to inside of hull and keelson near feet in case I ever put in a well to accept a Hobie Mirage pedal unit. Boards are not needed for floor integrity otherwise. My floor is painted 1/4" mahogany ply screwed down with ss screws to the bilge stringers. Miller's original design is lighter ~2" wide, thin strips spaced crosswise to hull.
      -After holing the hull under the cockpit on a 1/2" sharp, rusty bolt on mudflats near Colorado's Dillon Marina, (which probably would've holed my Thomas Hill design oukume plywood canoe) I added 8 oz. polyester Xynole cloth to the garboard areas under the waterline. I could've just patched with same Dacron but since I mostly paddle alone I went with this reinforcement. Xynole sucks up epoxy much more than Dacron & this added weight.

      Note that Hei Matau did not take on much water at all from the 1" hole: the fore and aft sealed bulkheads I created worked fine and kept boat's draft/freeboard nearly the same, but with about 3/4" of water under cockpit area floor boards. At first I pumped the water out but when I saw it reach equilibrium, I just finished my paddle around the north part of Dillon lake.

      If you want to see Ross Miller's own descriptions and story of his Egret, click on the 'Duckworks' link top right on this blog, they also sell his plans.