From Attic to Ocean
Building a vintage kayak
It was there at the end of my attic, all but hidden behind a stack of dusty books and 1940’s photography magazines, a long skeletal wooden shape. I was only there to fix the hot water tank, my first time in the attic, and had no idea it contained this treasure trove of old stuff. Immediately I forgot about the water and began to rummage.
Closer inspection revealed the wooden shape to be the partially constructed frame of a boat of some sort. Nearby it lay a dog-eared manila folder, titled Super-Harbord Kayak Plan 43-A. Who had put this there? And why hadn’t they finished it? It was like a time capsule of abandoned hobbies. Further searches would also uncover a slightly frightening antique electric massager labelled “Star-Rite Vibrator”.
After an hour of admiring my finds, I reluctantly turned my attention back to my original task, before climbing down with the folder of plans. These were a single page of line drawings cut out of a magazine or pamphlet. The name, Miller was written in ink on the front and a price list for materials had been scribbled on the back. All prices were in pounds which meant that these plans, this kayak frame, were at least 45 years old.
It was a few years since Form Two woodwork, and I lacked any sort of experience in boat building. But the sea wasn’t far from here, and the plans promised a kayak far more distinctive than the solid plastic lumps I was used to. I decided I would finish what Mr Miller had started.
Although many small wooden boats are built with a stitch-and-tape method where plywood strips are stitched together using wire and fiberglass tape, this kayak used a style of construction that seemed easier to tackle for an amateur like myself. As well as the cross frames you would see in a stitch-and-tape craft, this had sturdy wooden supports running the length of the vessel. These are known as chines and keelson respectively, and plywood panels would be glued to these and securely fastened with screws.
The first step in the project was to gather more information on the steps and process for putting this thing together. Since the plans had no real instructions, I turned to the internet where I found a site containing dozens of classic plans scanned from old magazines. Among these were instructions for a very similar kayak, and these would form my main resource over the next few months.
I also needed materials: marine grade plywood for the shell, mahogany for the trim work, paint and varnish for finishing; plus glue, screws, and tools. The following tools would be essential:
There is surely nothing as satisfying as shopping for tools.
The first part of the building process was preparing the frame for the decking and planking (bottom and top shell) to be attached. Despite its age, the frame was in good condition but needed a once over with the plane so that the ply would sit flush against the still square chines and keelson. Once done, the plywood sheets had to be bent around and clamped onto the frame so they could be marked out and cut to size with a jigsaw. I then pre-drilled the ply before gluing and screwing the sheets in place. Since I wanted this to last, I was using a waterproof adhesive called Gorilla Glue and brass coated screws.
Already, there were problems to figure out. The largest sheets of plywood available were still too short to cover the length of the kayak. The plans I found in the attic didn’t mention any sort of joins but the instructions in my online article suggested using either a scarf or butt joint, one at either end in order to cover the whole length of the boat. I chose the butt joint for its simplicity.
Between fitting each section of hull, I had to smooth off the edges with a plane and surform so they would be flush with the sides. Once the bottom and sides were on, I gave the inside a few coats of an epoxy based timber sealer. This penetrates the wood and prevents rotting. That just left the decking on top to be done. Pieces for the fore and aft were bent over the cross frames and held down at the edges. Finally, the hull enclosed the entire boat save the cockpit. I had something that looked like it might float.
My next task was adding the trim, starting with the mahogany splashboards around the cockpit. The timber supplier had machined a couple of 10mm thick strips, leaving me to cut out the right curves so they would fit nicely across the rounded top of the deck. I used a cardboard template to stencil the shape of the front and rear edges of the cockpit onto the mahogany strips before cutting them with the jigsaw.
For the floor of the cockpit, the plans didn’t specify a particular timber but I did have plenty of plywood left, although it was a little thin. The solution was to take two sheets, roughly 50x1000mm, and press them together. I smeared glue between them and weighted them tight with heavy stone planters from the garden. After a day this left me with a piece of 12mm plywood that I cut into six planks and tacked in place to make a sturdy seat of floorboards.
The rub rails that would run the length of the sides and bottom were 25mm thick mahogany, with the corners rounded off. The bottom piece also had a v-shaped channel cut in one side so that it could sit over the peak of the keel. Since mahogany is a hardwood and the rails were thick, as per the plans, bending them around the tighter curves on the hull was tricky. It would take plenty of manpower, some long screws and my trusty Gorilla Glue. Although one small crack did occur, once sanded back and varnished it would be hard to spot.
With the construction finished, the hull had to be properly sealed. Wood filler was used to cover the countersunk screw holes and other imperfections. After some sanding, the outside received the same epoxy treatment as the inside. It took five to six coats applied wet-on-wet to properly saturate the wood and seal out moisture that might cause it to rot further down the track. Once done, I was left with a denser, harder surface that could be sanded smooth and painted or varnished over.
For the bottom and sides I used a three layer system of a speciality boat primer, undercoat and topcoat. It wasn’t cheap but along with the sealant it will hopefully make for a long lasting finish. The top deck and trim work I finished with four coats of polyurethane, sanding between each coat to ensure a smooth finish.
All my kayak was missing now was a name. It took the help of a group of friends stuck in a bach over a rainy New Years to come up with the slightly jaunty, Just Canoodlin’. The pun wasn’t perfect for a kayak, but we talked about it so much it just stuck. Using a laser printer, some adhesive paper, a scalpel and steady hand, I created a stencil in my chosen font. Stuck to either side of the bow, it looked like it would make quick work of what could have been a very tricky painting job. Unfortunately the stencil did not want to come off cleanly, leaving me with some very rough edged lettering. Some careful freehand work with a fine brush worked well to tidy everything up.
I had put so much time and effort in the project, but it was only as I came close to finishing it that I began to worry about how it would perform. Would it leak? Would it be hard to paddle? How stable would it be? The only way to find out was to give it a shot, so one sunny late summer afternoon I assembled a few friends and headed down to the local beach for a boat launch. A toast was made and champagne was consumed – not smashed on the bow. A captain's hat was donned and Just Canoodlin' was carried out to the water.
It sat high, stable on the water. A test paddle revealed it to be manoeuvrable, relatively quick and not at all leaky. To say I was happy with the results would be an understatement. Two hundred hours of my free time had gone into this project and now, fifty or so years after it was started, the kayak was finally at sea - Mr Miller, wherever he was, could be proud.