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Building the Ultimate Expedition Kayak

Building the Deck

Here's a veiw of the almost-stripped kayak deck. The empty stripes will be filled in with dark cedar and redwood.

With the hull fiberglassed, I was finally able to commence work on the deck. For months I had been designing deck patterns that would be attractive and practical. I wanted something sleek and simple, but also visually striking. More importantly, the Northern White Cedar strips I would be using were only eight feet long, so I needed a pattern that would divide the deck into smaller surface areas which the strips could cover without any need for butt joints. At long last, I settled upon one of my first designs: two long, flowing curves starting at either edge of the deck, crossing over each other on the foredeck, sweeping past the cockpit, and crossing back again near the stern. It seemed elegant and appropriately flowing, perfect for the lines of a sleek kayak like the King—at least that's how it appeared on paper. Only time would tell if it looked good on the finished boat.

To begin stripping the deck, I first made sure all of the stations were located properly. Most of them had fallen out of position when I flipped over the hull, so I spent some time re-positioning them and then taping and gluing them in place. A few beads of glue from a hot glue gun did the trick nicely. I added a line of masking tape across the hull at each station to help ensure the hull maintained its original width while the fiberglass and epoxy continued to cure over the next week. Then I masked off the edges of each station with masking tape and gathered my tools to commence stripping the deck.

I began with the shear strip. It only took a few minutes to get it into place, but it took a few hours (and no little frustration) to get it to lay flat and stay put. It was important to get the shear strip to lay flat, or else it would added a high peak to the deck that I didn't want. Some careful block planing, several clamps, a bit of creative taping, a lot of glue, and a ton of patience later, the job was finally done. The shear strip was in place, along with the perimeter accent stripe I had cut and prepared weeks ago. Now it was time to define the deck pattern.

Using the thin strips that would eventually become the borders of my stripes, I laid out the boundaries for each stripe. One stripe would be "dominant" and overlap the other stripe, so I laid out that stripe first. Then I laid out the borders of the second stripe and cut it carefully everywhere it intersected with the first. Already I could see the deck starting to take shape. The pattern looked to be good, but it took a lot of adjustments to get the stripes to look visibly flowing. Because the deck is not flat, I couldn't lay the stripes out according to simple measurements. When I did, they didn't look accurately shaped from certain angles of view. So, with the help of a friend, I adjusted them at different angles, curves, and slopes until I achieved an attractive visual effect. By mathematical measurement, the two curves are actually very different, but visually, they are extremely close and they appear to flow smoothly. In this case, the aesthetics are what's important, and the measurements count for nothing.

The kayak deck after filling in the stripes.

With the stripes laid out, the next step was to fill in all of the white spaces outside of the stripes. I suppose I could have started by filling in the stripes, but I knew there would be a fair amount of torque on the stripe-strips where they curved over the hull, so I decided to wait until their delicate borders were reinforced by the surrounding white deck. Laying the white deck strips went much slower than stripping the hull for two reasons: First, I was no longer using bead and cove strips so the edge of each strip needed to be beveled with the block plane to get a tight fit with the previous strip. Second, my deck pattern forced me to very carefully taper the end of each strip where it butted up against the edges of the stripes. The fit had to be perfect. Too loose, and there would be a gap. Too tight, and the strips would force the edges of the stripes out of fair, causing them to look bent and decidely un-flowing. Suffice it to say that after a long, long 12-hour day of filling in white deck strips, I had become a master at making tight joints.

The next day, I returned eagerly to fill in the stripes. I began with the "passive" stripe—the stripe being overlapped by the "dominant" stripe. Since it was outlined in Redwood, I filled it in with very dark Western Red Cedar strips—the same as those used on the hull. This was in accordance with my original plan, as I hoped it would help pull all of the boat colors together. The other, "dominant" stripe was outlined with thin strips of dark Western Red Cedar, so I filled it in with strips of Redwood. The result was a kind of "neopolitan ice cream" color scheme: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Stepping back after a full day's work, I was astonished by the final effect: The flow and color of the stripes against the bright white deck was beautiful—exactly the sort of sleek, elegant design I had hoped for. I had been trying to think of something to name the finished boat, but none of the thousand ideas I had come up with seemed right. But now, seeing the deck design in full, I was struck by the way the stripes and the wood-grain in the strips fanned out across the deck. They evoked images of feathers and waves—of elegant birds and the mighty, majestic sea. Suddenly, I pictured a graceful white sea-bird riding low on the back of a stiff wind, skimming its black-tipped wings over the waves. And then it hit me—I knew what to name my boat: The Albatross.

An albatross, gliding over the waves.

Next, I planed and sanded the deck. Because the deck is much flatter than the hull, it is also much more delicate. Even mild pressure on the block plane or the ROS caused a few of the strips to spread and need to be re-glued. Even so, most of the planing and sanding went smoothly, and a sudden break in the wintry weather allowed me to take the job outside, into warm, fresh air. It smelled like Spring was coming, and that meant paddling season was close on my heels. Hoping to get the boat finished in time, I donned my dust mask and got busy sanding. About an hour later, the deck had taken on a bright, smooth appearance. It was really shaping up nicely. Some of Bryan's neighbors stopped by to compliment my work and to comment on the beauty of the boat. I was delighted. Already I was beginning to see the truth of Bryan's early warning: "Once you start paddling a cedar-strip boat, be prepared to get stopped by all sorts of people who want to talk about how 'amazing' these boats look." He was right. There's something about a cedar-strip boat that draws people in like magic. It's the ultimate conversation piece. I'm just glad mine made for such positive conversation. The highlight was meeting Bryan's neighbor the carpenter, who called my woodwork "outstanding." It's nice to hear a compliment like that from anyone, but from a professional woodworker it inspires a profound sense of satisfaction.

Plugging staple holes with toothpicks.

As night set in, I moved my kayak back to the garage and used the last hours to try something that most people would probably deem foolish. Bryan certainly had a good laugh about it. I decided to plug the staple holes in the Northern White Cedar with toothpicks. I took a quick trip to the grocery store to get some round, polished white Birch toothpicks and commenced filling. Dipping each toothpick in glue, I shoved them one-by-one into each staple hole and snapped them off. There were a gazillion holes to fill, but two tedious hours later I was finished. Sanding over the holes, I found that the toothpicks turned the black holes to a pleasant tan color. They were still visible, but much more discrete than before. I knew from experience with the hull that any un-filled staple holes would turn conspicuously black, so I decided that tan holes were much better, even if they didn't disappear fully. (Of course, as I later discovered, the epoxy still darkened the toothpicks considerably, turning them a deep brown color that was almost as dark as the bare holes would have been!)

When I returned the next day to work on defining the cockpit, I was dismayed to discover that the "dominant" stripe of Redwood had collapsed in the front. During the night, the tremendous torque in the strips had knocked away the supporting station and forced the strips to turn inward before the glue had fully set. Now, there was a noticeable concavity across the front face of the strip, and the glue had dried much too thoroughly to press it back out again. Knowing I would never be satisfied with such a conspicuous flaw, I glued several new strips over the old ones and waited for the glue to dry. Several hours later, I planed them down again to make them even with the surrounding deck. It solved the problem—almost. Although the concavity had disappeared, I now had a new problem to deal with: All around the edges of the patch, the glue was showing through. Every time I tried to sand it away, the wood patch retreated a little bit more to reveal—you guessed it—more glue. I was exasperated. Bryan looked it over and advised me to give it a little more careful sanding and then let it be. I told him I was frustrated and on the verge of taking the hacksaw to the whole front portion of the stripe. He said not to do it, so I went back to the sandpaper. Five minutes later, after he left, I sighed and picked up the saw. For better or worse, I knew I would never be happy with a visible ring of glue making my otherwise-impressive patch-work look too obvious. Unable to think of any other solution, I started cutting.

Ten minutes later I had removed a substantial chunk of the stripe—almost the entire portion filling the foredeck. Then I blockplaned and sanded the edges of the surrounding stripes smooth again, re-aligned my stations, and commenced re-stripping. Two hours of careful cutting, clamping, and stapling and the job was done. I breathed a sigh of relief and felt a little surge of pride. The fix had worked. The new strips were virtually undetectable. Better yet, they showed no signs of caving in. Now this was a boat I could be proud to paddle. But best of all, for perhaps the first time in this whole process, I began to feel like a capable boat-builder. After a few satisfactory moments spent gazing upon my success, I took a dinner break and resolved to come back to work on the cockpit.

Building the recess for the coaming.

With his plans for the King, Joe Greenley includes a "roller's recess" template that allows you to recess the deck around the cockpit in order to make lay-back rolls easier to perform. I had always intended to use the roller's recess, but I hadn't looked at the template until now. Upon the first glance, I was astonished to discover that, in its recommended position, the recess would require me to remove approximately three feet of my deck stripes—something I was not willing to do. Immediately I tossed it aside and started planning my own recess. I had no idea how exactly to build one, but my experience with repairing the stripe had bolstered my confidence enough to get daring. Taking a thin, flexible piece of ash, I traced out the contours of what appeared to me to be a reasonable-sized cockpit. On my Perception Eclipse, the cockpit measured 35"L x 18.5"W, but I had always felt it was larger than it needed to be, and that it wasted a bit too much deck space. Granted, I appreciated being able to sit down in the seat and pull in my legs afterward—especially during quick-launches in rough conditions—but I could learn to live without a cockpit this large, so I decided to go smaller. My finished sketch was approximately 34"L x 18"W, and it looked good enough that I went ahead and cut it out. Then, beginning at the back, I laid strips in at a steep angle so that the coaming lip would later be even with the rear deck, resulting in a rear coaming height of nine inches. I decided this was fine since nine-and-a-half inches is fairly standard for a lot of production kayaks, and I've never had trouble performing successful lay-back rolls in any of them. As I filled in the recess, I decreased the angle of each strip slightly so that there would be a natural curve up and out of the rear, so that the recess would end up perfectly flat and horizontal at the front, where I didn't want to lose any height from the deck. It took a lot of patience and many, many strips of masking tape, but the finished product was better than I could have hoped.

The coaming.

A day later, after the glue on the recess strips had sufficient time to dry, I went back and sanded them smooth. Then I sketched out the inner perimeter of the coaming. The finished cockpit opening would be 28.5"L x 16"W, almost exactly what I had planned for it to be. Encouraged by my success, I cut it out and began stripping the vertical strips of the coaming. Again, it took a lot of patience and many strips of masking tape to keep all the strips in place, but again the end result was superb. I stepped back and admired my handy work. The final shape of my kayak was almost complete and now I could really appreciate what the finished boat would look like. I was very pleased. In fact, I cannot begin to describe the sense of accomplishment I felt now that I was staring at my boat—that's right: the one I built.

The deck after sealing with epoxy. The deck before sealing with epoxy.

While the coaming strips were drying, I spent some time using wood filler to carefully fill the minor gaps and cracks at the edges of some strips. It was easy to tell my woodworking skill had improved in leaps and bounds. With bead-and-cove strips on the hull, I had still had plenty of filler work to do. But despite using plain strips on the deck, there were virtually no gaps to worry about except for nail holes, staple holes, and a few rare gaps. A few times, I found myself wishing I could go back and start the entire project over to get it better this time. But then I started to think about how much character this boat would have by the time I finished. I would remember each staple hole, each filled gap, every repaired crack and concavity. Every strip would have a story to tell, and only I would know how to read it. To others, my learning process and my mistakes would be virtually invisible. All they would see was a beautiful boat, and once I realized this was true, it was all I could see as well. "You really are a beautiful boat," I said aloud. Then, smiling at myself for talking aloud and alone to a boat, I vented the garage door. Perhaps the wood-filler fumes were getting to me.

After all this work, it was hard to believe there was still more to do, but there was. Plenty more. I spent a tedious hour sanding hardened glue drips off the coaming, which was really difficult work because I had to use care not to break the coaming strips and also because it was rather difficult to sand down into the deep recess I had created. In truth, I probably should have had a bit more patience at this step, but when most of the glue had been removed, I decided to call it "good enough" and move on. I knew I would be frustrated if I ended up breaking the coaming, and I also knew most of the coaming would be cut away, with a lip overhanging the rest, so a few blemishes or mild imperfections would be almost impossible to detect.

The last order of business was to prep the deck for fiberglassing. I had already moistened the deck with a sponge hours earlier to raise the grain of the wood. Now that it had dried, I took 120-grit sandpaper and sanded the last traces of visible fuzz off the strips from bow to stern. Then I laid down drop-cloth to protect Bryan's garage floor from epoxy, and taped some more drop-cloth along the shearline to prevent any epoxy from spilling, running, or dripping onto the already-fiberglassed hull. With this accomplished, I mixed up a batch of epoxy and wet out the boat to seal the wood and prevent it from starving the resin out of the fiberglass later. Here was a dramatic change. The "neopolitan ice cream" color scheme suddenly transformed itself into a deeper, richer, more rugged and nautical-looking scheme that radiated the same kind of magical charm that old sea stories have when they spill from the lips of old, gravel-voiced sailors. I could almost see the waves crashing over the bow, feel the salt spraying across the deck, and hear the wind shrieking in my ears. It wasn't quite the color scheme I had expected, but it didn't matter. It was beautiful. What a terrific boat, I thought.

After the outside of the deck was fiberglassed, I sanded the inside of the deck and the hull and fiberglassed them as well. There's not much new to see for this part of the process, so I don't have any pictures. But I will say that fiberglassing the interior was noticeably more difficult than fiberglassing the exterior. This is especially true for the hull. When wetting out the glass on the interior, it's difficult to strike a good balance between putting enough pressure on the squeegee to smooth down any wrinkles or bubbles in the glass, and yet not pressing so hard that you inadvertently lift the glass out of the bottom of the hull. It may simply be a problem stemming from inexperience, but whenever I pulled epoxy up the interior sides of the hull, the glass along the keel would suddenly whiten and lift. Most of the time, I used ridiculously little pressure on the squeegee, yet still the glass would lift. At times, I resorted to holding the glass down with my fingers (wearing latex gloves, of course) while using the squeegee to pull resin up the sides. Other times, I let the epoxy set up a bit in the bottom (so it would get stickier and adhere better to the bottom) before trying to wet out the sides fully. At any rate, with a lot of patience and a little swearing, I finally got it all to lay flat and clear. There were definitely more bubbles under the glass this time around, but since they were on the inside—in places where they would probably never be seen—I didn't worry about them very much. I did my best to work them out in the cockpit area, and then tried to minimize them in other places as best I could before it came time to squeegee off the excess resin. In the end, it wasn't all quite perfect, but the mistakes are mostly hidden and the boat will still be very, very stiff and strong when it's done.

Using duct-tape to align the deck with the hull while the epoxy cures.

My only lasting gripe about the interior fiberglass is that something must have happened to the end of my roll of fiberglass before Raka sent it to me. The last few yards of it were consistently impossible to wet out perfectly clear. Instead, they show a series of white, evenly-spaced, parallel lines—as if the weave has been stressed in one direction. The lines are relatively faint and they wouldn't bother me except that I added a bit of reinforcement to the cockpit area later, so now my perfectly clear wet-out of the first layer has been covered by a white-lined reinforcement patch. And in my attempt to get the lines to disappear, I over-saturated the glass with epoxy, which means I have a lot of finish sanding to do now too. I guess it could have been worse, though: At least there are no white lines anywhere in the glass on top of the deck!

With the fiberglassing finished all around, I decided it would be smart (during the next few days, while the epoxy continued to cure) to tape the deck to the hull. This way, I could help ensure the deck and the hull would dry with the shearline in close alignment—thereby reducing the inevitable hassle involved in fitting the deck to the hull later. It sounded like a great plan, and it probably was smart, but I soon discovered how much the stripe pattern in the deck (and the torque in the stripe strips) had forced the deck to flatten. It took no little effort to wrench, clamp, squeeze, buckle, and tape the deck into shape. Bryan even began to doubt it would be possible to get the two to meet. But again, patience and persistence served me well. I settled for a close, approximate fit. There would still be more squeezing and wrenching to do later when it came time to actually join the deck to the hull, but I finished the process feeling confident I had been smart to address the issue now instead of later. (Of course, as I was later to discover, it still took some radical "finessing" to get the two halves to align—even in spite of my precautions at this stage.)

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