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Building the Ultimate Expedition Kayak

Laminating the Stems

Laminating the inside and outside stems for the bow and stern. Use plenty of clamps until the glue sets!

With all the cedar strips ready to go, the last preparatory step was to laminate the stems. For stem material, I bought a beautiful piece of hardwood ash, which is relatively pliable but also quite strong—perfect for stems. Since I am building the boat with both inside and outside stems, I used the table saw to rip the ash board into 24 strips, 1/8" x 1" x 36" each. This allowed me to make four sets of 6 strips, producing four stems of 3/4" thickness each (two for the bow, inside and out, and two for the stern, inside and out). The inside stems don't need to be hardwood, of course, and those of you intent on shaving every ounce out of your boat will want to use a lighter wood like cedar. However, the stiffer the wood you use for the stems, the stronger the keel-line will be at the bow and stern. Since I'm building my kayak for rough-water expedition use, I decided the extra pound of hardwood was a good trade-off for a stiffer, stronger boat.

It's probably worth mentioning that ash tends to burn easily when you run it through the table saw to rip it into strips. If you should happen, like me, to discover black circular burn marks on your strips, don't sweat it. The stems will be planed and sanded down so thoroughly later that any visible burn marks should disappear completely. Even so, I took care to stack my stem strips so that the most conspicuous burn marks would be turned in toward the boat to minimize the possibility (however unlikely) that a burnt edge would unluckily surface and show through the final sanded stem. Even if it did, I'm sure this problem could be easily fixed with a little more sanding, so this degree of care is probably ridiculous and unwarranted, but if you're particularly worried, do what I did.

Notice the dark line of blue masking tape separating the inside stem from the outside stem to keep them from being glued together (foreground).

Once the ash had been cut into strips, I screwed the bow and stern forms down onto the workbench and masked their edges with masking tape to prevent accidentally gluing the stems to the forms. At 1/8" thick, the strips bent easily to match the curvature of the forms without needing to steam them. Joe Greenley recommends brushing each strip with unthickened epoxy, and then brushing them again with thickened epoxy. To save the hassle, I used Gorilla Glue instead, which forms a tenacious, watertight bond. Joe's recommended double-coat of epoxy probably gives better soak-through water protection, but since I will be epoxying and fiberglassing over the stems later, I decided there was no pressing reason to bother with epoxy at this point in the process.

Here's how it worked: First, I misted the strips with water (per the Gorilla Glue instructions). Next, I applied a moderate bead of Gorilla Glue to each strip (except for the top strip of the inside stem, which I masked with tape to prevent it from accidentally becoming glued to the other strips that make up the outside stem). Then I used a popsicle stick to spread the bead of glue evenly across each strip and stacked them all together. Once this was done, I clamped each set of stems (inside and outside) down firmly onto the stations. Make sure you put masking tape or wax between the inside and outside stems so they don't accidentally fuse together into a single, double-thick stem. Also, make sure you have plenty of clamps on hand before you begin gluing. Although the Gorilla Glue takes four hours or so to form a permanent bond, it only takes a few minutes to begin to set. This means that if you aren't ready to clamp the strips onto the end forms within about 10 minutes of gluing, you could end up with a foaming, gooey mess—and possibly some ruined stems.

As for my experience, the whole process went off without a hitch, and five hours later, I came back to four perfectly-shaped, extremely stiff stems! I highly recommend the Gorilla Glue approach if you're looking for one of those clever ways to speed up the process without cutting corners from a quality standpoint. Not counting the 15 minutes it took to rip the ash board into 1/8" strips, this method of laminating the stems took less than 20 minutes!


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