Kreation: Building Your Own Kevlar Canoe! by
It took both of us to carry our little boat across the portage. Our
small, homemade wooden craft was supposed to be lightweight, but we were
not convinced as we struggled up the steep rocky trail. It was time to
seriously consider something made of Kevlar!
Kevlar was first created in 1964 by Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist at
DuPont Chemicals. The lightweight man-made fiber was first commercially
available in 1971 as a fire-resistant, durable material which had five
times the strength of steel. One of its first uses was for bullet-proof
vests, but it is now found in automobile tires, brake pads, firefighting
clothing, and sporting gear, as well as the increasingly popular Kevlar
My husband found our canoe plans in the book, Building Your Kevlar
Canoe, by Jim Moran (*Ragged Mountain Press, Camden, Maine, 1995).
The strong, lightweight characteristics of the durable material was the
initial attraction, and the fact that it could be home-built for half
the price of a commercially constructed canoe was especially appealing
on our budget.
Marshall read through the book several times to get familiar with the
procedure and to understand the flow of the project. Two major steps
were involved: first, building the mold over which the Kevlar cloth
would be laid, and second, laying up the canoe hull itself. The author
aroused our suspicions, however, when he stated that the canoe could be
built in a few short weekends. We had less than six weeks for this
monumental project; as our BWCA permit read September 8.
(Editor's Note: Kevlar, as used in canoe building, is actually a
woven cloth, that looks much like fiberglass cloth. And it is handled
much like fiberglass cloth and the resin you would use to fix an
The question remained: Could we really do this? Marshall had some
boat building experience, since he had recently constructed our small
wooden sailing skiff, so his knowledge of fiberglass technique would be
helpful. But our concerns were many and doubts still lingered.
The time taken to study the various body designs took longer than I
anticipated. There were many choices to make to fit our specific needs
and comfort levels. There is no perfect design because of changing
conditions and needs. A longer canoe might be faster but could be more
of a challenge to turn. Increased rocker could shorten the turning
radius but complicate straight line tracking. Even the height of the
seats could affect the stability of the boat and the comfort of the
(Editor's Note: Rocker is the amount that the canoe is upswept in
the bow and stern (front and back). A Wenonah canoe, for example, has
relatively little rocker and the ends are near straight up and down.
Which makes for a canoe that tracks (goes) very straight but is more
difficult to turn. A Mad River canoe has more rocker and won't track
quite as well but turns much better. If speed is of the essence then go
for less rocker. If you want to poke around in nooks and crannies then
more rocker will help.)
Marshall took the basic plan from Moran's 18 - 1/2 foot tripper
canoe, but shortened it to 18 feet, and made slight variations as he
modified the details. The canoe length didn't require much discussion.
We both wanted a vessel long enough to carry cargo for our two week
tripping adventures deep in the interior of the BWCA wilderness. Since
most of our trips were scheduled for spring and fall, more room would be
needed for our heavier clothing. And while a more narrow boat might be
faster paddling, speed has never been a primary concern for us. We have
found the lake country is a good place to avoid the fast lane.
While the initial stability of a flatter bottom boat might create a
more comfortable entry, we chose a more rounded bottom for ease on
waves, a decision for which we've been grateful many times when battling
whitecaps. Marshall chose a lower bow and stern to avoid catching wind
gusts but now laughs when his wife gets a lapful of water from a
Tumblehome was another consideration, and my husband added a little
more curvature to the sides for the ease of our paddling and for his
short-armed bow partner. There is actually less risk for tipping since I
don't have to lean over the side for a comfortable stroke.
(Editor's Note: Tumblehome is a fancy word for how much the sides
of the canoe curve in at the top. As Heather indicates, having more
tumblehome means you don't have to reach as far to get your paddle in
the water. However, if you are a large, tall male weighing in at 240
then that canoe may be a little narrow for your body to fit
Rocker, or the lengthwise curvature of the canoe bottom, makes the
canoe turn easier and faster which is especially helpful when navigating
those tight hairpin curves on winding river channels. This feature was
sacrificed somewhat with the length that we chose although it has never
caused a problem for us.
Marshall's ability to adapt Moran's coordinates to images on plywood
was impressive, and I was glad to leave the engineering to him. After we
fastened the stations to the strongback, however, the image of a boat
started to take shape, and my enthusiasm was energized. Imagination
helped clothe the skeletal form into a realistic vessel that would carry
us and our gear into the depths of wilderness solitude.
The next step was to cut the insulation board into 1-1/2'' strips for
the mold. The blades on our band-saw were angled for the proper beveling
so the pieces would fit together neatly. Hot gluing the strips to the
stations was a little tricky, however, and it took special timing to get
each piece arranged before the glue hardened. Caution was exercised to
keep from melting the foam with the glue gun, and we soon discovered
that foam insulated the heat, thereby preventing the glue from hardening
as quickly as it might on a wood surface. Thirty-two hours of work had
produced the pink foam canoe form, and we were now into August.
Marshall and I took turns sanding the rough edges before coating the
entire surface with dry wall compound. It took several coats of compound
to fill in the cracks to create a smooth surface. Then it was back to
sanding. My frustration level was severely tested with all the necessary
sanding. It seemed our project was going too slowly, and I was getting
impatient. Would we really get this canoe done in time?
After melting six pounds of paraffin we carefully applied the liquid
wax to the mold using a small paint roller. Next, six coats of tree wax
were applied, and I spent most of my waking hours melting the wax into
the surface with a hairdryer. Meanwhile, Marshall was doing preliminary
work on the yoke and gunwales while we waited for the Kevlar, structural
fiberglass, and epoxy to arrive in the mail.
We designated August 19 as the day we would focus totally on the
application of the canoe skin to the mold. This job entailed laying the
Kevlar over the mold and epoxying it in place, then laying the s-glass
over it while the solution was still wet, and then applying more epoxy
on top of that. There was a consistent push to keep ahead of the setting
of the epoxy as the strong chemical bond was faster than a mechanical
bond. Special care had to be given to smooth out each bubble, which too
often reared its ugly head, and I spent the next several hours combing
the surfaces with a squeegee. The procedure took 12 solid non-stop hours
to complete; a job that could test even the most stable of marriages!
It took several days for the hull to cure, time which I used to weave
the seats while Marshall finished padding the yoke and sanding the
gunwale (pronounced "gunnel", the top edges of the canoe)
pieces. August 23 was the day of reckoning when we would lift the 18
foot canoe from its parent mold. Would the innumerable coats of wax help
it to slip off easily or would it stick badly? We held our breath,
gently attempting to lift the skin from its form. The heavy weight told
us we had a problem, and we rocked the base trying to loosen its grip.
Pulling gently at the bottom and ends we gradually peeled away the sides
but left the bulk still bonded to the mold. The tumblehome firmly
grasped the mold and simply refused to budge. I looked at Marshall in
despair, but he responded with his practical finesse. We'll just have to
break the mold.
It was a ragged looking hull that sat nestled right side up in its
webbed cradle in the driveway. Its frayed edges gave it a sorry look,
revealing stress from its violent birth process. There was a lot of
sanding still to be done, as well as scraping the small patches of
drywall which adhered to the inside, and I armed myself with razor
blades and sandpaper to tackle the task.
The next major job was to trim the ends and to seal them together
with more layers of Kevlar, s-glass, and epoxy. Marshall used his
saber-saw to trim the jagged sides before fitting the gunwales and then
gave the interior its final sanding. After installing the thwarts, yoke,
and deck plates, we cut the white foam ribs and flotation spacing them
appropriately on the canoe floor before painting the interior with a
coat of epoxy. Positioning the woven webbed seats was the last
challenging job before applying the final coat of epoxy to the exterior
surface. The calendar read September 3. It was then she was given her
appropriate name; she was done in the ''Nick
The gloss on Nick's hull was probably not as shiny as the
commercially made canoes, nor were her gunwales perfectly matched; but
in our eyes she was a beautiful creation. Even with her imperfections,
she was already special, and we couldn't be more pleased. She would be
functional, too, and Marshall and I were anxious to put her to the test.
There had been no time to confirm her seaworthiness before our trip so
the first time Nick touched water was just outside Ely. Gently we placed
her in the sparkling waters and stepped gingerly inside. I turned to
smile at Marshall as we scooped our paddles through the peaceful
ripples. We were on our way, and Nick would be our wilderness companion
for the next ten days.
A total of 184 hours had been devoted to this labor of love. Like
other expectancies the waiting held moments of joy, worry, anxiety,
excitement, disappointment and wonder. And like a mother giving birth,
the time of anxiety and pain were soon forgotten in the joy of that
first trip. We had put heart and soul into our canoe investing time,
money and love into her creation.
Nick is now 5 years old and has logged nearly 850 miles on more than
300 lakes. She's showing her scratches and scars as she's battled with
rocks, been bombed by squirrels with pine cones, and been explored by
weasels. She has plowed through fierce waves, been soaked with
downpours, bleached by the sun, and narrowly missed by moose. Each mark
tells a story, however, and holds a special memory for us.
Would we ever consider building another boat? The beginnings of a
cedar strip craft are all ready on the drawing board, but nothing will
ever take the place of the canoe which was built in the Nick