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Boundary Waters Magazine.com

Kevlar Kreation: Building Your Own Kevlar Canoe! by Heather Monthei

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 canoes.

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 automobile body.)

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 paddler.

(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 crashing wave!

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 comfortably.)

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 O'Tyme''.

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 O' Tyme.

 

--article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine.com

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