Monday, September 30, 2013


 So, one of the questions I get asked is, "Why should I build a skin-on-frame boat?"

Well, why not?  They're inexpensive to build, lightweight, durable and have a long history.

Skin-on-frame boats have been built for a long, long, time.  Some excellent examples can be found over at Bob Holtzman's Indigenous Boats blog - I encourage you to take a look.  Examples include the baidarka and umiak of the Innuit people, qajac of Greenland, the curragh of Ireland, the coracle of many different places, but well known in the British Isles. There are also the so-called basket boats of Southeast Asia, 

For the most part, I'll refer to the building methods involved here as "traditional" skin-on-frame boats.  The frames were made from either lashed or pegged frames.  The wood might be just bent green branches, or highly worked parts with mortices, steam bent ribs and the like.  Bending of parts may be accomplished by simply bending green wood, chewing to weaken fibers before bending, boiling, or steaming.  Skins might be just that - animal skins of one form or another.  Skins might also be the bark of trees or woven cloth that has been treated or sealed to be waterproof - often with mixtures of pitch and/or tar or animal fats.

While some people distinguish birchbark canoes and cedar and canvas canoes is distinctly different build methods, I'd say that generally, they fall within the realm of skin-on-frame boatbuilding - just a bit different because of the frame, really.

Then we get into some more modern methods - "non-traditional" skin on frame construction.  Because of the similarity to some aircraft construction, it is sometimes referred to as "fuselage frame" construction.  This really seems to be a relatively recent innovation, although I'm sure there must be more history than I'm aware of.  This build method generally involves plywood for frames and stringers of some sort to form the longitudinal members.  Skins are usually fabric - canvas, nylon or polyester treated with paint, polyurethane or varnish.  Frames may be joined by adhesives, pegs, fasteners or lashings

Tomorrow, we'll get into some resources for plans.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Monday, September 23, 2013

Decisions, Decisions - or Why a Little Experience Matters

In picking designs for a class, I very often have to take into account the lowest common denominator - in this case, the inexperienced paddler and woodworker.  The difficulty here is to pick something that satisfies everyone - a truly difficult task.  I want a design which is safe to use, easy to build, but broadly aesthetically pleasing.

So for my current class, I've picked three distinct designs for my students to build.  I think that's pretty generous, all-in-all.  For the instructor, to have students building 8 different boats in some unknown combination of these three different designs is a challenge.

S. Jeff Horton's Stonefly Canoe :

Dave Gentry's Chuckanut 12 kayak :

Dave's slightly larger Chuckanut 15 tandem kayak :

When presented with these options, students will sometime say that they want to design their own boat.  Unless you're a naval architect on the side, I tend to discourage this. 


Take for example this little beauty found on Craigslist which I think is a better than average version of a builder-designed boat:

It made me wonder if the design inspiration came from the '80's classic video game Asteroids:

That's not to say that every beginner is going to design an awful boat, but that's the way things tend to go.  It takes experience to design a good-looking boat that's structurally sound and behaves well functionally for the paddler in terms of speed, stability and tracking and turning abilities that's light in weight.  It also takes somewhat of an artist's eye to make an appealing design as well.

I'll also get students who decide that they're going to alter an existing design in some significant way - length, width, depths, overall shape, etc. without ever having paddled the boat in question as it was designed.  Very often this can have unexpected results and I generally tend to discourage doing this as I want the student to complete a boat that looks and functions nicely.

I'll also have students who decide they want to sign up for a particular class - in this case, a non-traditional skin-on-frame boat-building class where we use plywood frames with long wood stringers between the frames.  They will then ask if they can build a traditional skin-on-frame boat with steam bent ribs.  Some will go totally off-book and want to build a caravel or lapstrake boat.  Sorry, not in this class - perhaps in a future class offering, but we're building non-traditional skin-on-frame boats right now.  If you want to build a skin-on-frame boat, I think you'd have a great time in my class, but building by another method is just too much of a distraction for the instructor and the rest of the class.

Some will also ask if we can convert an existing design for another build method to the one that the class is offering, which is generally possible, but takes some serious time and effort to prepare on the part of both the instructor and the student - along with being an untested build.

Lastly, we'll have students who decided to look a little further afield for a design being offered in the same build method, but that we don't currently have plans for.  This is a little bit more do-able as most of these designs have at least been prototyped by their designer and built by other builders - takes some of the pressure off of whether the student can build a successful boat.  It takes a little bit more work on the part of the instructor to get up to speed with the intricacies of that particular design, but usually isn't a disaster.  For example, I had an experienced cabinetmaker build a beautiful cedar strip kayak in a cedar strip canoe building class without it being a disaster.

So, if you come to sign up for my class and see me cringing slightly when asking me if you can make changes to what is being offered in the class in terms of methods and designs, now you know why!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Arrrr, Matey!

Fear ye not - it's September 19th - International Talk Like a Pirate Day, ye scallywags!  We'll be teachin' ye how to parley with the meanest of them!

To help ye with yer task, we've brought ye the finest instructors:

...and the best instructional materials:

Just remember, the day will be too short, mateys!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Tempus Fugit

Another summer seems to have vanished like a sugar cube in a cup of hot coffee.   I suppose I got to paddle quite a bit and visit with friends and do interesting things, but it still seems altogether too short.  When I was a kid, it always seemed that summer went on forever.  I wish it still did.

However, this brings the start of wonderful things.   Like sign-up for a new year's class of boat-building.  After exhibition last June, I had a list nearly three pages long of people who were interested in the boat-building class.  I put together an email regarding class registration. (which was yesterday...) and about the class itself and sent it to the people on the list.

I figure that we usually get maybe 5% of the people who were interested at exhibition to actually show up for registration - if I'm lucky.  When I was driving to registration, I could see that all the side streets around the school were almost completely full of parked cars.  As I turned down the street the school is on, there were students waiting in a line that stretched down the sidewalk from the building to the street and down the sidewalk along the street.  It was only 9:00 AM - registration doesn't start until 10:00 AM, but is first-come, first-served in order to be fair to everyone, so people come early.  Sometimes really early - with a chair, a book, a cup of coffee, snacks, determination and apparently - a strong constitution.  It felt a bit like an Apple iPhone launch.

The lines for woodworking and boat-building as well as a few other classes run from the side of the building and ran all the way to the parking lot and back to the dumpster.  As I took my paperwork into the building and prepared to bring the skin-on-frame canoe downstairs as my "calling card", I was approached by a woman who was clearly distressed.

"Are you the boat building instructor?"


"Is it true?"

"Is what true?"

"That this class is for returning students only."


"That's what the sign says."

"No - that's not true.  It's open registration.  I don't have returning students."

I went and checked the sign with the class listings that showed students where to wait to register.  The sign clearly had an asterisk and a notation beneath the class name that said, "Returning Students Only".  I grabbed a marker and crossed that line out in a big hurry, let me tell you.  It was a clerical error from using an old class list.  I have no idea how many students saw that sign and went home without finding out if this was true.  I was beginning to sweat that the class wouldn't run because people left after seeing the sign.

Because of the way that the school runs, there are minimum enrollments - 8 people is the minimum for my class to run.  It's also sort of the maximum class size, too - I only have room to build and store 8 boats.  If each person decides to build their own boat (like last year's class...) I have the minimum number of people and the maximum number of boats - a precarious balancing act.  Fortunately for me, ten students registered and are planning to build 8 boats.  Two couples have decided to build a boat together and the other 6 students will build their own boats.

So, if anyone DID see the sign and go home, I apologize.  While I'm not responsible for the error, I still worry that people missed an opportunity.  If you did, please comment on this post or otherwise get back to me - I'd like to know.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Bit Like Wild Kingdom

I was half-expecting Marlin Perkins to pop out from around a corner tonight.  We've got quite a bit of wildlife that passes through our yard from the very small (field mice and voles) to the rather large. (black bears, deer)  Most of our wildlife tends to be mid-sized - like the squirrels, rabbits and the occasional skunk.

This past weekend, I didn't manage to get the lawn mowing done as it seemed to rain pretty much all weekend.  So, with all the rain we got, the lawn definitely needed a good mowing.  I decided that when I got home from work tonight, I'd hop on the lawn tractor and get things done. 

Firing up the mower, I started to make my first pass around the yard.  As I came around the front and headed towards the garden, I could see something in the grass, sitting there.  As I got closer, I saw that it was one of the rabbits that hangs around.  It was staring at me with mouth agape.

I could almost hear the leporine gasp escape the fuzzy beggar's mouth.  "You're going to cut that?  I was going to eat that..." 

As I got closer still, the rabbit held his ground.

I stopped the mower - probably less than 10 feet from the rabbit and it didn't move - not one inch.

I waved my hands at the rabbit to shoo it away.  It didn't move - not one inch.

I got down off the mower and walked over towards the rabbit.  It didn't move - not one inch.

I finally got within about two feet of the rabbit before it finally took off and went underneath the deck where it probably sat watching in dismay as I cut away the tenderest tips of fresh grass, along with clover and blossoms.