15 year old kayak builder Enzo Dougherty just put the finishing touches on the Mora kayak he has been working on in stages for the last two years. Kiliii consulted with Enzo and his father, Michael Dougherty, offering advice and minimal instruction when needed. Overall, this was a near entirely self-directed build which takes an incredible amount of research, time, and patience for any new builder. Enzo even re-skinned the kayak after deciding the hull needed an alteration. He had the chance to write about his build, and we are happy to share his story and some building photos with you. And if you see him out on the water, give him a shoutout! Fantastic work, Enzo!
Skin-on-Frame Mora Kayak Build Fall 2020
By: Enzo Dougherty
In 2012 my dad built a kayak. I was 8 years old at the time, and I watched him work and helped out occasionally. As I got older, I started to make more things for myself and became better at woodworking. I thought that making a kayak would be a fun project, because having a kayak that I made that I could paddle was appealing to me. When I was around 13 years old I decided to make one for myself.
I made the kayak in collaboration with my dad and my friend and his dad. My friend and I each made our own kayaks with help from our dads. I was the driving force for my kayak and did most of the work myself. For unfamiliar steps, such as mortise and tenon joints, first my dad showed me and then I made the actual joint in the boat. It took 4 weeks of build time over the course of 22 months.
About the build:
The project was to build a skin-on-frame kayak. Kayaks originated in Greenland, North America, and Canada about 4,000 years ago and were used by the Inuit and Aleut peoples.
Traditional builders designed kayaks for hunting. A hunter would quietly paddle up to prey, such as a seal or beluga whale, harpoon it, and tow the carcass back to shore behind their kayak. To sneak up on their prey, hunters needed a kayak that made very little noise when being hauled up on an ice floe or when paddling through the water. The only way to achieve these stealthy qualities was to make the bow and stern pointy and to make the boat extremely narrow, often times the same width as the paddler.
The frames of traditional skin-on-frame kayaks were made by lashing pieces of wood or bone together with animal sinew. Sometimes to achieve a tight bend in a piece of wood, a traditional builder would chew on the wood to soften it, make it supple and easy to bend. The Inuit used driftwood or whale bone because of the scarcity of trees in the Arctic. As for the skin, sealskin or some other type of animal hide was stretched over the frame and stitched tight. These animal hides needed to constantly be kept wet; if left to dry out the skin would shrink and crush the frame.
My kayak is a “Seawolf Mora,” designed by Kiliii Yuyan. Kiliii’s designs use modernized adaptations of traditional designs. He has studied traditional kayak design and building techniques and has spent several winters hunting with tribes in Alaska. His designs keep the long sleek looks of traditional boats but are functional for modern day use: they have room to hold camping gear and food for multi-day trips, (something traditional kayak hunters didn’t do) and are more stable than traditional designs. Because my kayak is not meant for hunting, it is longer and wider than a traditional Greenland kayak.
The frame is constructed from Western red cedar, a lightweight yet strong wood that is highly rot resistant. The ribs are curved strips that run transversely across the boat. My kayak has 23 ribs that create its overall hull shape, and give it the appearance of a marine mammal skeleton. They are made from strips of bamboo plywood that are steamed to make them pliable enough to bend. The skin is a ballistic nylon fabric, stretched and stitched over the frame until it is tight as a drum and then coated in a 2-part polyurethane. The result is not only watertight, but very lightweight: the whole kayak weighs just 30 pounds compared to 50 pounds for a fiberglass boat. Despite the light weight, it is also extremely tough: the skin can withstand being hit with the claw end of a hammer, and Kiliii has a video of him jumping on top of the kayak without damaging it. See also this video on durability testing.
Modern and traditional paddlers of skin-on-frame kayaks both use the same kind of paddle. They are called Greenland paddles, and the blades are longer and thinner than the spoon-shaped Euro paddle blade. Greenland paddles don’t have as much power per stroke as other designs. However, they are more efficient for long distance paddling and are more versatile because the paddler can hold the paddle anywhere along its length and easily switch between paddling, sculling, and bracing. Four thousand years ago, traditional builders used whatever wood they had; today we shape paddles out of cedar and other lightweight woods and some high-end paddles are made from carbon fiber.
What was the most challenging part?
The kayak has a very specific hull shape. The first four ribs are a super sharp V shape, the 5th rib is more rounded and semicircular, to flatten out in the middle of the kayak. You have to eyeball the overall hull shape instead of focusing on the odd ribs that stand out. It is more art than science. We looked at lots of pictures, and checked the depth-to-sheer (distance from gunwale top to rib bottom) in several key locations. Achieving that specific hull shape was challenging. Also, when you remove each bamboo rib from the steam box you have only about 10 seconds to bend the bamboo to shape before it becomes stiff and hard to bend.
What are some of the key lessons you learned?
I learned where to focus my effort making something perfect. For example, the hull shape has a large effect on the outcome of the kayak, so taking time bending the ribs to make them perfect is a good use of effort. On the other hand, a mortise and tenon joint will not affect the outcome of the boat very much, so you don’t have to make them perfect. I also learned that I am much happier with something if I make it well rather than make it quickly. For example, the first time I made my kayak, we rushed making the ribs, and as a result they were lopsided and uneven and I was unhappy with the result. When I had a chance to redo the ribs, I took an entire day, and now I am much happier with the outcome.
Did you learn anything the hard way?
Yes. I accidentally put the stringers (strips of wood that run lengthwise down the hull to keep the skin from touching the ribs) about 2.5” too close to the centerline of the boat resulting in an EXTREMELY tippy kayak. The first times I paddled the kayak, I was nervous I was going to tip the whole time. I decided to rebuild the entire bottom half of the boat, which involved ripping out and redoing all of the ribs and stringers and sewing on a new skin. What I discovered in the process was that not only were the stringers inaccurate but also my ribs were lopsided and inconsistent. So when I rebuilt the kayak, I spent almost a whole day just steaming ribs. I made (cut and steamed) each rib about 3 times to make sure I got them perfect. As a result the hull shape is now true to the design and the boat is much more stable and enjoyable to paddle.
How do you feel about the project now that it’s complete? Where do you go from here?
I think it’s cool to paddle around a boat that I made myself. Everywhere I take it strangers come up to me and compliment the kayak and ask me about the construction technique and design. From here I might build another kayak of a different design. I want to do more kayak surfing, and the Mora is not a surf boat. So I would probably build a surf specific and rolling specific kayak such as an F1 designed by Brian Schultz of Cape Falcon Kayaks. Even if I don’t build a new boat, I want to get better at rolling my kayak (e.g., Greenland rolls).