When should you build a kayak?

There aren’t a ton of reviews for the Pygmy Arctic Tern, CLC Arctic Hawk, and CLC Shearwater 17, but I might want to build one of them. So I’m trying to decide on committing time and $ to building a kayak kit without doing a test paddle. Has anyone regretted making that leap of faith?

So I’m about 5’10", 185 lbs and currently paddling a used poly Chatham 17. I like it, but it could use a little more room in the bulkheads for camping gear - can’t even fit a disassembled kayak cart in there. and since I’m not rock gardening or doing rough coastal exploration, Id like it to have less rocker and more speed. The full chines makes it very stable for a 21" beam, but the few hard chined boats I’ve tried I like more - (and would compliment my current conversion to the greenland paddle). Most of all Id really like it to be lighter so that I’d use it more and not kill my back. Since I can’t afford a kevlar Ikkuma 17 or any similar boats and can never find any decent deals on craigslist, I think my best bet for the $1k budget is to build it.

I’ve never built a kit and I’m not a woodworker, but I’m pretty mechanically inclined and have basic tools and garage space. I’m just not sure if it’s even worth it if it comes out badly or it doesn’t paddle like you expected it to. Has anyone built the Shearwater 17? (that’s the kit I’m leaning to) Was it relatively easy to put together? Did it paddle like expected? (highly subjective) And was weather cocking without the skeg a problem?


– Last Updated: Oct-16-09 5:27 AM EST –

CLC had a demo near me a couple years back. You might ask about that. Maybe you could go visit them. I haven't personally regretted the leap of faith but I've seen it. Twice I've seen folks bring their wooden boats to pool sessions to roll and they discovered their creations are terrible for rolling.

Point Bennett?
I am in the process of building the Point Bennett kayak designed by Duane Strosaker. He has the plans (actually the plotting numbers) for free on his website. You can take his numbers and loft them onto plywood and cut out the panels yourself.


He has a 16, 17 and 18 footer on his site.

I am building the 18 footer. I am very lucky to have a friend who was able to plot the numbers for the 18 into an autocad file and another friend of a friend who has a commercial sign making business with a cnc machine so it is almost like cheating. I am using cheap $10 a sheet luan and have had two complete sets cut out in case I screw up the first one. It should come in right around 450 bucks all told with deck rigging and glassing inside and out. 2nd boat slightly cheaper (if I ever build it) since I have the wood in a kit form already including coaming! :slight_smile:

Like you I am relying on just a few comments about the boat; the hard chined, low rocker and more storage capacity, if performs as expected, could make this a great expedition boat. I plan on using a sail for any real distance travels so will also have a reinforced area on the bow for the base of the sail as well as a detachable rudder for use only when sailing.

so far progress is slow but that is because of my time not the boat building process but everything seems to be coming together well. It is a very simple build after getting the panels cut out.

And of course it can be modified.

good luck!


I built a CLC Arctic Hawk
The only woodworking I had done before building my Arctic Hawk was a chessboard in Jr. High School. The building manual is very detailed, and I found it easy to follow. The boat came out beautifully. It’s a bit big for me, but I don’t mind, as it’s my big gear hauling boat. Even paddling it empty is great. Your size and weight seems just about right for it.

Inukshuk modified an Arctic Hawk kit and built it as a much lower volume boat (very well done!):


(I should have done that!)

I had paddled Arctic Hawks and Sparrow Hawks in the past (composite boats from Wilderness Systems), so I did have some idea of what to expect when I built the AH. It’s a great kit, and a great boat to paddle. If you can find a builder in your area who will let you paddle theirs, do give it a try!


Layoffs and Used Market
There are many used wooden kayaks for sale at very low prices. Most of them are well finished and probably better done than I would do my self. The top dollar goes to impeccable wooden kayaks but the middle of the road creations can be often had priced lower than the cost of a kit.

I built a wooden boat once. It was during last recession. I was jobless, with spare time on my hands. The boat was great and I enjoyed it very much. It cost me about 50% more than I originally thought when all the materials added up. For the money I spent on it I could easily have 2 used wooden kayaks or a nice lightweight fiberglass model.

The wooden boat honeymoon ended after about 2 years when the boat needed TLC… and every year afterwards…

it’ll be different
the Chatham doesn’t have much rocker, what makes it slower is what makes it nice in waves.

If you add up all the dollars it takes to make a kit kayak add about 40% for materials and incidentals. If you make the kayak with minimal epoxy it’ll be about as light or lighter than a kevlar kayak but it will be more susceptible to cosmetic damage for the simple reason that thin coatings of epoxy and light glass provide less protection against water intrusion (water vapor can go through thin coatings of epoxy) than thicker coatings of epoxy. If you build like the average firstime builder or someone who wants the kayak to be cosmetically durable if it’s not stored religiously with hatches off and out of the sun it’ll weigh closer to 50lbs.

A Shearwater Merganser 18 has similar displacement as your Chatham 17 but will be a lot faster. It actually has more rocker.

If you get a wood parts only kit from Shearwater and glass/epoxy from RAKA you could have a finished kayak for about $750.

The displacement of the Merganser 18 is about the same as a CD Caribou. If you don’t know how to roll you’ll need to learn with the Shearwater/Merganser17.


Or you might search around for a used Eddyline Night Heron 16 which is a very efficient hull, light and may feel faster. not sure about room for a cart.

BTW there’s a cart with smaller wheels out there, have you seen it?

test paddle
The kit manufacturers will usually give you contact information for owners/builders in your area. Most owners are happy to show off their boat to an interested paddler.

Ask on the kayak builder’s forum – lots of good advice there:


I demoed a strip canoe, and then built a stitch & glue version without having paddled it. It isn’t exactly what I was hoping for, but I don’t regret doing it.

only for love
As with most things, you should build a kayak only when you love the process of building a kayak by hand. You should never build one when your objective is to obtain the finished product at lowest possible cost.

There is a great deal of personal contentment and knowledge to be gained by building anything. However, the odds are heavily against you in terms of obtaining the best economic results this way. Too many things come up, too many mistakes are waiting to be made, too many things have to be redone. The first time you do anything is likely to be inefficient.

I know three people who have built
Pygmy S and G. kayaks. The boats are great and if you get some of the abundant free advice along the way,you will do fine.

I have built 2 of JEM Watercraft’s canoe designs and both turned our nicely,but not near as nice as those Pygmys.I cut the wood myself.

Regarding size, call Pygmy or CLC and they will put you in the right boat.

I Built a Pygmy

– Last Updated: Oct-16-09 10:38 AM EST –

It was my very first kayak, really my first time in a kayak, and I did it because I couldn't afford what I wanted in poly or fiberglass. I built the Golden Eye but imagine the kits all go together by similar process/within a mile anyway.

Starting was the hardest part but once I got over my fear and the idea of building a perfect boat, it was on.
It was magical watching the hull take shape and the more I built, the more comfortable I felt with the next step.

I ran into a few hiccups and made a few calls for support but reading and rereading the instruction book got me through it and I was amazed at the results. I have built many things in this life but that kayak was the one thing I that gave me the most pride in my ability. Of course I was later humbled by seeing strip boats but I had my moment in the sun.

To give you an idea of what a dork I am and how pleased I was with it. I would load it on top of the car and drive by big buildings with mirrored windows just to see it. We had to get a room :)

curious to hear how it turns out
After building a few four panel kayaks and attempting my own it became evident that it’s not rocket science but there is some trial and error to getting a design under the bell curve for acceptable handling. Curious to hear how it paddles.

Kit vs. from Plans
I’ve built three S&G kayaks, all to the VOLKSKAYAK design, and have had a finger in the pie in building about a dozen others. There is absolutely nothing difficult about the S&G building process, providing you have a decent set of instructions and are willing to take it slowly and carefully, especially at first. Given this, anyone can build a credible kayak.

If money is a concern, you should consider building from plans rather than a kit. The kit essentially saves you the labour of laying out and cutting out the panels, a process that takes me about a day. Granted, I don’t get the 1/1000 of an inch accuracy that you can get with CNC cut panels, but then again I’m not helping pay for a mega-bucks CNC cutting machine. Reckon that 1/16 to 1/32 of an inch is close enough for my purposes…

As someone else mentioned, the Kayak Building Bulletin Board is a tremendous resource - lots of extremely knowledgeable and helpful builders who readily share their knowledge and techniques. A post there should get you all sorts of replies re the designs you are considering.


Not sure i agree with that
I know lots of people who have built yost boats or skin on frames specifically because of cost variables and the opportunity to get into the sport and possibly have one or more boats with different intent. I know a few more who go the wood route specifically because it is lighter and cheaper and they are perfectly happy with their decision. I build to get a boat to do something that I want if i don’t have the money to buy a fiberglass or kevlar version of what i am looking for. Seems to be a no brainer to me…have no boat with the characteristics you are looking for or have a wood one or a skin on frame that does and fits within your budget.



– Last Updated: Oct-16-09 12:40 PM EST –

@Kudzu - Yeah, I'm a little afraid of that. I'm pretty proficient at the cowboy scramble, but not so much rolling yet, but I guess how it paddles is what I'm really worried about...

cut panels:
@BrazilBrasil - If I had access to the proper tools/resources to cut panels Id probably do the same. Cheaper plywood would work for me, since I plan on painting or tinting the epoxy white anyways. I’m not in love with the wood look. That said, just getting the pre cut panels from the various companies might be the way to go, but obtaining the rest of the parts might add up more than thought and might be confusing for a newbie builder. Maybe on the second boat build…

costs more?
@kobzol - Well I’m actually in the same boat - recently laid off with time and garage space for a project. I’m not worried about my construction abilities, but a few comments about cost overruns worry me (budget is naturally tight right now). While I’m not afraid of the boat building journey, my original aim is to have a light weight boat that is similar, but addresses my perceived shortcomings with the Chatham 17 and for a low price.

chatham vs shearwater/merganser
@LeeG - yeah, I’ve heard that the shearwater is the same as the merganser, but the profile line drawing of the shearwater look more pleasing to me - more gentle curves in the right places and I’m leaning toward a 17 foot boat based on garage space available. You’re right, the chatham’s bow is very upturned, but it has much less rocker than the Chatham 16. I guess the flatish bottom and full chines extending forward a lot gives it the rough water surfing stability, but kinda plows on flat water. I suppose I need to find and compare stability graphs for the chatham and shearwater or find a way to test paddle a shearwater. I traded my previous boat (old perception shadow) because it was too tippy in waves and weathercocked badly. I kinda miss the storage and speed that I unknowingly gave up when I got the Chatham.

great forum:
Thanks for all the comments and for suggesting kayakforum.com. On that site I actually came across a person in a similar situation and is also considering the shearwater/merganser vs the arctic tern: http://www.kayakforum.com/cgi-bin/Building/index.cgi/read/186412

I recently contacted someone on craigslist selling an arctic tern kit for cheap, but then decided the shearwater is for me. Since I can’t physically compare the two, I’m relying on online advice. I might have been to hasty in dismissing the AT. Would the AT be as fast and track as well as the Shearwater? Maneuverability and lots of storage isn’t a concern, but decent stability is, and that’s usually related to the chines and maneuverability. I still like the lines of the Shearwater, but a similar looking and heavily discounted AT17 might fit the bill if it paddles as expected…

Don’t DO It!
Don’t build a kayak until you’ve ordered and built and Uncle John’s Pirogue kit. It’ll only take you a weekend or so and you’ll save the cost of the kit on the skills you will learn and mistakes you will not do again on your second boat.

Again I say! Make a cheap easy boat and give it away first. Then if you love the process you’ll love having this new boat building hobby that is an addiction. If you hate it then there are many many great used boats for sale. Post here on this site and these classifieds for help in finding a specific model.

If you cannot find a used boat then you can get a new boat faster than you can build one by working evenings at McDonalds. Builing your own boat costs a lot in time and materials. It is the most expensive way to get a boat unless you don’t have any sellable skills. If you don’t have any skills then you won’t build a worthwhile boat anyway.

There are TWO GREAT REASONS to build a boat. One you love the process and have to do it because it is in your blood. (Unfortunately this hobby does not pay for itself like fixing up old cars does.) The other reason is you want a custom boat like no other boat that you can buy. Skin on frame kayaks are a great example of this.

Good luck!

Re FrankNC’s comments…

What would you expect to pay for a 17’, 40 lb. well- equipped sea kayak???

I allow about $400 Cdn. for top quality materials, and about 60-80 hours of work I enjoy, to do a VK that does everything I want to do and more. I also enjoy building it, a hell of a sight more than I’d enjoy punching in the hours it’d take earn the cost of even a used 40 lb. kevlar sea kayak. And I don’t have to feed the taxman from those scrawny low-paying job paycheques, either…