Skin on Frame vs. Stitch and Glue vs. Bead and Cove Strip
When we compare construction materials there is three major criteria that the builder and future paddler should consider. The largest factor when looking at construction materials is durability and maintenance which directly affects the crafts expected life span. The next largest factor is how easy is the material to use in simple and complex constructions, do you require specialized equipment or skills to use certain materials? The final factor that we highly value in choosing a material is availability and cost of a material and how the budget of a project is affected by a given material. The debate around which of these is the most important is evident, but I believe that all would agree that lifespan, cost and simplicity of a build material are major factors when building a canoe, kayak, paddle board or larger water craft.
Traditionally canoes and kayaks were built with a skin on frame technique from First Nations and Northern European building techniques, which have been modernized with new ballistic fabrics and composite materials, but the essence is similar. These craft are usually ultra-light and easy to transport/store using bent wood frames under a birch bark or skin to create waterproof craft. The traditional materials were quite durable, but did have risk of puncture and impact damage, however using the new ballistic fabrics and canvas the craft are quite durable in most applications.
These craft have been refined by companies like Cape Falcon Kayak and Kudzu Craft, and using steam bent or epoxy laminated frames under ballistic fabrics. The build times are also reasonable, and with the correct techniques and guidance can result in a great looking craft. There are also companies like Oru which are building pre-manufactured “folding” skin on frame style kayaks over aluminum internal frames. Different quality and techniques would be provided in the kits from these manufacturers, and they have been successful with the skin on frame kayaks.
Depending on the paddlers intended use, there are storage limitations and paddling conditions that the skin on frame kayaks struggle with. This mainly comes from the fact that they do not have bow and stern sealed hatches, and the paddler is seated on a low foam seat or pad. The gear and equipment of the kayak is sitting directly in front of and behind the paddler, and this can press against the ballistic fabric and misshape the hull. The touring environment is always changing, from fast moving rapids, to large coastal paddling to windy lakes, which the craft must operate efficiently in all situations. Skin on frame kayaks work extremely well in recreational and light touring applications, where the amount of gear and amount of time in the kayak are limited. In these situations, the ultra-light construction allows the kayaks and canoes to be nimble and efficient in the water. According to Cape Falcon Kayaks and Kudzu craft, the weight limitation (carry capacity) of the skin on frame kayaks are 210-250 pounds. The storage would also affect the life span, but the kayaks are very light so they could easily be stored in a full covered situation so they are not damaged by snow and extreme cold temperature.
As far as the cost of working with modern skin on frame materials according to the websites of these two companies, the begin at $350 USD but do not include the frames, bulkheads or ballistic fabric. These other materials would have to be sourced by the builder and purchased, shipped, milled and fabricated. The availability and cost of shipping may become a factor when sourcing these materials, and perhaps they offer ideals on alternative materials that are commonly available for the frames and skin. They do offer some waterproofing materials like epoxy, epoxy sealer, polyurethane and urethane sealer, but they likely have to be sourced and shipped as well.
Strip construction also has a rich tradition and techniques with high quality and long-lasting results. The thing to know about cedar strip and other strip constructions is they are always coated with fiberglass (epoxy or polyester) and cloths to waterproof and strengthen the strip. There are very popular and famous strip constructed kayaks and canoes with a range of kit prices, including Bear Mountain Boats and Nick Schade’s Guillemot designs. Strip canoes can be ultra-light as well and have the benefit of fiberglass strength and stiffness for performance. There are so many kayak and canoe designs and shapes that a builder can be very particular about their desired performance, efficiency, stability and size. The most popular canoe shape is the Prospector and the most popular strip kayak is the Greenland style.
The durability of a strip canoe or kayak is dependent partly on its shape, but they are considered very durable and low maintenance craft with very long-life span. Strip canoes are epoxy and fiberglassed with multiple layers of varnish, which make them very resistant to UV damage, cold and high temperature, waterproof and damage resistant. With proper winterization in a covered space kayaks will require refinishing and varnish every 7-10 years with regular seasonal use. Extra durability can be made with more fiberglass reinforcement in certain areas (bow and stern stem, hull and deck) but most paddlers will want one layer of fiberglass externally, two to three layers and the bow and stern stem and one layer on the underside and top side of the deck. More fiberglass does mean more overall weight, which may become a factor in performance.
The availability, milling and cost of strip kayaks and canoes can be prohibitive to new builders. Depending on the builders’ geographic location, certain materials (cedar, epoxy, fiberglass and varnish) may need to be shipped or milled. Western Red and Yellow Cedar can be found in certain lengths in Western Canada, and Eastern White Cedar is also available in Ontario, which are the most common strip used in these builds. The cost of Cedar range in price, but in our experience milling in our shop, the cost is around $1000 CAD for the cedar strip. The epoxy and fiberglass would cost approximately $450 CAD and varnish. The stations, strong back and forms also have to be made, which would be another cost. Every hull design requires different bulkheads and strong back, so this will vary depending on the model. Canoes have a station every 12-18 inches to shape the hull. Bear Mountain Boats offers compete kayaks kits for approximately $3195 + shipping and canoe kits at $3141 + shipping, with the cedar strip alone at $1250. A Nick Schade Guillemot design kayak kit at around $2198 USD + shipping. Cedar strip is definitely the most sought after construction material however it can be cost prohibitive for a first time builder, and creates challenges for a builder to create multiple boats in many designs due to cost.
Strip construction will offer the most options for hull and deck shape, but generally they are rounded hulls and decks for touring and ocean paddling. The cedar strip kayaks are great for touring because they can have sealed bulkheads and bow and stern hatches which makes them capable of heavy load and high-volume capacity. The negative to having a rounded hull when comparing to marine plywood (stitch and glue method) certain planning or hard chine (shaper joints) can offer a more efficient or maneuverable hull shape for certain types of paddling. Strip construction kayaks can be very stable and efficient depending on their design, always be careful of what the designs intended use is, some touring kayaks are not performance kayaks, some canoes are solo lake canoes instead of river tripping canoes, etc.
The build time of a strip style craft can also be a determinant factor in their construction, since every strip is glued, laid and stapled the hull can take time to construct depending on the size of the craft. The average build time in our experience of a strip canoe is between 200-500 hours. Some kayaks boast that the build time is 100 hours, but that would not include the milling time or the fiberglassing time. The strip constructions take can take a year to construct, which is not unreasonable, but may be a factor in builder to paddling timelines.
Stitch and Glue plywood construction is a newer technique (we began in using this technique in 1955) that can have faster build times and results, where panels are wired over temporary and permanent bulkheads and then fiberglassed outside and inside. This technique offers larger panels over temporary and permanent bulkheads and then fiberglassed. This greatly reduces the builders time because the panels are cut precisely and all of the building materials are included in the kit.
The durability of stitch and glue BS 1088 Marine Mahogany kayaks and their maintenance is excellent, which makes them ideal for newer builders and people that only want one ultra-light kayak for many types of paddling. Our kayaks are fiberglassed internally and externally and UV protected with marine z-spar varnish. The varnish should be refinished every 7-10 years depending on usage and winter storage. The stitch and glue construction kayaks are able to be winter stored in a covered space, with or without heat, because they are made with the same material and same thickness throughout. This means that in very hot or cold weather the kayak does not twist or crack because it is equal strength across the whole craft. The hulls can be graphite coated to increase durability in rocky environments, which is included in the kit. Since the plywood is BS 1088 tested and certified the plywood core will not delaminate, weather check, and is equal laminated for every ply. The stitch and glue technique has epoxy joints and fiberglass, which reduces flex and the risk of delamination between strips (planks).
The stitch and glue method are a very simple and fast construction method, and require minimal tools and skill to build canoes, kayaks and other craft. Holes are drilled through the panels and wire is used to stitch the hull or deck to shape before applying epoxy and fiberglass. Once the panels are adhered in shape, they are sanded and fiberglassed for durability. The kits include the epoxy and fiberglass required for the construction, as well as the wire and varnish for finishing. The build time is around 100-150 hours depending on the kit size, which means the builder can be out paddling faster. This would be similar build times to a skin on frame kayak (approx. 120 hours for a touring kayak) but the durability and rigidity of a hard-shell touring kayak. The stitch and glue kits we offer at Timber BoatWorks are CNC cut panels, with the epoxy, fiberglass and varnish included and shipped together. Pliers and an orbital sander are useful tools in the build of a stitch and glue kit, but there are no specialty tools required. We offer a full build manual and Youtube tutorials to make the builder confident in the process, with plenty of resources to get the ideal build experience.
The cost of a stitch and glue kit, with all the necessary part and epoxy, is approximately $1700 CAD, which would be very similar cost to a skin on frame kit and half of what a cedar kit would be. Since the panels are cut with the BS1088 Marine Mahogany Plywood and Marine clear epoxy there is a lot of value in a stitch and glue kit. There are stitch and glue kits at almost every price range, so they are ideal for first time builders and for people that would like multiple kits. The price of the kit often is reflected in its design and features and the builder has a wide range of options.
Any individual that is looking for a fully enjoyable project should consider building a kayak or canoe. Each broad group of kits offer benefits and tradition, but generally for individuals that want durable and light kayaks with simple builds and low cost the stitch and glue kits are best. Storage is similar between all of the construction methods, so always consider how to store kayaks or canoes for the longest lifespan.
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