Searching for that Dream Float
STORY AND PHOTOS DAVID FRANK DEMPSEY
EUREKA SPRINGS — Doug Powell came from a woodworking and sailing family in Maryland sailing the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean. Still, he spent more than a quarter of a century in landlocked Northwest Arkansas before he discovered the smallest, most personal and some say, most elegant, ocean worthy boat on the water.
Someone loaned him a short, stubby boat known as a recreational kayak. He enjoyed the boat, but the sport really grabbed him about three years ago when he started paddling a sleek, 18-foot racing sea kayak with a group of old friends. Before long, he wanted his own boat. He decided to put his woodworking skills to use and built a plywood kit kayak called a Chesapeake 16.
The precut plywood panels are initially fastened together with short pieces of copper wire in the “stitch and glue” design. The seams are then glued and the wires cut flush with the hull. The hull is covered in fiberglass inside and out, creating a wood-cored fiberglass sandwich. The fiberglass allows the grain of farm raised mahogany plywood — called Okueme — to show through beautifully.
People offer to buy the boat from him at launches around Beaver Lake and the White River.
Powell launched himself into building a second kayak in early April. The new boat, called Shearwater 17, would be a hybrid design using the “stitch and glue” method for the bottom and sides of the craft, but then switching to a more challenging strip planking process for the deck. He also decided to go with only a paper set of plans.
Doug Powell rolls out a full length set of plans for the Sheawater 17 while fellow paddler Judy Combs watches in Powell’s woodworking shop near Beaver Lake in Eureka Springs, April 6, 2011. Hanging from the wall is an all-plywood Chesapeake 16 that Powell built from a kit two years ago. The Shearwater 17 will be a hybrid design with the bottom and sides made of plywood with the deck will covered in thin strips of wood in varying colors.
“I thought to myself, ‘I can do this, I don’t need a kit,’” Powell said of his decision to put more of the creative process in his hands. It would also allow him to buy materials from different sources and to use some of the variety of woods stored in his home wood shop.
Powell has a large shop near his Eureka Springs house. He makes wood conga drums, kalimbas and other percussive musical instruments commercially and also makes glass artwork.
With paddling friends watching, Powell rolled out the fullsized paper plans on the floor of his shop. He cut the plywood panels, and then spent a few hours cutting out 16 temporary forms that would support the building of the deck.
Powell lines up the 16 temporary frames he will use to form the new boat in his workship near Beaver Lake in Eureka Springs, April 6, 2011.
He stitched and glued together the bottom and sides of the boat and prepared to drape the upside down hull with fiberglass cloth. Rigging a drill with a mixing paddle for efficiency, he continually mixed drinking glass-sized containers of the two part epoxy used to apply fiberglass for nearly an hour long “wetting out” process.
Using the temporary frames to align and fit together the plywood bottom pieces of the hull using the “stitch and glue” method.
Preparing to stitch on the plywood sides of the hull.
After a lot of gluing and sanding the Powell covers the upside-down hull with fiberglass cloth and then trims most of the excess material.
Powell sets up a drill that will keep mixing new containers of epoxy while he saturates the fiberglass on the bottom of the boat.
As the fiberglass cloth is saturated it begins to to disappear letting the grain of the plywood show through.
With help from a couple of friends, Powell worked epoxy into the white opaque cloth, taking more than a dozen containers of epoxy to saturate the glass fiber. The cloth became transparent, revealing the wood beneath. Only the remnants of the cloth hanging from bottom edges remained visible. They would later be trimmed away. He repeated the process on the inside of the hull over the next few days.
Next, Powell installed temporary frames to support the building of the deck. The design of the deck was his own from that point on, and he started by making drawings of his imagined pattern of thin strips of walnut, redwood, cedar and white pine.
Powell looks at some of the wood strips he has cut for the deck of the boat. His final selection was a combination of —from darkest to lightest— walnut, redwood, cedar and white pine.
“I started with the drawings, but, as I was doing the work, the drawings got thrown out the window. From then on I let the design evolve as I worked,” Powell said. “Every single strip had to be hand planed and fitted to the next.”
Traditionally called the ‘whiskey plank’ Powell fits in the last small strip of the deck planking.
The result is a pattern of sweeping and curving lines of finely fitted wood strips and trim that accentuate the hull shape.
With the deck pieces glued together, Powell and a friend carefully lifted the deck away from the boat and placed it upside down in a set of inverted cradles. The cradles held the shape of the thin and still flexible deck while Powell covered the underside with fiberglass. In place of the temporary frames went two permanent bulkheads, one forward of and one aft of the cockpit.
He then placed the deck back on the boat and covered it all with fiberglass.
It was ready for a cockpit coaming. The coaming is essentially a raised rim that strengthens the cockpit and allows for attachment of a spray skirt worn by the paddler to keep waves from entering the boat. The plans called for a coaming built from layers of plywood, but Powell had an abundance of walnut and decided to hand-fit and glue a coaming of solid pieces of the dark, attractive wood. Clamping and gluing it into place required using as many clamps as would fit along the inside of the cockpit.
The last phase was about 15 hours of sanding and varnishing to achieve a smooth-as-glass finish over the entire surface of the boat. The finished boat looks like a solid wood boat. Every bit of wood is covered inside and out in a very tough layer of fiberglass and varnish. The boat, at 42 pounds, is much lighter than a similar boat made of plastic or solid fiberglass.
Powell estimated that he spent 120-130 hours total with the project. On July 14, he lifted it off a trailer and carried it balanced on one shoulder for launching on the White River at Beaver below Beaver Lake.
After more than 120 hours of cutting, sawing, designing deck patterns and tons of sanding the boat is ready for launching.
No champagne bottle was broken across the bow, but there was a lot of oohing and aahing from fellow paddlers, tourists and even city employees who gathered to see the boat.
And it floats. The hybrid stitch and glue/strip planked boat hits the water for the first time at the town of Beaver, Ark. on the White River.
Powell’s advice for anyone who wants to build a kayak is “go for it.”
“It was an absolutely enjoyable experience. For someone just starting in wood working, the kit boats are maybe a better way to go.”
Doug Powell, center, sets off with friends on his first voyage in the new boat. From the left are Pat Costner, Ranaga, Powell and Jacqueline Froelich.