Kayak Wood
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Suitable Wood
ideal for building kayaks and wood that is acceptable.

Wood Terminology
in which we discuss concepts you are likely to encounter when visiting a lumber yard.

Scrounged Wood
supposing that you don't want to buy new wood but would rather find your own lying about or still connected to its roots.

Kayak Wood

What kind of wood is good for building a kayak? There is no fixed answer. Much depends on where you live and what your resources are. Different parts of your boat will call for different types of wood. Some parts of your boat are more particular about the type of wood you use than others. And different types of boats have different requirements.

My recommendations are based on building and using boats since 1988. My boats were subjected to a certain amount of abuse, partly because I was curious about just how much abuse they could handle. Traditional boats are quite strong, but they have their limits. And I will point out where these limits are.

Weight vs. Strength
Wood is a wonderful boat building material because for a boat the size of a kayak, wood has the best strength to weight ratio, better than steel or plastic. And of the different species of wood available, softwoods such as pine, spruce and cedar have better strength to weight ratios than the hardwoods such as oak or ash.
Rot Resistance
There is much experience in traditional wooden boat building about what woods will hold up to rot and what woods won't. But this experience applied to applications where the hull of the boat would be sitting in water for years on end. Kayaks sit in water for a few hours at a time and then are allowed to dry out. So you can use just about any wood without fear of having the boat rot as long as you dry it well after use. The only place to procede with caution is in the ends of the boat since the ends are the last to dry. The ends of the boat also accumulate sand and debris which further traps moisture. If in addition you have dry bags in your boat, these further impede air circulation and drying of the ends of the boat.
Traditional Boat Building Lumber
Traditional boatbuilding wood in the Arctic regions was driftwood brought to the kayak builders' shores by winds and currents from the boreal regions. Kayak builders were familiar with a number of different species and given a choice would prefer some species over others. But the Arctic regions did not stay isolated. Whalers and fur hunters started appearing in the Arctic regions in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds. And when they did, they introduced steel tools and cut lumber. So almost all the kayaks that we see in museums have had the benefit of modern tools and in many cases cut lumber. But the use of driftwood did not disappear entirely. And since both driftwood and building lumber were soft wood species, traditional kayaks were built almost exclusively of these species.

But there are some exceptions. Greenlanders made cockpit coamings from ash mast hoops used by sailing ships. And there were shipwrecks and who knows what kind of exotic lumber in the storage lockers of sailing ships. I saw one Aleut dart throwing board made of mahagony.

My Recommendations
Different parts of the boat have different strength, bending and working requirements, so let me make my recommendations by category.
Clear pine or spruce are good choices. If you are doing a Greenland kayak with three and a half inch gunwales you can even use lumber that has a few small knots in it. Not that you're saving that much money, it's more a matter of what's available. If your only source of lumber is a big discount lumber chain, then you can squeak by with lumber that's less than perfect. Douglas fir is quite strong though heavy and it has hard annual rings which tend to deflect drill bits and make accurate work a challenge.
Deck Beams
You can make deck beams out of just about any kind of lumber even building grade material with knots in it since the deck beams are short and you can usually find enough clear material between the knots. But don't put any deck beams with knots in your boat.
Deck Stringers
Deck can get some stress when you get in and out of your boat and sit on them, so they should be strong enough to take your weight. Whatever you use for your gunwales is good, although I would avoid red cedar.
The keelson gets quite a bit of stress especially if you paddle in surf and around rocks or drop your boat by accident. I would avoid red cedar here and stay with pine or even use something like douglas fir.
Hull Stringers
I have cracked the 3/8" diameter hull stringers on baidarkas both red cedar and white pine though these usually are not serious defects. A stronger wood such as douglas fir might be in order.
Ribs can be made out of any wood that will bend. White oak bends nicely and is strong. Red oak can be used as well but isn't as rot resistant. Those that can get it, can use yellow cedar. It's light weight and bends nicely. I haven't used it myself so I don't know how it holds up over time. In the eastern US, white cedar might be a good substitute for yellow cedar. White cedar was used for bending stock in bark canoes so it has a good history. It is also rot resistant. I have used aspen for making ribs. It bends nicely but is not supposed to be very rot resistant.
Wood I've seen used
As I said before, you can build a kayak out of just about any kind of wood, and people have. A list of things I have seen follows.

Svend Ulstrup, a Danish boat builder when teaching classes in the US has built Greenland style kayaks out of yellow pine, gunwales two inches deep and ribs of red oak and white oak. Yellow pine has properties comparable to hard woods and is quite heavy but because of its greater strength can be cut to smaller dimensions than soft woods.

Builders of the Seattle area who have access to cedar have built baidarkas out of red cedar with ribs of yellow cedar. These boats are nice and light. But red cedar is hard to get outside the Northwest and yellow cedar even harder. I have used red cedar for gunwales and hull stringers on both baidarkas and Greenland kayaks, though it is a brittle wood and more likely to crack than pine, especially in the thinner members such as hull stringers and keelsons which are most exposed to impact.

I have also used redwood, though this is risky practice. Redwood is even more brittle than red cedar and more likely to crack.

All content copyright © 2007 Wolfgang Brinck. Personal non-commercial use permitted.