How Kayaks are Made

Whether on placid lakes or foaming rapids, kayaking has come a long way since its original use as a fishing vessel. With the sport riding a wave of popularity, it’s no surprise people are wondering, how are kayaks made?

Engineering How It’s Made
5 July 2022

The full history of the kayak is a murky matter. It’s generally accepted that the word “kayak” derives from the Greenlandic word qajaq, and that it has long been used as a fishing vessel. Some accounts trace it back 4,000 years to the Inuit, Yupik and other subarctic peoples, but the true earliest use is unclear.

What is certain is that how kayaks are manufactured has developed significantly. From wooden kayaks to mass produced plastics and even inflatables, there are more options and methods than ever before. So, how are kayaks made? And how are plastic kayaks made versus wooden and other varieties? Let’s dive right in.

How Are Kayaks Made Differently From Canoes?

Kayaking in a river (Photo: Charlie Munsey via Getty Images)

Kayaks are often conflated with canoes. While both are small, narrow boats propelled by human endeavour, they are not the same. Kayaks sit lower in the water than canoes and are moved by double sided paddles as opposed to the single-bladed ones used in canoes. What’s more, while canoes are quite open, kayak hulls are covered by a spray deck which has one, two or occasionally three cockpits, each seating one person. With that cleared up, let’s take a closer look at how kayaks are made.

How Kayaks are Made for Different Pursuits

Before going into the specific steps of how kayaks are manufactured, it’s worth noting that they are used for a variety of purposes. From casual paddles on still lakes to rapid whitewater adventures and long sea journeys, the build and design of the kayak will depend on its use. So, how are kayaks made differently for different purposes?

The shape, size and materials used to construct a kayak will all impact its attributes. For example, racing kayaks will be longer to make them faster. Sea kayaks tend to be sturdier and able to carry more weight, while surfing kayaks are on the narrower end of the scale to reduce drag, and thus enable them to break waves. And as for leisure kayaks, cost and stability tend to be primary factors.

In asking, “how are kayaks made”, we’ll explore the different materials – including wood and composites – and also answer, how are plastic kayaks made?

How Wooden Kayaks are Made

Carpenters buffing wood kayak with sander in workshop (Photo: Caia Image via Getty Images)

Whilst these require either building skills to make or deep pockets to buy, wooden kayaks are durable, light and easily repaired on the go. However, they’re not generally suitable for more “bumpy” endeavours such as whitewater excursions.

Wooden kayaks are usually made by using wires and glue to connect planks of plywood before the overall shape is covered with fibreglass and resin and finished with a varnish topcoat. Today, the increasing prevalence of DIY kayak kits has made the wooden option more widely used.

How Composite Kayaks are Made

For speed and manoeuvrability, composite kayaks are the way to go. Made of synthetic fabrics, these kayaks are sturdy and lightweight, making them a favourite with racers.

Making composite kayaks involves layering fabrics such as graphite, fibreglass, aramid (aka Kevlar) or a combination of them onto gel-coated moulds. This construction method makes composite kayaks highly adaptable, with the ability to choose the mix of materials as well as the number of layers.

There will usually be two mould sections for each of the hull and deck respectively. Once the fabrics, gel and resin are on the mould, they will be vacuum sealed in plastic at room temperature for about 12 hours before being removed. The two parts of the kayak are then joined using epoxy – essentially a very strong glue.

How are Plastic Kayaks Made? Rotomoulding

Kayaking in wild waters (Photo: piola666 via Getty Images)

Plastic may be heavy and difficult to mend as far as kayaking materials go, but it’s also amongst the cheapest and hardiest. This perhaps accounts for the popularity of plastic – specifically polyethylene – kayaks.

Plastic kayaks are made by a process known as rotomoulding. Kayaks can be rotomoulded in one piece or more. For two piece manufacturing, pre-measured polyethylene powder and a colouring agent are mixed inside two closed aluminium moulds for each of the hull and deck. A mechanical arm then places the moulds into an enormous oven heated to up to 450 degrees Celsius, while the moulds and oven each simultaneously rotate in two different directions. This dual rotation continues as the plastic is cooled and heated, possibly numerous times, until ready to be removed from the mould.

Then the two pieces of the kayak are joined before other elements of the kayak, such as the seats and handles, are attached. These too are formed by rotomoulding.

How are Plastic Kayaks Made? Thermoforming

Enjoying river kayaking (Photo: Ippei Naoi Via Getty Images)

In terms of the question “how are plastic kayaks made”, this method of making kayaks shares some elements of rotomoulding, except instead of polyethylene pellets or powder, the plastic comes in the form of a sheet of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene or ‘ABS’. Better known as the material used to make Lego, ABS is a thermoplastic polymer, almost as inexpensive as polyethylene and closer in weight to composite materials.

The first step in making a kayak by thermoforming is heating the ABS sheet. As with rotomoulding, the kayak shape is formed using a mould, but in this process, the sheet is on the outside and pulled into shape with vacuum suction.

How are Kayaks Made? The Future

Two people drifting in a Kayak (Photo: Diane Miller via Getty Images)

Increasing awareness of kayaking and growth in markets such as China are two factors identified as contributing to its increasing popularity. Another factor is the expanding prevalence of inflatable kayaks. Along with foldable versions, these are excellent examples of advances in how kayaks are made and show that it is an ever evolving process.

Hopefully this answered all your “how are kayaks made” queries. Happy paddling!


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