A New York writer travels to Down East Maine to discover the craft of kayak building
ow, sleek and dynamic, a kayak’s design isn’t just beautiful—it’s historic. Several thousand years ago, the Inuit people developed kayaks, making them out of seal skin stretched over whale bones or driftwood frames, to help them hunt within the waterways of the Arctic. Today kayaks are as appealing as ever, though less out of necessity and more for their thrill. When you propel yourself through the water in one of these light boats, it’s addictive and unlike any other experience. It’s as close as you can get to being in the water without actually being in the water.
It will take Macks, owner of Laughing Loon Custom Canoes and Kayaks, about 300 hours to construct this kayak
Plastic or fiberglass kayaks are not hard to find, but it takes a bit of effort to track down a top-notch version made from wood. To do so, it’s certainly worth the trip to Jefferson, Maine, about half an hour from the coastal town of Camden, to meet Rob Macks, owner of Laughing Loon Custom Canoes and Kayaks. The craftsman has been making wooden kayaks since 1991, and his creations are remarkable to look at both on land and in the water.
Macks brings experience in cabinet building, furniture making, art history and sculpture to his craft
“I make boats that I want to use,” Macks tells me on a recent visit. And building and creating is second nature to Macks. In addition to making kayaks, he’s worked as a cabinetmaker, a furniture maker and an assistant professor at Amherst College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, teaching sculpture and drawing. He’s also made everything from copper jewelry to plaster and cast bronze sculptures to his own fishing lures. “Making boats is a combination of all my loves: sculpture, the outdoors, being on the water and working with my hands,” he says.
At Macks’ two-story workshop, a handful of in-progress boats fills the space, and finished models hang from the ceiling (including an improbably short one-person wooden canoe that weighs a mere 22 pounds). Though he’s refined his process over the years, Macks’ work is slow and meticulous. It takes him nearly 300 hours to complete one boat.
His designs are modeled after the Inuit boats that he’s seen in the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC, and he’s constantly trying to improve them. For example, he’s discovered that using strips of wood just three-sixteenths of an inch thick instead of one-fourth of an inch thick makes a typical boat about 5 pounds lighter—no small amount when the typical kayak weighs in at 30 pounds. The thinner and longer a kayak is, the faster it moves. And he’s working on such tweaks as hatches that seal shut with discreet hidden magnets. Still, it’s the designs of previous generations that continue to be his biggest influences. “Almost everything around us is inspired by something in the past,” he explains. “If you go to the source, then you’ll get a lot more inspiration and energy.”
What else distinguishes a truly remarkable wooden kayak? It should feel personal. “I can’t design a boat at a computer,” Macks says. He begins by looking at his materials—such as Alaskan yellow cedar and western red cedar—for inspiration, asking himself how they can be used in a way that is complementary, for example, in creation of unique motifs using the wood’s natural, varied hues. Another important factor is the wood’s flexibility—without it, forming the curved hull and the ribs of the boat would be impossible. “Creating kayaks is understanding the special properties, ‘the magic,’ in every material,” he says.
“Making boats is a combination of all my loves: sculpture, the outdoors, being on the water and working with my hands,” Macks says.
o build his kayaks, Macks sets up a series of forms, called stations, which are cross sections of the hull shape. (These are later removed.) They’re attached to a supportive beam called a strong back that holds them firmly in place. Strips are then laid lengthwise along the stations—this is the body of the boat itself—and temporarily glued down and held tight by clamps. (He prefers not to use nails or staples, which mar the surface of the boat.) The strips are then glued permanently along each edge using yellow carpenter’s glue.
When everything is in place, he scrapes away the excess dry glue and sands down the surface. Then he applies a layer of translucent fiberglass that comes in the form of woven cloth. It’s glued to the hull in what’s known as a wet-out of the fiberglass. Epoxy resin is applied with a paint roller, and as the epoxy dries, the fiberglass bonds to the wood. Macks then rolls on more coats of epoxy, sanding down the boat between each one, and finally adds a coat of varnish. Completely sealed, the boat retains a lovely finish, at which point one can truly appreciate the boat’s elegant convergence of form and function. Its shape is attractive enough that you’d be happy to just stare at it hanging on the wall, but it’s also exceptionally resilient, able to handle salt water as well as fresh, from little ponds to the big sea.
Plastic or fiberglass kayaks are not hard to find, but top-notch wooden versions, like these two designed by Macks, are few and far between
Macks’ enthusiasm for kayaks is contagious, and a similar sentiment just can’t be mustered for other boats. For example, at my cabin in Wisconsin, we have a wooden rowing skiff that was built at Lowell’s Boat Shop, which has been making boats since 1793, and a fiberglass kayak. The rowboat’s movement is easy but contemplative. It feels like you should row to the center of the lake and then drift while you read an old novel. The kayak, however, is the exact opposite: Everything about it suggests forward motion and speed. From the moment I lower myself into the cockpit, I am ready to move. I travel through the water with exhilarating speed and power—my own power. It’s that same exhilaration that Macks’ dynamic watercraft express so beautifully.
- All photographs by David Coggins