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Choosing the Right Kayak (Kayaks You Can Build Excerpt)

Three plywood kayaks lined up together in shallow water

The following is an excerpt from Kayaks You Can Build by Ted Moores and Greg Rössel. Click here to order the complete edition.

Builders of plywood kayaks are often paddlers first and builders by necessity or choice. They have an advantage when it comes to choosing the right model to build because they most likely have firm opinions about what kayak works best for them. On the other end of the scale is the builder who will learn to paddle after building the boat. Regardless of what you know about kayaks at the moment, the kayak you build should be the right one for you. It will be your mental image of pointing that beautiful varnished deck out into the waters of your favourite place that will keep the project going.

Before buying or building a kayak, it is wise to paddle all the kayaks you can before making a decision. Dealers of mass-produced kayaks often allow potential customers to try out boats before buying. Paddling a specific kit boat is a little more difficult. Unless you know someone who has built the kit you are interested in, all you have to work with are the specifications. The best you can do is collect all the specifications and features from the boats you like and look for a kit that is similar. To begin the search, we suggest making a list to help define and sort out your needs.

Deciding on what to build can be done in two stages. The first is to consider how you will use the boat and what you expect it to do for you. A good exercise is to settle yourself in the virtual cockpit and see where it takes you. The second is to match your wish list to the various manufacturers’ model specifications. This is not always easy, because there is no standard way of expressing how a kayak will perform, and the hydrostatic data given by suppliers is sometimes incomplete.

Where Will You Paddle?

The contemporary kayak has evolved in a number of directions. New sports have been created, often driven by the evolution in materials and manufacturing. A good example is extreme whitewater kayaking, which would not exist without forgiving polyethene and roto molding. As a rule, wooden kayaks are built for traditional paddling styles. Kayaks built with plywood are usually traditional sea kayaks or Rob Roy-style double-paddle solo canoes.

If you are heading offshore, speed and seaworthiness are more important than initial stability. For the birdwatcher exploring the marsh, a short boat with initial stability is ideal, and if the boat happens to be easy to enter and exit gracefully, so much the better. In spite of what some ads claim, one kayak will not do everything well. Kayak design is a fine balancing act; having more of one good feature means less of something else. As kayakers, we would like to have both initial stability and seaworthiness, but the broad, flat bottom that is comfortable and safe in the wetland is a hazard in open water because it follows the profile of every wave. A good designer will design a kayak for a specific purpose, but will keep the shape in balance so that it won’t be cranky.

Consider Your Skill Level

Are you happy with your skill level or will you continue to improve and push your limits? It is wise to build a kayak that you can grow into. On the other hand, if you are still learning how to get into one, a long, skinny kayak may fit the fantasy but leave you cold and wet.

Diagram show the elements of a kayak in profile and overhead views

Design Considerations 


Stability is the design characteristic that keeps a kayak deck side up. The entry-level paddler will be looking for a kayak that isn’t twitchy, but for the experienced paddler, too much stability will make it difficult to roll and recover.

Expressing stability in an understandable language is complicated, and most suppliers don’t even try. Steve Killing has developed a mathematical formula for his kayak and canoe designs that makes it easy to evaluate stability in understandable terms. Sea Kayaker magazine uses a similar formula to plot stability curves for the kayaks it reviews. These reviews are an excellent place to match the kayak that interests you with the technical data on its or a similar kayak’s performance. Suppliers frequently do provide testimonials. This can be useful information if it is understood that a testimonial is one person’s reaction based on his or her experience and preferences. Web site chat rooms are a good source of personal reactions to the various designs offered and are worth checking out.

Kayak Size

Most serious sea kayaks range in size from 16 to 22 feet long and 20 to 24 inches wide. Fun boats for day trips and exercise measure from 13 to 16 feet long and 22 to 30 inches wide. Rob Roy double-paddle canoes are generally 12 to 15 feet long. Your choice of size should be based on where y ou will paddle, expected stability, your size and weight, and how much gear you will carry.

Cockpit Size

Another design characteristic to consider is cockpit size and shape. A small cockpit opening is good because the skirt deck will hold less water and is less likely to cave in during an emergency. On the other hand, you need to get in gracefully and you don’t want to worry about getting stuck doing a wet exit. Trying out a few kayaks with cockpits of different sizes will give you a feel for your comfort level. If you are having a problem bending your legs enough to slide into a small cockpit, consider a keyhole shape that extends the length while keeping the area of the opening to a minimum.

For the builder, it is easy to reduce the width of the cockpit by trimming the parts on the centerline, but if a wider cockpit is desired, new components will have to be made. Keep in mind when redesigning the cockpit that spray skirts come in standard sizes and it is easier to buy a skirt off the shelf than have one custom made. Some skirts are designed os that you can get at the bungee to make some adjustment.

Rob Roy-style canoes are generally paddled without a cover, so there is no limit on the size of the opening. A typical cockpit would be 4 to 5 feet long, making it easy to enter and exit but unsuitable for rough conditions.


If you intend to spend long periods of time in your kayak, comfort is going to be important. The standard seat included in most kits is usually good but basic. Some suppliers will upgrade components for an additional charge. Check out the seat ads in the kayak magazines if you are looking for the ultimate in comfort.

As a rule, for maximum stability the seat bottom should be as close to the bottom of the kayak as possible. Backrests should be low enough that they do not interfere with the movement of paddling, as well as allowing you to lie back over the aft deck when rolling.

If you have big feet or if you paddle with boots on, the heigh of the foredeck will be of interest to you. While the height on the centerline will vary from 11 to 16 inches, it is the space where your feet will be that is important. Also consider the deck height at the back of the cockpit. A low aft deck will allow for a good layback when rolling.


Displacement is the total weight of the boat, the paddler and the cargo. Professional plans will give the displacement at the design waterline as well as the weight to immerse. A good designer will calculate the optimum capacity range, or the safe and efficient upper and lower load limits. You can get an idea of what happens when the load changes by looking at the design waterline on the plans. Use the weight-to-immerse number to see how the waterline shape changes as weight is added or removed.

You will often see a specification called “capacity” that is intended to suggest something about displacement. Unless you know how the calculation was arrived at and how it relates to the design waterline, all it really tells you is that the kayak will hold x amount of weight without sinking. Don’t be misled by this number; it has nothing to do with how safely the kayak will function with you and your gear aboard. If that is all the plans have to say about displacement, you have to wonder how serious the supplier is about design and customer safety.

Cargo Space

The gear you carry with you will go inside the kayak or ride on deck. One of the advantages of building your own boat is that the choice of how much of what goes where is up to you. Try to be realistic about the number of hatches and the sizes of the openings. Visually, it bothers us to cut a hole in a beautiful foredeck if we can get away with a dry bag or air bags to fill up the space. Keep the hole to the minimum size possible. In theory, a small hatch opening will have a better chance of being watertight, partially because the cover will hold its shape better and the deck will remain rigid.

The hatch components included in most kits may be reduced in width quite easily, but changing the shape or reducing the length will require new parts. On the Coho and the Enterprise, Ted used the components intended for the foredeck in the stern deck. Although the hatch appears small, it is large enough for a comfortable week of self-sufficient cruising. 

Deck hatches and bulkheads are simple to add later, so if you are not sure what you will need, consider cutting the hold only when you know what will be going into it. The same holds true for deck rigging; decide what you will use before installing it. There is no point in cluttering up the deck with lines that will never be used, especially when it is easy to add more later.

Finally, building a plywood kayak from a kit is a big commitment in time and money. While the function of the boat is important, it must also look right to your eye and make the exercise worth the effort.

Interior of a workshop showing empty cradle for building a kayak

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