When we first heard from Richard Nissen, in June 2017, he shared one of the boats he had built and added to his small fleet at his home west of London on the River Thames. It was a s’ciopon, a Venetian boat rowed standing up and facing forward. With his newest boat, he’s still facing forward, but he’s taken a seat. It’s a skin-on-frame kayak, built to the plans and instructions in George Putz’s 1990 book, Wood and Canvas Kayak Building. Putz took his inspiration from a how-to article by about the Walrus kayak by Norman Skene in the June 1923 issue of the now defunct magazine, The Rudder. And Skene took his inspiration from a Southwest Greenland kayak he measured in 1921 in the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Howard Chapelle drew the lines for that kayak and included it in his chapter of Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America.
The kayak has undergone quite a few changes from its origin as a sealskin-covered driftwood frame to Skene’s adaptation. To simplify construction for readers of The Rudder, Skene did away with steam-bent frames and lashings and switched to a frame made of sawn pieces, glued and screwed together. He felt at liberty to assume that his readers had tools and woodworking experience; his article occupied two-and-a-half pages of the magazine. Putz, publishing in 1990, took 124 pages to coach readers through the build.
For lumber, Richard had some old planks on hand, nearly free of knots, but not long enough to make the longitudinals in one piece, so he had to cut and glue a lot of scarf joints to make the keel, stringers, chines, and gunwales. He repurposed a discarded Windsor chair back for the deck beam at the aft end of the cockpit—a more comfortable piece to lean against—and cut the curved stems from a similarly curved driftwood branch he found in the river.
The construction of the frame was straightforward and didn’t bog Richard down, but deciding what material to use for the fabric covering did. He was set on keeping the expenses to a minimum and steered away from canvas, even if it were easy to come by. Back in 1990, Putz himself acknowledged that a suitable piece of 10-oz canvas would be pricey—about $130. Richard settled on a fiber-reinforced polyethylene tarp as the source of his covering material. “It looks magnificent,” he notes, but admits in hindsight “that this choice was a bad one as it is not as strong as it should be.” It stretched over the frame easily enough and with bright-finished sheer guards covering the material’s edges and the staples anchoring them, the semi-transparent skin looks quite hi-tech.
The keel strip, which is to guard the skin from wear, was itself the cause of damaging it. When the kayak went out for its first trials, where each screw holding the guard passed through the skin there was a pathway for water to get aboard. “This made the first paddle extremely exciting as the kayak effectively leaked like a sieve. So, it was a dash for home not to sink completely.” The solution was clear silicone caulking, dabbed over each screw head and run along the junction of the skin and the keel guard.
Richard and his son report that, leaks nearly eliminated, the kayak performs well and “is a joy to use, so the design works.” Setting the kayak over strips of toilet paper helps locate leaks that have yet to be fixed, and chasing leaks remains an ongoing project. Richard isn’t willing to replace the skin. “It may be easier to start again from scratch to resolve the difficulties with a new solution for the skin. The frame is a very beautiful object in its own right and perhaps it will end up on display stripped of its skin.”
For now, he hopes to get all of the leaks stopped and enjoy paddling the Thames. “There are no rocks or other things in the river to rip or destroy the boat—the Thames is very sheltered and gentle environment.” Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows,” lived very close to where Richard has his houseboat, so he paddles were Ratty and Mole enjoyed picnic outings and messing about in boats. He has yet to cross paths with them.
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