What do we mean when we say that NC Kayaks are handmade in the Pacific Northwest? We mean that we make all of the fiberglass components of your kayak in-house. We spray the gel coat, cut the fiberglass cloth and mat and then layup the fiberglass laminate by hand. Then we pull each part out of its mold and carefully inspect it – we take building your boat seriously. Finally, we prepare each piece for assembly and bond the parts into a finished kayak.
Step One: Prep the Molds
The first step is to prep and clean the molds. We differ from some other manufacturers in our philosophy about when in the process we should polish. We probably dedicate more time to our mold prep than the average manufacturer.
First, we use a chemical release and bring our molds to a high-gloss finish before we start to build each part. By polishing our molds, each part comes out of the mold with a smooth surface, requiring less polishing once we pull the part. Depending on how the last part pulled, each mold may require more or less time and attention as we prepare to spray the gel coat. Occasionally, we need to strip the mold of all the layers of release we’ve applied and re-release it to bring it back to production readiness.
Step Two: Spray the Gel Coat
Since the molds are a negative, the first thing into the mold is the outside of the kayak part. The gel coat is the outermost layer of the kayak, so the next step is to spray the gel coat. Gel coat is the hard, thin shell on a composite kayak. It provides UV protection and is harder than the laminate beneath it so it also protects against abrasion damage.
We apply our gel coat with a High-Volume-Low-Pressure (HVLP) spray gun. Our spay gun allows us to get a nice, even coating on the mold. Once the gel coat is applied, it has to cure. In practical terms, that often means we have gel coating days and laminate days at the shop.
Step Three: Laminate & Wait
Our proprietary layup schedule uses multiple layers of thin fiberglass. This enables us to keep our kayaks light. We could build the kayak with fewer, thicker layers and it would be just as strong. But thicker layers need more resin to saturate the fiberglass, and most of the weight of a fiberglass kayak is the resin. So by spending more time applying more layers of thinner fiberglass, we can build a strong but light kayak.
Once the laminating is done, we need let the part cure again. This is not a step you want to rush. If we were to pull the part too soon, it could warp or spread. So we usually give the parts at least 2 days to cure. That can take longer in the winter, when the shop is colder.
Step Four: Pull and Inspect
Once a part has cured we pull it from the mold and inspect it. Gel coat can be temperamental to work with. It doesn’t like to be too thick or too thin. Also, if anything fell into the mold before or while it was being sprayed, it will be visible on the surface. Every once in awhile I have to remake a part because one of my eyelashes fell into the gel coat.
The vast majority of our kayaks are custom ordered and designed by our customers. We take pride in creating the kayak they have envisioned. Part of building your boat is carefully inspecting every part we make. If we need to, we’ll make the part again (and sometimes even a third time), until it’s right.
Building Your Boat: Two to Three Weeks
We generally say that it takes two to three weeks to build a kayak from scratch. The process is somewhat weather-dependent, though. Each of the chemicals we use has a range of temperatures that it can be used effectively, and our shop isn’t exactly climate-controlled. In the winter, it is sometimes too cold to spray gel coat or to laminate. Earlier this year, we had a cold snap with snow that put us out of production for a few days. Sometimes, it’s too hot to spray or laminate (looking at you, Heat Dome 2021).
Once we pull, polish, and inspect a part, we move to Phase 2: Preparing the Parts for Assembly (stay tuned for that post).