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Kayak Materials and their Evolution

Kayak Materials

It can be said that modern materials of construction are the key to the growth of kayaking as a popular sport. In other words, if kayaks were still being made from wooden frames covered in animal hides, the sport would be very handicapped in popularity for a number of reasons including high cost, high maintenance, and animal rights issues. Instead, we see that kayaking is experiencing explosive growth in popularity.

Let’s look at the different materials used and their advantages & disadvantages. These are listed in chronological order of appearance and development to emphasize the correlation between the newer materials and the kayaking sport’s growth.

Drift Wood & Seal Skin

Generally only used north of the Arctic Circle by die-hard purists and out of sight of animal rights activists. Not an off-the-shelf item. Produced only by the paddler himself. Time consuming and expensive. Must be oiled regularly with natural oil such as seal fat.

Wood and Plywood

A step up from wood and sealskin but still not a realistic choice for most paddlers. It is not an off-the-shelf item. Generally only produced only by the paddler himself. Weight is usually high making handling difficult and reducing payload. Time consuming and expensive to build. Difficult to repair. Limited life span for the materials.

Wood or Metal Frame & Fabric Skin

This method is still used today, particularly on folding kayaks. The flexible fabric skin can aid in stability but may adversely affect speed performance. It is lightweight and is the preferred material blend for most folding models. This method, however, is expensive and difficult to repair. The fabric also has a limited life span. Fabrics originally used were canvas but now more modern stronger fabrics are available.

Polyethylene

Plastic kayaks are the least expensive and the most common. At the factory, pelletized plastic material is poured inside a mold and then heated and rotated in what is called a Roto-mold process. The plastic takes the shape of the inside of the mold. The process is challenging as cooling the plastic results in shrinkage and improper technique can result in warping and distortion. However, it is an inexpensive method to mass-produce recreational kayaks.

The polyethylene is robust but heavy, thereby limiting the boat’s performance. UV inhibitors in the plastic give it a long life. The seats are often molded as part of the hull and are non-adjustable. This ‘one-size fits all’ design reduces crew comfort and often limits use to short range pleasure boating.

Thermoform

This is not to be confused with polyethylene material and the Roto-mold process. This method uses sheets of hybrid plastic materials wrapped around the outside of a mold. Thermoform is stronger and harder than polyethylene, and it has a glossy finish similar to fiberglass.

Thermoform gives superior performance than polyethylene and generally weighs the same as fiberglass. It is less expensive than composites but more expensive than polyethylene. It is very durable and long lasting. This method is very quickly becoming the method of choice for intermediate priced boats.

Composite

Composite means a blend of materials that are held together by a resin or Epoxy. In modern language sense “composite” is an all-inclusive term that includes a number of newer materials including fiberglass, Kevlar, carbon fiber, Innegra and Basalt. These kayaks are built by applying sheets of the composite material over a gel-coated mold. Then the sheets are coated in a bonding resin. Several layers are added for strength, rigidity, and puncture or tear resistance. The last outer layer of gel-coat on an exterior mold gives a very smooth glossy surface. The result is a boat hull that is both lightweight and very strong.

Fiberglass kayaks are about 20% lighter than a similar polyethylene boat; Kevlar and carbon are even lighter still. These materials and the method of manufacturing make these boats the most expensive. They can be repaired with little weight penalty after suffering even serious damage.

Materials for Sea Kayaks

Because of the type of service that a sea kayak will likely see in its travels, certain materials are not suitable because of high weight or lack of strength or rigidity. Polyethylene, for instance, is too heavy and lacks the strength and rigidity needed for a true sea kayak. Most modern sea kayaks are manufactured using the thermoform method or from composites such as fiberglass or Kevlar.

It’s Your Choice

Frontenac Outfitters stocks a complete range of polyethylene, thermoform and composite recreational, day touring, and sea kayaks. Click Here to check out our inventory online which includes the specifications, pictures, and prices. Better yet, come to our paddlesports centre and speak with our experts first hand. Then take a bunch out for a paddle and see for yourself… that’s what makes Frontenac Outfitters a superior purchasing experience.

Click Here to learn more about your kayak and its parts & common terminology!

Click Here to learn about the different types of kayaks!

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