The restoration of Astoria’s abandoned railway depot by the Columbia River Maritime Museum (CRMM) in 2011-12 put this fine old building back on the map and added an architectural highlight to that rather desolate stretch of track. The depot was designed by the distinguished architect Thomas McMahon and was constructed in 1925 by the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad. It is one of only two examples of the “Prairie School” in the Pacific Northwest and serviced up to eight passenger and freight trains a day. With the advent of better roads, passenger service was discontinued in 1952 and thereafter the Depot was used only for freight handling until it was donated to the museum in 1987.
After an extensive restoration including seismic reinforcement, the building was re-named the Barbey Maritime Center and has been used occasionally for nautical craft workshops, meetings and weddings etc. Starting last spring, the center now has its own regular open-house event called the “First Friday,” combining activities like live music, movies and hands-on arts and crafts demonstrations. However, the old depot actually had another side to its new function–the woodwork shop that had been set up at the east end in the old freight area.
With a half dozen work benches, a high ceiling, and double-wide doors facing the mighty Columbia River, this was now a perfect spot to revive Astoria’s wooden boat building heritage, dormant since the last wooden gillnetters were launched in the 1960’s. Exactly how to accomplish this was not clear until early in 2015, until kayak enthusiast and builder Chuck Bollong came on the scene. The result has been five week-long classes—all sold out–where students built their own kayak from a kit supplied by the Pygmy Kayak Company of Port Townsend, Washington. (Info at bottom of story)
When the first week-long kayak-building class at the Columbia River Maritime Museum (CRMM) was announced early in 2015, the idea was viewed as a way to “test the waters” and see how much interest it might attract. So it was pleasant surprise when the four places in this first class in February were immediately filled. I met Chuck during the first class and was immediately struck by the sight of the three boats with the light streaming in from the tall windows, although only held together by galvanized steel wire and black Gorilla tape
I began asking questions as soon as he had a spare moment and was probably being a bit if a nuisance, but he was generous to a fault, even when I peered over his shoulder to see what was going on inside the boat. His passion for the sport is contagious and his craftsmanship is first class: I soon learned that Chuck has paddled his 17′ Arctic Tern in the Sea of Cortez, San Diego Harbor and the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, and has covered over 100 miles of the Willamette River as well as numerous lakes. At the start of 2015, his tally was eight Pygmy boats built since 2000, so he probably wasn’t expecting what happened next.
So great was the demand that classes in April and June were quickly added to the calendar. They also sold out before the first class had even begun mixing epoxy! Two more classes, in September and November were ultimately added as well. Class participants have included local Astoria and Seaside residents, but are more likely to have participants from bigger cities like Portland, Vancouver and Seattle, with the occasional visitor from Idaho and California, and even one international participant from Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. The current “record” however, goes to a brother and sister build team who drove all the way from Kansas City, a 3800 mile round trip! By the end of the year, Chuck had overseen the building of 18 kayaks in the depot, he had moved to Astoria, and six classes have been listed for 2016.
Two of the places in the first class were filled by Phil and Amy Hatton, who drove nine hours from Boise, Idaho. A week later, they happily drove back with two semi-finished Pinguino 14′ touring kayaks they intend to use in the lakes and rivers in southern Idaho. Phil told me he had built furniture and shelves but never a boat, although he watched his father build a stitch-and-glue sailboat when he was a boy. By the end of the week, he reckoned the whole process was easier than he had imagined, but credited Chuck’s re-assuring presence and advice as an important factor.
His wife Amy had only ever done “simple repairs around the house” but agreed with her husband that the necessary skills are not difficult to master with a good teacher to guide you. The third student was a local–Angela Cosby, Astoria Parks and Recreation director– who built a Murrelet, a sleek design 17 feet long that she plans to take on multi-day trips. “There’s no way I would try this at home,” she admitted. “It’s the instructor who makes all the difference.”
The essential skill they all had to master is lining up and joining the long shaped plywood strips around a series of five temporary frames with loops of wire threaded through holes and twisted tight. This is the “stitch-and-glue” technique, invented by English woodwork teacher and kayak enthusiast Ken Littledyke in the late 1950’s—though a few more recent boat builders have suggested they independently arrived at the the method through their own experiments….
By the end of the second day, students are ready to learn their next major skill, when they apply epoxy all along the seams of the carefully aligned panels which now make up the hull of their boat. Crucial to this step is that they work cleanly avoiding drips or bubbles as they apply the epoxy. On the third day they repeat the process, now with the panels which make up the deck of their kayak, and this is followed on the fourth day with beads of epoxy thickened with wood flour (called “fillets”) poured into the bow and stern stems of the hull to increase strength. The underside of the deck is also reinforced with fiberglass tape along the panel seams.
Day five sees additional fillets and fiberglass cloth applied to the underside of the cockpit, and the day concludes with the initially intimidating, but easily learned technique for applying a sheet of fiberglass cloth wetted out with epoxy (and becoming entirely transparent in the process) to the full interior of the hull. This step prepares the students for the application to the hull and deck of the exterior fiberglass and epoxy (a less difficult task) once they have returned the boats home.
The sixth day of the class sees the now-reinforced deck and fully fiberglassed hull interior permanently joined along the sheer with epoxy. This readies them to be wrapped in plastic and car-topped home on the following day, with the students having the necessary skill to complete the final construction steps for the boat, working at their own speed. Bollong expects the students to spend another 30 – 35 hours at home after the class, for the basic build (not including hatches and bulkheads) finishing the surface sufficiently well to begin varnishing, which serves primarily as UV protection for the epoxy resin as well as enhancing the natural wood grain finish of the boats. “But the biggest steps that make the boat work are done here,” he assured me.
No matter how many times he teaches the method, Chuck really enjoys watching the students leave with the mostly-completed product in hand. and taught more classes in September and November. Considering the $1000 or more that a kit may cost, plus the $800 to take the class, plus the stay in a hotel and the driving expense, one could reasonably assert that this DIY project is no longer a low-budget project. But what other object with such beauty and utility can a beginner produce with his or her own hands? I can’t think of one. And I can state from personal experience that the reward for my own efforts has been the incomparable satisfaction of gliding across the water in craft I built with my own hands.
“Teaching has always been a passion in my life, and the opportunity to introduce others to the process of building one of these boats is a true joy,” he explained. “Builders not only have the satisfaction of producing a beautifully designed and visually stunning vessel, but will have the added enjoyment and pride of paddling a boat that they made with their own hands.” The week before the class begins, Chuck spends about 10 hours per kayak preparing the tools, epoxy, fiberglass etc. and doing some preliminary work with the kits like joining the 8′ panels to create full-length plywood planks.
But these are merely the basic raw materials for a boatbuilding venture, without a capable and friendly instructor, the classes would not have received such high praise and encouraged even more people to sign up. Chuck Bollong has been on the Pygmy builder’s list for years—after having built two of his own boats in Tucson, Arizona where he taught college and university-level archaeology. He left the University of Arizona in 2005 to work with an environmental consulting firm, which resulted in moves to Salt Lake City and finally Portland. He had gained more experience with several commissions and participated in courses at River West in Portland after moving to Oregon.
The kayaks have brought new life and activity to the museum’s workshops that also teach more traditional skills like basket weaving, wood carving, fancy ropework etc. The simple design and construction of the kayaks is similar to historic boat-building processes, although the materials used are modern plywood and fiberglass, explained Sam Johnson, the museum director. “Some would say they are not traditional wooden boats,” he said, “but traditional or not, they help preserve the skills and the process of boat building.” (Johnson, is himself a skilled builder of traditional small craft and had taught several bronze-casting workshops in the station.)
Students may have little or no experience with wood work or tools, but can choose any of Pygmy’s 16 solo kayak designs to build, from the 13-foot long Pinguino Sport, through to the 17’6” Coho, or maximum volume Borealis. Current kit prices range from approximately $900 to $1200 depending on the model selected, however kits come with all materials (System Three epoxy resin, fiberglass cloth, mixing materials and hardware) necessary to complete the basic build. Students then can add deck rigging ($18) and the bulkhead and hatch kit ($69) once they have the boat home.
The component panel designs of the Pygmy Kayak Company of Port Townsend are computer faired and the kits are produced by CNC machinery, which ensures that they fit together perfectly, providing for accurate and easy assembly. Equally important is that Pygmy has built a loyal following with their customers through their active web site and lists of approved builders and teachers. They hold their own kayak-building courses at the Northwest Maritime Center, just a short walk around Point Hudson marina from Pygmy’s showroom—but these are already sold a year in advance. (There are also classes in Florida, Maine and Ohio—all hopefully providing what the web site describes as “a fun group setting and great, hands-on opportunity to learn how to assemble a kayak from trained professional boat builders.”)