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Building the Li'l Beauty Skin-on-frame Kayak

by Charles Hall
November 1998
(Revised July 2016)

I was first attracted to the Li'l Beauty by an ad in the back of Messing About in Boats. The Hobbycraft Kayaks ad described plans for a touring kayak costing less than $100 to build, and less than 20 hours. The plans were under $20. From the look of the photo, it looked like what I was after, a wide kayak with an open cockpit.

When I got a little more info in the mail, I was surprised to discover that the boat consisted of a Dacron fabric skin attached to a wooden frame... and that the weight was less than 40 lbs. The hull shape was supposedly modelled after the designer's Folbot. This was what I was looking for.

The Plans

The plans consisted of typewritten step-by-step instructions, with a number of small sketches and three small templates. Without photos or overall drawings it was difficult to imagine what I was getting into, but reading the plans did not reveal anything that seemed beyond my skill. The lack of photos would hinder me somewhat, as you shall see.

2016 Update: I have been unable to contact Walter Head, the man behind Hobbycraft Kayaks for some time now. For now, I am sharing my copy of the plans as a PDF file.


Since the designer lived up in the North Carolina mountains, I figured he wouldn't call for any exotic nautical lumber. In fact the only real specialty item was the heat-shrink Dacron fabric covering. It must be ordered from a company called AIRCRAFT SPRUCE & SPECIALTY. Order five yards of 3.7 oz. X 66" wide Dacron fabric. It was only about $25 and arrived very quickly. (As an added bonus, their catalog is a real hoot. They sell EVERYTHING you need to build a plane, from the wheels to the instrument panel!)

I was determined to obtain all the other parts from my local Lowes or the hardware store. This was going to be a simple boat, with no pricey marine gadgets involved. The plans called for ordinary 1/4" luan plywood, some 14-foot pine boards (without knots), Contact Cement, drywall screws in three lengths, and various other small bits and pieces.

Well, they don't have any 14-foot boards in my Lowes, and going to a lumber yard would violate my "Prime Directive" of staying at Lowes. And the boards without knots were WAY too expensive. I gambled on 12' boards with lots of knots. On to the next item...

Pick up a can of contact cement, so far so good (but see below). Oddly, the specific lengths of screws given in the plans simply do not exist! I picked up a couple of boxes of something close. (Quit laughing, this story has a happy ending.) The plans call for regular staples, here I draw the line. I want rustproof staples. Amazingly, either Monel or Stainless steel staples are available everywhere I go, but they'll cost ya'.

I spent less than $60 on lumber, plus the $25 on Dacron. I'm psyched up now!

Hull Construction

Construction begins with building a wooden frame on sawhorses for use as a work table. I put some old steel folding legs on mine so I wouldn't tie up my sawhorses. First you rip the 14-foot (er, 12-foot) board into narrow strips. Get a nice blade for your table saw before you make these cuts. Three sides of the strips are visible in the boat, and the smoother you can cut them, the better. Next you cut the luan. What a dream to saw 1/4" plywood, you can use a small hand-held circular saw for some cuts, but you'll mostly use a sabre saw.

The first mystery, how you build a 12-foot boat with 8-foot plywood is solved by glueing bow and stern extensions to the plywood you just cut. The plans call for "resin glue", but I had some West System epoxy on hand so I used that. Next you make little reinforcing plates to glue on top of the joint. Let it dry and begin to build up a boat on the plywood base... but I have already made two mistakes.

In the first place, the little reinforcing plates (red trapezoids in the picture show the proper placement) can't be but so large. They must fit inside the finished hull, with room for stringers on either side. At that point no stringers are attached so you have to make a good guess. Mine were too big, but not to worry; I made a second mistake that fixed it. I turned the plywood over to put the little plates underneath, rather than inside the boat, on top of the plywood where they belong. But this is not a fatal error.

The bow and stern pieces are attached, then the lowest stringers and frame members. Once all is set you can cut away the excess plywood, leaving a nicely shaped bottom. The hull shape is given by the six little stations cut out of 1" pine using templates. Ingeniously, the six stations are identical, and none are large enough to use much wood. You'll give your sabre saw a work-out though. Better yet, find a friend with a jigsaw and cut them out there. Not so much with the stations, but with the bow and stern it's important that the blade makes a nice 90-degree cut. The sabre saw blade tends to bend.

The six stations are then glued in. After some intense effort to screw and epoxy these stations in place, I stood back to admire my work. Well, either I've made a mistake, or only midgets will be able to get into this boat! The stations lean inwards! Quickly, I tear out the stations before the epoxy sets. The pictures show the correct orientation.

Like my previous error, a nice photo of a completed hull frame would have helped me prevent these mistakes. Once you've seen how it's supposed to go together, you could never make either mistake again.

Next you attach the remaining stringers, two on each side. I made two discoveries here, first: only two of the six stringers need to be longer than 12-feet. I need only splice an extra 10-inches to two boards. Secondly, I discover that small knots are not a problem. The wood bends OK.

My only crisis comes when attaching the middle stringer to the bow, as you see in the photo it will not twist to a nice vertical orientation, it attaches to the bow at an angle. Later, I decide this is normal.

Lots of varnish and the hull frame is complete.

The plans are explicit on how to attach the Dacron for the fewest wrinkles, and how to iron out those that remain using an electric iron. I saw a TV show on plane building which said you have it tight enough when you can bounce a quarter off it. Hmmmm. This was my first experience with Contact Cement, and it's used heavily from here on. To my surprise, the cement didn't seem to set up. It just remained gooey. NOW I learn there are TWO kinds of contact cement, the GREEN can and the RED can. The Green can cleans up with water, the Red can does not. Get the RED CAN. It behaves much more predictably. Even it doesn't set up hard and fast like I'd always heard. I think it has to do with the Dacron fabric being so flexible. But the cement does work, and now I use it for a number of other projects.

Oh, and my earlier mistake with the little reinforcing triangles now comes back to haunt me. Instead of a nice smooth hull bottom, I have these two little bulges. I hope they don't become stress points for wear and tear on the fabric later.

More varnish and the hull is complete. (I suppose you could also paint the fabric a different color, I just gave it a clear coat of varnish.) Now is a good time to see if it floats. I found a few leaks in the bow and stern seams, but it was easy enough to pull things back apart and re-glue.

The Deck

At this point the plans become more vague. Several options are presented for the deck, none with quite the same explicitness as the hull instructions. The photos show my solution. I added a spine down to the bow and the stern, and lined the cockpit with two more stringers. Then I covered the decks with more Dacron. Doubtless I will have to add some decorative tape or trim around the edges.

Bottom Line

Total cost, right around $85 plus the plans ($16) and some varnish and paint -- close to $100 any way you add it up. And the weight of the boat is UNDER TWENTY-FIVE POUNDS! What a delightful surprise that is. Similar size manufactured boats would need to be made of Kevlar to meet this weight.

No wonder it's called Li'l Beauty.

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