Back to main page

Interview with the Pakyak designer

November 2000

Dear Jim,

My name is Aaron White, and I'm a senior at Hellgate High School in Missoula, Montana. As a senior it is required that we do a Senior Project, and I have chosen to build a PakYak as my Senior Project. There are two aspects to the Senior Project, one would be the project, and the other would be the paper; for the paper we need to interview someone, and I figured you'd be the best person to interview.

I look forward to hearing from you, thank you very much.

Aaron White

Dear Aaron,

Here's a start at answering your interview questions:

1) What do you do for a living?

For many years I was an electronics engineer in the integrated circuit business. Now I work at Heron Books (or more exactly Northwest Research; Heron Books is the publishing side of our organization). My main job is writing courses, in subjects like high school algebra and science. The courses we write are used in private schools and by homeschoolers. Here in Sheridan, Oregon where we are located is the campus of the Delphian School, and there are several other Delphi schools around the country. They are the main customers for our curriculum.

2) What experiences do you have with kayaking?

When I was a boy my dad had a canoe, and we did a lot of canoeing together. I discovered the idea of folding kayaks when I was in college, and built my first one then. Paddling my own home- made kayaks has been my main means of water sports ever since.

3) What expertise do you have with boat building? Do you, or have you ever, built another boat? Was the PakYak your first boat that you built?

The PakYak plans that you see on the website are my sixth folding boat design, the fourth one that I've called a PakYak. Altogether I have built 11 of these folding boats, including 2 of the latest model and 4 of the previous one (in two different lengths). So far no two have been exactly the same.

4) Why did you want to create the PakYak?

I like the idea of being able to take my boat anywhere, and I like the idea of a "skin-on-frame" kayak type of boat better than the idea of an inflatable type (probably because I had to blow up too many air mattresses when I was a kid).

5) How did you go about creating a totally unique kayak as the PakYak?

My first folding kayak was a home-made imitation of the Klepper or Folboat designs. It worked fine, but had a lot of separate stringer pieces and fasteners. It took almost an hour for me to put it together sometimes.

It was also bigger than I needed, more like a canoe than a modern kayak. Then I saw some molded kayaks that were 10 or 12 feet long, and realized that if I used those dimensions for a folding kayak it could fold up into a more portable package.

I worked out a way to fold the frame in four sections without removing the skin, using hinges at the joints. That was a pretty good design. The main problem was that the seat was a bit too far back so it tended to ride low in the stern.

Then I thought of the idea of using flat stringers that would pivot together at the ends, and realized that with that idea I could make a six section frame design that would fold up very compactly. And this design would have two sections behind the cockpit instead of just one, so it would ride more level too.

With this design I have to take the frame out of the skin to fold it, but I decided that would be okay (everyone else does it that way). By making it end-for-end symmetrical it doesn't matter which way I put the frame in the skin, so there's no time wasted getting that step right. Overall I'm pretty happy with the result.

But I just kept thinking about different ways to solve the problems of making a fame that is easy to fold and unfold and will give a kayak the kind of shape I want it to have. Those are the main goals I've always had in mind.

6) How many total revisions has the PakYak undergone? Could you > perhaps, expand a little more on the different revisions?

I partially answered this earlier, but perhaps I can expand on that.

It is hard to say how many revisions I have made. If you count each new boat as a revision there were eleven. If you count major frame modifications as well I might say fifteen. If you want to count relatively minor revisions (things like adding tension cords to triangulate a frame, or reinforcing a hinge), I would have to say they have been too numerous to recall.

But maybe a rundown of the main things I've learned in the process of making those boats would be a good way to answer this.

From the first boat, I learned that:

From the second boat I learned that:

From the third boat I learned that:

From the fourth boat I learned that:

From various versions of the fifth boat I learned that:

From the sixth boat (which I call PakYak version 4, because the first two boats were not designed to be back-packable), I have learned:

That is pretty well up to date. There is the two-kayak catamaran style sailboat experiment to report on, but we'll get to that later. As I said, there have been various small revisions along the way too numerous to recall, but as new problems arise (or old ones recur) I do have the benefit of all my earlier trials and errors to draw upon. It's all been fun.

7) What ideas do you have for the future of the PakYak? Are there any drastic changes in plans? How is the catamaran-style sailing rig coming along?

I have made some small modifications from the plans on the web site that I should draw up and explain in detail before too long. There are no drastic changes.

For example, I've replaced the plastic buckle clips that I originally used to secure the middle of the gunwales to the center brace. The clips were not secure enough. So I worked out a way to replace the clip with a small hinge. Now I insert the free end of the hinge under the aluminum fingers from the bottom. Then when I straighten the hinge downward it levers the strap tight.

Another small change I made was to take the snap halves that engaged the gunwale end rails off of the top pieces of the mid braces and replace the mating snaps on the end rails with screws. The screw ends go into holes in the wooden brace part. This is more secure than the snaps were.

On the new boat with its tighter skin, I found I needed to start the zippers before I flattened the end braces, because once the end braces have the skin fully stretched the zippers don't work easily. But then it became difficult to attach the strap that holds the brace in the flattened position. So I put a piece of half-inch angle bar on a small hinge so that the bar swings up under the wooden brace to keep it straight once it is flattened.

It seems to go with the territory, that once you get in the habit of thinking "how can I make that work better?", it's hard to stop. So I keep trying out different ideas. Different isn't always better, but usually what I try is a little better in some way.

The catamaran style sailing rig works. The two boats rigged together are very stable, and the sail moves the boat nicely. But my keel doesn't have enough resistance to sideways drift to make it a real sailer yet, so there's more to do on that part of it.

I guess that's enough on that one.

8) Does the folding action of the PakYak frame eliminate the need of sponsons? Have you ever considered using sponsons on the PakYak? What is your reasoning for having or not having sponsons?

In boats in general "sponsons" are any projection built out over the side. In canoes, sponsons are generally long air chambers added on to the sides just above the water line to give the boat extra stability when heeled over. This is useful if the canoe is rigged with a sail. This type of sponson also gives the canoe extra flotation in case it gets swamped, which can be considered a safety feature.

In skin-on-frame kayaks, sponsons are not necessary, as proven by the many successful kayak designs built without them. I think Klepper was the first to introduce inflatable sponsons as a way of modifying the hull shape. They counteract the normal water pressure to give the hull more volume.

Adding sponsons like that turn a kayak into a semi-inflatable, a sort of hybrid design. It adds inflation time to the other steps needed to complete the kayak assembly.

One of my goals in designing PakYaks has been fast and easy assembly. Adding sponsons would compromise that goal, so I have never seriously considered it. The closed-cell-foam bottom pad already gives the PakYaks enough flotation to make them unsinkable.

Some people seem to think that adding sponsons or other air chambers inside a boat makes it float better. That's only true when the boat is full of water. Otherwise closing off part of the air space inside a hull does nothing.

Klepper's idea of adding inflatable "sponsons" so you can vary your hull shape from sleek and fast to broader and more stable is clever. But designs that rely on inflatable tubes to stretch the skin and give the hull its basic shape are, to my way of thinking, giving up on the idea that the frame assembly process itself can stretch the skin adequately. I'm not trying to build a Klepper "variable hull", and I see no other reason to add an inflation step to the PakYak assembly.

9) How have changes, or advances, in materials effected the evolution, if at all, of the PakYak?

I've always intentionally tried to design my PakYaks around materials that are "of-the-shelf" available, what I (or anyone) could find by shopping around in local sporting goods, hardware and fabric stores. I've also tried to minimize expenses.

So I haven't really explored the possibilities of "exotic" or high-tech materials. In looking for potentially useful PakYak materials, I'd say my most important "discoveries" were nylon packcloth, closed- cell-foam, Baltic birch plywood and aluminum tubing, channel, angle and bar stock. The availability of PVC tubing, various snaps, catches, hinges, zippers and so forth are also in my mind when I work on a design idea.

Having these materials available made my designs possible. The heavier-grade Cordura nylon packcloth became available after I'd already made a few boats, so that was an advance I took advantage of. But otherwise I think the PakYak evolution was based on rethinking how to use materials that I already knew were available.

10) How does the PakYak differ from other folding kayaks such as a FeatherCraft or Klepper? What are some characteristics that distinctly make your PakYak different from the other folding kayaks out there?

This is an easy one. I don't know of any other folding kayak frame design that actually folds, the way mine do. As far as I know all the others come apart at the joints, and have to be put back together. Usually this means sorting out the parts by color-code or something as part of the assembly process, which adds time. Some (maybe Feathercraft) may use shock-corded tubing to help guide the assembly now, but I'm not sure of this. And no one else I know of has designed a 12 foot kayak frame that folds down into a (just over) 2 foot pack.

11) Have you ever considered patenting the PakYak design? Why or why not? Have you ever considered, or have intentions, of mass producing the PakYak?

Some years ago, when my Model 3 PakYak design was new, I thought there might be a market for it and went to a marketing agency with the idea. They had a patent attorney run a search and he came back with a number of previous patents of "similar" ideas. The way I understand what I was told is, if your basic concept (a folding boat) is not new (which I knew it wasn't) then all you can patent is the unique features of your design.

We decided that I didn't have any fundamentally new ideas in my design, and patenting many small individual features would be hugely expensive. So rather than pursue any patents we made a formal "product disclosure" that would be legal evidence of when I had made my design. By having done this, no one could later try to patent any part of my design and then claim I was infringing on his rights.

The plan was simply to be the first to market with my idea, so if there was money to be made we'd get our share before others decided to copy it. Unfortunately, the marketing agency had no luck selling my design to potential manufacturers. So that foray into the possible mass production of PakYaks fizzled out.

Publishing the plans for PakYak Model 4 on the Web establishes the same kind of priority. No one can patent any of the ideas I've disclosed there. Any one who wants to and has the means could go into mass production with it. If they wanted to do the honorable thing and share their profits with me, I would not object.

But for me, designing PakYaks is just an enjoyable hobby. I have no real expectations of making big money from it.

12) If I'm not mistaken, your PakYak (version 1.0) doubled as a small tent, I personally think that would be a great idea; have you completely abandoned this idea? Does the current PakYak double as a tent? Do you have intentions to somehow reincorporating this idea into future models?

13) I noticed in your photo album the PakSak, what is this? Could you tell me a little more about it?

The PakSak is just a name for the tent idea, so I'll answer these together:

One night about 20 years ago I was camping out with a troop of Boy Scouts on the flank of Mt. Jefferson here in Oregon. There are a bunch of small ponds up there, and I had been thinking how neat it would have been to have my folding boat along.

The one I had at the time wasn't that easy to carry, so I started imagining a new design that would be. It occurred to me that the skin could double as a ground pad, and maybe the frame and paddles could be used to support a tent top.

A year later I made the same hike, carrying my first PakYak. It carried all my gear as well as the boat parts, and it did work out as both a kayak and a tent.

Ever since then I've always had all three functions in mind when I made a PakYak design, and the five PakYaks that I have now all have those features, one way or another.

My tents based on a PakYak skin have all been kind of small and awkward to crawl into, but when outdoor product companies started coming out with "bivy sacks" I realized I wasn't the only one who was willing to go with a "compact" tent design. So I started calling my "tent" a PakSak or YakSak to suggest this similarity.

14) Do you know of any other folding kayak/canoe/boat that is similar in design as far as the folding frame? Or is the PakYak a completely original design?

I think I answered this in a way in one of the earlier questions, but the thing I decided to do in designing my PakYaks that makes them unique (as far as I know) is to keep as many pieces as possible connected.

In Version 3 (where the frame folds inside the skin) there are no "loose" pieces at all. The skin attaches to the frame and stays that way when it folds, and all the frame parts are hinged, nothing comes off. So nothing can get "lost".

In Version 4 (the posted plans), the frame comes out of the skin to fold. This was a compromise to allow the more compact folding of the frame. The side rails or gunwales are attached to the skin and fold with it. There are two more loose pieces: the two end rails that attach the gunwales to the frame. So that is a further compromise with the "no loose pieces" idea that I decided was acceptable.

But the basic concept of a true "folding" frame, rather than one that comes apart in many pieces, is an original design concept that no one else has tried that I am aware of.

15) How water tight is the PakYak? Is there any water sealant needed?

This is a good question to ask about any boat, and especially about one that will get folded up and maybe bounced around in the back of a car between uses.

The combination of nylon canvas and closed cell foam has worked pretty well for me, but there are wear points where the skin goes over the frame. When I discover a leak I've had pretty good luck squeezing sealant (like silicone seal) into it. The foam gives the sealant something to bind to. I think you could also stick a patch on the outside with contact cement, but I haven't had to resort to that

With the two-piece skin design I used on Model 4, the seam is normally above the water line. But it needs to be sealed because a certain amount of water will find its way through the seam if you don't. I just squeeze silicone seal into the seam. I've thought of taping over the seam but never got around to trying it, as the sealer works well enough.

I also treat the bottom and top deck fabric with Thompson's Water Seal, so the fabric won't soak up quite as much water.

In an early boat I tried putting the urethane-coated side of the fabric out, but the coating wore off and then the boat really started to leak. Then I tried recoating it with urethane varnish, but that wasn't flexible enough and started to crack and peel off when I folded the skin. So I've stayed away from both those ideas.

I guess that covers it.

But here's a little story you might like: When I was telling the folks where I work about this interview, and said that you go to Hellgate High School, one of them said "I went to Hellgate High!" Her name is Marsha Worlock, formerly Selle. Small world, huh?


Back to main page