Introduction: Trials and Tribulations: Building a Collapsible Kayak With PVC

About: A jack of all trades and master of none is better than a master of one!

I had a dream to create a homemade collapsible kayak and it has been one of my biggest projects to date. I was completely energized by the problem solving and creativity it took to pull it off.

In the end I was moderately successful. Even with all of my clever solutions to the design flaws I encountered, there simply ended up being a few too many problems to call it a true success. I present to you the lessons from my trials and tribulations of my collapsible PVC kayak for similar projects you have in mind.

Disclaimer: I believe that it could be a successful project with a few design changes if it were attempted again. However, I never felt like I could safely instruct someone to build their own experimental watercraft after my failed tests. If you are ambitious and inspired, learn from my mistakes first!

Step 1: The Original Dream....

I wanted a kayak.

I wanted to build one myself, on a fair budget (aka as cheap as possible), and most importantly....I wanted it to be able to fit into my tiny little car. With those factors in mind I boldly decided on designing a kayak the would be a fully sized 10'x4' kayak that could compact down to a 5'x2' bundle.

My ultimate plan:

  • Use PVC pipe so that I can use joints to piece the frame together for easy dis-assembly. Also easy to come by, easy to work with, and is fairly light.
  • Use canvas cloth coated in 6 layers (3 inside, 3 outside) of latex house paint for a flexible and waterproof skin.
  • Use ropes in a stitching pattern to adjust the tension on the kayak.

The build:

I began drafting designs and researching everything I could about kayak sizes, shapes, and designs.

In the end material costs added up to almost $100 in PVC pipe, canvas, paint (I used the mismatched color paint selection), and rope.

After two weekends of measuring, cutting, and assembling the pipe together; I ended up with a convincing looking frame.

It was difficult shaping the canvas around the body of my kayak. In the end I propped the frame upside down on two chairs and let gravity naturally shape the skin. After tying down the canvas, I painted it with latex paint,inside and out, and sealed any gaps with pure silicone caulk.

Time to sink or to speak.

Step 2: First Test of the Design

(YouTube link for mobile users)

After that failed test, I learned two great things.

  1. The latex paint completely worked to waterproof the canvas! Take that all you eye-rolling, non-believers who doubted me! It goes to show you It never hurts to try crazy ideas, they might just work.
  2. I had made the bottom of my kayak too flat so I was sitting on the water and not in the water. That design flaw made balance impossible. Lucky for me it was a shallow pond.

    Time to make changes...

Luckily for me all I needed to do was to raise my bottom side poles to allow the kayak to sit in the water deeper and form a fin that would help stabilize it in the water.

That modification drastically changed the profile of my craft so I needed to create a whole new body skin to fit it. The second time around was much cleaner, took less time, and was more stable.

Step 3: Re-design and Second Test

(YouTube link for mobile users)

I attempted to captain the kayak a second time and I still managed to tip out into the water (I was more mentally prepared to be re-united with the bottom of the pond this time). Luckily, our neighbor's son was brave and volunteered to be a little skipper and navigate the water! It worked beautifully and he freely paddled around! I eventually untied his line and let him traverse the pond with me acting as a lifeguard (For those concerned about safety I am lifeguard certified).

I was feeling confident about my kayak construction; confident enough to take it for a real test on a busy boating lake....

Step 4: Final Kayak Launch

I apologize for the lack of pictures, this test launch ended up being fairly spontaneous. There is much to be learned from this step though!

I was finally going to put my kayak to use out on a local boating lake (Raccoon Lake, IN). This was the real deal.

I disassembled the kayak so it was able to be folded in half and the sides compressed inwards. It fit in the trunk of a car beautifully and the flexible and adjustable body skin was still installed around the poles.

Safety first! I did have a life jacket on!

The kayak was a little small for me so I had to stay perfectly balanced or else it would tip and allow water to pour in. It wasn't too difficult to control once I got a hang of it and I proudly paddled around in my creation.

I made it all the way across the lake and pulled up onto a sandbar! It was a warm, sunny day and I took time to enjoy watching the boaters cruise across the water.

Then disaster struck! As I launched my kayak back into the water I quickly discovered the sun had warmed the latex and made it way too flexible! Good thing I had adjustable lines to pull the sides tighter to compensate for the extra stretch, right? Nope! I didn't use grommets so the lines on the sides started tearing through the canvas. Where the canvas met on top I struggled to get the lines tight enough. At both ends of the kayak the canvas pulled together with no gap left to correct the extra stretch.

When I relaunched into the water the skin of the boat pushed in around the frame. I tried to stay afloat long enough to get back to shore. I was sitting too low and every wake made from the motorboats filled the kayak with more and more water.

I ended up abandoning ship and swimming back to shore with my experimental watercraft in tow. During my heroic self-rescue I managed to tear a fairly large hole in the canvas skin. I was defeated.

That was the final launch. I ended up moving and didn't have time or space for any more design fixes. I deemed the kayak's remains a hazard so I disassembled it permanently.

Step 5: Lessons Learned

All lessons can be considered good if you learn something from them. I'm going to categorize them as what was crazy enough to work versus the errors that lead to the kayak's demise....

What went well:

  • Creating a beautiful kayak form with just PVC
  • You can water-proof anything with enough coats of latex paint!
  • Using rope lines for adjustable tension on a flexible skinned kayak for an inconsistent form
  • I successfully designed a kayak that was collapsible from 10'x4' to 5'x2'

Lessons to learn:

  • Latex gets incredibly flexible when it warms up in the sun and loses the fight against water pressure
  • Use grommets to reinforce the tension lines.
  • Leave more room in the adjustment lines for more extreme cases of tension being needed
  • Build a wider kayak so the kayak can balance itself in the water better

I hope you learned a few lessons and have been inspired by my mistakes. I am still very proud of what I achieved and what I learned. Maybe someday I'll take a crack at building another kayak with these lessons in mind.

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