Gear: Collapsible Boats

February-March 2001

This is an article from WaveLength Magazine, available in print in North America and globally on the web.
To download a pdf copy of the magazine click here: > DOWNLOAD

by Ralph Hoehn

A wooden folding kayak frame ... almost too beautiful to hide within its skin!

Have you ever carried a kayak for any real length of time? Over rough terrain? Up a cliff after an emergency take-out? Down a ravine to reach that special put-in?

"Rag Boats" make it possible. The term is a translation of the German "Hadernkahn", a lovingly derogatory description for the type of skin-on-frame boats that you can disassemble into their constituent parts and conveniently pack into a bag.

So-called "folding boats" have seen widespread use since the end of the 19th century. The earliest examples derived from the then popular wooden decked canoes-think McGregor's Rob Roy-but rapid development towards the sophisticated hull shapes of true 'folding kayaks' soon ensued. Suffice to say that the wild upper reaches of most rivers remained inaccessible to would-be riparian adventurers until the arrival of such folding kayaks and the exploits of today's whitewater enthusiasts.

Edi Hans Pawlata was one of the first whitewater fanatics to recognize that arctic kayaks had performance characteristics and permitted paddling techniques that could be adapted to conquer the unexplored wild rivers of the Alps. So, in 1926, after a visit to Greenland, he built the first folding kayak based on arctic hunting boats. He designed it specifically to master the technique of rolling back up after capsizing without leaving the cockpit. The resulting 'Pawlata roll' is part of the repertoire of techniques of many skilful kayakers to this day. The public attention that Edi Pawlata's success received in 1927 did much to further the popularity of folding boats and kayaks built by amateurs and commercial operators alike. Thousands of paddlers regularly gathered on riverbanks throughout Europe on sunny weekends back in those days.

The tradition of folding boats continues to this day. Most exciting is a revival of amateur builders in recent years. Free from commercial constraints, they adapt designs of existing boats or design their own to suit individual physiques and the intended paddling conditions. Both north Atlantic and north Pacific kayaks influence these designs. The builders experiment with new hull materials and application methods. Modern adhesives expand the possibilities of working in wood, allowing builders continually to drive forward frame 'technology'. And that's no little accomplishment when one considers what has already been invented, tested and developed to high levels of sophistication over this last century!

Building your own folding boat is a highly rewarding undertaking:

  • you choose the design most appropriate to your needs or create a new one,

  • you build the boat to fit your personal dimensions,

  • you incorporate the features that you want in your folding kayak,

  • you experience the intense satisfaction of paddling your own creation,

  • and then you fold it up and take it home!

There are many similarities between building a traditional skin-on-frame kayak and building a craft that 'folds'. In both cases you first construct a frame and then build a skin to fit. But there are also some significant differences. In traditional (rigid) skin-on-frame construction you join frame parts in the right order starting with the gunwales, each piece leading to the correct position and dimensions of the next piece.

Folding construction is more likely to succeed if it is executed from carefully thought-through designs and plans. Draw your design and then derive the correct position and shapes for the various parts from this design. This involves some lofting and fairing which can be intensely exciting and satisfying in themselves.

A debate over the use of wood vs. aluminium for frames rages on. There are many rational arguments for both. Personal preference and your confidence in your abilities with one or the other material will have much to do with your final decision.

Hull materials present an even wider array of choices. There was once such a thing as commercially available 'folding boat skin', consisting of one, two or even three layers of canvas sandwiched between coatings of rubber. In time, natural caoutchouc gave way to synthetic rubber, as well as to different types of PVC and urethanes.

The substrate fabric is now usually some type of strong, stretch-and rot-proof nylon or polyester instead of hemp or cotton canvas. Most people still favor proofed canvas for the deck, however, because of its breathability, look and feel-and yes, these decks are watertight!

In 1958 Josef Locher (Germany) wrote Faltboot ñ Anleitung zum Selbstbau, a short building manual for amateurs for a design that could be adapted to produce a one-, two- or three-seater folding boat. Percy W. Blandford (England) published Canoes and Canoeing in 1962, describing the construction of folding 'canoes' he had designed for the boy scouts. The authors in these examples presented traditional 'Euro' river touring boat shapes, a decked canoe hull driven by double paddles. Over the years, hundreds built boats to these and similar manuals.

Lorenz Mayr (Germany) took a slightly more sophisticated route. He built the first of his folding whitewater kayaks in 1952 to the adapted lines of an earlier design by one Herbert Slanar (a famous kayak designer of the pre- and post-war years), which itself had been derived from sleek arctic shapes, but was optimized for serious whitewater use. Some 42 years later, Mr. Mayr finally set down on paper what he had learned in the meantime about technical solutions and construction details of folding kayaks.

His book includes a great many detailed technical sketches, as well as lines drawings of proven kayak hull shapes, both for whitewater and for coastal paddling. Mr. Mayr drew on his personal experience, as well as on generous contributions by modern and several famous old time German and Austrian builders, who, in turn, had learned their tricks from the pioneers of the early 20th century.

Mayr emphasizes the beauty and efficiency of arctic hull shapes, but what he has to say about their construction applies equally to the boat types favored by Locher and Blandford.

(Author's note: I am currently completing an expanded and updated bilingual 300-page edition of this book which spans a century of folding boat and kayak building experience with methods specifically tailored to the amateur builder.)

There are folding boat and kayak builders in all corners of the globe, most strongly represented in Europe and North America. The Internet has enabled this splintered community to re-establish the traditional practice of sharing information, ideas, solutions, plans and designs. (The fledgling 'FoldingBoats' internet mailing list is dedicated to these amateur folding boat builders.)

What can a folding boat do for you?

The ability to separate the skin from the frame and then fold both up into small, easily managed bundles makes possible travel by train, bus, on foot and nowadays by air! This allows you to head for destinations that leave other boats behind. Keep a folded boat in the trunk of your car ready for immediate action when you happen upon that irresistible put-in. Tight apartment storage poses no problems either. And folding boats are immortal-you maintain the boat piece by piece and repair or replace worn or broken parts individually and thus cost effectively. Frames, still in working condition after fifty years of use or more, are not uncommon; skins tend to need replacement after 20-30 years.

The concept of folding kayaks survived the dark days of the Second World War, as well as the onslaught of cheap, mass-produced plastic boats in the 1960s. They were able to do so because they are strong in appeal and tough in use.

Enough of the commercial!

For those who wish 'merely' to purchase their folding boat, there are a number of commercial builders in operation today: Klepper (Germany) features rock solid engineering and finish; Pouch (of former East Germany) is well known for efficient hull shapes and light, yet stiff wooden frames; Feathercraft (Canada) leads the pack in experimenting with space age materials for frame and skin; Folbot (USA) builds highly functional boats at attractive prices; Nautiraid (France) uses simple but effective wood frame technology; Triton (Russia) has developed very useful boats from former military production models using aluminium and PVC. And there are more out there.

Happy folding!

Ralph C. Hoehn has been a carrier of the highly contagious folding boat bug for 30 years. You can reach him by email at Ralph@ PouchBoats.com. The address of the amateur builders' website is www.PouchBoats.com/building.html. The 'Amateur Folding Boat Builders' Corner' on the site is hosted as a non-commercial undertaking by his import business of Pouch folding kayaks. ©