Kirton's first factory - original owners Bill and Tony Snell

Above: Kirton's first factory - original owners Bill and Tony Snell circa 1967.

Manufacturing methods for small craft through the ages

A brief history of canoe manufacturing methods, from wood to carbon.

It is generally agreed that the sport of canoeing was started in England, Europe and the USA by John MacGregor who made several well publicised expeditions in his kayak "Rob Roy" to such places as the Nile Delta in the latter years of the 19th century and also formed the Royal Canoe Club in 1866.

In the 19th century and on into the early part of the 20th century the most common method of building canoes and leisure rowing boats would be by the clinker technique; in this, the overlapping planks fixed to light frames, produced a stepped pattern around the hull which could be said to increase stability. It had the advantage of not having to fit planks edge to edge fine enough to give water tightness.

The superior carvel technique became standard practice in the leisure canoes produced in Lakefield Ontario in the 1930's. This consisted of bending thin 5mm thick basswood sheet over light frames to form a smooth outer surface. This technique could be said to be a logical development of the original native Indian birch bark canoe. It reached its zenith in the sport of rowing where companies like Banhams of Cambridge produced very light racing shells which in the case of "eights" could be up to 60ft in length.

In the 30's leisure kayaking construction took the form of waterproofed canvas stretched over a rigid light weight wooden frame for the simple kayak, whilst in Germany at the Klepper factory they were already producing the first of kayaks with folding frames, that enabled the kayak to be broken down in to component parts for train travel and reassembled for use at the river bank.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics was the first time that races were included for canoes and kayaks. Due to the Second World War the next Olympic event took place in London in 1948 and by that time construction methods for racing canoes and kayaks had reached a new dimension. They were now made from laminated wood veneers stretched and formed over a male mould, using glues that had been developed during the war for the aircraft industry. The De Havilland Moskito, twin engined aeroplane was the fastest plane in service at the end of the war and was of wooden construction.

In the 50's long distance canoe racing was in its infancy and all types of construction were in use. It was now that the first glass fibre kayaks began to appear from firms like Moonraker and Gmach. These kayaks were of chopped matt construction and were vulnerable to damage in rocky waters. It was not until the early to mid sixties that glass cloth was included to strengthen the laminate.

Moulding techniques steadily improved and additional resistance to damage in slalom kayaks was established in the early 70's by the introduction of diolen cloth which had a higher tensile strength than glass cloth but tended to give a more flexible skin, ideal at the time for slalom but not good for racing.

With the 80's came the introduction of kevlar which offered greater tensile strength to the inner layer and made kayaks much tougher although still flexible. Then towards the end of the 80's sandwich constructions were introduced which restored stiffness to the light weight structure and signalled the end of the Struer veneer laminated canoes and kayaks for sprint racing.

Finally carbon cloth, that had been developed by Rolls Royce for the giant fans in their latest turbines became available, and stiff constructions could be made from combinations of glass, kevlar and carbon that gave an alternative to the expensive sandwich construction technique.