Kayak construction has evolved over the years, and so have the material that is used. In this article, we are going to take a look at what kayaks are made of. Different materials and construction processes affect the durability and performance of the kayak.
There are different types of kayaks (read more), including; inflatable kayaks, hard-shell kayaks, and even folding kayaks. Specific kayaks are better for certain applications. Kayaks are ideal for people who like paddling quickly and are great for exploring and fishing.
They are also known as air kayaks and are manufactured using PVC or a rubber-coated woven fabric. In the early years, the kayak community didn’t take kayaks seriously as they were prone to damage and couldn’t track like a hard-shell kayak.
However, so much has changed since then, and they are popular for touring and white-water kayaking.
How are inflatable kayaks made?
High-quality inflatable kayaks are manufactured using two material types; rubber or plastic-coated woven fabric core. Plastic can be divided further into TPU (more costly, more contemporary, and less toxic) and PVC (inexpensive).
Inflatable kayaks are also made by different methods.
- First, sections of hull fabrics are cut and attached to form airtight chambers creating a hull that can carry a load
- Or with ‘inner’ tubes that hold air in a fabric shell to support a rigid form just like the inner tire tube of a bicycle
- Drop stitch is a process whereby thousands of threads are used to make an incredibly strong material. The chambers are flat instead of round. This helps an inflatable kayak behave more like a hardshell.
Inflatable Kayak’s Materials
Inflatable kayaks are made from a variety of different materials, so it’s good to understand the difference between these materials.
On the entry-level models, we are talking under $200, some under $100, you can expect a single thin layer of vinyl. Kind of like they use in an inflatable air mattress. The material used here is cheap and easy to manufacture kayaks with.
Another category of more expensive boats come with the same type of cheap vinyl, but are covered in fabric. The fabric helps to protect the vinyl from punctures and sun exposure, but make the kayak difficult to dry.
The next category has kayaks made from materials like PVC, or other rubber materials (Hypalon). These are more durable and can take a beating. Of course, that assumes you are using the kayak as intended.
Polyvinyl Chloride is an economical and durable material. This material is designed for recreational boats and hits a good balance between performance and price. PVC is a good option but isn’t the strongest material available.
- PVC-coated materials are available in many colors
- It’s cheap
- It’s used to coat nylon and polyester to increase the potency and tear resistance
- It’s portable, durable, and expedient
- It can be welded
- It’s simple to patch
The biggest drawback of PVC is that it’s not as durable as other materials when it comes to prolonged exposure to sunlight. If you are a casual kayaker, you shouldn’t have much trouble, but if you have to store it outside, it’s advisable to use a rain or sun cover to help protect the boat.
If you take good care of your boat by using a UV protective spray now and then or protecting it with a cover you can significantly improve the lifespan.
Another material used to produce inflatable kayaks is Hypalon. This material is more durable and lightweight than PVC, but it’s more expensive. Hypalon can also be used in conjunction with PVC. This material is extremely durable and is designed for the most demanding paddling environments. Lots of Hypalon boats will last 20 or 30 years before the material starts to deteriorate
- It has enhanced UV resistance
- It’s the long-lasting
- It’s resistant to ecological factors such as fungus and mildew
- More resistant to extreme weather conditions, like heat and cold
Cons of Hypalon
- It’s more costly compared to other materials
- Hypalon is hand-glued which adds to the production cost
You can read more here about PVC vs Hypalon.
Another product used in inflatable kayaks is Nitrilon. Nitrylon is made of high-strength polyester with an outer synthetic rubber coating and an internal rubber blend coating. Nitrilon is a synthetic rubber material similar to Hypalon.
- Extremely durable
- Lower cost than similar materials
- Good for cold conditions
- Easy to patch
Cons of Nitrilon:
- Heavier than other materials
Urethane is another material commonly used in inflatable kayaks. It is very similar to PVC with regards to durability but will feel a bit different on the water. Urethane is much stiffer than PVC or Hypalon.
Hard Shell Kayaks
Hard-shell kayaks are made of plastic, fiberglass, wood, and composite materials like Kevlar. They are hefty and weigh about 55 pounds.
Hard-shell kayaks can be more expensive compared to inflatables depending on the materials used. Materials like fiberglass, wood, and other composite materials tend to be more costly than materials used to make inflatable kayaks. Wooden kayaks especially can have expensive maintenance and repairs.
How are hardshell kayaks made?
These kayaks have a lengthy, hollow shell with a consistent thickness made by a rotational molding procedure. The seat and other elements are added in a manual assembly process.
You can mold the shell in one portion, or it can be made from two distinct pieces assembled later. Rotational molding needs rounded contours as one-piece shells aren’t supposed to have sharp intersections between surfaces.
If the model needs a sharper intersection, then a two-piece shell is used.
Hardshell kayak materials
Hard-shell kayaks can be made from distinct materials. It’s crucial to know what material type the kayak is made of, as this affects its performance, durability, and cost.
Polyethylene is what most plastic kayaks are made from. It’s widely available and relatively inexpensive compared to other materials. Rotomolded polyethylene kayaks have been around for years. Plastic pellets are poured into a mold, heated, rotated, and cooled. Then out pops a mostly finished kayak. Then some finishing work needs to be done for the boat to be completely ready for the water.
Polyethylene kayaks can take a beating. If transport your kayak using a roof rack, or trailer (not a super delicate way to transport) and tend to drag your kayaks over rocks on the way to the water, they will hold up welll.
- It can last for many years (even if you don’t take pristine care of it)
- It’s a great material for beginner kayakers
- It’s inexpensive
- Can be colored
- Highly impact resistant
- Well suited for many types of kayaks
- Durable material
Cons of Polyethylene
- Kayaks made of polyethylene are more susceptible to breaking down when exposed to UV light for long periods. Using a protective spray or cover can help if you store your boat outside.
- They are heavier than other materials, and make transport difficult
Composite kayaks are an interesting study. They are made from products like fiberglass, aramid (commonly known as Kevlar), carbon fiber, or some combination of these materials and others.
Construction is quite a process. A colored Gelcoat is sprayed into separate deck and hull molds. The materials are then layered on each other, or along with other materials, and are applied to each mold. The layers in each mold are vacuum-bagged (just like it sounds) resin is injected and allowed to cure. Tape and resin are used to fuse the deck and hull together.
- They are lighter and easier to transport compared to polyethylene kayaks
- Thanks to the rigid frame, composite kayaks are quick and responsive on the water
- Durable, except for direct hits, like rocks
- A harder hull has less flex and makes it more efficient to paddle
- Scratches, even some punctures can be repaired fairly easy
Cons of fiberglass
- More expensive than polyethylene because there is more hands on work required when it’s being built
Wooden kayaks are typically DIY and are stitch and glue or strip built. Stitch and glue involve cutting plywood, stitching the pieces of plywood together with wire, and then gluing the whole thing together. Stitch and glue kayaks don’t require you to be an expert at woodworking. You can even have someone else build it for you. But where is the fun in that?
At an extremely high level, with a strip-built kayak, you have a form and thin wood strips. You bend the strips and glue them around the forms. A strip built kayak gives you design freedom but requires more skill. You can let your creative juices flow with a strip-built kayak.
Wooden kayaks are then finished with a protective layer of fiberglass, resin and varnish. The finish helps to make them durable.
- A natural wood boat is beautiful
- Lightweight and easy to transport
- Fast and responsive like a composite kayak
- Much less expensive than a composite kayak
Cons of a wooden kayak
- If you don’t like how it looks you can blame the woodworker!
Thermoforming involves a sheet of ABS, that is heated and then sucked onto a mold. The deck and hull are comprised of separate molds and are fused together. The thermoforming process is different than rotomolding, where beads are poured into a mold, melted, and rotated in the mold to create the hull and deck.
- Lightweight like composite
- Durable like rotomold
- Not as expensive as composite
- UV protective outer layer
- Lots of color choices available
- Generally recyclable
- Harder and more scratch-resistant the polyethylene
Cons of thermoform
- The material tends to degrade over long periods of time
- Not as fast on the water
Types of kayaks
Kayaks are available in different categories and shapes. It’s essential to determine your needs and then choose which kayak type is best for you. Let’s look at some of them in more detail.
Sit Inside Kayak
A sit-inside kayak looks like a “normal” kayak and works the same way. It’s made to protect your lower body and help keep you dry. Of course, you can (and probably will) still get wet. It’s a kayak, after all. But even in rough weather and water conditions, you can stay dry because your feet are covered in the kayak.
Sit on Top Kayak
With this kayak type, you sit in a higher position than a sit-inside kayak. It’s easier to get in and out of a sit-inside kayak. Your feet are on top of the kayak, not inside. Sit on top kayaks are great for fishing, some are stable enough to stand up
Sit on tops are much easier to get back on board if you fall out or decide it’s time for a swim. But, you are not as protected with a sit-inside kayak.
If you are kayaking with someone, a tandem kayak is a great way to go. Its shape is similar to that of an ordinary kayak. It’s equipped with two seats and plenty of storage space and allows you to navigate to places that are difficult to access with a boat.
Tandem kayaks are great if you want to take a friend or maybe even your dog. But, I always say, no matter how fast you paddle, you can’t get away from your kayak partner. Pick your paddling partner wisely!
Whew, that was a lot of technical information. I know it’s a lot to take in, but it’s good to have this information when you are looking for a kayak. The kayak you choose depends on your budget, purpose, and preference.
The hard-shell kayak is the best choice if you require a steady, highly maneuverable, and long-lasting kayak for fishing. The high-density polyurethane makes it extremely durable, and it’s stable in the water because of the flat base.
Alternatively, inflatable kayaks are excellent because they are easy to store, and they are highly portable. You don’t need a roof rack to transport, and inflatable kayak like you do a hard-shell model.
Please let me know if you have any questions.