Editor’s Note: When we were putting together our Make: Ultimate Kit Guide, we wanted to highlight the makers of the awesome kits we reviewed as much as possible. Our 96 pages quickly became chocked full of valuable info, and some of the longer profiles had to be cut down for print. Here is the full version of Dan Woods‘ profile of Bay Area boat kit makers Chesapeake Light Craft.
It wasn’t too many years ago that a small boat built at home from a kit looked more like a floating sandbox than a boat, and a decent-performing kayak was something reserved for factories or master boat builders. But this is all changing. Rapidly. Recently my wife and I tied our kayaks up at our favorite spot in nearby Sausalito and were enjoying sandwiches and beer when up paddled a couple in two flat-out gorgeous, hand-varnished, custom sea kayaks. To our amazement the couple told us they had made them from kits they’d ordered from Chesapeake Light Craft (CLC). So when we decided to include a boat kit in our special kit issue I contacted CLC to learn more.
To my sheer delight, it turns out the owner, John Harris, is a passionate MAKE reader and a longtime friend of MAKE contributor Tim Anderson. John was about to teach a boat-building seminar in Port Townsend, Wash., so he sent me a really inspiring video of a father and son building their first boat ever with one of CLC’s kits, and we scheduled a time to chat. The video was amazing. By the time I got John on the phone the next day, I was conspiring to bring him to Maker Faire.
So it turns out that the two gorgeous kayaks I had seen were just two of 21,000 boat kits CLC has shipped. John called them kinetic sculptures. Amen to that. And August 2011 was their biggest month ever. They grew steadily through the recession. “We’ve done well in the recession; we’ve doubled in annual sales since 2005,” shared John.
I asked John about what’s driving this growth in home-built kits: “I’ve been doing some research and writing about the history of boat kits, and the modern build-your-own-boat movement really got rolling in the 1930s during the Great Depression. It never really faded away, but got a huge second wind as advanced panel-expansion software and CNC machines became accessible to outfits like CLC. The ease of construction has gone way up, as has the sophistication of the designs.”
John went on to say that there’s been far more innovation of small boat building and kits in the last 5 years than in the prior 13 years. Today it’s possible to produce kits that are easier to build, with new materials that are not only more beautiful but enable more sophisticated and better performing boats.
As is the case with many kits, trying to save on the cost of a boat is not the reason why most people want to build from a kit. John explained, “By far the number one reason people are drawn to our kits is for the sheer joy of building something. A secondary driver would be to build a boat with personalized features they can’t find in a factory-built boat.”
Interestingly, John pointed out that another strategic benefit of CNC is that it enables them to offer a very broad selection of boat designs in their catalog (over 84 and growing) without the need to carry a deep and capital-draining inventory of kits. When a customer orders a design, they effectively cut, pack, and ship a custom kit.
CLC’s primary focus is helping first-time boat builders to overcome the natural trepidation of building a kit boat from a box of parts that looks, well, like anything but a boat. And John takes pride in their documentation, support, and online forums. “It’s part of being a modern company. We get hammered on that forum if we fumble a detail in an instruction manual or the fit of some parts, but we deal with it right there in public and get on with things. I think an open forum like that builds confidence with your customers — and they need confidence before they drop a grand on a boat kit and set aside weeks or months of their time.”
CLC has found that many of these newly minuted boat builders — fresh with confidence and new skills — are interested in moving up to more sophisticated designs. So much so that CLC is now expanding their product line to include more sophisticated boat designs.
CLC’s basic kayak kit — the kind I gushed over on the dock in Sausalito — will run around $2,000 and take about 80 hours for a typical person to build from start to finish.
For more information, visit clcboats.com.
For 175 kit reviews, plus awesome features, pick up the full Make: Ultimate Kits Guide 2012, available in the Maker Shed. Also, be sure to check out our online, searchable site dedicated to kit reviews, kits.makezine.com!