Re-Make: Transparent boat

Energy & Sustainability
Re-Make:  Transparent boat

My latest guilty SkyMall pleasure is this “Moloniki” transparent polycarbonate canoe by Clear Blue Hawaii. It’s 13′ long, 3′ wide amidships, and almost 1′ deep, and the polycarb is UV-stabilized to prevent sun-yellowing. Of course it looks cool, but what is really attractive, to me, is the prospect of being able to see what’s going on underwater beneath you. The price, unsurprisingly, is prohibitive: $1600 new.

Ouch. I can’t justify that. Especially since the lip-syncing scandal tanked sales of my album.

So, as usually happens sooner or later, my thoughts have turned to making my own more accessible version. And, as I’ve learned by many embarrassing experiences, the first step of any new design project is researching what people have done before. There isn’t much out there, but after googling around for awhile I finally hit on it with “plexiglass boat.”


These pictures are from a fairly anonymous Picassa album belonging to “Shadicus.” If you know anything more about this boat or its builders, feel free to drop me a line. From what I can tell, this craft, which took first place in a “junk boat” contest, has a hull made of scrap polycarbonate sheet. It’s not great looking, and one of the captions mentions that “it takes on a little water.” Still, it’s a starting point: The Thing Can Be Done. And obviously it didn’t cost much.


Now, having wiled away the better part of a day building boats in my brain, I have my own fairly well-developed ideas about how it might be done. But I want to hear yours. So make with the comments, folks: How do we do this?

From the pages of MAKE:

Make Vol 06 p 50.jpg

Totch Brown’s Pit Gator Boat from MAKE 06 might be a good starting point.

28 thoughts on “Re-Make: Transparent boat

  1. Mig says:

    I once found seling boat plans, I think it was Danish but the plans were all in English. Anyway you had to pay but there was one set they would send free.

    Needles to say I printed off about a million sheets of boat plans only to never get round to doing anything and now I haven’t a clue where they are. The plan was basically make a boat shape out of playwood, ties it together with cable ties through holes you have drilled then stick it the f**k together by slapping on gallons of epoxy and fibreglass.

    I guess the same could work with transparent materials…erm…specifically glass.

  2. john says:

    google kayak plans and you find a lot. The seams are generally along the bottom though, and they get filled with epoxy, or epoxy/fiberglass. They will not be transparent.

    Are any of the plexi/lexan/polycarb materials able to be melted with a heatgun?
    Maybe you could turn an aluminum canoe upsidedown, lay a sheet over it and run a heatgun over the sheet till it deformed/reformed around the hull? Then you would have minimal seams to deal with, and you could add wood or metal framework to the inside.

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      Yeah, polycarbonate (which class includes all of the trademarked names Lexan, Plexiglass, etc.) can be bent by clamping it along an edge, applying a heat gun, and then letting it gravity droop and/or helping it along with pressure. This is a really easy, low-cost way to form polycarbonate.

      I dunno about doing it in two dimensions over a buck, though. I think unless you apply greater than gravitational pressure (e.g. by vacuum or draw forming), you’ll just end up with a nasty warped/wrinkled plastic sheet. But I’ve never tried it, and if it turned out to be doable it’d be a big breakthrough for hobbyists. Maybe you could heat it with a heat-gun and form it to shape by pounding with a rubber mallet? Perhaps a small-scale experiment is in order.

  3. Beardy says:

    Blows any chance of going out commando style! ;)

    I’ve been stewing over the idea of building a canoe out of plywood (stitch and glue) then putting a couple of plexiglass panels in the bottom. I’d put an outrigger on it to make it super stable then take my son out exploring around the bay where we live. Just time and money required!

    I guess they’re blow molding or vacuum forming their boat. …so now I’m looking up prices for plexiglass and finding out how big a sheet I can get!


  4. Bob says:

    You might use an acrylic for your boat.
    Acrylics can easily be heat molded and form very strong seams when welded together. I have used the 1/4″ acrylic sheets you can get at your local hardware store to form aquariums that are strong enough to hold 50 gallons (~400lbs) of water.
    To weld the sheets use a product like IPS Weld-On 4 (

  5. Michael says:

    I have both a canoe and a kayak. I don’t think I’d want a transparent version, and not one made out of plexi! I suppose if you want to paddle about a lake or in a protected bay, they’d be fine. But plexi has a bad habit of breaking under pressure, and I’d hate to hit a rock or log with a current behind me and find myself without a boat.

    I suppose its how I use my boats, I don’t tool about, but use them to take me places I can’t get on foot. I’m constantly going over logs and down swift streams, so the skymall boat would soon be so scratched it would be next to worthless as a underwater vision platform. The concept is neat, but wouldn’t be my first choice as a boat.

    A far cheaper idea would be to get a good inexpensive boat, you can get a great kayak for under $400, and build a bucket viewer. Take a 5 gallon bucket, cut of the bottom and replace it with a plexi bottom. Then put that in the water to look through.

    As far as the plywood analog boats, you can’t really do the same thing with plexi. By the time you epoxyed or glassed the seams, you’d loose most of your visibility. Or you’d have weak seams and again I’d be afraid of using such a fragile boat for anything more than tooling about a calm lake.

    Major cool factor. Small utility factor. *shrugs*

  6. craig says:

    …or I was thinking of getting some junker boat to cut a hole in the bottom and install a 1/4″ viewing window. I’ve seen real battered boats and canoes at the aluminum recyclers. I think 24″ X 24″ plexi in 1/4″ thick is pretty reasonable at home improvement superstores. You just need a jigsaw, lots of small bolts, a tube of 100% silicone, and a fondness to tearing into things.

  7. Anonymous says:

    This site has great free plans to make boats out of plywood sheets. I’m sure you could incorporate some plastic panels in the designs. I would use lexan rather than acrylic, though.

  8. Cory says:

    Sounds like a great use for a GIANT vacuum forming machine. I wonder if they come that big…

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      They do, actually, but they are PRICEY. Like $20K pricey. Seems like you could build a suitable rig for WAY less than that. Maybe I should start by building a vacuum forming machine…

  9. Jonathan Peterson says:

    I’m kind of enamoured of these “airolite” boats that are mostly traditional wood boat skeletons covered with kevlar and heat shrink dacron to be ultralightweight and strong.

    Replacing a center section with molded acrylic would work with the right boat design, or even better use heat shrinkable clear monokote (not nearly as puncture resistant as the usual dacron.)

  10. Stephanie says:

    People do make polycarbonate kayaks, though its not hugely common because a company has patented their specific combination of materials, but also do exist in sea kayaks. They are much more durable than the fiberglass, kevlar or kevlar/carbon fiber boats, because of the weakness in compression, which is most of the idea behind using that material – more durable than the others used in high quality boats, but still working a lot better than a simple molded plastic. I have had one of these boats for 7 years now, and have used it in rivers with a bunch of logs, lakes and ponds, and a wide variety of sea conditions. They haven’t been places which running into rocks is normal, but I have run into logs hard before. The boat is fine. I think I’ve technically brought it through class 3 rapids under bridges in bays.

    I would absolutely trust a transparent polycarbonate boat if it was well made. You would probably not be able to see through the seams, but I don’t think this is a problem for viewing. You wouldn’t bring it into white-water, but lakes, simple rivers, and the ocean, it is a material which is already used.

  11. says:

    Yostwerks has some amazing portable kayak designs; many of them are pictured with transparent vinyl –

  12. John Hashimoto says:

    Actually, polycarb is a good idea. You can bend this stuff with a sheet metal brake so if you can come up with a plan where the sides fold up somehow, you would eliminate a seam in that area. We have used it to make safety guards for machinery and the bend does not afffect the strength at all.

    Good luck.

  13. Daniel Habib says:

    Hope next month I’ll start to build a 23′ long and 5′ wide forming a plane sheet.

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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