Kiski School's wood shop class crafts Greenland-style kayaks


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Andy Scott is an avid outdoorsman and even more avid sculptor and woodworker. But foremost, he's a teacher who believes in the power of hands-on education.

So when he returned last summer from a kayak-making class in Oregon, he naturally had this great idea: Why not teach students in his industrial arts/sculpture class at Kiski Prep how to make one, too?

Building furniture is one thing. But making a Greenland sea kayak that the boys could actually paddle on nearby Loyalhanna Lake? That was something else entirely.

Traditional wood shop programs have become something of a rarity in area high schools with the rise of technology education, Mr. Scott says. Kids are more likely to learn computer-aided drafting and robotics than how to steam-bend a piece of wood or connect two pieces with a dowel.

"I thought it would be a great project to use woodshop in a creative way," says Mr. Scott, a 1985 Kiski grad who holds a bachelor's degree in fine art from Carnegie Mellon and teaches furniture-making at the Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District.

Best of all, it wouldn't cost very much money; the wood used to make the deck beams, ribs and gunwales -- the long strips of wood that create the kayak frame -- could be cut and milled on campus by Mr. Scott at the school sawmill.

The project began last September with seven juniors and seniors gathered in Mr. Scott's first-floor classroom in Rogers Art Center. First, they spent a month making a small-scale model of the skin-on-frame boat -- traditionally used by Inuit and Aleut Eskimos for hunting sea mammals such as seals, walrus and whales -- out of balsa wood, bits of bamboo and tissue paper.

It soon became clear that the project would take much longer than anticipated. It took the students almost six months to do what Mr. Scott had accomplished in a week in Oregon, taught by Brian Schulz, owner of Cape Falcon Kayak. The first of the five Kiski boats wasn't finished until the end of February.

Simply getting the gunwales the right shape and tying the ends together, a step the class started in mid-October, took almost a month. Steambending the 16 oak ribs that help form the hull also took several weeks.

Without a professional steam box, the boys had to make do with a wallpaper steamer Mr. Scott jury-rigged to a wooden box with a flap on it so it "wouldn't explode." After about four minutes in the box, each 1/4-inch rib stays flexible for about 20 seconds so it can be bent into the proper U shape. It was no easy task: Matt Froehlke, a 19-year-old post-grad student, admits he broke nearly as many ribs as he successfully bent.

With the ends of the gunwales joined together, the next step was to build the deck. Each beam was doweled inside the gunwale. Next, the ribs were mortised into the gunwales and pinned with dowels, and a keel stringer added. Then everything was lashed together with strips of leather (no glue or nails are used).

Centuries ago, native peoples would have covered a kayak with three to six sealskins sewn together with sinew. Mr. Scott's class made a waterproof skin by stretching a 15-by-5-foot piece of lightweight ballistic nylon from Spirit Line over the ribs and sewing it, one end at a time, onto the frame with fishing line. After cutting in and sewing the cockpit and finishing the seams with a wide zigzag stitch, the boats were sealed with several coats of urethane.

In May, after several test runs in the school swimming pool, the class loaded the boats onto a truck and headed to nearby Loyalhanna Lake. Their excitement upon hitting the water was palpable.

"Anyone who wants to go in needs a life vest, a paddle and a good attitude," their instructor called out.

In minutes, all six boys were jockeying for a boat.

"And don't go beyond the buoy or the dock," Mr. Scott added.

For the next 40 minutes, the class took turns paddling the narrow boats across the water. Some may have been a little "tippy" (too much curve in the center makes a boat unstable), but each kayaker glided effortlessly across the water. Only the teacher was brave enough to risk an Eskimo roll in the cold water.

The boats will stay at Kiski, where this fall their makers will demonstrate to another group of young men the cool possibilities of industrial arts education. If schedules permit, Mr. Scott would like to take them on a boat trip.

For now, he'll focus on their functional beauty.

"Boy, do they look cool," he crows.


Gretchen McKay can be reached at gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.


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