Whatever floats your boat

By: 
KateLynn Slaamot

Submitted photo

JoAnn Stearns recently crafted her own cedar strip kayak, a labor of love that took over 200 hours of work. Above, Stearns in the kayak on the water. Stearns said that she often gets compliments shouted from the shoreline about her homemade kayak. 

KateLynn Slaamot

NLJ Reporter

 

JoAnn Stearns thought it would either be a beautiful boat or a fragrant bonfire when she first began working on her cedar strip kayak. However, after over 200 hours of work, a true masterpiece has emerged. 

Stearns beamed.

“Everything just kind of came together like it was supposed to, and it turned out beautiful,” she said. 

The idea to build her own kayak came about in the summer of 2019. Stearns’ father, Jim Winter, was always handy and could “build just about anything,” she said. Over 20 years ago, he even built a cedar strip canoe with some of his grandsons, a treasure that Stearns still has. 

Stearns also has several friends who enjoy kayaking, and she wanted a kayak of her own, so she just decided to build one. 

While Stearns is quite the handywoman, she had never completed a project of this magnitude before, so she found a book called “Kayakcraft: Fine Woodstrip Kayak Construction.” Stearns said the book, written by Ted Moore, outlined the steps of crafting a kayak, and even included graphs and pictures. 

The first 60 hours of labor on the boat was spent constructing the form to build the boat around. Stearns purchased 12-inch cedar boards and ripped them with a circular saw to create narrow strips of wood. The boat also contains other types of wood, such as pine, walnut, oak and mahogany.

Stearns had to begin building the boat upside down by gluing the narrow strips of cedar wood, less than a quarter-inch in width, over the form to create the hull, or bottom, of the boat. Stearns said she covered the forms with masking tape so that she wouldn’t glue the strips to the form. 

Ingenuity was key as Stearns learned to use lots of clamps, rubber bands and wire to keep the boards secured together as the glue dried. 

“I became a clamp master. It was just funnier than heck, because it’s like I’ve got to go to town and buy more clamps, and I ended up with boxes full of clamps because you need all these things to hold everything in place,” Stearns said. 

Stearns worked in her dad’s shop in Custer, S.D., and had to drive there from where she lives at the base of Elk Mountain on the Stearns’ ranch to work on the boat. Some days she only got a few strips placed at a time. 

The project also provided an outlet to share with her father. Oftentimes she ended up at her dad’s assisted living facility to visit with him and ask for advice about her boat. He was always so pleased to hear she was doing something in his shop where he used to work on all kinds of projects — from various carpentry projects to fixing up antique airplanes. 

After the cedar strips were all glued in place to finish the bottom of the boat, Stearns then had to plane the wood and sand it until it was smooth. 

Once the sanding was done, the wood was covered with a fiberglass finish and then resin was poured on it. A marine varnish followed that. Stearns said it makes the grain of the wood just “pop.” 

“It just gets more and more beautiful, that wood just comes alive,” Stearns said. 

Then it was time for Stearns to take the boat off the form and flip it over. 

“You have this hollow hull that looks like a canoe at that point,” she said. 

Stearns then put the form inside the canoe to build the top around, to keep the shape. After building the top, she had to take it off the hull, take the form out and then fit the top back on the hull and glue it into place. 

“You hope it all fits back together,” Stearns said, noting that it took a couple days of strapping it all together to get the top to fit back over the hull correctly and settle into place. 

At this point, the boat is completely enclosed, with no cockpit opening, Stearns said. She then put the fiberglass and resin on the top to give it that finish. 

The next step was to cut out the cockpit. However, that step made Stearns quite nervous because she knew once she cut it, she wouldn’t be able to put it back, noting that it’s important to get the cockpit in the right spot for proper weight distribution. 

“I measured, and I measured, and I measured again, and then I’d walk away, and I’d come back and I’d measure again because once you cut that hole, you’re pretty much committed,” Stearns said, with a chuckle. 

She finally made the cut and began building the lip around the opening. Stearns said it ended up working out perfectly — the weight distributed well with plenty of room for her legs out in front. 

In addition to building the kayak, Stearns added a few decorative and personal touches to commemorate important people in her life. Because her father was a ham radio operator, she decided to put a decorative stripe around the hull of the boat that was a Bible verse in Morse code, Genesis 1:26. Because Winter passed away in December 2019, this was an emotional thing for her. 

“When I got to that point of it, my dad passed away, … so, I thought, that decorative stripe needs to be a message in Morse code,” Stearns said. 

She also inlaid a mariner’s compass on the front of the boat to commemorate her late mother, who was a quilter. Mariner’s compasses are often used in quilting. Pictures of Stearns’ family are also included in the cockpit. 

While the finished product is a fitting reward for a job well done, Stearns said she really enjoyed the whole process, every step of the way. 

“That shop was perfect, it was warm, and I’d crank up the music, and I’d think, ‘Well, I’ll only be here for a half hour or so,’ … and pretty soon I’d realize I’d been working for three hours. So it just kind of sucked me in,” Stearns said. 

Stearns finished the 15-foot, 1-inch-long boat in the late summer of 2021, and when she first tried it out on the water, a group of friends was there to celebrate her achievement. She even brought a bottle of champagne and poured a little over the bow to christen the boat as “Bess,” the name of her favorite aunt during Stearns’ youth. 

“It is such a joy on the water because … you just glide through it,” Stearns said. 

“Everywhere I go with it, … people are like ‘oh my gosh can I look at your kayak,’” Stearns added. “I’ve had people from the shorelines yelling, ‘love your kayak,’”

Stearns’ development as a woodworker began long before she began crafting her kayak. A native of Huron, South Dakota, Winter purchased land in Custer when Stearns was just in middle school. The family made the trek to Custer over long weekends to build the shop. Then they lived in the shop while the house was being built — a task that Stearns had an important role in. 

Winter never had formal carpentry training but learned what he could from reading — a skill he passed on to Stearns. 

“It kind of all started with my dad. He could build just about anything – no matter what it was, he could do it,” Stearns said. 

According to Stearns, Winter would always say, “I’ve done so much with so little for so long that I’m now capable of doing anything with absolutely nothing at all.” 

Over the years Stearns has built a number of things. One was a garden shed she built to be held together in the middle by 12 bolts so that it could come apart for easy hauling. When Stearns and her husband, Dan, remodeled their house, she also built the kitchen cabinets. 

Stearns laughed. 

“I’d go to Menards, and I’d crawl inside their cabinets to see how they were built,” she said. 

Stearns’ skills were also passed on to her children, and her son, Morgan Stearns, remembers growing up playing in his grandfather’s shop, learning all sorts of skills. 

He’s also proud of his mom and enjoys bragging about her.

“My mom is one of the handiest people I know. She’s a jack of many trades,” Morgan said. He added that it always amuses him when he gets to tell people that she built the kitchen cabinets at her house. 

Now a welder, Morgan appreciates the life lessons he learned from his mother and grandfather to become a skilled craftsman. 

“I had some very good mentors growing up between the two of them and other people. It helped pave a road for me anyways,” Morgan said. 

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