Kayaks That Fit Like Custom-Made Suits

New business epitomizes craftsmanship

By Michael Turton

If Cold Spring Custom Kayaks (CSCK) goes on to become a thriving, niche-market business, customers can thank the New York Rangers.

Bernie Kohler works on one of CSCK's "everything from scratch" cedar strip sea kayaks.

Bernie Kohler works on one of CSCK’s ”everything from scratch” cedar strip sea kayaks.

Bernie Kohler and Stefan Carlson, founders of the fledgling enterprise, met in the spring of 2012 at a house party centered on a Rangers Stanley Cup playoff game. Between periods, Carlson learned that Kohler had built a kayak, and asked him to teach him the skills he’d need to do the same — shortening the learning curve Carlson would need if working alone. The two hit it off right away but nothing happened until the following year — at another Rangers’ playoff game party. When the conversation again turned to kayaks, Carlson had a proposition for Kohler. “Why don’t we build 10 of them?” he asked. Kohler was intrigued but pointed out that materials alone cost about $1,200 per kayak. “Why don’t we start with four and see what happens?” he replied. With that CSCK was born.

Kohler built his first kayak for his girlfriend who was upset over having to quit the local kayak club because she didn’t have her own boat. With a background in furniture building and construction he didn’t hesitate. “Can I build you a wooden one?” he asked. Apparently she didn’t hesitate either and over the course of the next eight months Kohler built his first cedar strip kayak, working mainly at night.

Carlson, a local contractor and avid outdoorsman, wanted a change of pace from building houses, garages, bridges and decks. “I wanted to build something I could keep — and use,” he said.

Anything but an assembly line

CSCK got off the ground officially in August 2013, and is based in a shop on Route 9 between Route 301 and Fishkill Road.

“We’ve built five and one-half kayaks to date,” Kohler said. Not exactly a pace that would have impressed Henry Ford whose assembly lines took just two hours and 30 minutes to build each Model T. According to Kohler, their custom-built kayaks each take between 600 and 700 man-hours to produce.

CSCK’s prototype kayak is now on display at Old Souls on Main Street in Cold Spring and is generating rave reviews. The glossy, cedar boat is so aesthetically appealing that more than one customer has remarked that they could never put such a vessel in the water. In fact, their first sale may never see a river, lake or pond. “The first one is going into someone’s home,” Kohler said. “They view it as a piece of artwork.”

But most of CSCK’s boats are destined for the water and with good reason. The 17-foot sea kayaks weigh only 35 to 45 pounds compared to the hefty 60 to 80 pound plastic models. “And our kayaks are very maneuverable — they can turn on a dime,” Kohler said. The reduced weight does make a cedar kayak more challenging in a wind, he said, and high performance models can be trickier to track. CSCK also produces recreational models that Kohler said are more stable and easier to steer.

All American, made from scratch

The construction process is painstaking, beginning with the selection of a design from Connecticut-based Guillemot Kayaks, a recognized leader in the design of wooden kayaks and canoes. An aluminum two-by-four forms the “strongback” or backbone of the boat, centered through a plywood pattern that determines the overall shape. Aluminum is used because it is lighter and straighter than wood. Narrow strips of red, yellow and white cedar are glued together to form the body.

CSCK's kayaks are built using narrow strips of three different kinds of American cedar. 

CSCK’s kayaks are built using narrow strips of three different kinds of American cedar.

The cedar is “All American” and comes from Alaska, California and New England. CSCK mills its own cedar “cove and bead” style — a shape somewhat akin to tongue and groove — making the curved surface of a kayak possible. “We do everything from scratch,” Kohler said, adding that he considers the milling process to be the most exacting aspect of construction. Once the cedar strips are glued in place and dried, two layers each of fiberglass, epoxy and resin are applied to the exterior surface with one layer of each added to the interior. An additional coating is applied to the cockpit.

Durability with designs tailored to the paddler

“It’s the fiberglass that makes these kayaks so strong,” Kohler said. The fiberglass used is a very thin fabric that is completely invisible once applied to the wooden surface. Carlson agrees their boats are anything but fragile. “They’re extremely durable,” he said. “They’re virtually indestructible — and easily repairable.”

He feels that “unbelievable patience” is the most important attribute required in building a kayak. “It is extremely precise work. It’s like making fine furniture.”

CSCK kayaks are made to order and built to suit the person who will paddle them. A number of factors including the kayaker’s height and weight are taken into account. Special needs can also be accommodated. “If someone in a wheelchair wants to kayak, we can build one with outriggers so that it can’t capsize,” Kohler said. “Fishermen use outriggers as well.” CSCK also produces custom-made paddles and other kayaking accessories.

Quality craftsmanship, custom orders and building from scratch come with a price. CSCK kayaks cost “$4,800 to whatever” Kohler said. Visitors are welcome at their shop located in the rear of the building at 3021 Route 9 across from Phat Custom Cycles.

As for the Rangers, they’ve clinched a 2014 playoff berth. Kohler and Carlson will no doubt be watching.

Photos by M. Turton

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