WHICH FABRIC SHOULD I SKIN MY BOAT WITH?
First let me say there is no perfect skinning material. One of the problems is that there is nothing made specifically for our application. All the fabrics we use are intended for some other use. Someone has been willing to experiment and found fabrics that work, some better than others.
Some people use a coated fabric that is used for truck tarps. It works but I don’ care for it. Canvas is another good fabric but it is harder to work with and being a natural fabric it will rot so it needs extra care. You will see photos of kayak covered in clear vinyl, while this make s a great looking boat it is not durable! Once it punctures it will tear easily. It main purpose if just for looks.
Nylon is probably the most used fabric but 95% of my clients skin my boats withpolyester. Both make good skins but they have different characteristics and skinning methods that will influence your choice.
As I said, nylon is the most popular fabric with builders. It stretches a lot before it breaks and that alone makes it a great skinning material. It’s extremely durable and will not puncture easy.
Of course nylon is not perfect. Very few coatings will stick to nylon so your choices for waterproofing are limited. It has one drawback that I find very annoying. Nylon is hygroscopic, meaning when it absorbs water. When nylon gets wet it stretches and relaxes. That means your drum tight skin you worked so hard to sew on will become baggy when you hit the water the first time. If you look at this picture, this was the 2nd or 3rd trip I made in my Curlew.
The shadows you see on the skin are from wrinkles where the fabric relaxed. Yes, it started out drum tight and it loosened up this much. The good news is it gets better with age.
This was taken 6 months or so latter. Notice there isn’t even a hint of a wrinkle. David had paddled this one for about 3 hours when this photo was taken. He never even noticed the skin had loosened till I pointed it out to him once the boat was back on my trailer. This boat is skinned with 12 oz nylon. I used a 7 oz skin I on my Long Shot and it would always get baggy looking.
Unlike nylon, polyester doesn’t absorb water and relax when wet. So it is like what you see is what you get as far as tension goes. I have found it will relax in cooler weather but it is doesn’t get wrinkles, it just looses some of it’s tension. Polyesters biggest advantage is that most any coating will adhere to it, including water based coatings. With so many states outlawing oil based finishes that is an important consideration.
Polyester drawbacks are that it doesn’t stretch like nylon so it is not as puncture resistant. But that doesn’t mean it is not strong enough for a kayak. The 8 oz. fabric we offer is a looser weave and you use a different method to sew it on than you do nylon. Traditionally it has been sewn on loose and then heat applied to shrink it. Over time it will relax somewhat. I have developed a method for sewing it on tight that I recommend using over shrinking it on the boat.
Confused? Don’t feel bad, everyone is at first, it just not an easy choice. After using differnet fabrics I have settled on the 8 oz polyester on most new boats. I recently found a 11.7 oz polyester that I really like too. I now recommend the polyester to a new builders. I have developed a method for sewing on the polyester and created a set of videos to walk you through the process.
My favorite thing about polyester is that you can use most anything on it to waterproof the fabric. My favorite finish is oil base paint. It’s a reasonably tough finish and it is easy to touch up if you need. Plus you can get creative with it if you have the skills. It takes a different technique to sew the polyester on because it doesn’t stretch and the weave on the fabrics I sell are loose. I made a set of videos showing my methods for sewing a polyester skin.