Men Who Use Their Hands: Nick Schade, Kayak Crafter

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When you’ve been making a living handcrafting wooden kayaks for over two decades like Nick Schrade, your hands become your tools.

And like how a chef sharpens his knives, Nick’s got to keep his hands in tip-top shape, too.

We took a trip out to Nick’s workspace in Groton, Connecticut to find out what it takes to build a custom kayak, and how he puts the “hand” in hand crafted.

Bathroom Minutes: Did you always want to do something where you got to work with your hands?
Nick Schade: I’ve always liked a mix. When I worked as an Electrical Engineer, I did engineering stuff in an office and did testing and hands-on work on ships and submarines. Now, as a kayak designer and builder, I do my design work on the computer, but I get to use my hands during the crafting and testing processes.

BM: What does the kayak building process look like?
NS: The build time for a custom wooden kayak can take up to eight months. We use a “strip-planked” construction, which means bending thin strips of cedar or mahogany around a template. The strips are glued, planed and sanded, and then reinforced with fiberglass and epoxy and the inside is also sanded and reinforced. Once we’ve put it all together we apply a clear, UV protective coating, we fit it with seats and deck lines, and then we’re ready to paddle.

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BM: That’s a lot of woodwork. Any splinters?
NS: Just really dry skin and calluses, mostly.

BM: Gross. Anything you can do to keep your hands in tip-top shape?
I handle thousands of feet of splintery material to build even a single kayak, so gloves are a must. On the water, I try to go au natural. Skin-on-paddle contact provides the best feel, but damn if all that pressure and friction doesn’t destroy your hands.

BM: What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on so far?
NS: I experimented with a new carbon fiber technique while working on a mahogany tandem kayak last year. We used vacuum and air pressure to distribute the epoxy resin through the cloth to create a very strong layup. Riveting stuff!

BM: What do most of your clients use their kayaks for? Fishing? Racing? Leisure? Surfing?
Schade: Most of my clients are recreational paddlers, but I also build for experienced kayakers who know exactly what they want from time to time. Given the emphasis on aesthetics most clients are happy to even just hang the kayaks on display in their boat house.

BM: Why kayaks, anyways? You got a problem with sailboats or something?
NS: I like a vessel that I can put on the roof of a car and take with me when I travel. Exploring the water in a kayak is a direct experience with nature—Instead of traveling past the environment, you move with the environment.

BM: Do you feel the need to sleep next to a boat the night before you give it away?
NS: Nope. Selling a boat just means there’s room in the shop to build another one.