Wooden floating works of art
Every year, Joe Greenley builds three or four custom kayaks in his Port Townsend workshop. The experience is more akin to raising a kid than creating an inanimate object.
“I really grow attached to every boat that I build,” Greenley says. “When I build a custom boat, I’ll spend up to 400 hours on it, and each one is unique and each one sort of has [its] own personality. It’s sort of bittersweet in the end when I have to let it go because it’s almost like an offspring or a child.”
Greenley, 57, owns Redfish Kayaks, the Pacific Northwest’s first established strip-built kayak company. Back when Greenley founded Redfish in Boise in 1992, canoes were essentially the only game in town — sea kayaking was a fledgling hobby that hadn’t taken off quite yet. Two decades later, and moves from Boise to Port Angeles to current home Port Townsend, and the positions have reversed.
“Now, I get 99 kayak inquiries for every one I get about canoes,” Greenley says. “A sea kayak is much more efficient on the water than a canoe.”
Greenley builds kayaks and offers kits and classes in the strip-building method, where small, pliable strips of wood — about 3/8” thick and up to 5/8” wide — are secured together. It’s more time-consuming than skin-on-frame or plywood-based building methods, but aesthetically, it far outclasses simpler techniques.
“Strip-building is the pinnacle of the wooden kayak building business,” Greenley says. “It’s extremely versatile; you can acquire almost any shape in the hull that you would want [and] there’s so many different species and colors of wood that you can use.”
Because the kayak’s hull is sheathed with fiberglass and epoxy, the wood never touches water, meaning nearly any species is an option. The nature of the material allows the builder to introduce swooping curvature and painted graphics to the construction.
A custom job takes Greenley at least 200 hours, with more complicated builds lasting twice as long. But the lengthy commitments haven’t dulled Greenley’s enthusiasm.
“Every boat that I build is different,” he says. “Every boat has its own unique challenges. It hasn’t got to the point of tedium for me. I still really enjoy building them.”
Redfish’s custom kayaks have an exclusive client base — they range from $6,000 to $12,000, and Greenley can only build so many in a year — but Redfish offers other options, including comprehensive kits that contain all the necessary instructions and materials, and instructor-led workshops.
Greenley prides himself on always being available to help a builder individually by phone.
“I never went into this business with the intent of mass-producing anything,” he says. “I didn’t want it to grow huge. I wanted to keep it smaller and more personal.”
For now, Greenley feels like he still has a handle on that, and the rapidly expanding interest can only be construed as a good thing.
“This type of boat [and] this type of construction has become a lot more visible as more and more people learn about it, and more and more people are interested in trying their hand at it,” he says. “To be able to build something of your own — to say that you built it, and to end up with a product that’s both functional and very attractive — is very, very rewarding.”
www.redfishkayak.com, (360) 808-5488