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Matt with his sit-on-top designDesigner Matt Langenfeld

Engineer and paddler Matt Langenfeld, founder of JEM Watercraft, designs canoe and kayak plans for the amateur boat builder.

When I decided to start JEM Watercraft, I had many design ideas swimming around in my head. I knew what I liked, but also knew that not everyone agrees with what I like. My goal was to have a new builder not go through what I went through. As an Industrial Engineer, writing assembly instructions and designing processes that are efficient and easy is what I do every day so developing these kind of boat plans comes naturally to me. I take pain-staking efforts to make my drawings and instructions super-clear.

So I began the market research process. My own experience as an amateur builder laid the groundwork; but through the internet, I've come to enjoy input from various newsgroups and bulletin board forums around the web about kayaking, canoeing, and every form of paddling in between.

Living in Wisconsin, I grew up hunting, fishing, paddling, eating cheese, rooting for the Packers and dreaming of starring in an episode of Lavern and Shirley. Well those are not ALL true. You decide which is which. At 19 years of age, I decided to join the Air Force.

My first assignment took me out to March AFB, CA. There I experienced the environment of the ocean and got to try new things to do in the water. Most of which were a lot of fun but like many things, I learned about some things the hard way. One story includes a boogie boarding incident that left me with a nasty scrape looking like a scar from triple bypass surgery. No one told me you're supposed to dump off before getting to the shore line! My first REAL taste of powerful water.

After a few years in the Military, picking up a wife and son along the way, I decided the military wasn't the career choice for me. So with Wife, son, and now daughter on the way, we made the move to North Carolina to be near recently transplanted family.

The 1st few years in North Carolina were spent in college and working full time for a brighter future for the family. It didn't leave too much recreation time. But with finally completing my graduate degree and living near the many lakes in the Greensboro, the urge to get out on the water could be resisted no more. Just one problem: no boat!

I started looking around in the local paper and came across a few canoes. I knew what I wanted and thought I could find it at a reasonable price. While surfing the internet - looking for that hidden sweetheart of a deal - I came across a site showing how to build your own boats using the "Stitch and Glue" method of building. I've always been the handyman or a do-it-yourselfer so this option was very appealing.

First Row BoatAt first I chose one of the simple canoe plans. After studying it for a while, however, I got delusions of grandeur and wanted something bigger. I finally decided on a rowboat. Besides occasional stints on rowing machines at various gyms or using an inflatable raft, rowing was something I'd never really done a lot of; but the design I selected had an elegant look that was appealing. And after all, I'm a handy man! I can build this thing in about a week no problem. Yea right.

Boat building is a fairly simple process but there is a learning curve. It didn't help that the plans I bought were an older design and the drawings weren't very clear to me.

I work with mechanical assembly drawings every day but I never saw nautical ones before. I was also used drawing packages developed for extreme clarity and not for compacting onto one sheet of paper. The instructions, which I'm sure were clear and easy to someone who had built a boat before, weren't much help either even though they were advertsied as easy enough for a first time builder to assemble.

After about 2 months I finally got her out on the water. If you've never built a boat before, the feeling of building one and taking it out on the water is second to none. I got many compliments on my efforts. She is a nice looking boat from afar.

If you inspect her more closely, you'll see the crooked bow, uneven seats, and where I could have done a better job sanding. Hardly a masterpiece, but it was the start of something big. Well hopefully big.

I learned a lot from that boat including that I didn't really care for rowing. I guess I'm just too used to going forward as apposed to backward. I kicked myself every time I thought about building that boat because the local marinas rent many different kinds of boats. I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort. So another boat building project was called for. But then the wheels started turning. I could do this as a business; plus, I really enjoy doing it.

One tricky part of building for retail sales is you need to get permission from the designer. Often they will want a cut of the revenue and have restrictions on what you can and cannot do.

First CanoeThe next boat I picked to build was a canoe. It came from a set of plans that didn't have instructions. It had only the panel drawings and was intended for an experienced boat builder. The designer agreed to let me build and sell this design for profit and didn't require any commission. Assembly was easy because once you build your first boat, it's like riding a bike. It's also highly addictive but there are worse vices to have.

The canoe went together nicely. The hull shape was not exactly for the type of water I wanted to paddle on and I wondered how many people would want such a boat. After she was assembled and painted, we got the family together for the maiden voyage. I was a little worried because I knew the hull shape was going to be a little tippy and my kids had never been on this small of a boat. But I'm an experience paddler. I can compensate! Yea right again.

We got to the launch spot, loaded everything, and got ready for the first push off. Kids were excited which meant they weren't sitting still and the canoe wasn't sitting squarely on the launch ramp. We tried to push off: Splash! All 4 of us dump over and into the drink. Kids are crying and I'm mortified.

With the help of a very nice kayaker at the boat ramp, we eventually got back on the water and had a nice paddle after everyone settled down. But before I took the first stroke, I decide that there was no way I was going to build boats for a living until I can design them myself. Those thoughts evolved into not building boats, but designing them.

JEM Watercraft was formally launched in November 2003 and was in the business of designing canoe and kayak plans (and the occasional sail or power boat) for the amateur boat builder. I still build for retail, but that side of the business has been mostly for friends and prototype experiments. There's a couple of fiberglass mold makers that make my designs for resale on a very small scale right now. But maybe some day we'll go big!

I draw inspiration from a Statistics professor I had while obtaining my MBA from UNC Greensboro named Dr. John Neufeld. He wrote the very book we used for class. His book was a total hand-holding experience that took you through the calculations and software step by step in simple-to-understand language. Learning in this manner made that tough subject easy and a little enjoyable. Not sure how much joy one can get out of statistics though. Apologies to all your number crunchers out there. ;)

sit-on-topI haven't been inspired by one particular style of boats or by any one designer with perhaps Verlen Kruger being the exception. I get most of my ideas from the experiences I've had paddling and what other paddlers say about their boats. I design for what paddlers ask for while staying within rules of safety and a few other guidelines I've developed from prototype experiments.

Sit on top KayakWhat the future holds remains to be seen. There are a few things I'd like to accomplish and new designs are always in the works. My goal is to positively impact boat building and hopefully be an influence for new and innovative ideas. Maybe some day we'll give Confluence and Johnson a run for the money. ;)

The Top-Yaker forum are nice because it has a small but really informed bunch. Through various discussions and ideas, I came up with a set of plans for a sit-on-top touring kayak, which I hope to publish soon. Drop me an e-mail or post a message in the Top-Yaker discussion forums and tell me what you'd like to see next.

I'd like to thank Athena and Tom for this opportunity to ramble on about myself. - Matt Langenfeld


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