Creating a Foldable, Origami-Inspired Kayak

Sometimes, it’s not necessity that’s the mother of invention, but a small apartment. In 2008, architect Anton Willis moved from rural California to San Francisco. There wasn’t room for his fiberglass kayak, and he had no car to lug it around, so into storage it went. But he just read an article in the New Yorker recently about origami, and it gave him an idea: What if he could create a lightweight kayak that could be folded up and stashed away?

Spoiler alert: He did it. Willis launched Oru Kayak (Oru is Japanese for “to fold”) in 2012 with a successful Kickstarter campaign (his goal was $80,000; the campaign raised $443,806). This week, the company announced its new model, the Oru Bay+, which has a number of upgrades on the original kayak that make it “a bit more comfortable, easier to put together, more convenient,” Willis says. We asked him to walk us through how he created his awesome origami kayak.


Willis had done origami as a kid, not as an adult. “There was a bit of a learning curve,” he says. For inspiration, he looked not to traditional origami animals or designs, but to “some artists who had done things with fluid, organic curved shapes that you don’t normally think of when you think of origami that can be useful if you’re designing something like a kayak that needs to be curved and streamlined,” he says.

He started with sketches, then began folding up paper models—“hundreds of them,” he says—before moving to cardboard and then to full-sized plastic prototypes. No 3D modeling or CAD software here. “I did pretty much work on full-scale prototypes from the beginning,” he says. “It wasn’t just like I designed paper models until it was a perfect kayak form and only then turned it into plastic. It took a while to figure out a way to accurately make a scale model that would behave the same way.”


When he had his first prototype made, Willis took it out to Berkeley’s Aquatic Park—which he says is “stagnant, and pretty awful”—to test it out. Things did not go well. “I paddled it for 30 seconds and then it started sinking,” he says. “Nothing malfunctioned, it just wasn’t a big enough piece of plastic to support my weight. It was made from a 4x8 sheet of Coroplast from a sign shop and that turned out not to be big enough.” (Willis also notes that after that initial disastrous run, “I started testing it in cleaner places.”)

Willis made 24 prototypes in all; he says it was about five years between when he first got the idea and started Oru, but that halfway through there were functional kayaks—they just weren’t ready for manufacturing. “It was a fair challenge to get a big enough piece of material to work with since it isn’t a stock size and I wasn’t ordering thousands of pieces,” he says, “which is usually what you have to do if you’re trying to get custom material sizes in anything.”

But he figured it out: These days, every kayak starts as “a single sheet of flat material, about 5 by 13 feet,” he says. “Folding is done in a factory. It’s die-cut—it’s like a huge cookie cutter, basically. There’s a lot of hand assembly to attach the other parts and hardware.”

It wasn’t easy to design an origami kayak, but Willis says his background as an architect certainly helped "in somewhat unexpected ways. As far as design education, architecture is one that gives you a very general approach to problem solving, as opposed to specific technical skills, so that was very useful. And I always had a very hands-on approach to architecture, with models and things, so that helped as well.”


Willis calls the just-released Bay+ “a premium upgrade model.” The same size and basic specs as the first Oru Kayak, it has “a bunch of new accessories and fittings” that make it more convenient for the user. “We developed it partly in response to customer feedback over the past couple of years and partly to explore different designs and technologies we had been looking at,” he says.

Among the additions are new buckles, similar to what are found on snowboard bindings, that make it easier for people with less hand strength to put the kayak together. “The seat is the other really big use upgrade,” Willis says. “There’s an adjustable, ergonomic, high back seat that makes it a bit more comfortable for the long haul.” The new additions add just three pounds to the kayak's weight. Willis says he and his team of eight are constantly "working on things to make [the kayak] easier to manufacture and save cost on hardware and things."

When unfolded, Oru Kayaks are 12 feet long; it folds up to “about the size of a sofa cushion,” Willis says. “It’ll fit in a car trunk, you can check it on airplanes.” And because it weighs just 26 pounds—half the weight of a comparable molded plastic kayak—hikers can fold it up, throw it in the custom backpack carrying case, and walk with it. “It can go a lot of places,” Willis says, “and with practice you can assemble it in 5 minutes.” Get it in the water and it’ll feel just like any other kayak, he says, except that it’s lighter: “People with some experience are always surprised by how much it feels like other kayaks.”

Can You Spot the Christmas Pudding?

Whether it’s a sheep hanging out with Santa Claus or a panda bear hiding among some snowmen, regular Mental Floss readers know that hidden picture brainteasers are one of our favorite things. And the optical experts at have released a delicious one, just in time for Christmas. Somewhere in the midst of all these holiday-themed goodies above, there’s a holiday pudding just waiting to be discovered. Can you spot it? Your time starts … now.

If you give up, or are the kind of person who reads the last page of a book before the first one and just wants to know the answer, scroll down to see where it’s hiding.


By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]


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