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The baidarka building process illustrated.

The Greenland kayak building process illustrated.

Building baidarkas in Akutan, East Aleutians

All about making boat ribs

Gunwale to deck beam joinery


This page is all about building small skin on frame kayaks and canoes.

What Is Skin on Frame Construction?
Skin on frame construction is the traditional way to build boats when wood is hard to come by. This type of construction was used all over the Arctic to make boats, both large open dory-like boats and the smaller kayaks. Unlike more modern wooden boats in which the hull of the boat is made entirely out of wood, the hull of a skin on frame boat is made out of a slender open framework which is covered with animal skins stitched together to make the boat waterproof. Nowadays we have substituted nylon or cotton fabrics for the animal skins, but the construction of the frame still follows traditional ways very closely.

Why Use Skin on Frame Construction?
Low Weight. Skin on frame (SOF) construction is light. You can make a seventeen foot long skin on frame kayak that weighs 35 pounds, about ten pounds lighter than an equally sized commercial lightweight kevlar kayak.

SOF construction is light weight for several reasons. First reason is the use of wood. Wood is the stiffest boatbuilding material available for its weight. Secondly, SOF construction allows for very slender parts which would break in use if rigidly fastened together with nails or screws. But because all parts of a skinon frame kayak are held together with lashings of string or loosely joined together so they can move on impact, they can flex out of the way of harm.

Comfort. From the ergonomic standpoint, skin on frame kayaks are the most comfortable boats on the water. Because the frame is allowed to move and flex in rough water, your SOF boat will slide through rough water much more smoothly than a stiffer fiberglass hull.

Self reliance. If you are not a tinkerer by nature or are intimidated by tools or technology, building a skin on frame boat is the perfect way to overcome that. Building any one part of the boat is not difficult and by the time you have finished the boat, you will have learned any number of new skills and become familiar with new tools and capabilities that you never knew you had.

But more importantly, a skin on frame boat is an improvisation. There is no fixed right way to make it so you learn how to approach each problem you encounter along the way and how to overcome it. Pretty soon you will find that you are willing to tackle fixit projects that you would never have thought of tackling before. Not because you will know how to fix anything, but because you have learned how to look at a problem with the confidence that comes from knowing how to improvise.

You are creating something living. But aside from the technical merits of how an SOF boat behaves and feels, there is something magical about the construction of a skin on frame boat that is hard to describe until you have built your own boat. The feeling of building a skin on frame boat is that you are giving birth to a living being. And because you have created this living being, you have a relationship with it unlike that which you would have with a plastic boat.

And I am not making this up. In the past I have never advertised the magical aspect of skin on frame boat building. But without prompting, any number of people have told me how building a skin on frame boat has opened up a whole new world to them. One builder went so far as to tell me that building the boat had changed his life. It changed his relationship to the environment by making him more aware of the world that he paddled in.

All content copyright © 2004 Wolfgang Brinck. Personal non-commercial use permitted.