Skin on frame kayak

Way back in 2008, the guy I was working with asked me to go to the library and look for a book on currachs, Irish fame boats. Instead I found ‘The Aleutian Kayak’ by Wolfgang Brinck and fell in love with the photos of his willow-ribbed skin on frame baidarka. The simple technology in this lighweight but seaworthy craft is truly beautiful and I decided that I would make myself a greenland kayak.

The baidarka, a fast rocket of a kayak made for ocean journeys, calls for 15ft lengths of straight, knot-free timber which though maybe common in the US wasn’t available to me in Devon. So I decided instead to make my first project a ‘recovery kayak’ from ‘Building skin on frame boats’ by Robert Morris. This is a much smaller kayak, a modern interpretation of a traditional kayak used to recover seals shot from the shore.

At the time I was working in a small sawmill which focussed on sawing oak and western red cedar for the building trade. I kept my eyes open and, on spotting a clean board, snapped it up for milling into the dimensioned components. Very little wood is needed to build a kayak like this as the skeleton framework is so well designed for lightness and strength. Apart from the bow and stern blocks no glue, nails or screws are used. All the joints are morticed and pegged or lashed together using artificial sinew to give the kayak flexibility to absorb the shocks from the sea.
kayak gunwales & ribs shaving kayak stringers on the shavehorse lashing stringers to kayak ribs stern detail
Designing a boat was something completely new for me and a really intersting challenge. A kayak is designed and built to it’s owner and the traditional measurements are all based on that person’s body: armspan, cubit and fist. Getting the right length and volume of kayak is crucial so the kayak is a close fit but with enough bouyancy.

The framework took 18 months of work on a casual, now and again basis.  Of course it could have been made a lot quicker but I was not in a rush and savouring the process of the framework coming together. The ribs are steamed into shape while the masik (curved brace over the paddler’s knees) and cockpit coaming were steamed and laminated for strength. When making my paddle, a traditional unfeathered greenland pattern, I was on more familiar ground and carved from a single piece of cedar using axe, knife and spokeshave. Also during this time I thought I should learn to swim and took lessons in my local pool!
steambent cockpit coaming recovery kayak framework

By the autumn of 2009 the framework was complete and I was living in Cumbria, working on a log cabin project. I was struggling with the book’s instructions on how to skin the kayak and searching online for advice when I came across a post on a forum for a Traditional Kayak Meet, in Cumbria – a whole weekend of people interested in building and paddling greenland kayak, and it was that very weekend. I quickly dashed off an email for details and late on sunday evening strapped my frame onto the car. Previously I’d thought I was the only person interested in these kayaks, I couldn’t find a club or shop that had even heard of them. It was a thrill to see so many greenland kayaks and baidarkas together and meet Richard, Bill and others who are so knowledgeable on the subject and have taken their kayaks paddling around greenland. They were very complimentary on my work so far, gave me plenty of advice and instruction on skins and I came away ready to tackle the next stage.
sewing in the cockpit cockpit detail

In a way it was a shame to sew the beautiful frame into it’s skin of ballistic nylon. Now complete it then stood in various sheds and barns for over a year. I’m not a kayaker and, despite the success of the swimming lessons, I’m a definite earth sign and much happier with my feet on solid ground. For me the pleasure was in the woodworking and creating this lightweight, elegant craft. At the same time I was curious to know how it would work and I got my chance just last weekend.
recovery kayak recovery kayak

About Steve Tomlin

I am a greenwood worker and scythe tutor. I carve spoons, bowls and other products from locally sourced greenwood. During the summer I teach scything around the UK.
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3 Responses to Skin on frame kayak

  1. Robin Wood says:

    that’s gorgeous Steve, its one of those projects I would love to do one day, I have a few friends that have done them and they are objects of great beauty. So how did it paddle? And since plastic boat design has moved on a lot in the last few years does anyone make short stubby play boats for white water using this technology? How does the skin on frame stand up to knocks and bumping over rocks? I guess that is not what they were designed for.

  2. Mark Baigent says:

    Hi Steve

    That looks wonderful, well done, what does it weigh?

    I am a kayaker and canoeist and have been for years, I really should try making one of those.

    The shape suggests that it will turn very well.


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