In the Workshop: The Greenland Skin-on-frame Kayak

For how much I love the ocean, I had never really given sea kayaking much thought… until I read about the history of kayaking in Greenland.  It was amazing to learn about the sophistication of their craft, as well as their ability to navigate some of the world’s coldest and most turbulent oceans.  My fascination with Greenland’s kayaking heritage inspired me to take several classes in modern sea kayaking, and I quickly became hooked.  The next step was to purchase my own kayak.  I couldn’t afford a new one, and used ones were in short supply, so the “logical” solution was to build my own.  Many kayak building kits were just as far outside my budget as a new kayak, however.  One day I stumbled upon Christopher Cunningham’s book,  Building the Greenland Kayak, a step-by-step guide to building a skin-on-frame kayak.  The skin-on-frame kayak uses fewer supplies and requires less expensive tools than other building methods, and therefore just fit my budget.  My fascination with the Greenland kayak had come full circle as I decided to build my own.  In today’s post, I’ll present part one of my skin-on-frame kayak build.

Scarf joints clamped after applying marine epoxy

The Greenland kayak is typically around 16 feet long.  In my experience, this is quite a bit longer than it sounds.  Since I was unable to find (or transport) reasonable full-length lumber for the gunwhales (the “sides” of the kayak), I had to scarf six 6-foot boards together. Once scarfed and cleaned up a bit with a block plane, I transferred the measurements I’d taken for where my feet, knees, and back would fit.  Then I began to make rib mortises.

Drilling the holes for the rib mortises

I followed the book’s instructions for a “drill guide” jig, which quickly failed.  Luckily, this classic Stanley doweling jig worked wonders.  After drilling three holes in each of the 50 mortises, I cleaned out each one with a chisel to get an even rectangle.  Working by hand, this took ages.  After the rib mortises were done, I moved on to the deck beam mortises.

The deck beam mortises were particularly challenging

The deck beam mortises had to be drilled and cleaned up into an even rectangle, just like the rib mortises.  The challenge this time was that, because the gunwhales would be tilted a bit to the side, the mortises had to be drilled at an angle to accept the non-tilted deck beams.  The jig prescribed by the book for this job didn’t fail completely, but was nerve-wrackingly imprecise.  I made my own jig to simulate a deck beam tenon and insure the mortises were accurate as I filed them to size.

A short “key” to simulate a deck beam tenon insured an accurate mortise

With the gunwhales complete, I made the building forms to provide the kayak’s shape. It was quite reassuring to see the long planks I’d spent weeks chiseling and filing actually take the shape of a kayak.

The building forms hold the kayak in the proper shape

Next, I made the deck beams.  These required cutting 1×2 boards to length across the span of the kayak, then cutting a tenon to fit each mortise.  This required cutting a “compound bevel”, two different angles at the same time.  Unlike every other step up to this point, cutting the tenons was easier than expected and kind of relaxing.

The tenon fits snugly in the mortise, while the compound beveled shoulder makes contact with the gunwhale

Once all the deck beams were cut, I took off the building forms and assembled the gunwhales with the deck beams in place.

The deck beams fit in one at a time, kind of like a 17-foot long zipper

The end forms kept the thing from splitting back apart once assembled.  To lock the kayak in shape, each end got a lashing towards the bottom and a pair of trunnels– wedged dowels.

Adding the trunnels was one of my favorite parts

Like the ends, every other deck beam got lashings on each side to further hold the shape of the kayak.  After that, I secured each tenon with an 1/8th inch dowel, sawed everything flush, then sanded it smooth.

The completed deck

One of the truly remarkable things about the Greenland skin-on-frame kayak is how little it weighs. Picking up the completed deck, which contains the bulk of the finished weight, required no effort.  All in all, a satisfactory end to part one.

Look for part two of the Greenland skin-on-frame kayak build, in which I’ll be building the hull!


(check out part two of the kayak build here)


2 thoughts on “In the Workshop: The Greenland Skin-on-frame Kayak

  1. Your new blog is a wonderful journey through the process of building so far. We look forward to Part Two of the journey. The pictures really help to illustrate the form and detail of the craft as it is coming together. Very impressive! Mom and Dad

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