Most kayaks nowadays are made of synthetic materials, like fiberglass or ABS plastic, but traditional sea kayaks were traditionally made from a hollowed out wooden structure covered in stretch animal skin. This transition from natural materials to synthetics probably happened because the later was inexpensive, durable, waterproof, and easy to make.
ABS plastic (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), for instance, is an opaque thermoplastic and an amorphous polymer. “Thermoplastics” have the unique characteristic that they can be heated to their melting point and reshaped many times over. This means that ABS can be easily extruded or molded in a liquid form, and, if the cooling results fail to pass muster, the product and easily be recycled and the process restarted. You can easily imagine the impact materials like this had on kayak production everywhere, to be sure.
Response to Fiberglass and Plastic Boats
Despite the technological “advances” that fiberglass and plastics bring – cheaply made, reusable products that can be pumped out by machines in the thousands – there has been a cultural groundswell to bring back more traditional, naturally crafted product, and the kayak industry is no exception.
Brian Schultz started Cape Falcon Kayak with the idea that a skin-on-frame kayak shouldn’t have to prove how tough and comfortable they could be or make excuses for their superiority over their synthetically derived brethren. The trouble was that, in addition to waterproofing issues, no one wants to lug around boat made of natural materials that weigh more than its anchor when they can carry a plastic one that weighs twenty pounds.
Still, the idea of owning a skillfully crafted, uniquely built kayak had legs, and Schultz was a self-described “obsessive craftsman.” So, he crafted and worked and tweaked until he came up with an ultra-lightweight, extremely durable kayak that is, well, a bit of a compromise of tradition and technology.
Evidently, the ribs are made of bamboo laminate, which is reportedly much stronger and lighter than solid wood, and the boat is tied with flat artificial fishing line material that is almost impossible to break and won’t show lumps under the “skin.” The skin, for that matter, is made of ballistic nylon (think bulletproof vests), and the whole thing is, finally, covered in a proprietary two-part polyurethane to ensure the kayak will be waterproof for a lifetime.
All in all, Schultz, has developed a kayak that is ever but as lightweight and durable as its synthetic counterpart, and his cost is actually comparable with an Old Town high-end model boat.
Build Your Own Kayak Plans
The premise is actually pretty simple, and you do not need a mold before beginning your build. All you need are a couple of saw horses, a template, and some lumber you can cut to length and width. A planer will help to keep the wood pieces thin because you do not want to add weight where it is unnecessary.
Once you have all of the wooden pieces, you need to start lashing them together with some modern substitute for animal sinew, and, when the whole thing is secure, it is time to start thinking about the skin. In lieu of actually using an animal skin which shrinks as it dries (ideal for an air-tight seal), you will want to look for a heavy-duty woven fabric like canvas or nylon that you will stretch over the frame and then paint with a liquid sealant to make it waterproof.
Polyester reportedly works well, as you can heat-shrink it, but, of course, that is not the end of it. Next, you have to choose your waterproofing. Many choose polyurethane because is natural, but it is also prone to cracking. The newest product on the market is a paint-on propylene finish, which provides a rubber-like waterproof finish, but the trade-off is that it is a synthetic product.
Choosing what materials to buy and where can take longer than actually as building the kayak. If your head is spinning already, we don’t blame you. That’s why so many folks choose to simply buy a kit rather than source products from scratch. Made Kayaks offers to duplicate any style kayak, fabricate its ribs, sterns, and bow, provide a waterproof skin and ship it to you a kit for a fraction of what it would cost to buy a boat.
Wooden frame parts are made of Baltic Birch plywood, the hull is Western Red Cedar, the skin is ballistics-grade nylon with a polyurethane coating, and the deck straps and screws are all rust-proof and highly durable. Plus, you will get all the materials you need to hold the frame in position as you work on it, as well as Detailed and illustrated instructions.
Native Kayaks and SOF Kayak Kits
There really is a ton of literature out there on Skin-on-Frame native kayaks, but there are only a couple of legitimate kit and kayak makers. In order to narrow down the list, we have listed a few of the more reputable sources that we have come across.
- Building the Greenland Kayak by Christopher Cunningham (McGraw-Hill, 2003) is an excellent account of fashioning a kayak from scratch by the Sea Kayaker magazine editor.
- We have already given Cape Falcon Kayaks a nod, but we will also list them here.
- If you feel the need to connect with you inner-Inuit, Traditional Kayaks is a traditional kayak site by Harvey Golden at
- Gentry Custom Boats make great Skin-on-Frame kayaks. www.gentrycustomboats.com
- See also:
- Building Skin-On-Frame Boats by Robert Morris is kind of the SOF kayak Bible.
- Umiak, An Illustrated Guide by Skip Snaith is another great guide.
SOF Kayak Plan Wrap-Up
Whether you are attending a class, ordering a custom kayak, or buying a kayak plan, first you’ll have to decide what you want out of a native kayak. For example, if you weigh over two hundred pounds then a Greenland Kayak is not for you.
Likewise, if you are a purist than laminates and synthetic waterproofing treatments will probably be off your list. That is the beauty of skin-on-frame kayaks, kayak plans, and kayak kits: they are individualized labors of love and not over-machined hunks of plastic.