Introduction: Build a Greenland Kayak

Picture of Build a Greenland Kayak

This instructible will teach you how to build a 17 foot long Greenland kayak that will weigh between 30 and 40 pounds and cost less than $300 in materials. Compare that with the 45 to 60 pound weight and $1000 to $3000 of a commercial plastic kayak.

The Greenland kayak is one of dozens of different Arctic kayak designs that uses skin on frame technology. In skin on frame technology you build a lightweight frame by pegging and lashing together pieces of wood and then covering the frame with a skin. The result is a boat that is light and yet strong.

Total time to build a Greenland boat the first time around is about 100 hours. That doesn't count time spent buying or collecting materials.

This instructible is fairly long so I've broken it up into a number of sections.Besides this intro, there will be the following sections.
Preparing the gunwales
Building the deck
Adding the keelson, stem and stern
Adding the ribs
Adding the hull and deck stringers
Sewing on & painting the skin

Skin on frame building is fairly easy and does not require either fancy tools or great wood-working skills. Skin on frame boat builders in the Arctic were hunters first and boatbuilders second. Everybody built their own boat. There were no professional boat builders and so the technology was at a level that was accessible to everyone.

And for pictures of more Greenland kayaks in action go to the qajaqusa website.

Step 1: Skin on Frame Technology Is Adaptable

Picture of Skin on Frame Technology Is Adaptable

Once you have built a Greenland kayak using skin on frame technology, you will have picked up enough knowledge to build other styles of skin on frame kayaks using only drawings as a resource. One place to get these drawings is David Zimmerly's web site.

But you aren't limited to original skin on frame designs for the boats you build. Pretty much any small boat design can be adapted to skin on frame construction. For instance, I built the canoe shown below using skin on frame construction. The originals of this type was an Ojibway birch bark canoe.
Or you can go small and ultralight and make yourself a 20 pound boat that you can hold up with one hand.

Step 2: Nomenclature

Picture of Nomenclature

Boat parts have names that you may not be familiar with. I will list them here so you don't have to wonder what I'm talking about. See pictures below for what these boat parts look like.

1. gunwales - pronounced gunnels. Gunwales are the two boards that form the outside edge of the deck.
1a. Risers - Triangular pieces of wood doweled to the ends of the gunwales to create more upsweep of the deck at the ends of the boat. See second picture at the bottom for an illustration.
2. keelson - This piece of wood runs down the center of the bottom of the hull. It is called a keelson because it is inside the skin. If it were outside of the skin it would be a keel.
3. hull stringers - also called chine stringers. These are long narrow pieces of wood that run parallel to the gunwales and halfway down the hull toward the keelson. Their job is to hold the skin off the ribs.
4. Rib - the ribs are the main structural elements of the hull. Their shape determines the shape and beahvior of the hull.
5. Stem board - A board that connects the keelson to the gunwales at the front of the boat.
5. Stern board - A board that connects the keelson to the gunwales at the back of the boat.
6. masik - this is the arched deck beam that supports the front of the cockpit. Some boats have a separate knee brace and masik and some boats combine both functions in one deck beam.
7. knee brace - the arched deck beam that falls right behind your knee caps and that you brace your knees against when paddling.
8. foot brace - the 4th deck beam from the front that you rest your feet against when paddling.
9. Back brace - the deck beam that you rest your lower back against. It also supports the back of the cockpit coaming.
10. deck beams - boards that run from gunwale to gunwale to keep the gunwales at the proper distance from each other.
14. deck stringers - pairs of narrow boards that span the space between deck beams in front and in back of the cockpit. They provide support for gear stowed on deck.

Deck lines - these are pieces of rope that cross the deck both in front and in back of the cockpit and allow you to store gear on the deck of the kayak.

Step 3: Tools

Picture of Tools

You will need relatively few tools to build a kayak. Although you can build a kayak entirely with hand tools, access to power tools makes the job go faster but is not essential. On the other hand, nowadays lots of power tools are cheaper than good hand tools. Your choice. Garage sales are a good source of wood working tools, especially hand tools.

I have illustrated some of the less common tools below.

Saw horses
You will need two saw horses to build your boat on. Folding ones are easier to store, but you can make your own out of two by fours.

Tape Measure
Your tape measure should be at least 20 foot long. Though the common length seems to be 25 foot.

Combination square
You will need this tool for marking right angles. The edge of the flat bar is also handy for drawing straight lines.

Drill and bits
You will be drilling a fair number of holes. A battery operated drill is handy but an electric drill with a cord will work along with an extension cord to let you reach all parts of the boat. You can also use a hand drill if you can find one.

You will need the following drill bits.
1/4 inch for drilling rib mortises if you are not using a router.
15/64 inch for drilling doweling holes for 1/4 inch dowels.
19/64 inch for drilling doweling holes for 5/16 inch dowels.

You will need a claw hammer to pound dowels into holes and to pull nails used to temporarily hold boat parts together. A light weight hammer with a 12 or 16 oz head is fine. You do not need a heavy carpenter's framing hammer for your boat.

Block plane
A block plane is used to smooth the edges of boards and also to round edges and shape pieces of wood. This small short plane can be used with one hand while the other hand holds on to the piece of wood. Bigger planes require two hands and are not nearly as useful

Spoke shave
Spoke shaves are handy for quickly rounding the sharp edges of boards. The are also useful for shaping curved deck beams.

Some 2 inch spring clamps are handy for temporarily holding parts together. You can mail order these for about a dollar a piece. Two bar clamps with a 12 inch opening are handy for clamping stuff to your sawhorses so it doesn't move around while you are sawing or drilling on it.

You will need a knife for cutting string and dowels. It should be a knife with a fixed blade. If it is a folding knife, the blade should lock. Folding knives without a blade lock are dangerous since they want to fold up on your fingers while you are using them.

Hand saw
You will need a hand saw to trim pieces of wood to length

Table saw or circular saw
You will need one of those for cutting wider boards into narrower boards. Table saws are fairly expensive and if you don't have one, don't buy one just to build one kayak. You should be able to find someone to do the cutting for you. If nothing else, check with your local high school. They usually have wood shops set up and might want to help you.
A circular saw is much cheaper than a table saw and can be used to do the same cuts as a table saw. This is a dangerous tool. If you've never used one before get someone to show you how to use it safely. If it gets jammed, it kicks back and is liable to wound you. Find out about kickback and avoid it.

Rip saw
A rip saw is a hand saw that is used to do long cuts along the length of a board. You can do everything you would do with a circular saw though more slowly and with less noise. They also take some practice before you can make straight cuts, but they don't require electricity.

Jig Saw
This is a pretty handy tool and can be used for cutting curved shapes such as your kayak bending form or the curved deck beams.

Sewing needles
You will need a straight and a curved needle for sewing on the skin. Curved needles are the same kind as used for upholstery. The straight needles are about 3 inches long and have a fairly large eye for heavy thread.

Step 4: What's Next

Picture of What's Next

The next step is the preparation of the gunwales. This is a separate instructable, so click on the link to go there.


SamuelH40 made it! (author)2017-06-29

Just launched my kayak that I built from this instructable. Worked great! Here is the build video

TJF11 (author)2017-05-09

I wonder tyvec could be used as a skin? I heard of it being used as a sail.

MikeS632 (author)2017-01-08

I really enjoyed your Instructable! Great Fun!

dandcbelako (author)2016-10-07

I must be missing something obvious because I haven't seen anyone else ask about carving the masik. I'm starting with a clear douglas fir 2'x4'. How far into the gunwales does the masik sit? what is the width measurement across the top? I noticed that the shape of the masik from the gunwales to the top seems to be a cocave curve. Is there a purpose for this? I've seen other masiks which are convex across the top. Also, My thigh to floor measurement is 51/2". Is one inch clearance going to be enough to get into the boat. I realize that this is a customized fit. I am an experienced paddler with a couple of Greenland rolls under my belt. Thanks for any info that you can provide.

uglycitrus (author)2012-08-15

I finished building a kayak according to your instructables, and it's awesome. Thanks again for the diligence you put into this instructable. Unfortunately this is now my first time kayaking, and I can't figure out how to eskimo roll. Any advice on learning how? I feel like maybe my legs and hips might have too much room so snapping my hips isn't working. Any suggestions on what to use for padding? I was thinking about cutting up some noodles and putting those on the back rest, knee rest, and some where down by my hips.

josephdanus (author)uglycitrus2016-09-04

For all those who want to learn the Eskimo roll: my friend and I bought kayaks and tried to teach ourselves for a year, to no avail. We hired a professional kayak person who took us in a pool and in 45 minutes, we had the toll 90% perfected. Still can do it today :) it's the finesse little techniques which we observed underwater with goggles and repeated in the safe environment of a pool which accelerated the techniques. Get a pro teacher. It pays off.

nativewater (author)uglycitrus2012-08-15

check youtube or for some rolling videos. Yes, foam noodles can be used to pad out your boat.

uglycitrus (author)nativewater2012-08-17


Hi, uglycitrus. I took a kayaking class at the local univ. where I was teaching at the time and we had to master the Eskimo roll, which was difficult for me but I survived it. That's the only time I've ever done it and it was years ago. It seems as if the instructor said to dig the right paddle deep and hard into the water and then lean into the roll, thus propelling ourselves upsidedown in the water and under the kayak. Then we had to firmly and quickly pull off the skirt from the front. As she had promised, the force of the water rushing into the kayak propelled us out of the water like a shot. However, watch the suggested youtube vids. Instruction has probably changed a lot in the last couple of decades. Good luck.

Great 'ible, nativewater. Way to go, thanks!

kayakfishingguy (author)2016-07-11

This look intimidating for a diy project but will give it a try. =)

timmg08 (author)2015-04-23

I want to build a skin on frame boat with a leather skin. do you have any advice. I can get a buffalo hide so I hope it will be plenty thick and sturdy. I'm just worried drying the hide on the frame will tear the boat apart.

autopoietic (author)2015-04-08

This is a fantastic tutorial, thank you. I particularly like the start from basics introduction to terminology

kollijolbein (author)2015-03-21

I was wondering if it was possible to shorten this kayak to about 12 feet? would that alter in any way the method of building it? and lastly, would it be able to carry someone who's about 180 lbs? By the way, I loved reading this instructible, it was truly enjoyable.

nativewater (author)kollijolbein2015-03-22

Yes, you can make a kayak as small as you want provided you can still fit in it. I would not recommend the greenland style of kayak in a twelve footer since the ends are narrow giving you in effect the volume of a ten foot boat. See my website here
for a suitable short boat style of construction. See also here for a short video clip of a playboat in action:

hertzog made it! (author)2015-03-10

Made this kayak last year...very good instructable, thanks so much! I used polyfiber covering (used for airplanes - dacron fabric with vinyl sealing/paint to waterproof). Here's a blog of my build:

douglas.francis.16 (author)2014-09-23

I am 6'4" and weigh 210#. Is this style of kayak ok for my size.

See above!

clive.foden (author)2015-01-11

I'm 6'3" and 196 lb and I'm just about to start. I'm using "Building the Greenland Kayak" book as a basis, and in that it suggests you use your body measurements to set out the whole kayak. It's fairly obvious I suppose, but when you're used to "One size fits all" custom building is a nice surprise. Good luck and let me know how you get on. I'll post stuff on my Green Carpenter FB page

OruKun (author)2012-06-16

Its a sad day to have to tell you... but they no longer offer any woodshop, or garage/workshop of tha nature in most public schools anymore.... Well the ones in the cities that are drastically cutting budgets. But Id renttools from Ace hardware... But Im in the proccess of making one out of pvc to check if its similarly as strong as wood, Im concluding it wont, but im doing it just to have a kayak without having to deal with more than 4 tools... And to explore options, gotta love options on materials to use.

wayman29 (author)OruKun2013-09-08

I am currently doing this also. Let me know how yours turned out. Testing one today. See above comment.

wayman29 (author)2013-09-08

for those asking about canvas, I picked up a Blue Hawk 10oz 15 X 4ft drop cloth at my local hardware store for about $20.00. I am currently constructing a 10ft stretch kayak out of PVC pipe using the ideas of the Greenland frame. So far the cost has been about 100.00 including beer. We used zip ties for lashing and found it easier to make corrections in the framing by simply snipping them. We also used a candle to warm the plastic to bend the 3/4 in. PVC ribs. Testing it out later with some plastic wrapped around it. If this works I may go longer and try a 14 ft. Thanks for these directions and comments! They were most helpful. When I learn how to cut a straight line I'll try a wood one some day.

wintergreens (author)2013-02-25

Last year I bought all the wood I need to build this kayak. It's quite hard to find the right wood in my area (The Netherlands) and especiallly the better quality. Nevertheless I found some reasonable good pieces and the guys from the lumber yard helped me out great by doing much of the sawing. So I was pretty much all set to start building... until I found out that both two pieces of wood for the gunwales broke in half on one big *ss knot. Now I could go to the whole proces again and search for some better pieces of wood. Or I could try to solve this with some high-tech fixing... I was thinking like a proven connection method for wood combined with some epoxy/glass. What do you guys think, any chance of working out OK?

nativewater (author)wintergreens2013-02-26

The accepted way to fix or to simply make longer pieces of wood out of shorter ones is to scarf them. Search for scarf joints on the internet. Here is a typical link.
Be sure you have at least an 8 to 1 ratio of overlap to the thickness of your wood for a secure structural joint. This is for a face to face scarf. If you have deep gunwales, say 3-1/2 inches deep, you can also do edge to edge scarfs which require no glue. You can see one of these here.
The only problem with scarfing is that you lose some length due to the overlap.
I would not attempt to do a butt joint and glass over that because it will most likely break again. I would also avoid doing a butt joint and glue a facing piece of wood over the joint because that would change the stiffness of the piece in that region.

toddchristensen (author)2012-05-15

What Kayak would you recommend building for The lower American river in Ca. The river is mainly class 1 and 2 with occasional class 3. This Kayak would be for my 11 y/o son. We would like to make it together.

I would recommend something like this boat, a ten footer.

Thank you for the recommendation. How do you compare the skin kayak to the stitch and glue type. Is there any advantage or disadvantage to either method?

plywood might be more resistant to beating on rocks. Aside from that, stitch and glue requires plans or a pattern or some experience in developing patterns for cutting out the plywood. After that it's a bunch of fiberglassing, sanding and varnishing. That might be enjoyable but I don't know since I've never tried it.
Skin on frame designs can be modified on the fly since you fit each new piece to what is already there. Very little detailed design work is required. Also very little epoxy and sanding.

Sharp_Tack (author)2012-04-05


franztek73 (author)2011-03-08

Thanks for posting. I used your technique for shaping the gunwales on my kayak and it worked beautifully. Total cost for my Kayak was around $60 thanks to some freecycling.

nativewater (author)franztek732011-03-22

Great price. $60 is probably close to a record low cost.

actually i'm making a similar one for about $5 with a plastic bag skin and some scrap wood

wintergreens (author)2011-12-10

Thanks a lot man! Being in the process of thinking ahead it seems usefull to me to create some kind of mounting point, something like a tripod mount. This to mount several things on as I do on my bike (e.g. bottle, light, map, gps, compass etc.) I wonder what other peoples thoughts are and how this can be accomplished and/or already has been done.

nativewater (author)wintergreens2011-12-15

The kind of mount you use depends on where you paddle. Check with what other people in your area are doing if there are any doing kayaking. In surf or rough water, stuff on deck becomes a liability and can easily get washed off. But in more benign conditions mounting stuff on deck is doable. Since the skin is flexible, any kind of deck mount should be supported by some kind of framework under the skin.

wintergreens (author)2011-11-25

Thanks a lot for this wonderful guide! What are your thoughts on using 'balistic nylon' as skin material?

I'm very impressed by the durability of BALLISTIC nylon (8 oz):
The skin is sealed with a two-part polyurethane.

Are other skin types (regular nylon / polyester) as durable as ballistic nylon? What kind of coating is used for polyester? Thanks.

nativewater (author)wintergreens2011-11-30

durability is more or less a function of weight. Ballistic nylon is called that because they used to use it for flack jackets. They now use kevlar. The two part urethane will work on polyester as well. Polyester has less stretch than nylon so will not move out of the way of impact as readily as nylon. But you can go with heavier weights of polyester without worrying about shrinking skin warping the frame. You need to be careful with nylon in excess of 8 oz.

nativewater (author)wintergreens2011-11-26

yes, nylon works. I've used it. 8oz is a good weight. Nylon expands when wet and cold and contracts when warm. So it loosens up when in the water. This works against it. Corey Freedman and George Dyson both sell nylon. You can search for them on the internet.
Polyester is more stable but harder to work with because it has no stretch. So you have to sew some darts in the skin to get it to cover the kayak without wrinkles. You can shrink polyester with heat before you paint it. Once in place, the polyester does not expand and contract as much as the nylon, so that's good.

landsharkxx (author)2011-07-08

Can I fish in it? Also would aligators be a problem?

nativewater (author)landsharkxx2011-07-12

you can probably fish from any kayak although you would probably want a fairly wide and stable kayak for fishing.
I have no experience with aligators and cannot tell you whether they would be a problem.

anyusername (author)2011-03-21

Thanks, a lot for your articles. i'll start this project very soon. Just wonder something: does the model include any kind of seat or at least backrest?
Greetings from Chile

nativewater (author)anyusername2011-03-22

I use a foam rubber mat as a seat. My back is supported by the back of the coaming. But some people install back bands for extra support.
search for kayak back band and you will see lots of samples like this:

armored bore (author)2010-12-01

After about three months and ~400$, mine is done!

I have to say this project is within reach of anyone who knows which end to hold a handsaw by. I can't wait to make another one!

nativewater (author)armored bore2010-12-02

Nice job. and it floats.have fun.

nativewater (author)2010-09-07

I don't have time to do a canoe instructable right now, but it's a good suggestion. You might also want to search on the name Tim Anderson. He has an instructable on a skin on frame outrigger canoe.

jweirs (author)2010-09-04

Would you mind making an instructable for that canoe? I'd love to make one but I can't quite figure out how to skin it.

nativewater (author)jweirs2010-09-07

The skin on open boats was usually stretched over the gunwales. A seam was necessary only at the bow and stern. The edges of the skin were laced to a batten attached to the ribs on the inside of the boat. Leather laces were run through holes in the edge of the skin.
Fabric works a little differently. You could tack it to the outside of the gunwale and trim it flush at the top, then screw or nail a batten to cover the tacks. This is how wood and canvas canoes were covered.
In the canoe pictured, I attached the skin by putting grommets to the edge of it and lacing it to the batten on the inside of the hull. See here for some pictures:

armored bore (author)2010-08-25

Aside from the bending portions for the gunwales and ribs, this looks very doable even for an amateur like me! How hard do you suppose it would be to add a mount for a canopy? I'd love to make one for my wife, and that would be a great addition to protect her from the wrath of the Flame Orb (or "Sun" as it's popularly called)

nativewater (author)armored bore2010-08-30

adding a canopy mount wouldn't be that hard. But if you added a canopy to the boat, you would have to make the boat wider, probably thirty inches plus so the wind doesn't knock the boat over. or you might want to add an outrigger to the kayak or inside ballast. The Greenland kayak in its original configuration is relatively unstable so adding a canopy without modifying the basic design would be an invitation for disaster. Keep in mind that a skin on frame kayak is very light and narrow compared to traditional wooden boats so adding any superstructure would raise the center of gravity to unstable heights.

starrydynamo (author)2010-05-25

My dad built one of these canoes; held up great until we scraped on a rock in a reservoir--thank god for duct tape! We've been talking about making a pair of kayaks, I will definitely keep this ible in mind! Thanks!

nativewater (author)starrydynamo2010-05-29

modern materials are pretty tough.  And duct  tape is always a fallback. Skin on frame has its limitations, but overall, very good technology.

About This Instructable




Bio: skin on frame kayak builder since 1987
More by nativewater:How to renovate your old hammerHow to hit the road on the cheapBuild a Greenland kayak part 6
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