Build a Greenland Kayak




About: skin on frame kayak builder since 1987

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.

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Step 1: 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

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

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

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

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98 Discussions


Question 6 months ago

You do great things. I wish I could pimp. Where do I find the plan?


6 months ago

Where do I find the plan?

1 year ago

Hi, I have now finished the construction of my kayak following the instructions on this site. It turned out pretty well I think. I have been using it a lot during this fantastic Summer, and I have learned several variants of eskimo-rolls already. Its som easy with this kayak.
I spent approximately 70 hours on the whole construction.

Thank you for very good instructions. No information overflow, no lack of information. Just exactly what was needed!


2 years ago

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.

1 reply

Reply 1 year ago

I am in the process of making a kayak with these plans so take my observations with a grain of salt.

Lets start with the curved masik since I am quite certain about this one. The curve from the gunwales to the top is there to keep the wood away from the skin. This means that water doesn't get trapped between the skin and the wood causing rot. (See part 3 step 15 it talks about shaping the gunwales and I extrapolated)

In the plans I see that the top edge of the masik as it leaves the gunwales is flush with the sheerline (top of the gunwale). As for how high you want it to be so you can slip in and out, well two things to consider. First of all the depth of the gunwales to the floor of the kayak is estimated to be about 5-1/2" so whatever you end up with subtract that from your final height to get the height above the gunwales.

Secondly fitting under the masik as you enter is kind of tricky. If you wear baggy pants or cargo pants you might want some more room. Best way I can think of to figure out if you need more room is to clamp a bar to a wookbench or sawhorse and simulate lowering yourself into a kayak by easing yourself down from a step-stool or cinderblock (or similar) slipping under the bar. Try to keep the positions approximate to the dimensions of your kayak and keep your legs together. This will let you know if you feel comfortable with the gap you are leaving yourself.

PS. I know this reply is over a year since you asked your question but I thought it was a good one and I wanted to answer it for any future kayak builders.


Question 1 year ago on Introduction

I wonder where you can get the nylon skin that you use on your kayak. Is it possible to use cotton skin?


2 years ago

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


2 years ago

I really enjoyed your Instructable! Great Fun!


7 years ago on Introduction

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.

4 replies

Reply 2 years ago

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.


Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

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


Reply 2 years ago

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!


3 years ago

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


4 years ago

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.


4 years ago on Introduction

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


4 years ago on Introduction

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.

1 reply

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: