Build a Greenland Kayak Part 2




About: skin on frame kayak builder since 1987

In this part of the Greenland kayak instructable you will be getting the gunwales ready for building the deck of the kayak. You will be shaping them and you will also be marking them for later installation of the deck beams.

Finding the wood for the gunwales may take some time, but the actual work on the gunwales takes less than a day.

Step 1: Materials

You will need two 3/4 inch thick by 16 foot long boards anywhere from 2 to 3-12 inches wide. These two boards will form the gunwales which are the backbone of the kayak.

You will need a piece of wood 1-3/4 inches wide by 3/4 inches thick by 5 feet long. You will cut this up for risers that go at the ends of the gunwales.

You will need four each 1/4 inch dowels 36 inches long. Exact length doesn't matter as long as you have enough total length since you will be cutting these up. Four dowels is more than enough for working with the gunwales. You will be using the left over dowels for pegging the deckbeams to the gunwales.

You will need about a dozen 1-1/2 inch long finish nails. These are generally referred to as 4 penny nails. You will need more later on so buy at least 4 dozen of them.

Step 2: Tools

For this section of the instructable, you will need a hammer, a drill, a 15/64 inch drill bit, a hand saw and a block plane.

You will also need a pencil for marking and a tape measure and a combination square.

A pair of sawhorses will be handy for keeping the gunwales at a comfortable working height.

Step 3: Selecting Gunwale Lumber

For the gunwales you need two boards that are anywhere from 2 inches to 3-1/2 inches wide, 3/4 inches thick and 16 foot long. Both boards should have the same amount of flex. The easiest way to get identical flex is to cut both gunwale boards out of a 5-1/2 inch wide board. This will leave you with a piece of lumber that you can use for a keelson. When you get your 16 foot long boards, also allow for enough total width to cut two chine stringers and a keelson each of which should be an inch wide.

If you want to avoid a lot of sawing, you can try to find boards that are 3-1/2 inches wide and 16 feet long. This will push the final weight of your boat up to about 45 pounds, but it will be a rugged boat. If light weight is important to you, you'll have to do some sawing to get the 2 inch wide boards.

The wood for your gunwales should be some kind of soft wood like pine, spruce, or douglas fir. The wood should be free of knots and have straight grain. Softwoods are preferred over hardwoods like oak because they are lighter and because hardwoods with straight grain are hard to find in 16 foot lengths. For best results and highest price, get wood of a grade called CVG, which stands for clear vertical grain. Vertical grain assures uniform flexibility throughout and is subjecct to the least amount of warping over time. Clear means no knots.

If you want to build your boat with the wider 3-1/2 inch boards, these can have some knots as long as they are tight and small, under 1/2 inch. Two inch wide gunwales should not have any knots in them at all.

When you select gunwale boards, also make sure that they have roughly the same amount of flex. You can check for equal flex by supporting both ends of the boards and seeing that they sag the same amount in the middle. If flex is mismatched, try flipping one of the boards over. Sometimes they have more flex in one direction than the other. Flex in the two gunwale boards does not have to be absolutely the same but if the difference is too great, it will make it harder to get a symetrically shaped deck.

Step 4: Nail the Gunwale Boards Face to Face

Once your gunwales are cut you will need to mark deck beam positions on the top edge and rib mortise positions on the bottom edge. To make sure that we mark both gunwales the same, we temporarily nail them together.
Put the gunwales face to face and nail them together leaving 1/4 inch of the nail heads sticking out so they can easily be pulled when we are done marking. Space nails roughly two feet apart.
When you nail the board together make sure that the sides with the same amount of flex face each other.
Also make sure that the ends of the boards line up exactly. If they don't you will be installing all your deck beams at an angle.

Step 5: Mark the Longitudinal Center of Your Gunwales

Find the front to back center of the gunwales and mark it. Use a tape measure to find exact length of the gunwale boards since they aren't always exactly 16 foot long. You want to know the center of the gunwales since some of the deck beam locations will be in relation to the center.
Run the center line around all 4 faces of the nailed together boards. Mark each face with a C for center.

Step 6: Mark Bow and Stern and Up

Decide on which end of your gunwales should be the bow (front) and which edge should be up.

You generally want the better looking edge to be at the top.

Mark the bow and stern with arrows so you can keep track which is up and which is front. You will be marking deck beam positions on the top edge of the boards and rib mortise positions on the bottom edge of the boards.

Once you work on the boat with a bow facing a certain direction, always keep it facing the same way so you don't get confused over which end is which.

Step 7: Measure Your Body

Three of the deck beams in your kayak will double as a foot brace, a knee brace and a back rest. To get them in the right position, you need to measure your body. To take the measurements, sit against a wall with your legs outstretched before you. Make sure you are wearing the same kind of footwear you would have on while paddling because this will impact the measurements. You can measure on your own but it's easier with the help of a friend. The measurements you want are as follows. Make sure you write them down somewhere.

Distance from your back to the back of your kneecaps. Your knee brace will be positioned right behind your kneecaps. Put a 1-1/2 inch wide board right behind your knee caps. Move it far enough back so that it doesn't feel uncomfortable when you press down on it.

Distance from your back to the balls of your feet. Sit with your heels together and the toes slightly outward.

Width across your feet at the balls of your feet. This measurement is mainly for people with feet larger than size 11. Greenland boats are fairly narrow so you have to make sure your boat will be wide enough at the foot brace for your feet to fit.

Height of your thighs behind your kneecaps. We need this measurement so we can make the knee brace high enough for your thighs to fit under.

Step 8: Transfer Body Measurments to the Top Edge of the Gunwales

Now that you know how big your body is, you can mark where your backrest, foot brace and knee brace should go. Deck beams will be 1-1/2 inches wide so we want to mark both the front and back edges of the deck beam locations. If we only made one mark, we would likely get confused over which side of the mark to put the deckbeam on. As you mark where these deckbeams will go, label them as well. Label them on each gunwale since later you will be separating them.
Make a mark 17 inches back of the centerline you marked earlier. This will be the location of the front edge of your back rest. Make another mark 1-1/2 inches back of that. Your back will be 15 inches back of the boat's longitudinal center. The extra two inches will give you enough room to add some padding to the back brace or to install a back band to support your back while you're paddling.

Take your back to kneebrace measurement and add 2 inches to it. Measure from the backbrace front edge forward by this amount. This will be the front edge of your knee brace. Make another mark 1-1/2 inches back of that and label it knee brace.

Take the measurement from your back to the balls of your feet, add 2 inches and measure forward by that amount from the back brace mark. Make another mark 1-1/2 inches forward of that. Label this foot brace.

Step 9: Mark Positions of the Remaining Deck Beams

We have already marked the positions of three of our deck beams. Now we need to mark the positions of the remaining deck beams. Do all the marking on the top edge of the gunwales.

Make a mark 24 inches from the bow and another 24 inches from the stern. Make another mark 1-1/2 inches toward the center of the gunwales. This will be the position of deck beams 1 and 11. Label them on each gunwale.

Space deck beams 2 and 3 evenly between deck beams 1 and the footbrace which is deck beam 4.

Space deck beam 5 halfway between deck beams 4, the foot brace and deck beam 6, the knee brace.

Space deck beams 8, 9 and 10 evenly between deck beam 7, the back brace and deck beam 11.

Step 10: Mark Rib Mortise Positions on the Bottom Edge of the Deck Beams

Mark rib mortises by two lines one inch apart. This will be the width of the rib mortise. Ribs will be 3/4 inches wide. The mortise will be wider than the rib giving the rib some room to move which it will do as the boat flexes. Tightly mortised ribs would have a tendency to shear off over time.

Start by marking a rib mortise 2 inches back of the back edge of the foot brace. Mark all rib mortises on the bottom edge of the gunwales. Mark the next rib mortise 8 inches back of the front edge of the first rib mortise. The reason for starting here is that you want to position these ribs so they don't dig into the back of your heels (painful).

Space all the other rib mortises forward and backward of the first two mortises. Mortises should be spaced 6 inches on center. That't not 6 inches between rib mortises, that's 6 inches between their centers. Mark forward until the last rib mortise is 24 inches or less from the bow. Mark backward until the last rib mortise is 24 inches or less from the stern.

Step 11: Cut Bow and Stern Risers

The drawing below shows how you can get two risers out of each board by cutting it in half at a diagonal.

Step 12: Dowel Bow and Stern Risers to the Gunwale Ends

Dowel the bow and stern risers to the gunwale ends using 1/4 inch dowels. Use your 15/64 inch drill to make the holes. Drill the holes at an angle to the vertical. This will lock in the risers. Don't drill all holes at once. Drill one hole, pound in the dowel. Drill the next hole pound in the next dowel and so on. Holes will be deeper the closer you get to the ends of the gunwales. Cut your dowels to the depth of the hole. Use a piece of wire as a gage to find the depth of each hole.
Trim off any dowels sticking above the edge of the risers.

Step 13: Trim Gunwale Ends

Trim the bottom edge of the bow end at a 25 degree angle. Trim the bottom edge of the stern end of the gunwales at a 30 degree angle.
These angles are the angles at which the stem and stern boards will be attached to the gunwales.
The stem slopes at a flatter angle than the stern.

Step 14: Shape Tops of the Risers

Use a hand plane or spoke shave to shape the top edge of the risers to a slightly concave form so they fair in nicely with the tops of the gunwales.

Step 15: Cut the Rib Mortises

Now we're done with the tops of the gunwales and are ready to cut the rib mortises.

Rib mortises are 1 inch long, 1/4 inch wide and 1/2 inch deep and are centered on the bottom edge of the gunwales. If you have a router and 1/4 inch bit, that is the fastest way to cut the mortises. If you don't, drill a 1/4 inch hole on either end of the mortise and remove the wood inbetween with a 1/4 inch chisel. Wear ear protection if you use a router.

Step 16: Mark the Ends of the Gunwales for Planing

The ends of the gunwales will come together at an angle, so you want to plane them so they have some flat surface where they come together. You will mark the wood that you want to plane off. The diagram below shows how to mark them.

Step 17: Separate the Gunwales

Now it's time to pull all the nails and separate the two gunwales so we can plane the inside faces of the gunwale ends.
We need to do one more marking step once the nails are removed. See the photo below for how to do the marking.

Step 18: Plane the Ends of the Gunwales

Remove the marked wood with a hand plane. See the picture for what this looks like.

Step 19: What's Next?

We are now done with the gunwales and ready to build the deck.
Click this link
to go to the deck building instructible.



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    26 Discussions


    3 years ago

    Thanks for your excellent instructions. Here and there I read that the Greenland kayak is uncomfortable, too tight and "twitchy". I'd like your thoughts and how would you change the layout for a more spacious kayak?

    Best wishes,

    I am building this boat using 14' gunwales. Should I make the center to back proportional? Instead of 17" back of center make it 147/8"? Would you do the same with the risers? How about the beam for my size I would need a 22" for the 16' boat would I make the 14' boat 23'? Thanks


    5 years ago

    I just want to say thank you for posting all this hard work. I have started your project and have been enjoying every step. Your explanation is very thorough and I am looking forward to the final outcome

    1 reply

    Reply 5 years ago

    You're welcome. One suggestion, If you're not planning on using your kayak primarily for rolling, putting in a longer than traditional cockpit makes getting in and out of the boat easier.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    I scrounged up some old growth redwood decking (tight, straight grain). Am I crazy to try using this for the gunwales?

    1 reply

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    the redwood should work. I've used it here and there on kayaks. Just go a little deeper on the gunwales, like maybe 3 inches instead of 2. The place where breakage tends to happen is in hull stringers and the keelson. I would avoid the redwood there.

    armored bore

    8 years ago on Step 7

    The precision in this step has me a bit worried. Does this mean two different people can use the same kayak effectively?

    1 reply
    nativewaterarmored bore

    Reply 8 years ago on Step 7

    two people might be able to use the same boat if they are close enough in size. Greenland boats tend to be tight and fit to the individual. However, you can install more than one foot brace or install adjustable foot braces available from various sources. If you install adjustable foot braces you would leave out the deck beam that would normally be used as a foot brace or move that deck beam farther forward or back.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    I had a question about the centerline when marking the gunwales. Are you just marking the center of the 16 ft boards or are you taking in consideration the risers? Later, you add a piece on the bow and stern. Is this taken into consideration too when measuring the centerline? Thanks, Jeff

    1 reply

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Yes, the center line is marked on the boards as is without taking later additions into consideration.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    I have a quick question about overall kayak length. Since I am a smaller paddler (115 lbs), wouldn't a 17' kayak be much too long for me? Would you recommend that I shoot for 14' or so? It would definitely make searching for gunwale wood much easier. :) Thank you so much! I've wanted to build one of these for quite some time now, and your instructable is amazingly helpful!

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I have made Aleut kayaks in 14 foot and even 12 foot lengths. Haven't tried it with the Greenland kayak yet. But a friend of mine has. He built a 14 foot Greenlander, I think he made it about 24 inches wide. It changes the geometry a little but it's worth experimenting.


    10 years ago on Step 12

    I have a quetion regarding dowelling the you use glue on the risers and in the dowel holes?

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Step 12

    I don't use glue, but you could. The dowels are bigger than the holes by 1/64th of an inch so they fit pretty tight. Traditionally, bow assemblies were just doweled and lashed because glue was not available.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Hi there! I am locating my tools and materials to build a greenland kayak. Question: I would prefer to make the 10-foot long version of the kayak, so I can easily store it in my apartment and manage to carry it down to river, as well. How does this change the lengths/dimensions of the wood I need? Also, what is the lightest wood (as in least dense) of pine, spruce, and the others you recommended? Thanks!

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    If you want to build a short boat, check out this option:

    For a Greenland kayak, I would go with at least 12 feet since you have about 2 feet of overhang. A 10 foot boat would have an 8 foot waterline. You would want to go with a 24 inch beam. Other things to consider would be your weight.

    Lightest weight wood for the gunwales would be western redcedar, after that spruce. Ribs can be anything that you can bend. Deckbeams can be redcedar or redwood.


    11 years ago on Step 12

    Yeah, that should be 15/64 inch drill. I'll see about fixing that.


    11 years ago on Step 15

    You can use a 1/4 inch mortising chisel for cutting the mortises. Or you can use a drill with a 1/4 inch bit to drill one hole on either end of the mortise and remove the wood in between with a chisel or a knife. The ribs should have some room to move inside the mortise when the boat flexes so this is not a precision operation as it would be if you were building furniture.