Building a Traditional West Greenland Kayak
This photo diary shows the step-by-step construction methods used in building a traditional 17 foot by 22 inch ( 5.2 metres by 28 cm) Greenland-style kayak straight from a standing tree without using any nails, screws or other metal fastenings.
The framework is Northern (Eastern) White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) with a Black Spruce (Pica mariana) keel and White Ash (Fraxinus americana) rear deck, masik and coaming. Skinning was 7 ounce (or 237 g/m2) ballistic nylon stained and varnished for waterproofing instead of the traditional seal skin with nylon seine twine lashings in place of rawhide.
The wood was milled directly from the log using hand and power tools with methods developed as the project progressed. A portable bandsaw mill would have been nice but one was not available so improvisation was the key. The results were more than promising and I have no doubt that anyone with time and care could achieve lumber of equal quality. This also resulted in considerable cost savings: Not having to buy lumber the total out of pocket expense for the kayak was around $115 - $125 in 2008 Canadian dollars.
The first photos show the process of making quality timber straight from the tree - without heavy equipment...
After a couple of hours cruising the back forty, I manage to find a promising Eastern Cedar growing on the shoulder of a cliff: It is straight for at least the first 18 feet (6 metres), mostly dead and has branches only on one side - which means no knots and straight grain on that side...
The chainsaw makes short work of it but with the branches on one side the tree naturally falls the wrong way and hangs up in nearby trees. Since the tractor cannot reach it, the tree cannot be winched down. So block and tackle time by which means the tree - and later the log - is hauled and skidded about 600 feet (190 metres) uphill. This is the hardest part of the whole operation.
Truing up the flattest side with the hand planer and a straight edge. (First shot November '06; second shot April '07)
Free-handing the first cut along the chalked line with the saw set as deep as it will go. The important part of this operation is not to overly force the saw but to let it take its own time otherwise you will certainly burn the motor out.
A steel angle iron (two 8-foot lengths of shelving standard - total length just under 5 metres) wedged into the first cut form a fence for the second and third cuts. A wooden shim held between the saw and the fence serves to obtain the proper spacing.
Cutting between the saw cuts with an old bow saw (a.k.a. Swede Saw.) utilizing a broken piece of blade from a portable bandsaw mill.
To hold the rip blade in the proper position, the blade mounts were modified by bending them at right angles to their original axis using a large adjustable parallel jaw wrench as a bending jig.
The finished planks and slabs ready for smoothing with the bench planer and ripping into kayak stock with the circular saw and a table saw.
It would have been easier (and done in half the time) if there had been another set of arms on the other end of the saw but still, for the effort, it turned out a quality plank relatively easily - and of a grade which you can no longer buy around here for love - or money...
Marking out the positions of the ribs and deck beams on the doubled gunnel.
This layout has to be done several times to make sure none of the deck beams coincide with a rib. The ribs were supposed to be 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) apart (a hand span) but when I laid it out with my hand span, I get 9 inches (23 cm) which spaces the ribs too far apart for the length of the kayak.
As the kayak is entirely based on my body measurements, it is unlikely it will fit someone else unless they are my height and weight.
For strength I decide to go with black spruce for the keel and as I only had an eight foot (2.5 metre) piece that was clear of knots, I had to lap join it with a 1 in 12 scarf joint: A length of aluminium angle serves as a clamping guide.
Next cutting the 17 degree bevel on the top edges to accommodate the fabric. A temporary bevelled fence clamped to the plane ensures an even bevel. Skewing the plane at an angle to the wood also eases the cutting...
A string is now stretched along the kayak to determine how straight it is. They say a quarter inch out in 17 feet (6mm in 5.2 metres) is acceptable...
How about 1/128th in 17 feet (0.2mm in 5.2 metres)?
(Traditional skin-on-frame kayaks have an arched wooden beam across the front of the cockpit called the masik, and this makes an excellent brace for the thighs, which improves paddling efficiency in a Greenland Kayak. In combination with a knee brace, it can transfer the slightest movement to the kayak hull, giving life to the kayak. Both masik and knee brace are also helpful for control when recovering from a roll )
After that, I figure the only way to do it is to laminate the masik so I lay up four layers of quarter inch (6mm) ash with epoxy and leave it to cure.
(Another time cedar would be adequate as a cedar laminate is plenty strong enough and the added strength of the ash does not warrant the additional weight. )
Fitting up the foredeck. Two stringers are called for in the plans but three are needed to support the camera tripod - which is why they are spruce for strength. (A pipe dream: Two would have been sufficient as setting a tripod on the deck is a forlorn hope.) Once again, cedar would have been strong enough if the grain was carefully selected.
Cutting the mortises in the masik for the foredeck stringers with a hammer and chisel. (Another reason not to use ash: Cutting the mortises in the hard wood is murderous - even with a razor sharp chisel.) The block of firewood under the masik absorbs the blows of the hammer and removes any stress on the pinned joints...
Two sweaty hours later, the coaming rim is glued up and drying: First the piece of pond-soaked ash fractured in three places, so another 3/8 by 3/8 inch (9mm by 9mm) strip had to be prepared.
Then rushing dark (and scratching my head) I grab the largest frying pan in the house, fill it with boiling water, and start feeding wood into the woodstove. Then slowly over about 20 minutes, the rim is rolled into a circle tighter than the form. This time all goes well...
Not one to trust a bunch of half hitches so I'm closing off the bitter ends with a reef knot and searing the ends for good measure...
(Yes, I'm fussy. But I don't like the idea of a lashing coming adrift at sea...)
A failed trial run (note the splinter protruding from the curve) with a piece of rib stock that has been soaking in the pond for a week.
Well, I guess I'll have to boil them as I don't have a steam box...
Using a strip of 1/8 inch (3mm) puck a.k.a. arena board as a flexible ruler to estimate the length of the curved ribs at the end of the kayak. The rough reverse side of the HDPE plastic takes a pencil nicely.
Only problem is that it is almost impossible to erase the pencil marks once they are made. This arena board is so tough and indestructible that I wonder what it would be like to make the ribs out of that alone? The strips would simply never break.
Keel and one chine lashed on, the second chine is bent in. To accommodate the shape of the hull the chines are tapered to half their thickness at each end - a job that leaves a pile of curling shavings and an aroma like a pencil factory...
The cedar sitting in the sun is a nice, warm spot for soaking up some rays - at least this little dragonfly thinks so. (You can get an idea of her size by comparing her to the dowel pins: They are ¼ inch (6mm) in diameter. Yes, it is a she. The males are bright red while she is russet...)
Now the floors... The first one lashed in, with two more laid out alongside. I was going to lay eleven of them but figured it would stiffen the hull too much so cut it back to nine. Twenty eight holes and eight lengths of nylon twine to fasten each plank to the ribs (with about a dozen knots per rib per floor plank). Slow going - and that is an understatement.
The bow breast hook before cutting in and installing. To get that shape I took a 3/8 inch (9mm) slab of cedar and boiled it in the largest frying pan for a few minutes then stepped on it while one end was supported about six inches (12 cm) off the floor. Hope to get it in tomorrow and that should finish the woodwork. Next job will be to oil the frame and then the skinning.
Making one of the four 'bone' or 'antler' disks that keep the bow and stern lines from freezing to the deck.
These were made by punching out a piece of Corian® counter top with a hole saw then rounding the disks with a rasp in the drill press. A dusty process.
Starting to lay out the skin: A bolt of 7 ounce (or 237 g/m2) ballistic nylon, 18 feet (6 metres) long by 5 feet (1.5 metres) wide.
Ballistic? Well in pre-Kevlar® days ballistic nylon was developed for use in bullet-proof vests...
Another little visitor arrives and lands right where I'm working. This one is a male. I tell him: "You're in the way..." So he takes off and lands behind me on the bench. Dragonflies - unlike most insects - are usually very responsive if you talk to them... :)
Sewing using a sixteen foot (5 metre) length of line and two long needles especially hand-forged for the job.
Another time I would pay the extra (roughly five times the cost) for braided mason's line as it would not unravel as this twisted seine twine has an ugly habit of doing. The unravelling twine makes the sewing slow and awkward.
By late afternoon the bow is finally pinned up and the bow deck lines in. I can't imagine doing this with seal skin as it was hard enough with the nylon. I also do not envy the Inuit who were forced to frame their kayaks in a treeless Arctic with whatever material they could scrounge along the tide line...
Ever tried threading a 5/16 inch (8mm) nylon line through a ¼ inch (6mm) hole? Yes, it is possible but now you know why almost three hours were lost today just fooling with these lines...
The wood spacers slide along the line to tighten them. The spacers are made from a splintered scrap of teak that I salvaged out of the river last spring. ('What are you bringing that home for?!...' was the horrified remark at the time.
Well, yes, I do admit that the three foot (1 metre) shard did look rather rotten and splintered but it's what's underneath that counts...)
Thinning the first coat of varnish is critical as otherwise the varnish does not penetrate the nylon enough to completely seal the sewing holes in the seams and the hull will leak even after four coats.
This kayak was constructed over approximately 100 hours during the months of September and October 2008 and based on plans obtained from Robert Morris' Building Skin-On-Frame Boats (Hartley and Marks, 2001), Morris (2001).
Since the kayak was built, the book has gone out of print and is now practically unobtainable - unless you are prepared to part with a considerable sum. Building the Greenland Kayak: A Manual for Its Construction and Use by Christopher Cunningham (Ragged Mountain Press, 2002), Cunningham (2002) is still in print and can serve as a substitute. I used both as references and the books do complement each other. However, Morris' book is the more authoritative. A new edition is said to be in the works. Hopefully it will eventually be available.
With stability to within 17 degrees of heel Greenland style kayaks are the most stable of all traditional designs. (If this seems a low stability angle consider that some West Coast Baidarkas are unstable at a mere one degree of heel...)
Having used the kayak for some years I can attest that it is indeed light, fast and nimble with a good degree of stability over most of the conditions I encounter on the river - and with the size of this river (approximately 2.5 km - 1.6 miles - across where I live) it can indeed be challenging when a nor'easter rolls down off the hills or a souwester sends up long rollers up the Long Reach.
However, the kayak does take some getting used to as it is a bit claustrophobic the first time you slide in: being sized to the paddler it is almost like sliding into (and wearing) a custom piece of clothing.
Also, without a rudder it does have an annoying habit of swinging into the wind the moment you stop paddling - no matter how calm it is and if there is any sea running it will start to turn broadside on in a heartbeat - which rather negates taking photos from it (which was the original purpose). Ballasting with narrow sandbags in the bilge does improve the handling but certainly increases the effort of paddling. Eventually, I added long, narrow ballast tanks of 4 inch (10cm) plumbing pipe and they helped. With them 50 pounds (20 kilos) of water ballast can be pumped in with the bilge pump but I seldom fill them as just having the empty tanks shimming each side improves the fit and feel of the kayak. A light bar of cedar lashed crossways also keeps the paddler from sliding forward along the floor boards.
Pet peeves are the lack of internal cargo capacity and the high center of gravity that result if you lash too much gear on the foredeck. (Fifteen kilos of camera gear lashed flat on the foredeck makes a choppy half-metre cross sea very interesting, to say the least) However, after watching a couple of bright orange (read plastic) sea kayaks working their way up river against the wind and current I can attest that they were having a much harder paddle of it than I would have had under the same conditions. The wind was also pushing the kayaks about more than mine as they were built higher and had more hull exposed to the wind pressure.
The traditional narrow Greenland-style paddle does require more strokes to move the kayak any given distance through the water than the broad paddle customarily in use today. However in rough conditions where continuous, rapid, light paddling is required to maintain the kayak at the optimum 45 degrees to the waves, it is less tiring to use. Under these conditions I have had little difficulty in keeping up 50 to 60 strokes a minute when necessary (a 25 to 30 stroke cycle).
Changes? Not many. I would not use epoxy again after reading an article on adhesives that points out epoxy starts to weaken and delaminate as soon as the surface temperature reaches 100 degrees F (38 C.) - a point easy enough to reach on a dark-skinned boat like this on a hot summer's day - and would use polyurethane or resorcinol instead.
I would also stain the varnish rather than the fabric as the fabric stain soon bleaches out in the sun. As noted earlier, too, I would definitely use braided nylon for the sewing.
And finally, a special thank you to webmaster Don Hitchcock for providing a new home Downunder for the 'Kayak Diary'.
David S. Smith, 90 Gorham Road,
Glenwood, Kings Co., New Brunswick, Canada E5M 2N2
- Cunningham C., 2002: Building the Greenland Kayak : A Manual for Its Contruction and Use, International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press; 1 edition (December 17, 2002) ISBN-10: 0071392378, ISBN-13: 978-0071392372
- Morris R., 2001: Building Skin-On-Frame Boats, Hartley and Marks Publishers (2001) ISBN 10: 0881791911 ISBN 13: 9780881791914