How to build a 'Skin on Frame' boat - and why

The obligatory 'cathedral' view (Inside the Hooper Bay cargo kayak, showing various rib materials and options)
The obligatory 'cathedral' view (Inside the Hooper Bay cargo kayak, showing various rib materials and options)
Guiding an Umiak onto its trailer (they're not as reluctant as cattle, but not much smarter either)
Guiding an Umiak onto its trailer (they're not as reluctant as cattle, but not much smarter either)
A new kayak builder and her boat
A new kayak builder and her boat
Portaging an Umiak in the San Juan islands (this class built the boat)
Portaging an Umiak in the San Juan islands (this class built the boat)
'Fair' means it will go straight.  Easiest to check by walking away and looking back.
'Fair' means it will go straight. Easiest to check by walking away and looking back.
... it's hard to walk away...
... it's hard to walk away...
That Floating Feeling: the Hooper Bay kayak sits symmetrically in the water.
That Floating Feeling: the Hooper Bay kayak sits symmetrically in the water.

Ernie's 'Skin on Frame' advice.

Why Skin on Frame:

Skin on frame boat building can be one of the fastest, most satisfying, skills-rich projects you can do.

It teaches you essential skills to build almost any wooden boat. It's not difficult, and you don't need to already have skills to do the work.

You get a boat you can be proud of, and use.

This is the most basic list of things you need to build a skin on frame kayak.

What It Takes:

time.
knife.
saw.
something to drill holes with.
string.
A plan.
materials for frame (wood).
skin material (nylon canvas, nowadays).

Kinda different than the tool list most projects require.

With these things, and a little care, you can construct a boat that will be light, strong, and seaworthy (at least, as seaworthy as its plan and owner).

The down-side of working with the most basic tools is: You pay in time ('til you have become skilled enough to use each of the tools to its full potential).

A Good Book

For your very first boat, a good book is a handy thing.
Even if you are taking a workshop, it's good to have a book. You can read the whole description and know what's coming, so you can do each step with more confidence.

This is perhaps my favorite book on the subject:
Building Skin-on-Frame Boats by Robert Morris.

Most books on building skin-on-frame boats have plans, tools, and methods the author worked out for a specific kind of kayak or boat. Mr. Morris's book has plans, tool lists, and easy to follow, step-by-step instructions. He also does not stop at kayaks; he goes on to European-style boats (all skin-on-frame) so you can learn from each type.

Any book will teach you things that apply to most of the different kinds of skin-on-frame boats. There are many kinds, from the small 'sneak koryaks' to big umiaks.

For those who want to branch out, or don't like the look of certain kayaks, you can try Mr. Zimmerlie's web site. He has drawings of several types of kayaks: http://www.arctickayaks.com/plans.htm (Explore this site, it has more information than one would think.)

There is also a nice juicy site with museum-replica pictures by Harvey Golden here: http://www.traditionalkayaks.com/index.html, which I mention only for purposes of inspiration. You don't need bone rub-strips or baleen spacers to make a workable boat, and you probably won't want to try it out for the first time in that much surf!

To get answers to almost every question you might ever ask about skin on frame building, this is probably the most comprehensive group of kayak builders and users around: http://www.qajaqusa.org

For even more information, and step-by-step instruction, you can go here: Skinboats.org http://www.skinboats.org/skinboats/home.html

Skinboats.org is also where most of us S-o-F builders get our stuff. Fabric, sinew, dyes, other materials, plans, books, and whatnot at your finger tips. (Unless you can hunt down a walrus, or have a local manufacturer who gives you insider deals.)

Doing It:

OK, you would rather read through this whole article than go get started. I'm touched. Seriously, that's all there is to it. Get a plan, get the materials, and start. But it speaks well for your stick-to-it-ive-ness that you are finishing this first, so I'll give you a few more tips.

Pick nice straight-grained lumber, cedar if you can get it. Grain stacked perpendicular, or flat, is best. (Not diagonal like for other woodworking projects.) See how it bends in the yard, asking "does it 'want' to be a boat?" Allow 10% extra for scrap.

Soak your ribs overnight to get decent pliability, whether or not you are steaming them. Especially cedar.

Fair your boat often (stand back and check that its curves are smooth, symmetrical, and pretty)

Follow the step-by-step instructions from your book or workshop.

If your instructor and the book, or two books, say two different things: They're probably both right. Pick one and stick with it.

A little note on learning:

You don't learn much from never making a mistake. Go ahead and make some while building these boats.

You can test them before you do the most expensive part (the skin). Wrap the frame in palette-wrap or Syran-wrap. Take it out and float it. If you test in the shallows, all you have to worry about is getting wet.

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Comments 15 comments

Ivorwen profile image

Ivorwen 6 years ago from Hither and Yonder

I'm bookmarking this article.


RedElf profile image

RedElf 6 years ago from Canada

Fascinating! Brings to mind my parents recovering a 20' freighter canoe in our back yard! Congratulations on your nomination.


ripplemaker profile image

ripplemaker 6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

Hi Erica, these boats look adorable. Make me one, make me one. LOL Congratulations for being a Hubnugget Wannabe! Yoohoo! Yes, come on over and visit this hub and see for yourself! http://hubpages.com/hubnuggets10/hub/roundup-at-th...

Vote and promote. The more voters, the merrier. Enjoy!


Scott Howard 6 years ago

This is great, I love it!


Erica K Wisner profile image

Erica K Wisner 6 years ago from Oregon Author

Thanks for the lovely compliments, all.

I'm flattered by the nomination... all of a sudden this little article is getting all kinds of attention!

Let me know if you want to see more articles on boats, or DIY projects, and I'll add them.


your worst nightmare 6 years ago

this didn't help at all I'm never coming back thanks uh lot for wasting my time


Boat Build Plan profile image

Boat Build Plan 6 years ago

I have to say this is a pretty good Hub! Building a boat regardless of which type you choose, is a very difficult task, and can become frustrating if you're a beginner.


boatwallpapers profile image

boatwallpapers 5 years ago

NICE share, I think laminate some FRP before finished is better,

do you think so?


Boat canopy 5 years ago

The information is great in this hub. The details are excellent. I'm looking at a boat right now but would also need a place to store it (possible a canopy building of some type). Looks like with a boat project like this that I'll need some time on my hands.


Kevin 5 years ago

i recently completed a skin on frame kayak, already being a carpenter, this was very challenging to get everything just right, it is wrapped in 4 mil plastic and ready for the maiden voyage


Erica K Wisner profile image

Erica K Wisner 4 years ago from Oregon Author

Congratulations! I hope your new boat is giving you many hours of delight.


Erica K Wisner profile image

Erica K Wisner 4 years ago from Oregon Author

If you have a good instructor, and some skills already (like handling small power tools and hand tools), a boat like this can be done in a couple of weeks. Allow another week for careful skinning and drying. But if you like to take your time and build the skills as you go, it could be a year of once-in-a-while puttering. My mom did some of her kayak-building in our living room. ;-)


Erica K Wisner profile image

Erica K Wisner 4 years ago from Oregon Author

Sorry to hear that; hope you find some better resources to suit your needs.


Erica K Wisner profile image

Erica K Wisner 4 years ago from Oregon Author

Thanks for the compliments! I just discovered some old comments I'd missed before; hope you have enjoyed the other articles meanwhile.

I would love to see pictures of that project, it sounds a lot like Ernie's hooper bay kayak. 22' by 24" wide.


martellawintek 3 years ago

hello jamie it took me ages to find it here is the link

and some info , they have 20% discount now, mention I gift him out

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