Skin Boat FAQ

Compiled by Skip Snaith. Feedback to: kyak at rockisland dot nospam com

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What is a skin boat ?

Skin boats are among the oldest type of boat - dating back to the neolithic period, perhaps longer. A skin boat is simply a frame and a covering. Wood was the obvious frame material for thousands of years but aluminum tubing is some modern builder's first choice now. (What about bamboo, or PVC pipe?) The original covering was animal skin, but canvas has been used a long time, and synthetic fabrics play an important part in the current skin boat revival. Skin boats resist generalization. A klepper, an Aleut iqyaq - also called the baidarka - an Irish Curragh, a Welsh corracle, a Dyson aluminum framed boat, and any type of umiak are all valid examples of skin boats.

Skin kayaks have a distinctly "live" feel on the water, especially if the frame has been built with flexibility in mind. Such boats are responsive in ways that their hardshelled counterparts are not, especially in absorbing wave action.This flexibility is not inherent for all skin boats, but must come from how the frame members are sized and joined. This is one of the most talked about and least completly understood aspects of skin boats, one that can provide the interested builder with a lifetime worth of R&D.

What do you use for skin?

No more Beareded seal, Walrus, Sea lion etc. People use a wide variety of fibers, but cotton canvas, nylon and polyester are the big three.There is a wide variation of weaves and weights so two pieces of "nylon" may have very different characteristics, called the "hand". Animal skins were waterproofed with fat or oil, and needed to be dried every few days, or they got weaker and would rot. This was the biggest drawback to the original skin boats. Modern fabrics sidestep this entire issue. They are waterproofed with hypalon, urethane rubber and similar scary chemical brews. ( Another issue, all it's own).
Nylon: Usually has excellent hand. Stretches on the bias so it can be fit around complex shapes fairly easily. Weights from single digit to 26 0z. Some is heat shrinkable, some not. Somewhat vulnerable to UV. Some nylon loosens with atmospheric moisture, tightens in the sun, other varieties are less prone to this behavior. The 26 oz double weave seems to tighten with age and repeated wetting and drying cycles,. This is a very heavy cloth for a lightly framed single.
Polyester: Got a bad rap from leisure suits. Polyester can make a wonderful skin, but some weaves have a very hard hand, with almost no stretch , which makes fitting harder. Depends on the weave and weight. Much more UV resistant, holds finishes well and not nearly as affected by atmospheric moisture as nylon. Dyson sells a 13 oz polyester that makes an excellent skin- after you learn to sew it, there's no stretch at all.
Canvas: Canvas is a good alternative. It is usually cheaper than the synthetics and can be coated with normal paints. Canvas shrinks with moisture, an excellent trait for a kayak covering. Canvas is NOT as strong as the synthetics, nor as long lasting. Some paddlers estimate 5 years for a max. life. Sews well. Needs some savage stretching when you put it on...

You want me to go out in a cloth covered boat?

Sounds pretty flimsy. I had the same predjudice for years. In the Northwest skin boats seem to deal with rocks and barnacles at least as well as the glass and plastic boats, probably better. You can hit a 26 oz. nylon double weave hull with the claw end of a hammer as hard as you like. - BOING - the hammer bounces back - watch your forehead!. Care to try that with a glass boat?

Suppose it rips?

Skins are definitely repairable, but a better question is how will you rip it in the first place? The stronger synthetics take quite a bit of abuse in stride. Except for aircraft fabric or canvas, I haven't heard of any holed boats. A rub strip for normal abrasion areas is a good idea - this is true for any boat.

Are skin boats hard to build?

Like beauty, difficulty is in the eye of the beholder. A wood framed skin kayak is the most forgiving type of boat I have ever built, and the most fun too. However, Capt. Pete Culler, one of the seminal figures to the wood boat revival of the 70's once wrote: "No boat worth building is ever easy".

Anybody, building any boat, should expect a few "dark nights of the soul" before it's done. For me it might be the sewing, for you it might be the ribbing, but unless you're building the same boat over and over you can expect to be tested somewhere along the way. In my experience, if you have the will, you'll find the way.

Do I need plans?>

The correct answers is yes...and no. Skin boats have been built in the arctic for thousands of years using a combination of living tradition, a good eye, and rules of thumb. But without that kind of backup, you may need all the help you can get.

First time builders will appreciate the guidance plans can provide, not to mention the assurance of a properly (we hope) designed hull. A more experienced builder, especially one with some exposure to various kayak designs, can create an excellent boat within the generic parameters of length, beam, and depth amidships.For prototyping, a wood frame is almost essential. Wood is forgiving and adjustable, a much more suitable material for building by eye than aluminum tube is for instance. Aluminum designs really need to be lofted and faired like normal plank-on-frame boats George Dyson's plans have gone thru that step - don't worry.

To build sucessfully without plans you need to be familiar with your particular building process. You need some understanding of kayak shapes, gained from paddling experience, so you can relate a boat's design features back to performance. Overall you need a strong vision of what this specific boat will be, both in appearance and construction details. You can learn 90% of what you need by looking at how similar boats are put together.

Why bother? For one thing there is nothing quite like paddling a design of your own . But there is a fairly limited selection of plans available too. If you want something more than a fairly standard single in the 15 to 17 foot range you won't find much to choose from.

We hope to cover the subject further in the DESIGN section of the Backpages.

What about the sewing?

For a lot of people the sewing can be more intimidating than the woodworking part . It is a skill that can be accquired and mastered. Sewing is a transparent process - if something isn't right it will be immediatly apparent. Unlike a saw cut, which is final, you can take stitches out and redo them until they are right, as long as you have waited to trim your excess cloth. There are only a few variables to deal with, thread tension, type of stitch, how the cloth is pulled out, how the stitches are pulled tight. You can usually figure out by direct observation what is going wrong and take steps to correct it. Sewing some practice seams, rather than just starting in on your boat will be a big help too.

Where can I get materials?

Wood for frames can come from any number of sources, from lumberyards to slash piles, depending on what you are looking for. See the MATERIALS section for more on wood. Dyson Baidarka in Bellingham is a good source for fabric and coatings for the one- off builder. He also sells plans, aluminum tubing, cordage and other kayak building supplies.

Dyson, Baidarka and Co.
435 W. Holly St
Bellingham WA 98225 360- 734- 9226

Where can I find out more?>

Here are the books that will get you up to speed:

Arima, E. Y. (editor)
Contributions to Kayak Studies
Canadian Musuem of Civilization, Mercury Series, Quebec, 1991

Brinck, Wolfgang
The Aleutian Kayak
Ragged Mt. Press, Camden Me. l995

Dyson, George
Edmonds WA, Alaska Northwest Publishing Co. 1986

Zimmerly, Dr. David W.
Juneau, Alaska, Division of State Museums 1986

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