Kayaks: Skin-On-Frames

Posted By Dan Caouette

Speciment from East Hudson Bay
Specimen from East Hudson Bay with the typical flat deck, deep bow and low stern of Eastern Canadian Arctic kayaks.

General | Historical Types | Construction Methods | Pricing

Made of materials from the environment, the kayak is a symbol of the cultural connection to both the surrounding land and water. Kayaks were traditionally made of a wooden frame stretched with sealskin or caribou hide depending on the region. Above the tree-line, the frame would have been built from scavenged wood and driftwood. Regardless of region of origin, the traditional skin-on-frame kayak is a sleek craft built primarily for hunting. The kayak was a vessel for hunting narwhale, seal, walrus, birds, caribou, fish, among other fauna. The hunter’s tools would have been attached to the deck of the kayak for ease of access.

The designs were specialized for the local conditions and needs of the hunters. Some areas had exposed coasts and other areas were relatively protected. Some groups had to transport their kayaks over a long distance to the water and other groups were right next to the water. Transporting the dead animals back to the village was a problem solved in different ways by hunters in different areas.

Skin-on-frames are great for kids.  Instead of investing money for a hardshell that they’ll quickly outgrow you can quickly build a SOF.  They are also great for prototyping a design that will be eventually made using strips or plywood.  Due to the flexibility of the frame and fabric it’s not perfect but you get a rough idea how the strip version will handle without wasting a lot of time.  That said, a well-built SOF is also very rugged and can last for years.

Historical Types:

One historian breaks seagoing kayak designs into five basic forms with minor changes for local conditions. The different designs are found in Greenland, Baffin Island, the Bering Strait south to the Aleutians, southeastern Siberia and the Aleutian islands. Below are few kayaks showing the wide variety of native styles. Clicking on the picture will bring up a bigger image with more detail.

1931 Disko Bay, Greenland Greenland– Length – 16′ 4-1/2″
– Beam – 20-1/8″
– Depth to Sheer – 6-7/16″
– Depth Overall – 8-1/2″A traditional hunters boat. The boats primary purpose was to hunt animals on inland lakes, rivers and the sea. In many places where the native kayakers lived they had to turn to the water for food because the land was not fertile enough to support their population. It was also used for transportation across open water and rivers. Most but not all kayaks are considered seaworthy. There were a variety of forms even within Greenland.
baidarka post 1845Aleutian Islands Baidarka , Alaska (post 1845) – Length  –  16′ 8.6″
– Beam – 20.4″
– Depth to Sheer  – 8.7″
– Weight – 26.5 lbs.
– Loaded kayak stable to 22 degreesBaidarkas built before 1845 (see the image below) were much different being considerably narrower and lower. As prey became harder to find, the boats were adapted to go longer distances. This Lowie Museum Aleut hunting kayak has been built successfully and paddled joyously by many kayak devotees. This is a boat you can wear while sea kayaking in any conditions. It rolls well, tracks well, paddles easily and fits  an average-sized person comfortably. These plans have been used by present-day Aleut in Alaska.

baidarka pre-1845

KodiakKodiak Island, Alaska
– Length – 14′ 2.9″
– Beam –  25.9″
– Depth to Sheer –  10.3″
– Weight – 40.1 lbs. (estimated)
– Loaded kayak is stable to 56 ºThe Kodiak is a close cousin of the Aleut kayak, but shorter, wider and with a pointed stern. Both have a bifurcated bow. The ridged deck is common to all kayaks from Norton Sound south. This kayak was built for hunting small sea mammals and should be a good recreational kayak for varied sea conditions. It is unusual in that it was normally paddled from a kneeling position using a single bladed paddle.
North Alaska RetrievalNorth Alaska Retrieval Kayak– Length – 9′ 6.8″
– Beam – 23.2″
– Depth to Sheer – 7.6″
– Weight – 25 lbs.
– Loaded kayak stable to 37 degreesThis short, wide kayak was named qayapauraq, little kayak, or qayapaq, fat kayak. This kayak was a late 19th or early 20th century development as a retrieval kayak after rifles replaced harpoons. The inland use of longer kayaks for hunting caribou disappeared with the introduction of the rifle. Seals or other sea mammals could be shot from the floe edge. The kayak was then quickly launched and the animal retrieved. The kayak is designed to be carried easily on a sled and can hold a fair load. It is light-weight and reasonably stable. It might make a good car-top craft for exploring small waterways. It was used all along the coast [of Northern Alaska] from Barter Island to south of Point Hope. This kayak type today is virtually extinct.

Construction Methods:

Traditional skin-on-frame kayaks were built with a wooden frame, lashed together with sealskin cord or caribou sinew. The skins were sewn together and attached using water-tight stitching of sinew thread. Building the kayak was often a community-oriented task: men would build the frame and women would prepare and stretch the skins across the frame.

Today the frames are built using two different methods. Both produce very strong and lightweight kayaks. The skin and frame creates a structure that is designed to flex and give instead of breaking. Hardshell fiberglass and composite plastic boat boats are stiff and will not give before breaking.


2010 SOF Repair for Mary Ann - Complete
Mary Ann’s SOF

It’s very similar to the traditional method, using steam bent wooden ribs lashed to stringers using modern nylon cord in lieu of sinew. The form is very dependant on the eye of the builder but is the most authentic. The frame is then covered in urethane coated cotton canvas, nylon or polyester. No seals are harmed in the building of one of our kayaks! 🙂

Fuselage Style

2009 Karner Blue Saco-13 SOF - Construction
CSFW Saco 13

It’s akin to modern folding kayaks and airplanes.  In folding kayaks stringers made from aluminum tubing is attached to plastic frames. In our boats the stringers are strips of wood attached to plywood frames forming a very strong, light structure. It is then skinned a high-tech composite using heat-shrunk aircraft Dacron, UV-resistant epoxy and light-weight fiberglass.


Traditional, SOF


Fuselage Style, SOF (Standard)


Fuselage Style, SOF (Performance)


Fuselage Style, SOF (Expedition)


Fuselage Style, SOF (Expedition Kevlar)


Kids, Fuselage Style, SOF



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