Book Review [59]

Building the Greenland Kayak: A manual for its construction and use

By Christopher Cunningham

Published 2003 by Ragged Mountain Press ISBN 0-070139237-8. Distributed by McGraw-Hill

Reviewed by Ian Coles

I made a 20% scale model while reading the book which was great fun and a good way to appreciate the sophistication of this simple design.

There is growing interest in the USA for building skin on frame kayaks and several books have been published recently on the subject. I chose Christopher Cunningham’s book. He is editor of the USA magazine ‘Sea Kayaker’ and has been paddling Greenland-style kayaks for forty years, building five of them for himself and two for his children. The author describes the Greenland kayak as elegant in its design and simple in its construction. Three curves describe the shape, formed by the gunwales, chines and keelson. Straight stems join the keelson and gunwales and the skin holds it all together. The book makes the claim that the narrow beam, low profile deck puts this kayak at the high performance end of contemporary kayak design.

The book says that building a Greenland kayak does not require a major investment in time or money. The author spends US$300 on materials and 30 hours of work from lumber to launching. The design is based on construction methods documented by H C Peterson in his book Instructions in kayak building. The book says the Peterson Kayak is not a replica of any one style but a composite of technical solutions from various parts of Greenland. The author has added three minor changes of his own to ensure a successful project.

1. Bending the ribs – Chris describes a method used by Hooper Bay kayak builders to thin the ribs where the bend is required and to use a bending jig which is common to all ribs.

2. The deck ridges have been extended from the cockpit to span an extra deck beam to give more room under the deck for westerners’ larger feet;

3. The main seam for the skin is moved from the middle of the deck where it is difficult to sew to the edge of the gunwale where a straight needle can easily pick up both sides of the seam. The book does not have plans but is a description of the building process written in the workshop as a kayak is being constructed. This narrative approach means you will be constantly searching the text for instructions. Read the book and make notes in the margin if you intend to follow through and build one. Before starting you need to understand Anthropometric (man measured) measurements – the width of your hip, hand, fingers and arm span. After measuring up a kayak for me it will be; Length: 3 arm spans (5.7 metres). Beam: Hips +1 fist + 2 fingers (510mm)

Several variables affect the design and need to be researched and decided on before starting to build as each kayak is tailor made for the individual paddler. In chapter 6, Getting Started you find a 3 metre plank, place it on a stick, sit on it and shuffle along until it is perfectly balanced. This spot is marked as the centre of the gunwales. Using a cardboard box you then mark a right angle and measure located. Beam #4 footrest, #5 shins, #6 thigh brace (masik) #7 back rest. The balance point is not your seat which is placed a little aft of centre, the length of 1foot plus width of 1fist to be precise. The marks on the plank are transferred to a ‘story pole’. This is stored and used to build other kayaks for this paddler.

Next depending on the type of craft you want, decide these variables before starting to build your kayak.

Gunwale width

Choose from the 3 gunwale widths described to suit a novice, experienced paddler or a competition rolling boat.

Hull volume

Deck beams #3 and #8 can be pushed towards the bow and stern to force more volume into the hull, the question is how much is good?


The rib gauge described in chapter 8 determines the length of each rib which forms the shape of the hull. This can be fine tuned by adjusting the length of the keelson. You decide how much rocker you want to put in your boat.

The kayak can be built from standard construction timber, straight-grain pine, spruce or fir if you live in the USA. In Australia my research came up with Hoop pine for the gunwales, chines and keelson and Silver Ash for the bending stock, (ribs). Chris describes skinning the kayak in canvas or his preferred material, 9oz nylon, finished with a 2 part polyurethane floor sealer.

The early chapters of the book describe the tools, materials, fastenings, (the X and Y lashing I used on my model can bind two surfaces with surprising pressure) and the milling of the timber.

The chapter, Getting Started lays out the gunwales and the building form. The framework chapter describes making the gunwales, which is most of the joinery. The kayak is built from the deck down and the gunwales are connected by 11 deck beams, making a solid structure joined together with 22 mortise and tenon joints cut on a 73 degree bevel and locked with dowel pegs (no glue). This sounds like a daunting task, which Chris describes as simple like painting by numbers. The undersides of the gunwales have 48 stopped mortise joints to take the 24 ribs each one locked by a dowel peg. How the Eskimos managed this in antiquity is amazing.

The chapter, The Hull describes the process of cutting, bending and fitting the ribs which seems quite easy. Chris has devised a simple way to tackle this most complex task. He says the most common mistake is to make the ribs too round on the bottom. Fitting the keelson and two chines fine tunes the hull shape. Each is fixed to the ribs with a single lashing running from bow to stern. This is a surprisingly quick operation. The lattice work of the finished frame is a wonderful piece of sculpture.

Skinning the kayak – The cockpit is not fitted to the frame but sewn into the skin. I only made an unskinned model but it was an amazing sight to see the kayak shape suddenly spring to life when I draped a fine cloth over the frame which does not touch the lattice skeleton underneath, only the edge of the gunwale, chine and keelson.

The chapters Deck Fittings, The Paddle, Clothing, and Float Bags finish the project. The final sections of the book cover Eskimo Rolling, Getting in and Paddling, and variations on the design- for building a rolling kayak, if so desired.

The book is illustrated with many how-to photos, has an excellent appendix listing resources, which includes things like where to buy artificial sinew for lashings. Bibliography and a good index make this is a great book for the hobbyist.

What you need to get started

  • Longitudinals: 10 metres of 25mm x 250mm Hoop pine an Australian native plantation timber. The book says use 50mm thick boards but they are not easy to find
  • Bending Stock: 18 metres of 9mm x 22mm Silver Ash
  • Dowell: A range of 4,5,6, and 9mm diameters
  • Lashing: 300 yard spool of artificial sinew
  • Skin: 9 ounce nylon
  • Coating: 2 part polyurethane sealer
  • Deck lines: 5 metres of Latigo (leather used for saddle straps)