Thomas Armstrong, Boats for Difficult Times, QAJAQ

Greenland Inuk hunting,  Photo Jette Bang 1936

Thomas Armstrong has recently featured my work on his popular blog 70.8%. Here he makes the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of posts as part of our discussion on Boats for Difficult Times.

Qajaq or Kayak

In my opinion, a kayak, or more properly qajaq is the boat for difficult times. To me, it is the archetypal boat. It was conceived and has lived most of it’s life and evolution in times and environments more difficult than most of us can even imagine. Though not definitive, most scholars agree that the kayak form of skin-on-frame boat originated in Siberia, millennia ago, about 9000 years ago in fact. Today, through the efforts of scholar/historians, we have hundreds, if not thousands of examples of these craft from the area where these boats were/are a key factor of survival in extreme environments, each representing its own line of development and evolution, adapted to local usage and conditions. They represent an economy of means and material that is unparalleled in the taxonomy of boat and may also be considered the finest expression of the nearly universal building method of skin on frame, ie a stressed-skin fabric over rigid framework. These boats have been instrumental in enabling Arctic peoples to survive, and so have undergone development in an arena which demands the most stringent evaluation of design imaginable.

Nattilingmiut or Netsilik c. 1914  A caribou hunting weapon from the central Canadian Arctic. This replica was built by Harvey Golden based on drawings from Eugene Arima’s work Inuit Kayaks in Canada.

Why a boat for difficult times?

Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the skin on frame kayak. There is extensive documentation of historic boats as well as many modern adaptations of the type. They are relatively easy to build, within the grasp of folk who have no or only a little woodworking skill. The time investment, compared to other boat types, is minuscule. The material cost for building one of these can be as low as $300. The cost of building, the time investment, and the skill set required; all make these boats widely accessible, even in tough times. Certainly the cost to benefit ratio of this kind of boat is one of the highest, especially if you factor in some intangibles, like the satisfaction of building and the using an ancient boat whose form carries echos from deep into prehistory. That building and using connects you with the vast lineage of builders in the past, and many builders of skin of frame kayaks, both indigenous and modern, report a kinship with their boats that amounts to watching a being come to life. A traditional boat par excellance that can be built in the backyard, the basement, even the living room – many have been. Resources are abundant on the internet and there are several inexpensive books to guide the beginning builder through the process. Having built your own boat, the chances are good that you’ll actually use it, and convenient and adaptable enough that you’ll probably use it often. One of the revelations I experienced when first paddling kayaks was the intimacy of the experience – you are are literally sitting in the  water – and how it magnifies the scale of things usually only seen from afar, a bit like the transition from a car to walking, but intensified by an unfamiliar environment.

Having said all that, it’s with no small amount of embarrassment that I confess that I have yet to build one of these beauties. Why I haven’t is a topic for another article, though not here, even though its investigation could feed this discussion.

Thomas Armstrong

John Petersen, a California based professional builder of SOF kayak, elevates the making of these craft to an art form. I include his work here to illustrate the inherent beauty of these boats and the aesthetic heights which can be achieved by immersing oneself in the craft.


There are several excellent books on the history of skin on frame kayaks, by authors such as Golden, Brinck, Heath, Arima, Brand and Chapelle and Adney. Just Google their name along with the word Kayak.

Here’s a link to several books on building these boats at Qajaq USA‘s very rich website. The forum there is an overwhelming resource, but check out the entire site.

There’s a series on Kayak at 70.8%. Be sure to click older posts for more.

A starting point for materials would be SKINBOATS.ORG

A set of free plans and lots of great information and ideas are available at Brian Schultz’s beautiful website CapeFalconKayak. A great boat to start with would be his F1, not a traditional boat but one further step in their evolution.






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