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Fuselage Frame Boats: A guide to building skin kayaks and canoes — a Review

Fuselage Frame Boats

Fuselage Frame Boats: A guide to building skin kayaks and canoes documents S. Jeff Horton’s, Kudzu Craft,  method of building plywood-framed skin-on-frame kayaks in a similar method to those developed by Tom Yost of Yostwerks. The idea is to connect a series of frames with stringers to make the basic shape of the kayak or canoe. Over the frame, you sew or attach a fabric skin that you waterproof with varnish or two-part polyurethane. By following the process, you can build a boat quickly and inexpensively. This is my Fuselage Frame Boats review.

Fuselage Frame Boats Review

Horton borrows the term fuselage from plane building, because this method of boat building is similar to the way that lightweight planes are built. I’d argue that this style of construction for kayaks extends back before planes, but I’m not sure that that matters. Using this style, you build a strongback, which is a straight, level and flat building form that provides structure to the kayak or canoe while you build. After you construct the strongback, you cut out frames, cross-sectional structures that define the boat’s shape at a given point from one end, from plywood and the stringers, 1- by 1-inch longitudinal boards running from the bow to stern, from a softwood, such as cedar or pine. Then you attach the frames to the strongback at predetermined locations. After you plumb the frames, you run the stringers between the frames to give the kayak its shape (See my Nikumi builder’s log to see the process). The stem and stern are attached. Once everything is screwed or glued together, you sew on a skin, paint it, and then go paddling.

The way the Horton presents the process is through a number of chapters; you don’t get an overview of what you’re going to do, so you need to read the entire book before you get a glimpse at the entire process. Horton does give you a short overview of terminology. As a kayaking instructor, I’d argue with a few of the terms such as “hard chine” and “lean turn.” A hard-chined boat is a kayak or canoe with a single chine as opposed to Horton’s definition which more accurately describes a chine: “a distinct junction as opposed to a rounded over edge.” A more correct term for the way Horton defines “lean turn” is “edging.” I also felt that a few other terms could be defined, such as strongback and frame.

After terminology, Horton gives good advice about picking a shop and he lists some tools. I’d rather see all the tools listed in one location instead of addressing some in this list and “other tools as needed.” Next is how to build a strongback. I had to reread this section a couple of times to get the gist, and I’m not sure that I could build a strongback based on his instructions. I’ve built them before and knowing what I know, I can understand how to do it, but I’m not sure a first-time builder with just these instructions would understand. Also, this is where a stylistic issue starts. An instructional book should specifically address the builder using second person pronouns, such as you. Horton sways between addressing the reader directly and stating what he does. Both are used interchangeably as instructions that you as a builder need to carry out. For example:

With the two end brackets in place you need to install the center brackets. In order to keep them aligned and not end up with a twist in the keel I stretch a string between the two brackets through the slot for the keel. Make sure that the string is touching the same side of both slots. Pull it tight and tie it off. Now you have a straight edge to work from.

Note the bold that I added; almost the entire paragraph addresses the builder, but the essential step is in first person. It’s confusing to the reader and brings to mind a question: Am I suppose to do that or is that something that Horton does that I don’t need to do? While the proofreading is well done, I can’t help but think some editing would have helped improve the book. If you ignore the change in pronouns, much of the information gets communicated.

The next chapter is about building the stringers. Horton suggests that many builders should use shorter lumber and scarf the pieces together into a longer board. That’s great advice, because it can save you money and save you from the hassle of finding long, clear lumber. The problem is that he never tells you the ratio of the scarf. I suggest a 1:7 or a 1:8 ratio, which means for every inch of width in the board your scarf should be 7 or 8 inches long.

Chapter 3 and 4 spell out how to construct the frames of your boat. Anyone building one of these boats will find some nuggets of goodness in these chapters, and the mechanical drawings are excellent. In fact, they’re so good that the concepts are instantly apparent by looking at the drawings. It’s a real strength of the book and one of the reasons that make it worth buying this book. Chapter 5 presents Horton’s boats. Either you’ll like the look of the stern or you won’t. If you don’t, see below for additional resources, but keep in mind that any chined boat can be converted to this style of building. With a few tweaks, you can build rounded hulls using this method, too. See this skin-on-frame version of the 1910 St. Francis canoe as an example of converting a rounded hull to a chined hull. Horton’s next few chapters teach you how to assemble everything.

Then the section of skinning begins. Horton’s methods are slightly different than some of the other that I’ve read about or used. He sews pockets into the ends of the skin and then pulls it over the stems and finishes with the deck. On the skin-on-frame kayaks that I’ve built, I did that opposite. I.e. pin the skin in place with push pins, sew the deck and finish by sewing the stems. Horton mentions that you may run into difficultly pulling the skin into place with his method, and from what I remember using other methods, there wasn’t any real difficulties. I recommend buying either Mark Starr’s Building a Greenland Kayak (Maritime) or Chris Cunningham’s Building the Greenland Kayak : A Manual for Its Contruction and Use for easier instructions on sewing a skin. I like Starr’s method best. Horton’s book does discuss using polyester skins instead of nylon, so that would be of interest to builder’s considering using polyester.

The last chapter of Horton’s book describes outfitting. I wish he would have went into more detail about deck lines and bungee cords. Many first-time kayak builders don’t understand the importance of full perimeter deck lines or the types of deck line arrangements, so an overview would be nice. Instead, the builder needs to look elsewhere for that info. At the end of the book, Horton writes a brief section about Greenland-style kayak paddles, but he doesn’t address canoe paddles. The omission stands out.

Overall, I think that builders interested in this style of construction should buy this book. It has faults, but it’s the only up-to-date book about the subject. There are other resources, such as Tom Yost’s website and online forums, but those lack a physical copy you can bring into the workshop with you. In the years since Yost introduced some of his designs using building methods similar to Horton’s, this style of construction has boomed and many builders have tackled “fuselage” framed (Yost-style) skin-on-frames. It’s nice to have an up-to-date book about the process. If you have the spare cash, you can buy the book on for around $17. Here’s the link: Fuselage Frame Boats: A guide to building skin kayaks and canoes.

Other Framed Skin-on-Frame Kayak Building Resources

There are several other instructional books available that teach similar methods. The first is Zu Freeman’s Building a Jawbone Kayak. The second is George Putz’s Wood and Canvas Kayak Building. Both of these competing books use older but similar methods to arrive at a finished skin-on-frame kayak. Putz’s book is better than Freeman’s, but both are worth owning if you plan on building a canoe or kayak using this method. Putz’s includes plans for the Walrus and the Skinny Walrus, which you can also find on this website. A third building resource is Tom Yost’s website. He includes all the information that you’d need to build a skin-on-frame kayak in this style, but you need to translate some of that info from his specific designs to the boat you’re building (Horton’s book is much more generic and geared towards any plan). I printed all the pages of Yost’s website before I built my Nikumi.

I also offer a skin-on-frame version of my British-style Siskiwit Bay. If you want a British-style skin-on-frame, it’s one of the few — if not the only — options available.

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  • Great post Bryan. I’d love to build a SOF canoe myself if I ever find the time. All these SOF plywood ideas seem to be making a comeback. I remember my dads popular mechanics books always had such craft back in the 60-70’s. I have a book by Donald R Brann which not only dates it’s self with it’s politically correct language; but never the less the same basis.

    • A SOF canoe is high on my list of boats to build, too. I remember seeing a bunch of plans in Popular Mechanics. I think you can find many of them online now. That book you linked is a hoot! I might need to find a copy.

  • […] the only book that I caught during 2011 for canoe and kayak builders. It’s somewhat flawed (see my review), but offers enough information to get the job done. If you follow the directions, you’ll end […]

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