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by Jeff Horton - Guntersville, Alabama - USA

Skin on frame style of boat construction dates back thousands of years. The Eskimo’s and Inuit’s of the Arctic regions are credited as being the inventors of the skin on frame method. They figured out how to build boats from driftwood, bone, sinew, animal skins and other natural materials they had available. The Artic people have built boats this way for so long no one knows when they started.  Some experts’ believe this method dates back 4,000 years while others say it could be even older than that.  What we do know is that their ideas have stood the test of time and the concept is still used today.

We no longer have to use animal hides to skin our boats nor are we dependent on searching the beach for driftwood to build our boats. Today, we have materials and tools the Inuit’s could have never imagined. Because of this, the way we build our boats has changed and the methods have changed.  One of the most recent changes is the Fuselage Frame method of building.

The word 'fuselage' comes from a French word, meaning spindle shaped. It is an aircraft term that refers to the body of the airplane. Fuselage frame boats use a construction method that is similar to that used in wooden framed airplanes and this is where the name comes from.

In fuselage frame construction, the boats are built using frames cut from a sheet of plywood. The frames are attached to rigid platform called a strong back. Then solid wood stringers are attached to the frames running from end to end.  This style of construction became popular in the 1950's and 1960's once plywood became readily available and many boat plans using this method appeared in magazines such as Popular Mechanics and Popular Science.

Like most ‘new’ ideas, the fuselage frame method eventually became old news and something new captured everyone’s attention. What didn’t change are the many advantages of the method has to offer and its cost effectiveness.

People are starting to ‘rediscover’ the advantages once again. Fuselage frame boats have several distinct advantages over other types of construction for the homebuilder.

I can build a frame from scratch in approximately 30 hours. It will take me another 20 hours to skin and apply the finish to the boat. Completely rigged and ready to go the water, I usually have around 50 hours invested.  Most first time builders report spending 60 to 70 hours building their boat.  I have always said anyone with basic tools and abilities can built one in well under 100 hours.

Fuselage frame boats are also inexpensive to build. In my area plywood and stringers for a 17' kayak will cost under $100. The skin cost varies with the fabric you choose, but for the most commonly used 8 0z. Polyester that would be $80.  Deck rigging, adjustable footrests and the incidentals will add another $100. Most people do something cheaper but I always buy a nice pre-carved mini-cell seat and that costs $50.  Add paint and few odds and ends and your looking at $300 to $350 in materials for a well equipped boat. Keep in mind prices may vary a little depending on where you live.

One of the biggest advantages of a fuselage frame boat is their light weight. How many times have you thought about going for a short paddle but backed out because the effort required handling your heavy boat?  My 17-foot long kayak Shad tipped the scales at 31 pounds. This was not a specially built boat either. It used the same materials that I recommend for all my boats. The Stonefly Canoe weighed approximately 38 lbs. ready to go the water.  Keep in mind canoes are typically heavier than a kayak because the open design requires a stronger frame and floorboards. So there is lot more wood in a canoe, which raises the weight. To find a canoe or kayak of comparable weight it would have to be made of a composite construction and a used one is likely to cost well over a $1,000.

Just because fuselage frame boats are cheap, doesn’t mean they are ‘disposable’ or ‘throw-away’ boats either. As long as you use good materials and give it reasonable care (keep it dry and store it out of the weather) you should be able pass it on to your kids.

The most common misconception about skin boats is that they are fragile. With today’s modern synthetic fabric skins these boats, while not indestructible, are in fact very tough. If you will watch this video it will dispel your thoughts of their being fragile. Poking a hole in the skin is not an easy task!

Fuselage frames boats are not limited to just kayaks either.  Many styles of boats can be made this way. This past summer I designed and built a long skinny recreational rowing boat I named Cotton Row. It has a sliding seat and varnished wood transom.

My latest book, More Fuselage Frame Boats has offsets for some new boats including two rowing boats with varnished wood transoms and a simple design inspired by the Pirogue style boat.

If there is a big drawback to a Fuselage Frame boats, it is they are too easy, too fast and too cheap to build. Once you build one it’s very hard not build another and then another and another….. before you know it  you have run out of space to store them!

Jeff Horton
Kudzu Craft Skin Boats

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