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The Compass Needle



The Compass Needle reflects the humble beginnings of my boat building history, being created in an era when I lived on borrowed kayaking books, internet articles and tones of Inuit history and culture.


This boat is a true 21st century Greenland kayak. What makes it such is the very way it was built. Copying the scavenging and creative methods used by the Inuits, we used only reclaimed wood and lashed the parts using some original methods. The gunwales are pallet wood boards butt joined together in a pretty rude way. The deck spreaders are also pallet wood. The ribs were made using the bars from a baby cot kerfed and bent without using heat. The keelson and the hull stringers are carpentry leftovers donated by a friend.

skin on frame qajaq
skin on frame qajaq

The Compass Needle came out of my imagination contoured around 3 ideas: to be as cheap as possible, to be Eco -friendly (therefore with a limited life span), and to be crayoned into a sleek and low laying shape which I always loved in kayaks. The first point was a normal consequence of a lack of money as I was crossing some hard times, but also because I wanted to prove how easily such a boat can be built, almost tools free. When I started constructing her I had a hand driller with a single drill bit, a used metal saw blade and a pair of pliers which also doubled as a hammer if needed.


I also had access to the roof of the building where I stored the 2 pallets I found. And that was where the boat took shape and the gunwales where put together, after which I roped everything down and moved into a garage. So, there I was, sitting on the hot cement and making chalk marks on it to measure my body. I used chalk to draw the lines of the bow and stern. I realized at the last moment I suddenly became dependent of that roof and the chalk marks on it.

I removed the planks from the pallet one by one trying not to break anything. I sawed the nails holding them in place, or simply pulled on the boards till they came off. The whole process took almost a whole day, given the limited tools. The next step was to butt join the planks and make the gunwales. I used wood screws and pieces from the same planks to match their width when joining. The bow and stern parts were joined at an angle to avoid mounting risers. At the end of the second day I had the gunwales ready and joined using a temporary rope. 

Surprisingly they bent nicely and the deck looked pretty straight. As seen from above. From the side I noticed I had some sort of an architectural monument. I decided it was not such an important aspect, and can be compensated by arranging the ribs in order to have a straight hull. After all, the deck is above the water, right?

The bow and stern plates came out of a wider plank. I received the keelson and hull stringers already cut in shape.

skin on frame qajaq
skin on frame qajaq

A friend of mine cut some boards in different dimensions for a project of his and gave me the resulting leftovers. By pure coincidence they had almost the perfect dimension I needed. But not the length. Enters the scarf joint. The used saw blade did this job too.

The ribs I had were a gift from the same friend. They came exactly as they were installed in the cot. It was quite hard to remove them from their mortises. The carpenter who built that cot must have used a hell of a glue to put it together. I tried initially to “steam bend” them. In my language it meant I simply put them in the shower under hot water and tried to bend them. Well, no reaction at all. Not even moving. I tried again after a few days of soaking them. This time I managed to break one. At least something happened.


I decided it is easier to simply make some kerfs in the middle and bend them as much as they allowed it under the hot shower. It worked pretty well, and I got an ugly V shape for each one. After all, power boats do have a V-shaped hull. Why not a kayak?

All the parts were held together at this time by a few dozen cable ties (as I could not afford the armada of clamps needed). The cable ties were introduced through the holes I intended to use for the twine. I found the twine to be expensive. Therefor the cable ties stayed instead. They proved to be extremely strong and easy to tighten with the pliers, creating strong joints. In fact, because of them I didn’t need to use any pegs for the deck spreaders. I didn’t have to waste time to lash a kilometer of twine either. All I had to be careful about was where to place the lock to avoid puncturing the skin of the boat later. And talking about the skin, I realized it may be a problem. Ballistic nylon proved to be first of all expensive. Second of all impossible to be found in shops (as I naively expected), and third, at that time, I only found it in U.S. It looked like a long and expensive trip for a pallet built boat.


But I also knew canvas works well. The only problem was I had no idea what kind of canvas I needed. How thick, strong or heavy. Eventually I went to a shop and bought some. It was cheap, looked good, felt strong enough… and probably was intended to be used for beddings.


I documented myself how to stitch it on the frame and started. When I reached the middle I realized I had no cockpit rim yet. As the rest of the "steam bent" parts this one instantly generated me nightmares. It was at least twice as long as a rib and required a mold to be folded on to. I had absolutely no means to cut that mold out of thick plywood. I decided to do something else instead. More kerfs. In fact the whole thing was ridden with kerfs. I made a U shape, then I added a separate piece for the bottom. The parts were held together by… you already know what. Apart from the inside aspect, it looked decent enough. I quickly sewed it in place. Finally I had something resembling a kayak. Fully dressed in white, she looked like a bride, and filled my heart with joy.

I decided the bride should have her dress transparent, as most Internet pictures were. I quickly procured some transparent exterior varnish of a dubious producer, but cheap. I applied it in 3 or 4 coats, until the canvas became hard and rugged. I liked the effect. I used a paint spray for the bow in order to have some color on the boat. At the same time I tested how paint worked on canvas. It worked fine. Better even than the varnish. In fact this is when I learned canvas copes well with many paints and varnishes by comparison to nylon.


After a day or two to allow the varnish to dry I finally put her on the water. My curiosity was mixed with fear and anxiety. I was concerned she’ll float on one side of the V or will take water, or will simply fall apart with the first wave. No such things at all.

The Needle proved to be… a landmark. She stayed afloat like a queen. She matched my hips like a tailor made suit, despite the somehow difficult cockpit entry. She was stable (in fact way too stable for my taste), decently fast, tracked well, looked well, felt well, and filled me with foolish pride. She was also light. Around 13 kgs. She had a poor roll, requiring a canoe-polo technique with a strong hip snap and paddle stroke.


After the initial introduction, she received some improvements under the form of a spray-skirt, deck ropes, rub strips and some padding in the tiny cockpit.


The Needle carried me in many day trips, and not always in calm conditions. She behaved beyond any expectations given the way she was built. I never built anything like her after, but she opened a new era for me and influenced heavily my future building style and my future in general. She is also a design concept which proves the simplicity and versatility of the skin on frame boat.


The Needle is still afloat today after around 3 years of usage with no significant changes. It was long after I already had a new kayak built when a kind soul fell in love with her and bought her for a small amount. I hope she will serve him well for a long time to come.

skin on frame qajaq
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