Saturday, May 25, 2013

Fog and Steam: Bending Kayak Ribs, Learning to paddle an Inuit Kayak

Paddling on Lake Eikeren

Warm summer rains have been mixing the frigid Norwegian waters making for some extremely interesting fog  throughout Lake Eikeren, just steps from our workshop in Vestfossen. I've been paddling these kayaks and learning to move with them as one body as I simultaneously learn what it is that makes a traditional kayak so special in design. The ribs, which hold the form throughout the kayak between keel and stringers is one of those designs that make it a lot like a living body.

Sighting for the perfect lines
The lines of a kayak are a "unbroken curve" as Anders said. Each kayak has its own curves depending on a paddler`s features and wants. Sighting each rib is an important part of the process, which I learned with Anders, steaming ribs for an 1840`s racing baidarka replica (from the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska), and a new Greenlandic Kayak.


Bending the rib
Steam from a tea kettle into a box or tube will moisten the fibers of the wood and make it pliable, which gives is the ability to bend the ribs into the perfect shape for the kayak`s body. This is done mostly by sight and experience. As I learned and broke many ribs before I had one right, it became evident how good Anders is at this process, doing it with the easy of a natural motion. The Inuit often used their teeth to bend ribs.

Placing the rib into the friend
A few quick swipes of a knife and the rib is cut to fit small groves we have put into the gunwales. Rib by rib the kayak is made into a skeleton.

Using a knife to shape the rib`s end for fitting into the kayak frame.


One day I was paddling and I saw a rainbow coming straight at me with what looked like a giant wave. As It got closer I realized it was a rainstorm coming over the hills. I was completely immersed in the rainstorm as it met the foggy water and was greeted by beautiful clouds and sun afterwards. I


The sky clearing over the front of my baidarka

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Wax On: The Philosophy of Sewing a Kayak


Bee`s wax and string for a baidarka frame
Anders unravels with me the way of the kayak backwards in the process. Last week we started with painting and sanding the canvas and paddling. The time since then was an intense and Karate Kid like exercise in doing things as best as I can through sewing canvas and lashing together finished ribs and stringers of the kayak frame. One of my first lessons, WAX ON, always wax the linen string we use to pull tight the canvas and hold strong the kayak frames. The wax keeps the string together while holding it tight. This helps it act like the tight whale baleen of ancient kayaks.

New canvas
We took the canvas of an old children`s Greenlandic kayak that had been used as the sign for Kajakespecialisten. Under the old canvas was a strong frome that needed only minor repairs. We stripped it,  oiled it, and replaced some parts to the frame which you will learn all about in later posts.

The fresh white canvas is much like the state of mind one should be in while building a kayak, as Anders shows by simply being. It is clean and fresh but of substance. We keep the workshop clean, focus on one thing a time, keep our wood fire stove going and stretch the canvas across the kayak, bottom first.

Stitching up to the cockpit
We sew a single seam up the middle top of the kayak, pulling together with uniformity. Each seam is important to be in the right place and pulled tight. It must at the same time totally focused on that stitch, while keeping in mind the entire line of the kayak. We fold the two ends and sew it back onto itself.

The work of building a kayak strengthens ones hands. Just from pulling string through canvas and making lashings tight, my hands are tougher. We are building a long racing kayak from the Aleutian Islands, modeled after a skin covered treasurer in a Russian museum. The last few days I lashed all the ribs together to stringers and the keel (which run the length of the craft). I lashed more than half when I realized I had done them wrong, not deep enough groves into the wood to keep them from rubbing the canvas. A deep breath, we waxed new string, and I would lashed one, remove one, lash one, remove one, until I had erased my mistakes.

Up the seam
Meanwhile, I`ve started working on a kayak from scratch.  I pulled the first two pieces of the frame out of a woodpile. and set them next to the newly sewed kayak. Over the next few weeks I`ll meet what I am learning in reverse, right in the middle. Anders shows me bit by bit, one thing at a time. He tells me the most important is to do you absolute best, even if the guy next to you does twice as much. I do my best and am learning to make it a habit. Even if it is just waxing a little string. Wax on.

Ready to be painted


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Master and Apprentice: An Introduction to Inuit Style Kayaks with Anders Thygesen



Norweigan forest near Vestfossen
For the next few months, I`ll have a new home in Vestfossen, Norway as I apprentice with Anders Thygesen, builder of traditional Inuit style kayaks from Greenland to the Aleutian Islands off the Alaskan coast. I`ve already spent a week with Anders and it is obvious he is meant to be a mentor and friend to me in many ways. He will teach me to design a build these frame on skin (though now we use canvas) vessels, along with many other traditional ways of making things, by using intuition, experience, and the surroundings as allies.


Kayakspecilisten, our workshop in a renovated church.
The environment of the Inuit is one of ice and large mammals, the seals, caribou and sea lion all providing skins for the kayaks out shell, while sinew and bones from whales and the treasured driftwood composing the frame. While seemingly far from me as I overlook the gorgeous blue waters and forest hills of Norway, that experience radiates from Anders, who has made a seal skin kayak and paddles in various parts of the Arctic.

Sticking the cockpit on
We start backwards, by learning to finish kayaks first. Anders taught me to sew on the hatches, for storage, and the cockpit, or manhole where the paddler sits.

Cockpit and hatches on an Aleutian style kayak

Once the cockpits  are on, we paint the canvas, sanding in between some six times, until it is smooth and ready to go on the water. It has been great, waking up in the morning to say hello these new kayaks and give them a fresh coat of paint.

Painting the kayaks
Between time in the workshop I explore the Norweigan hills and have paddled with Anders in the water but meters away. Anders just completed a 3000km journey in his kayak and will teach me to paddle these kayaks as one with the body. The kayaks, built like bones, tendons and skin all together, feel like an extension to oneself.

A sunny Norweigan day
My first few days with Anders fit perfectly. I`m already working on a kayak from scratch (to be continued)  and we are truly in the flow. They are unique vessels, each one with its personality, born from the eye of its maker. We will see what sort of eye I may develop and what adventures are to be had in this intensive time of master and apprentice.

Removing old canvas to repair a kayak

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Canvas Craft in Denmark: Learning from Svend Ulstrup



Steaming ribs in Svend`s barn workshop.
Svend Ulstrup first went to Greenland with a friend from the North. There he built hunting qajaq (skin on frame boats of the Arctic) with the Inuit and hunted alongside them in their beautiful vessels of survival. Since that time as a young man, he has be building traditional watercraft and teaching an ecological philosophy through the practice of traditional arts. Thomas Soe is a current student of Svend`s in a technique for building canvas canoes (like those in Southern Canada, free form.

Bending ribs
Talking quietly about the world at large as steam rose from our steam box, we bent rib by rib onto a simple form Svend and Thomas had made. Svend uses his eye to place ribs correctly in a canvas canoe with the goal of making them unique and living. This is the process with his qajaq. Once made of seal skin, cotton canvas (and other synthetic cloths) have replaced the covering, but the wooden frame and lashing techniques remain. The eye and feel of the curves is center to making the right shape, it is an intuition. It is not a math, but a nature. Svend seeks to keep alive a native way of building, one that "asks the qajaq" what to do.

Svend and Thomas marking  ribs
Survival, knowledge of the environment, the feel, the respect for the tradition, these are all the ideas Svend plants deeper into my mind for why these traditions are so interesting and important. After a big lunch of liver and sheep meat fresh from Svend`s farm, we go to see the 31 baidarka (qajaq styles from Aleutian Islands near Alaska) he just gathered students to build, an Umiak or open face cargo skin vessel, and a Bronze Age experimental canoe, that may have existed in such a form preVikings. I am glad to know Svend and I am glad Svend knows the Qajaq.

Svend shows how to use a Nordic Style Axe to cut birch wood.  Svend is always combining the best of the cultures that taught him.

In the continuum of Svend`s knowledge of Greenlandic Qajaq (kayak), I will be spending the next two months in Norway with Anders Thygesen, a colleague of Svend`s. I will become Ander`s apprentice and delve into the production of canvas on frame kayaks made in traditional methods. Over the next few months of articles, you can take part in the process of learning this holistic art.