The original kayaks were built by the Inuit and Aleut "Eskimo" peoples of the Arctic. Living above the tree line they did not have access to unlimited supplies of wood. Instead the built boats using a light weight driftwood frame that they covered with skins. Typically these skins were from seals, but whale skin and cariboo skins were sometimes used. Modern Skin on Frame kayaks typically use synthetic fabric such as Nylon or Dacron. Some builders use cotton canvas.
Advantages of Skin on Frame
The big advantage for the traditional builders of skin-on-frame kayaks, the Aleut and Inuit residents of the far north, is they could be built with the materials on hand. The frame did not require big pieces of wood and could be made with material that drift up on the beach. The skin was made from their primary food species, the seal. This set up an interesting chicken-and-egg situation, because they needed the kayak to catch seals and they need seals to make the kayak. The resulting boat was light weight, rugged, resiliant and easy to maintain.
Today skin-on-frame kayaks are made primarily by enthusiast interested in the traditional ways of the originators of the kayak. However, this method of making a boat offers some advantages to the modern kayak builder. The advantages are similar to the Eskimo's, the materials are inexpensive and easy to obtain. A few boards and a little cloth and you can probably build yourself a kayak. The resulting kayak will be light weight, rugged, resiliant and easy to maintain.