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Building a Canoe - Should You?

Posted by Darren Bush on 2/9/2013 to Building Your Own Canoe

Short Answer: Yes, you should.


Long Answer: It depends.


“If you want to build, build. If you want to paddle, then paddle.” But it’s not that simple. All the things I said in the kayak building section are doubly true for canoes, if not more so. Building a kayak in the traditional stitch-and-glue method is a lot simpler than building a strip-built canoe, or if you’re really looking for a challenge, a rib and plank wood-canvas canoe.

So read the section on kayak building, and if you satisfy the criteria for wanting to build, read on.

Nuts and Bolts of Canoe Building


If you decide to build a canoe, you have your choice of a few basic forms and variations on them; the birchbark canoe, the strip-built canoe, and the wood-canvas canoe, sometimes called “plank on rib” construction. Each has advantages and disadvantages over the other method. Let’s tackle them one at a time.

Birchbark Canoes


Oh wow…these are so cool. They’re gorgeous, they paddle beautifully, and they’re about as authentic as you can get. So why don’t people build them? Simple, they’re really REALLY hard to build. I have been known to say, “Everything is easy if you know how to do it.” Classes are available for folks who want to learn to build a birchbark boat, and you leave with the knowledge to build one.

The downside is simple — the materials are scarce and becoming more so, and if you’re not an expert builder, you can ruin a piece of bark that could be used to build a boat. It’s risky. Also, the final product is much less easy to control than other building methods, simply because of the way things are put together – no forms or molds, just a staked-out outline on the ground.

Wood-Canvas Canoes


Wood-canvas boats were designed, basically, to mimic the construction of the bark canoes. If you look at a few boats, you’ll immediately see why. The biggest difference is the fasteners used to connect planks and ribs, and that the canvas is not as structural a member of the boat like the bark would be. Still, it’s the best way to build a boat that will be repairable forever, as the parts are completely modular.

Downsides are again, a high skill level needed to construct a boat that isn’t a floating monstrousity. You also need to build a form before you even get the boat started, which is challenging in its own right. You might be able to find a form that someone else has made, but you’re still hoping they did it right, as it will transfer any mistakes into every single boat that comes off the form.

Woodstrip


Woodstrip construction is the easiest and most accessible for the home builder. The level of precision required is still significant, but nowhere near that needed for wood-canvas or bark boats. A great boat can be built by someone with no experience, provided one goes slow and pays attention to details.

If you’ve never built a boat or if you’re new to handcrafts, select carefully your choice for a first boat building experience. Books such as Ted Moore’s Canoecraft can give you a lot of instruction on the skills you’ll need to finish a boat you’d be proud of.

The idea here isn’t to scare anyone away. Building is fun. I have the cedar in my garage for two solo canoes that I’ve designed and am going to build, one for me and one for my daughter. You should do it, but only if you’re ready to finish something you start.

More resources can be found on wooden boat construction on the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association’s website. I got my wood for my canoes from Tom at Kedros Canoes. You’ll find him on the WHA website.

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