Cover Photo by Tannis Hydesmith
I was just a baby the first time that I canoed, settled on the floor of the canoe with my aunt in between the thwart and the yoke. My mother championed canoeing for us, having fallen in love with it when she was sixteen. I don’t remember the first time I was in a canoe. I was too young. What I do remember is my parents winning a lot lottery in Nopiming when I was five. I remember us building the cabin on Flanders Lake – an OSB floor with skeletal walls rising into the air and the lot of us pushing rainwater through small cutouts in the wall frames with push brooms after a rainfall before the roof was constructed.
50.4334° N, 95.2197° W
And I remember the little paddle I got so that I could learn to canoe. Flanders Lake is a rare find in cottage country, a lake open only to fishing-boats, with its ten horsepower limit. There are no jet skis or water skiers. It’s a great place to canoe. Flanders lake was the end of family canoe trips, but the beginning of our big adventure; and it was my beginning as a paddler.
Canoeing was a big part of our time at Flanders lake, but to say that we were paddlers would have been disingenuous. Canoeing was something we did sometimes. An evening or morning paddle; maybe a spin around the island. Very rarely might we paddle to the far end of the lake and brave the waterfall portage to Summerhill lake for a little exploration.
Last year, my parents made the difficult decision to sell the cottage. It had been a long time coming. Maintenance of the lot and the building was becoming too much work for them, and the cost of upkeep wasn't commensurate with the time they spent there. Ahead of this decision Eveline, and I had begun canoeing more often, spending days out on the lake in the cottage's 15 foot Scott canoe. We’d take the canoe out to other lakes in the area, and we’d started to dip our feet into tripping. We began with a Mantario cabin trip with Nature Manitoba; then we tried the Bird River route leaving from Tulabi falls, just the two of us.
When the cabin came up for sale, it was difficult for us to let it go. We’d had the opportunity to buy it ourselves, of course, but our cost-benefit analysis didn’t make it worthwhile. At the same time, we’d both begun to develop a taste for the new adventures that tripping afforded us.
It was around this time that I decided to build my own canoe.
A year prior, I'd finally finished my eight-year project of building our dining table (it was put on hiatus more than once). We were canoeing more, and I was now regularly supervising the drop-in woodshop at Bronx Park community centre. It seemed like a fitting project to take on, something that would be an adventure all on its own.
And that’s what this story is really about – my adventure in building a canoe. And it’s about inspiring you. Anyone with enough interest can do this. I had some background experience in woodworking, and while that was certainly helpful, it’s not necessary, nor should it be considered a barrier to entry.
What follows is the story of the build; a discussion of the decisions I made; the resources I used to be successful; the mistakes I made, and the methods I used to correct them. It ends with a beautiful canoe that is meant to be used. It floats, and it paddles like a dream.
My project began on two fronts: research and preparation. I started by reading “Building a Strip Canoe” by Gil Gilpatrick, which was available on the shelf at the Winnipeg Public Library. It was both informative and inspiring. I quickly realized that it would be next spring before I started the project in earnest. It was already midsummer, and the best estimations were that the project would take me months (the worst estimated years). The only space I had large enough for this project was my garage, and I wasn’t going to be working out there in the winter. Then I realized that I was going to need a ridiculous number of clamps.
I'd purchased an old Beall wood threader on Kijiji. It’s a special router jig used to cut screw threads into wood. One of the projects you can make with it is clamps. I had a pile of cheap hardwood in my garage, so the start of my canoe project was building clamps. 34 clamps in two formats – C-style-clamps and Woodscrews.
Making clamps is in no way a requirement for building your own canoe, but I had the time available, and the materials were cheap. In material cost, I spent only around $30 for all of the clamps; huge savings compared to buying.
34 Homemade Clamps
The important takeaway here is that you’re going to need tools, or access to tools, how ever you can manage it. I had a combination at my disposal. When it came to large machines, I had regular access to a table saw, bandsaw, jointer, etc. through my association with Bronx Park. At home, I work my wood with hand tools, so I already had an excellent collection of planes, chisels, handsaws and so on.
Major Power Tools
You’ll use this saw to break down plywood for the strongback build, and possibly to mill your boat strips. A table saw is preferable, but a circular saw would do in a pinch.
Bandsaw or Saber/Jig Saw
You’ll use this saw to cut out your form shapes or to make jigs that can help you with your build. The bandsaw is the preferred tool; a hand-held saber or jig saw will work just as well.
A router can be used to mill the bead and cove on your strips if you don't order them milled. Otherwise, the router will come in handy for finishing the trim. You’ll want one if you’re milling scuppers into your gunwales, but also just for rounding over the edges of the gunwales and seats.
The block plane is indispensable. It makes quick work of fairing the profile of your canoe or fitting strips into the belly of the boat.
The spokeshave is essential for shaping. The block plane and spokeshave will be your go-to tools in this process. The spokeshave is particularly useful in shaping the stems and adding the final contours to the forms.
A cabinet scraper is a great tool to have on hand to help with the final smoothing of the boat and trim. It’s ideal for removing machine marks from your wood without cutting too deeply and leaving a depression that will become noticeable in the gloss of the final varnish coat.
A rasp is optional, but is helpful in final rounding of the forms and also in the shaping of the yoke and thwart.
Chisels (around 1”)
Having good, sharp chisels is crucial. You’ll use them in fitting strips, cutting the center line and in chopping out the mortise for the outer stem. They’ll also be very helpful if you are hand-carving mortises for your seats; like I did.
The use of a staple gun will depend on whether you build using a staple or staple-free methodology.
Clamps – lots of them
I spent the fall finishing my clamps and researching canoe designs. I bought a copy of Ted Moore’s Canoecraft and read it thoroughly. I learned so much.
It’s funny to think about how often I’d gone for a paddle and given no consideration to the canoe, itself. I knew nothing of its anatomy and had no basis for understanding how its shape or other design considerations affected how it paddled, tracked or stabilized. I now had a pretty good understanding of beam, freeboard, trim, rocker and tumblehome and what designs would best meet my needs for a tripping canoe. In the end, I settled on a design called the Freedom 17: a 17-foot, asymmetric canoe design; and I ordered the plans from Bear Mountain Boats.
Anatomy of a canoe
In selecting canoe plans, it is important to understand how different specifications will impact how the canoe handles on the water. All canoes have length, width (beam), depth, hull contour and rocker; but the degree to which each is exploited will dramatically change the finished product. A solo canoe is different from a tandem; a tripper is different from a white-water.
Length and width (beam) dictate speed/agility and stability, respectively. Given two canoes where one is longer than the other, the longer canoe will be faster than the shorter one, but the shorter canoe will be agiler (quick to turn). Given two canoes where one is wider than the other, the wider one will offer greater stability.
The combination of length and width will determine the maximum capacity of the canoe; by definition, the weight that the canoe can carry while still sitting in the water with 6 inches of freeboard (the distance from the waterline to the gunnel).
The beam of the boat may be plumb, constant from the waterline to the gunwales; it can be tumblehome, where the maximum beam is below the gunwales (the hull curves back inwards before the gunwales); or it may be flared, where the maximum beam occurs at the gunwales only. Each style of beam has pros and cons to be considered.
The hull contour affects tracking and stability. A rounded bottom improves friction coefficient and speed but makes the canoe quite tippy. A flat bottom improves carrying capacity and makes the canoe very agile – great for a white-water canoe. At the same time, a flat bottom makes it terribly difficult to track the canoe in a straight line – and also increases friction, making the canoe slow to move. The shallow-arch or semi-elliptical profile presents a reasonable compromise between the two, and as an added benefit its shape helps to stiffen the hull. Finally, a shallow-vee contour offers a high degree of stability and improves tracking by acting as a keel. This contour is much less agile and harder to turn but provides the benefit of easily cutting through waves with little shock – making it a preferred choice for sailing or lake canoes.
Finally, consider the rocker of the canoe (or how much the belly of the canoe curves from bow-to-stern). A canoe without rocker (straight from end-to-end) results in a fast, easy tracking canoe with poor turning agility. As we increase rocker, we have to be aware that the more rocker the canoe has, the deeper the center of the canoe will sit in the water – increasing drag and affecting tracking and speed.
Meanwhile, it was time to start researching materials. I knew that I would be building a cedar strip canoe. I love the aesthetics of them; they’re known for being very sturdy, solid, tripping canoes. They often come in at a moderate weight (around 60 pounds).
I’m a “go hard, or go home” guy; I like to do things from scratch. I was keen to mill my strips from rough cedar. It was troublesome to find a local supplier who could meet my needs of board thickness and length. When I was able to find a supplier, the cost was prohibitive. The total cost was only $100ish less than what Bear Mountain Boats was asking to ship me pre-milled cedar strips from Ontario.
Additional research turned up another vendor, Orca Boats, operating in British Columbia who could supply cedar strips, delivered, for around $500. Orca became my primary supplier for the project. Their prices were reasonable, and Rod was very helpful with answers to my questions throughout the project. When I did finally order the supplies for the job, Rod didn’t have any strips milled and ready to go. He asked for a few days to cut new strips from the cedar planks he had in his shop, but he wouldn’t have time to mill the bead-and-cove on them for me. This worked out in my favor, as I had purchased bead and cove bits for my router the summer prior. It also meant that my material cost was slightly less.
Bead and Cove
Bead and cove is a special type of wood joint that introduced a major improvement into cedar strip canoe building. In the first iterations of cedar strip canoes, the strips were placed edge to edge around the forms. As the form rounded to shape the hull contour, a gap materialized between the strips as they bent away from each other. After stripping out the body of the canoe, you would fill these gaps with epoxy mixed with wood flour.
A bead is a convex curve milled on one edge of the strips, while a cove is a concave curve milled on the other edge. These curves allow the two strips to maintain full contact with each other as the strips bend around the curved form of the canoe.
I didn’t order my strips right away. It was the dead of winter, and I didn’t have anywhere to store the materials. In the meantime, I got to work on the Strongback and Forms.
The Strongback is the most important part of building a canoe, and it’s crucial that you get it right. The Strongback is a sixteen-foot-long, twelve-inch-wide platform that is flat and straight and perfectly level to the surface that it rests on. While not difficult to build, it is necessary to be deliberate and take your time to ensure that the pieces line up correctly.
The Forms are individual cross-section cutouts of the canoe body that are cut from plywood or MDF and affixed to the Strongback with precise spacing to create a skeleton on which the cedar strips can be overlayed to form the body of the canoe. I spent most of the winter tracing out the form shapes from the plans I had ordered from Bear Mountain Boats, cutting them out on the bandsaw at the woodshop and finalizing the shape on the belt sander. This isn’t a big or tedious job, and shouldn’t take too long for most people.
Strongback and Forms set up
I used my sparse, free time over the winter to construct the seats, thwart and yoke. I had purchased 50 board feet of reclaimed Mahogany the previous summer, and its weight made it an excellent candidate for trimming the canoe. It’s a beautiful hardwood that is easy to work. Using the plans that I had for the canoe, I calculated the angles for the stern seat and I was able to create a frame that fit the trapezoidal space between the gunwales. Both the seats will be caned (which, as of this writing, are still incomplete). The thwart and the yoke I sized to the approximate length and then carved to the proper shape using chisels and spokeshave.
In designing my yoke, I decided to leave the front of the shoulder open when carving out the shoulder divots, rather than to wrap the divot over with a lip at the front. Most canoe yokes are modelled after water-carrying yokes which are designed on the premise that our arms hang to our sides while carrying. When carrying a canoe, our arms are extended outward from our body to help support its position. My design allows my arms the freedom to extend outward without cutting into my shoulders while portaging.
Another design choice was to shape the yoke exactly for my measurements, allowing space for my neck; and carving out a small divot at the base of the neck to give room for the vertebrae that sits at the base of my neck.
carving the yoke
caning the seats
In March 2016, after I received my order from Orca Boats, I set straight-away to clearing the garage out and setting up the Strongback level to the floor. The weather took a turn for the worse, with frigid temperatures for a few weeks. It wouldn’t be until the first week of May that I’d finally get the forms attached to the Strongback and place the first strips.
The first shaping that I had to do was to the Stems. My canoe has both an inner stem and outer stem. These provide the structure for the canoe at the bow and stern. The strips are fixed to the inner stem with glue during the forming of the body, and then the outer stem is attached to the structure to add strength and provide a solid surface that can withstand the blunt force and abrasion that the canoe might endure on landing and such.
I settled on using the same Mahogany for the outer stem as I milled for the trim; while I used spruce for the inner stem. The inner stem may be of softwood, while the outer stem should be hardwood due to the risk of abrasion. Using a softwood like spruce for the inner stem saves weight in the final product.
I shaped the stems on their forms by steam bending the wood. First, I created a steam chamber by employing our clothing steam iron and a four-inch diameter, capped ABS pipe. Then I placed the wood in the pipe and let it steam for an hour. Together, Eveline and I struggled with the wood to get it to bend around the form.
We failed, miserably, the first few times, and the wood cracked while we tried to get it to fit the curve. On our third attempt, I decided to make use of the steam iron as I was bending the wood around the most severe section of the curve, directing the jet of steam precisely onto the wood where it was bending. This additional steam and heat made it very easy to bend the wood into shape without breaking or compressing the fibres. Once the bend was complete, I clamped the stems in shape for 24 hours. After I had removed them from the form, I tied a rope to either end of the stems to keep them under tension and maintain their shape until I was ready to glue them together and get them on the Strongback.
top: the stems clamped and bent after steaming.
bottom: the stems clamped after gluing
Early on in the project, I decided that I didn’t want staple tracks all over my canoe. In a traditional cedar strip canoe, the strips are stapled to the forms, allowing you to join them together and complete the body very quickly. Once you’re done forming the body, you have to remove all of those staples and fill the staple holes. Afterward, there are visible staple tracks every foot along the canoe’s body. I decided that I would use one of the staple-free methods; this would take longer and introduce some building challenges but would result in a prettier boat.
I was able to do three strips on the canoe every hour. I laid out the three strips on a special rack that I built, running a bead of glue within the cove of two of them, and a bead of glue in the cove of the strip that was already on the forms. I placed the strips into each other, bending them into shape around the forms, and then screwed my staple-free clamping structures to the form. I put wedges in place on two axes to maintain the join and force the strips to conform to the contours of the canoe forms.
staple free striping system
Passers-by frequently asked me what I needed to do to the cedar strips to make them bend. The answer is nothing. Cedar is very springy (particularly when it’s as thin as ¼ inches). It’s incredible how the strips can handle the compound bends required, particularly around the bilge where the strips go from a vertical position near the stem to perfectly horizontal by the canoe’s centre, and then back to vertical by the other stem.
Even doing it the long way, stripping went fairly quickly, and I was done forming the canoe body in about ten days. The most difficult parts were around the bilge where the compound bend occurs. The cedar really didn’t want to stay in that position, even under the pressure of the wedge clamping system. I ultimately decided to mix some five-minute epoxy and added it to the glue in that section. I then held the strips in place with my hands while the epoxy set, and then repeated the process at the other end.
As I was finishing up the bilge and beginning the belly of the canoe, I made my first grave mistake. I did not understand the instruction to leave a mortise for the outer stem (cutting a groove in the strips at the base of the bow/stern so that the outer stem would fit in it and join directly to the inner stem). Instead, I began shaping the strips with a hand plane so that they’d conform to the curve of the inner stem and allow the outer stem to sandwich the layer of cedar strips. I had realized my error before I'd gotten too far; I'd begun to question myself as it was looking so odd.
fixing my mistake
The fix in the finished product
I discovered that I was not the first to make this mistake. The prevailing advice for fixing the problem was to mix a batch of thick fairing compound epoxy and spread it along the outer stem to correct the shape of the canoe. Photos of the fix present an unsightly, deep-brown, plastic blemish along the stem of the canoe. I decided to go a different route. Using a hand plane, I shaped small pieces of cedar strip cutoffs to fit the wood at the right angle and then glued them in place. Afterwards, I faired the wood using a hand plane and spokeshave, creating the required mortise and minimizing the blemish. I’m quite happy with the result. Unless you know to look for it, it's hard to tell that I made a mistake in the first place.
Finally, I was on to the last part of the canoe, called the “football” (the shape the strips take as you finish the belly of the canoe). It went smoothly, although it was the most tedious part of the stripping process. This section requires careful work and attention to detail to properly fit the pieces together. Each strip needs to be set individually and shaped to fit to the centre line, or finely shaved with a hand plane to fit perfectly against the other half that is already in place. The last piece is the most difficult. It is a compound piece of the last two strips, formed before the third-last strip gets put in place. The two pieces are glued together and then clamped into the place of the third-last strip so that they achieve the right curvature (they are not glued to the canoe). Once the glue sets for the compound piece, it is removed, the remaining strip is set and then the compound piece is carefully shaved to fit perfectly in the remaining slot. I recommend making multiples of the compound piece (at least two), before setting the third piece, in case something goes wrong. I was able to fit the first compound piece that I made, but it's a really good idea to have a backup.
Laying the strips in the football, and then cutting a straight centre line
Finally, the canoe body was complete; it was time for the final shaping of the exterior.
Using my hand plane, I shaved off the edges of the cedar strips, creating a smooth curve to the body of the canoe. Next, I sanded the body: first with 80 grit to finalize the shape, and then with 120 grit to clean up any tool marks and prepare the surface for the fibreglass and epoxy. The garage smelled like a sauna for days.
I was nervous to do the fibreglass and epoxy. It’s a permanent process, and a big mistake here would ruin everything I’d done so far. I had three coats of epoxy to apply, and if I could work in each coat within 4 hours of the last, the epoxy would be able to chemically bond to the one prior, and I wouldn’t have to do any sanding.
I started the first coat at 8:00 am. It went pretty smoothly, although it took about two hours to cover the whole canoe. I brushed the epoxy on in patches, coating a two-foot section of one side of the canoe at a time, followed by the same section on the other side. Once you’re a few sections in, you have to keep going back to the earlier ones to smooth out runs. I wish I'd had better lighting in the garage to help me see how the epoxy was flowing and manage the runs. I kept the door closed to protect the finish from dust, but this left the workspace dim.
Laying the fibreglass
After the first coat of epoxy
The books don’t tell you that your feet are going to get sticky. I was prepared for epoxy to drip on the floor (I had drop-sheets down), but I didn’t realize that I’d end up stepping in it. This wasn’t a problem during the first coat. For subsequent coats, it was like I was walking on Velcro the whole time; my shoes were so tacky from the epoxy they picked up.
I completed the exterior epoxy in that first day without any major problems. The epoxy cured with more runs in it than I would’ve liked, and I aborted my plan to have an extra 4oz layer of fibreglass on the belly of the canoe when it bunched up as I tried to lay it on the tacky surface of the first coat four hours later.
Over the next few days, I built a sling form for the canoe, in which I placed the canoe after I removed it from the forms on the Strongback. The sling allowed me to rest the canoe on soft carpet while I prepped the inside of the canoe. Again, using my hand plane, spokeshave and sander, I prepped the interior of the canoe for the fibreglass and epoxy job. After another whole day of epoxy, the canoe body was done.
The canoe in its slings
The canoe sat for the next two weeks while the epoxy cured before I could apply the varnish (otherwise, the epoxy may off-gas while curing and damage the varnish layers).
I used this time to work on the gunwales. In selecting the wood for the gunwales, I knew I didn’t want to use Mahogany. I didn’t have enough, and I would need a lot of scarf joints to get the necessary length. I didn’t have a good source for ash (the most commonly recommended wood for gunwales), but I did have some twelve-foot lengths of face-milled cherry in my garage. I took the cherry to the woodshop and cut lengths of it to the right thickness and width, with a 5° bevel on the outwale. At home, I routed a ¼ inch round-over on the edges that would face outwards. I built a scarf cutting jig for my circular saw and cut scarf joints in both the outwale and inwale lengths so that I could glue together gunwales that would be at least 18 feet long and cover the whole canoe.
I wanted to carve scuppers for the inwales. Scuppers offer a few benefits: aesthetics, weight reduction, and water drainage. There are many techniques for preparing scuppers. Some artisans glue ¼ inch thick rectangles to the side of the canoe and affix the gunwales to them, creating scuppers through lamination. I opted to take the riskier route and use a router to carve the scupper in my milled gunnel. This method is riskier because the router can chip-out, or split your gunnel, leaving you starting from scratch.
To carve my scuppers, I joined the two inwales together by taping them back-to-back with masking tape. I marked out each scupper and drilled a ½ inch hole at each end of the scupper. Then, I separated the inwales and ran them across a straight-bit on the router table, using a router template that I clamped to the inwale. The hole drilled at both ends prevented the router from chipping out the wood.
Milling the scuppers
With the gunwales done, I could now epoxy them to the canoe. I finally had a use for the 34 clamps I made the previous summer. Each inwale and outwale had to be done separately, left in its clamps until it fully cured. It took four days to attach the gunwales. Afterward, I sealed the gunwales with three coats of epoxy.
Installing the gunwales - one wale at a time
Two weeks passed, and it was time to varnish. First, I sanded the epoxy coats (inside and out) at 120 grit to smooth out the runs in the surface. Next, I drilled holes in the gunwales to prep for the installation of seats, thwart and yoke. I also added pilot holes for brass screws that I would add to the gunwales for greater support where the seats would hang. Then I applied three coats of varnish to the interior and exterior of the canoe over six days.
Finally, I installed the yoke, the thwart and the seats1. It had been three months since I setup the Strongback and started stripping in May. My canoe was finally done. All it needed was a name.
Naming the canoe was a big deal to me. I wanted it to be meaningful, and I hoped it could be poetic. I tossed around the idea of “Prairie Mist” for a while, but it didn’t feel right. At a family dinner my mother, recognizing my penchant for adolescent humour, asked sarcastically if I was going to call it “Naked,” to which I replied “No, mother. You don’t call a canoe ‘Naked.’ You call it ‘The Nude,’ because then you can tell people that ‘you’re going canoeing in the nude’”. In all honesty, I got hung up on that idea once it hatched. I really liked the idea of calling it “The Nude.”
One day, as I was getting close to finishing the varnish, I realized that I was over complicating it. There was one word that captured what the canoe meant to me. It captured my experience of building it, my future relationship with it, and my state of mind when it comes to tripping. It was just so simple. My canoe would be named Adventure.
The view from Adventure
I installed temporary seats that I cut out of plywood and layered with foam. I had already started weaving the cane in the bow seat by this time, and I was about 12 hours in with no end in sight. ↩