More properly, this node could be namespace
, because that's the topic. But it doesn't roll off the tongue as nicely, and, besides, I'm here first. If someone else wants to tell how to build a Kevlar or birch-bark canoe
, let them
As far as the end product goes, cedar strip construction for small craft does yield one of the most beautiful and functional end products around. The soft glow of natural wood in a fair curve is unbeatable, and the boat is very lightweight—only Kevlar canoes are consistently lighter.
* I believe an old carpenter's adage was, "Measure three times, cut once." While this may still be true, an even more important one is, "You can never have too many clamps."
Phase 1: Construct the frames that define the shape of your canoe. The end result if this phase will be a rigid strongback with a cross-section of the upside-down canoe projecting up every foot or so. It always reminds me of the torso of a dinosaur skeleton, the cross-sections appearing as ribs.
- Either loft the plans if you are smart, or, if you are wise, take the full-size, pre-lofted plans, and transfer them the MDF. Cut out the cross-sections.
- Build a strongback. Mine was seventeen feet of 2x6, with 18-inch wide panels of particleboard attached to make an inverted U, all mounted on a pair of 2x6 legs. The critical thing is that it be rigid, straight, and torsionally stable.
- Mount the cross-sections onto the strongback to make the dinosaur.
Phase 2: Build the hull of the canoe.
- Rip the cedar boards into ¼ inch strips, then scarf some of the strips together to make 18-foot strips.
- Strip the canoe. This consists of taking a strip, carefully trimming it to fit the one below (and possibly above as well,) gluing the edge with wood glue, and then stapling it to the forms in place. On each side it will take about 35 strips, but because of the way the bow and stern flare and the shape of the canoe, you'll be fitting quite a few more. There is a lot of reward in this step, since the canoe will take form before your eyes, and it's fun to frequently step back and admire your work. But it freakin' takes forever, and gets quite tedious. Most of the books and instructions on building canoes list this as one step, just like I do here. While doing this step I found myself muttering imaginary instructions to other various projects: "How to build a Great Pyramid of Giza: "Step 5: Assemble your stone blocks into a giant pyramid."
- Pull all the staples.
- Fair the (outer) hull. This is fun, and best accomplished by a block plane. Then sand it.
- Drape the fiberglass on the hull, then wet it out with epoxy. This is where the strength of the canoe comes from; it is essentially a lightweight sandwich of a soft, light cedar bonded to an inner and outer skin of fiberglass and epoxy.
- Sand down until you can just see the fibers of the 'glass. Apply another fill coat of epoxy. Repeat 3 or so times until you have a perfectly smooth surface.
- Pop the canoe off the forms, and set it right-side up in a cradle. Make a campfire out of the forms and strongback to celebrate, if you are inclined.
- Scrape out the inside of the hull (this is best accomplished by a paint-scraper with the corners filed down. Go to the hardware store to get it.) Then sand the inside.
- Fiberglass the inside, sand, and apply a couple fill coats as above. The inside surface doesn't have to be perfectly smooth, though, since leaving the weave of the cloth showing will aid in traction, and spare the added ounces of epoxy.
Note: Your canoe is now technically seaworthy. It's far from finished, but if you must, you could
paddle it around for the satisfaction.
Phase 3: Finish out the canoe with all the parts that transform it from a bunch of boards stuck together to a real boat.
- Scarf the gunwales, plane them to shape, and epoxy them in place. If you want, you can use a router to add scuppers to the inside gunwale.
- Shape and epoxy in place the triangular fore and aft decks—all eight inches of them.
- Make the thwart and yolk and bolt them in place to the gunwales.
- Put the seats in. Now, you can make them from scratch, even caning them if you'd like. Me, by now I was so eager to get the project finished I went out to REI and bought pre-made ones and a suspension system, cut them to size, and installed them.
- Finally, apply several coats of marine spar varnish to everything. Epoxy is great stuff, but kind of soft, and will degrade with exposure to sunlight. The varnish provides a more durable finish and UV protection, as well as a beautiful finish.
The canoe is now completely finished. Have everybody come and admire its flawless beauty in your workshop. After everybody admires it, the final step I recommend is dropping something on the hull or dragging it a few inches across the driveway just to get that first scratch out of the way.