Canoe Building

Now that the boat is complete I thought I’d put together a dedicated photo diary since the individual posts are now in reverse order and hard to scroll through. I started the form in late July and completed it two months later in late September. The hull was completed in November, canvas and filler accomplished just prior to Christmas to take advantage of the holiday break since the filler needed to cure for several weeks prior to paint. Outer rails were milled and installed in early February and then we commenced painting. Varnishing stage began mid February and I finished up in early March with the stem bands and rail caps. Now that I have the form and some experience I feel confident I could complete a boat using evenings and weekends in 8-10 weeks – there were some rather large gaps in the November – March project.

Inspiration:

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One of my mentors, Ken Wetmore of New Limerick, Maine, built this boat for our Maine camp about 10 years ago. It’s a 17′ boat that Ken based on a White design. Before you get upset with me, Ken covers his canoes in fiberglass/resin so she stands up to the gravel without a problem. He’s been building a few every winter since before I was born. I helped him with a little 14′ solo canoe this past summer that I think he managed to hang onto. There’s no telling how many he’s built over the years and he finally managed to keep one for himself. I hope I don’t have that problem!

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This is the old Gerrish that planted the bug many years ago. I grew up in this boat not knowing what she was: a Gerrish rowing canoe probably built between 1905 and 1910. She was at least 18′, leaked, and weighed a ton. My mother was deathly afraid of the sailing rig after stories her father told of capsizing on the opposite side of the lake. If there was more than a wisp of a breeze the rig stayed in the boathouse. I don’t know what has become of the canoe – I donated it to a museum not knowing the curator was a crook. The museum went belly up years ago and the collection of small craft disappeared. Maybe someone took her home and restored her.

Here we go, starting with the form:

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Station molds attached to the 2×6.

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3/4 x 3/4 rib-bands being attached to the station molds.

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The twist becomes too much toward the ends so the bands are stopped short and blocks glued in.

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Chisels, draw knife, and plane are used to fair the blocks to shape.

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Rail backers are screwed into the slots in the station molds. The compound curves toward the ends require steaming so we break out the turkey fryer, some heater hose, and a PVC pipe. If I do another form in the future I’ll bend the rail backers on a jig prior to installing them on the form.

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20 gauge galvanized sheet metal bands are installed. These will turn the points of the tacks used to fasten the planking to the ribs.

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The slots left at the ends are for the stems of the actual canoe.

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With the stems and inner rails attached to the form we’re set to bend on ribs. The ribs are pre-soaked and then”cooked” in the steam box. With the strongback bolted from stem to stem, we slide one rib at a time under the strongback and nail each end into the inner rail using bronze ring nails. This stage goes surprisingly fast – I had all the ribs fastened in one afternoon.

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Using a fairing block (large sanding block) and a section of planking stock to check for high spots, the entire hull is gone over carefully. Any errors here will reappear quite painfully later on when you can’t correct them.

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Planking begins. To avoid bolt holes, remove the bolts from the strongback, slide it to one side of center, and brace it against the overhead. Once you get a few planks set, reset the strongback on top of the planking so you can run the other side. The purpose of the strongback during the planking stage is to keep the hull tight against the form so the tacks will hit the metal and clinch.

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Only the garboard planks (first run either side of centerline) are fastened to the stems. The rest are left free otherwise the hull become trapped on the form.

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Remove the clamps that fastened the inner rails to the form and carefully work the hull free and turn it over. The remaining planking will be done off the form using a clinching iron to turn the tacks.

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Pulling the hull off the form reveals the inner beauty that’s been hiding.

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Rather than force the planks to lay against each other I let them curve naturally to the stem…

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…and fill the gaps with long wedges of scrap cedar.

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Detail of goring and butt joints.

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Same section from the inside.

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Clinching every tack to make sure we don’t end up with any heads poking up.

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The small hammer and clinching iron used to go over the entire hull.

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Wetting her down with hot water to swell the hammer marks.

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Rigging for canvas. Good thing I decided on Rollin’s 15′ design and not the 17.5′.

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Ease off tension and stuff her in.

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Take up slack and brace against the overhead to keep the hull from riding up.

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Start at the center and work toward the ends pulling and tacking at each rib until you get to the cant ribs.

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Then you cut her loose (leave several inches beyond the stems to work with) and do the ends.

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Slit along the stem, butter the stem with bedding compound, and pull/tack one side.

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Followed by more compound and the other side. Ideally you want your tack line to be slightly offset so that the edge of the canvas is eventually covered by the stem band.

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Tack the last couple of ribs. You may have to pull the last few tacks you did while the hull was in the stretched canvas in order to ease the pull of the material.

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All smooth.

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Now for the filler.

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In 3′ sections, work the initial coat into the weave with a short brush. It will dry almost immediately. Brush on a second coat and start rubbing it in using a canvas mitt. Keep rubbing it in until it’s nice and smooth. It will likely take a 3rd light coat and more rubbing to get the desired look. Once you get a section the way you want it, move down and start all over!

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The seams at the ends take several more coats before the raw edge of the canvas disappears.

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Several weeks later once the filler has cured out it’s time to install the outer rails. In this case, mahogany. I followed Rollin’s method of relying on the paint to help seal the joint between the rail and hull. I could have painted the hull and then installed the rails.

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Lots of clamps to keep every thing lined up.

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Time for paint…

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Endeavour Blue marine enamel.

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Varnish really makes the interior pop.

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Second coat (I did a total of three).

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Bedding compound goes under the stem band and in the screw holes. You may need a little something to steady the nerves as you drill holes in the beautiful hull you worked so hard on for months.

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I carried my rails beyond the stem in order to trap the end of the stem in a modified mortise/tenon joint. This meant I couldn’t wrap the stem bands up onto the decks so I used Rollin’s trick of a copper cap hammered up over the ends to protect the tips. Again, bedding compound underneath to seal out water.

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Finished!

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Floating!

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And finally working moving water with a pole.

Resources:
Professional builder and designer of the Cheemaun 15′ canoe: Rollin Thurlow http://www.wooden-canoes.com/ Also co-author of “The Wood & Canvas Canoe”. Another good reference book is “Building the Maine Guide Canoe” by Jerry Stelmok, Rollin’s old partner. Both are available through Rollin’s website or Amazon.

A good local source for books, paddles, canoe parts is Alabama Small Boats. They share retail space with Mountain High Outfitters in Cahaba Village Plaza off 280 in Mountain Brook. http://www.alsmallboats.com/

Supplier of all things related to wooden canoes: http://www.shawandtenney.com/index.php

Supplier of marine hardware for traditional boatbuilding: http://www.jamestowndistributors.com

Posts detailing the entire construction process are available on my blog: http://www.steveambrose.net/woodshed/category/the-canoe/

Tools you won’t find at the big box retailers, Woodcraft in Pelham: http://www.woodcraft.com/stores/store.aspx?id=511

Wood you won’t find at the big box retailers, Hardwoods of Alabama in Alabaster: http://www.hardwoodweb.com/distribution/hia.cfm

For those interested in a working vacation in Maine, classes are available through Rollin and http://www.thewoodenboatschool.com/

More info on wooden canoes of all types: http://www.wcha.org/index.php

Index of builders/suppliers (all types, not just wood/canvas) http://www.wcha.org/buildsupply/

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

mike davis March 22, 2009 at 7:12

very nice, but can you buy one for less than it cost to build?

Steve March 22, 2009 at 7:40

If you factor in your time it’s definitely cheaper to buy one but I caught the bug watching others being built and just had to do it. You can buy a finished boat from Rollin for $3500. Or you can buy kits for the form and canoe that total $2750 (plus freight!!). Now if you get several people together that want to build and split the cost of the form at $1750 it starts looking better. As you can see building one was not really a financially based decision. I did save considerably by purchasing rough cut lumber and milling my own parts plus I built the form using locally sourced materials. But I also have a garage full of woodworking equipment! If I decided to recover some cost I could rent or sell the form but I think I’ll hang onto it for a while – I have a friend that may want a boat.

David Allen March 22, 2009 at 20:03

Got to be very satisfying and great feeling of achievement. You’ve done something that many of us would love to attempt, but you began this by saying you must begin with lots of patience. Something few of us have today.
Congrats.

FRANCES EMMERKE March 24, 2009 at 15:51

Fantastic! I love the picture layout and remembered you are not only talented in wood working but also photography! God has given you many talents and you use them and that is the most wonderful part of you. I love you—-and I am so glad to know you.

Brad April 16, 2009 at 14:53

Steve, I can’t say that I love you… but I sure love that canoe!

I can’t imagine a better way to spend a long, cold winter than hunkered down in a heated garage building something to herald the coming spring. Brilliant job – enjoy paddling it!

rick kling June 4, 2009 at 17:32

is that canoe of german design? im almost certain i saw that exact canoe in an issue of germanbowler weekly.
by the way, where is the motor and what’s the big flyswatter for?
just klidding, it’s a beautiful canoe that really says “labor of love”
see ya’ in the fall.

Scot July 9, 2009 at 21:45

Beautifully done. You painted it my favorite color as well. I’d paint all my boats a deep “Royalish” Blue if my wife would let me.

Don August 8, 2009 at 21:27

Great job, boat and photos! Better than some books I’ve looked at on the subject

Mike Strength September 24, 2009 at 12:02

I was searching the web for information on making a canoe pole and I ran accross your site. I was enjoying the story of building the canoe and was very surprised to see the reference to Alabama Small Boats! I live in Hoover and thought I was the only guy in Alabama interested in canoe poles. Can you tell me more about building your canoe pole? What would did you use? The articles I’ve read all suggest clear straight ggrained spruce but I haven’t found that locally. Feel free to email me!

Steve September 28, 2009 at 22:22

Mike, sent you an email a few days ago – hope you got it. In case you didn’t I used ash for mine. Can’t get spruce around here. I did a quick search and found an article that used regular old pine 2×4 cut down but don’t know if I’d trust pine! I have a few more ash blanks if you’re interested.

Guy Desaulniers November 2, 2009 at 10:55

Sir,
You have built a masterpiece!
I’ve been thinking of retirement lately and was wondering what I’d like to do with my time. I’ve been playing with the idea of building a canoe for a long time. Since I was a child actually. I had the chance to try my hand, a long time ago, at canoe repairs, but to build one from scratch… was always a dream. I do not know if I have the skill, or the patience!
But seeing your accomplishment, inspires me to think about it more seriously.

And I have to agree with the others, you have chosen a splendid color!

Guy Desaulniers
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Steve November 2, 2009 at 22:01

Thanks Guy. The restoration that I’m currently working on has convinced me it’s far easier to build new than repair once an old boat gets beyond a certain point! The largest obstacle to traditional wood canvas construction is building the form. For someone intending to build only a single boat it represents a significant investment of time and money unless you get a group together and split the cost. “The Wood & Canvas Canoe” by Jerry Stelmok and Rollin Thurlow is a great book if you’re thinking of W&C construction. Or you might try a strip built boat which uses station molds instead of a full form – “Canoecraft” by Ted Moores is a good reference for that type of construction. Thanks for the compliments.

Rob February 18, 2010 at 20:15

Steve,

Love the website. You are true craftsman. I am thinking of building a wooden canoe and your site has been an inspiration to me. I am curious why you selected the Cheemaun? Did you put some effort into the decision?

Thanks

Steve February 19, 2010 at 8:09

Thanks Rob. I chose Rollin’s Cheemaun for several reasons. I liked the profile of the ends, at 15′ it can be built as a solo boat or tandem, and although I really like a 17-18′ boat I don’t have the room in the garage to work around an 18′ form. Also related to length, 16′ lumber for rails is fairly obtainable but 18-20′ lumber is almost impossible to find forcing you to scarf together rail stock.

John Janda December 23, 2012 at 18:16

Steve , to your good works : Iam John Janda of marblemount wa. building contractor and artisan working with wood and iron these days . I grew up in the 50,s and 60,s when everything was much more simple and Ihad no worries just go out and enjoy the wilderness that was our dream, which we ,my buds and I persued with passion . In school I would study indian crafts and lure and dreamed of building my own version of such a vessle . As of late I have disscovered the guys like you ,jery stemok an the camnoe the rest, who have lit me up with excitment to use my skill and ressorces to finaly accomplish that dream. your canoe build is great and you should beblessed in it .

Dan Humphreys May 3, 2013 at 17:39

Thanks for posting the great pics. Would you ever be able to do this well enough that you could make money at it? I know there are lots of mass-produced canoes you’d be competing with, but I wonder what the market would be like for hand-made in your area.

www.paparonehomes.com June 13, 2013 at 19:30

What’s up, just wanted to say, I liked this blog post. It was funny. Keep on posting!

www.willcocompanies.com June 13, 2013 at 19:32

Hi, just wanted to mention, I loved this article. It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

Joseph Russell October 1, 2013 at 16:53

WOW That is such an amazing looking canoe that you built so awesome. I have just started looking in to build one and found this thanks it is very inspiring .
Thanks Joseph Russell

Jack Poulin December 27, 2013 at 16:26

Hi Steve Wow, your presentation is excellent, and the boat is a rare beauty. I retired in 2006 and have been rebuilding W& C and glass hulls since. There isn’t much money in it, but it sure keeps me amused. You are very right when you say it takes more work to rebuild a wood and canvas canoe that it takes to build a new one. Some of the rotting messes I have been presented with most people would use for kindling wood, but a memento of a long gone parent or loved one can be overpowering. Email me and I’ll send you a photo or two if you like. Nice work. Blue!?!? Gotta be green!

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Steve, what a work of art! It’s beautiful man! I really want to build a canoe like this. I’m have trouble figuring out how to start a mold. Any helpful hints would be greatly appreciated.

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Ron Parsons July 13, 2015 at 20:38

I really enjoyed reading and viewing the pictures on the canoe that you built. This is the first non-strip build I have sen but think it could be a great way to build . However I think I could and would be over whelmed on this build. Can you on one of you canoes show some video of a few parts so I could get a better feel of some of the steps. examples: how hard the frame is to build. Can I use it as is or does it matter on a second or third built from frame? What changes have to be made to the frame, if any?

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