Building a Canoe
A BirchCanoes.com adventure

Anthony & Becca build their canoe
"Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing -
half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."
  
Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows

During August 2012, my wife and I were given the gift of a canoe building weekend by my father, owner of BirchCanoes.com, for our first wedding anniversary.  Along the way we managed to get a few photos, so here's a brief summary of our canoe building experience.  


Step one involves drawing round templates for the side panels and the base.  Cutting out the side panels is just as quick with a hand saw (a Japanese pullsaw, as a matter of fact), and more accurate.  

My brother Thomas appears industrious, but is almost certainly busy working on an unrelated project (as I recall, some form of holster for a nerf gun).  
Marking and cutting the side panels
The thicker base panels require the use of a jig-saw.  

Once the eight side pieces and two base pieces are cut out, it's time to drill holes in your boat.  Usually a no-no when it comes to constructing a watertight craft, I know, but these will come in useful later on.  
Cutting out the side panels
The holes are drilled in precise positions according to the template so that all the panels match up and can be tied together in just a few minutes with cable ties.     Cable-tying the panels together
The boat will be just under 16 foot long, so the front and back side panels are constructed separately, then the two halves of the boat are brought together.   The boat so far
The bow and stern can be a bit tricky, but with enough pairs of hands it quickly comes together, and well within the first couple of hours you have something that looks not unlike a canoe.   Knitting the bows together
The other end comes together nicely.  At this stage, the boat is the same backwards and forwards.  The seats will be fitted slightly asymmetrically to give best results for either one or two passengers, so, unlike most vehicles, the front end is different depending on the number of people inside.   The boat begins to take shape
The whole boat is beginning to take shape now, as the base is married up with the side panels and cable-tied in place.   Attaching the base
For the next part we'll need gunwhale strips - narrow laths of timber (ash, in this case) to run the whole length of the boat along either side.  Since nobody sells this quality of wood in these lengths, it is sourced directly from local woodlands, planked on site, seasoned and cut specially for the purpose.   Dressing up for phase 2
The gunwhale strips are closely examined for any weaknesses or irregularities, and get a taste of the sander before being attached to the boat.   Sanding the gunwhale strips
And soon enough it's time for a break and an ice cream.   Taking stock.  And a couple of ice creams.
Since the canoe has a natural curve, the gunwhale strips must be coaxed to follow the line of the boat.  They are glued and screwed, but while the glue is setting one or two clamps are usually employed to help it keep its shape.  

At this stage, the seams of the boat are glued, and once this sets the cable ties can be removed.  
Glueing the seams
Any leftover bits of cable tie will be taken care of during this next stage, which involves planing the outside joins of all the panels.  Any small irregularities in the original cutting are here done away with, as a certain amount of overlap is factored in for each panel and they are planed down flush.  The base is also, at this point, planed around the edge to join smoothly with the sides of the boat.   Planing the joints
While the glue will hold it together pretty well, the canoe needs the strength and waterproofing of resin and fibreglass tape.  The inside seams are done first, with full-length strips of tape covering each seam and resin permeating tape and wood to form a strong bond.   Sanding the inside
By now the seats and yoke (for carrying by one person - these boats weigh little more than 20kg) have been fitted using glue and screws.  They use the structure of the boat itself for support, meaning there is no need for extra supports which would only take up room and add to the weight.  

Here we are preparing Danish oil to treat the hardwood yoke.  I believe it was oak.  
These, like the seats, are prepared as rough blanks to be worked on and finished with a draw-knife and sander.  
Preparing the Danish oil
The Danish oil brings out the grain of the wood very nicely.  
It is shaped to allow a single person to carry the boat on their shoulders with minimum difficulty.  
Applying the oil to the hardwood yoke
The outside seams are now given the resin-and-tape treatment.  This stuff is designed to stay where it dries, making it rather difficult for you it finds its way to your clothes or skin, so we wear disposable overalls.  Again fibreglass tape is used on all the seams and especially at either end.   Applying resin and tape to the outer seams
As the tape is laid down it must be coated in resin which, especially on a warm day, starts to solidify rather quickly.  It helps to have someone on hand mixing new batches ready for you.   Sealing the seams
Once the seams have all been taped, the rest of the boat is given a thin coating of resin, too.  It soaks into the marine and birch ply, providing a barrier against water and protecting the wood from the elements.  The boat may then be varnished, and it's ready to go.   More resin and tape
The launch!  Notice how, with two people, the person in the stern is further back, ensuring the centre of gravity stays aft of the centre.   The launch
She's a beauty on the water.  As is the canoe.  She handles well, with just the right combination of directional stability and manoeuvrability, good tumblehome and a featherweight of a two-man Canadian.  Of course, we expected nothing less with a tried and tested design like this Lakota, the design of which has been tested and perfected over the course of many boats.     The new boat on the river
Somehow our boat still manages to be unique.  

After all, how many people do you know who can say they built their own canoe?
Up the river
There's something very satisfying about driving away with a boat you've built yourselves.  

Next stop: the river Wye, I think.  I seem to recall a rather nice pub by the riverside somewhere around there where a man with his own canoe might find kindred riverfolk to compare crafts with, and ask, increasingly annoyingly, "Ah, but did you build it yourself?"  

Visit BirchCanoes.com yourself if you can't wait to build your own!
Homeward bound



Back to top

www.TheChalkface.net