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The Summer We Built a Canoe

Updated on March 24, 2020
Richard Hampton profile image

I have been doing home remodeling and handyman work for over 30 years. I've also built 2 wood strip canoes and restored an old wooden boat.

The Move To The Mountains

For our family to move from Texas to Vermont was not only a culture shock but also a geographic shock. The people spoke with an accent, and we had traded our flatlands for mountains. I found out later that I was the one with the emphasis. For me and my wife, Texas had always been home, and after 35 years, we were a little restless. I think that's about the time when you start to contemplate your value in the universe. I guess it was a "mid-life crisis." At least I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever amount to anything. Would I leave any legacy beyond just fathering two boys?


After much wrestling with fears and doubts, we finally decided to pull up stakes and get on with the move. We were filled with excitement when we set out, the kind of thrill you have the first day you leave for a long-awaited vacation. Saying goodbye was the hardest part. My 70-year-old mom was waving as her eyes were tearing up, and my dad was holding her close. They waved like it was the last farewell, and it started me wondering if this was the right thing to do. With all of our possessions on a moving truck, and committed and for the next few days, we would be driving for 8-10 hours a day and staying in motels at night.


We drove into Vermont in the early morning, crossing Lake Champlain riding on a ferry with other cars and people. Seeing the Green Mountains on a clear day as we approached on calm waters offered up a breathtaking view, a Kodak moment. Arriving at our new home, the challenge of re-orienting our compass from south to north had begun.


I think it was there, at that moment on the ferry, that the idea of building a canoe began to take root. Upon seeing the vista triggered a memory of when I was a youngster in Boy Scouts. One summer, our troop gathered to meet with hundreds of other Scouts at Possum Kingdom Lake in West Texas for a regional Jamboree. It's was a massive get-together of boys for the sole purpose of learning how to build campfires, how to put out campfires, how to paddle a canoe, and how to flip over one that had capsized and tons of other stuff that boys love to do. But it was the canoe outings that I loved the most. The idea that you could sit in a boat, and with one paddle propel yourself, quietly across a lake, just grabbed my young heart. Whenever it was our troops' turn to use the canoes, I would run down to the water as fast as I could, flinging on the life jacket, tightening the straps as I ran and would jump in the back seat. I learned quickly that the person in the back could steer the boat to go wherever he wanted. I would always aim for the opening in the cliff, "Hell Gates" was the name given to it. I can still remember seeing the reflection of that split canyon rim on the smooth glassy water, and fish jumping alongside. That particular canyon feature impressed me so much because it could be seen clearly from the Scouts campsite. On the last night of our stay, someone would light a huge bonfire on top of Hell's Gate and when the fire was raging high and bright, that 'someone' would push the whole thing off the cliff, showering flames and sparks that reigned down 75 feet into the water. I, like every other boy, stood there with eyes bugged out and mouth agape, for what seemed like 20 minutes. We talked about it long after our Scout Master said: "lights out." Lying there in our cots, each of us promised to return next year.


Our first summer's schedule was busy with getting settled into our new house, new business, and enrolling the boys into a new school, among hundreds of other things. There simply wasn't time that year to pursue anything, so canoe building would have to wait until the following summer. Fall, which is a beautiful time of year in New England, can get cold enough to trick a flatlander into thinking that winter has arrived. We even had the unthinkable happen, at least for a Texan....snow on Halloween. But winter did come and drove us into our 3-bedroom house like hibernating bears. One thing I did have plenty of that winter was time. Occasionally I would buy small quantities of the lumber I would need to begin the project. But it would take a significant warm-up before we could get started in the garage with the actual building of the canoe.


Our First Blizzard

Our first real blizzard. Note the late afternoon sun shining above our neighbor's house during this storm.
Our first real blizzard. Note the late afternoon sun shining above our neighbor's house during this storm. | Source
These were the kind of snow amounts we had to get used to. Note the imprint of the door and windows in the snow bank when I opened the side door to the garage.
These were the kind of snow amounts we had to get used to. Note the imprint of the door and windows in the snow bank when I opened the side door to the garage. | Source

A Claustrophobic Winter Was Over

Time had come to begin the canoe project. I had never imagined building a boat of any kind, thinking it was beyond my scope of expertise. I could not afford one of the impressive canoes I'd seen at the outfitter store, with the sleek finish, the graceful curves of the bow, or the cane-woven seats. Some of the more intricate designed canoes cost up to three thousand dollars. Oddly enough, what kept me on track for this endeavor was a lack of money. I figured I'd be able to afford a home-built version for hundreds less. Also, the chance to utilize my woodworking skills and share that with my young sons was a strong motivation.

We poured over plans, coming across unfamiliar terminology like strongback, gunwales, portage, keels, etc. It was all very confusing. I had to keep a dictionary nearby since the internet was barely coming into use back then. Working at a job and coming home tired from a long day made it hard to get excited about spending 2-3 hours in the garage. In the beginning, we needed to construct devices that don't look anything like a canoe. It seems a lot more like some sort of elongated rib-cage from a skeleton. It's hard to keep the motivation of teenage boys whose desire to be playing with friends outweighed working on something no one could yet understand.

It had taken me several tries to build this contraption. The best description I can give is that it resembled two wooden sawhorses about 15 feet apart connected by a long wooden board attached to another longboard that, when viewed from the end, looked like the letter "T"....a very long letter "T." When I began to ponder the name given to it, "strongback," it started to make more sense. Atop the T-shaped part of the strongback were placed the ribs, or forms, that create the canoe's distinctive curves. Structures that are narrow at each end and wide in the middle. It did look a bit like ribs attached to a spine, or backbone.

I've included a video to help understand what this special apparatus is and what it does. A canoe begins with a good, solid foundation that allows the maker a basis upon which to build. The same is true of almost every good structure.


The Start Of Building Your Own Canoe.....The Strongback

Me and son, Scott after building the Strongback
Me and son, Scott after building the Strongback | Source
Scott and Corey beside the Strongback with forms attached
Scott and Corey beside the Strongback with forms attached | Source

Before You Begin

Make sure you have plenty of space (like one half of a two-car garage). When you set up the strongback with forms and start attaching the wooden strips, it"s

awkward (but not impossible) to move it around.

I used Western Cedar, 3/4 inch thick, by 18 foot long, by 6 inch wide boards for the strips, from which I cut the wooden strips for the canoe shell.

Try to buy all of the cedar at the same time from the same batch. The wood grain will usually be a better match.

With Setup Complete, It's Time to Begin Building a Canoe

When looking at the forms setting on the strongback, you're looking at the shape of an upside-down canoe. Simply put, there are 50 to 75 wooden strips of Cedar, 1/4 inch thick by 3/4 inch wide that make up the outer shell of the canoe. They are glued and stapled to the rib-forms to give the boat it's shaping. The first strip is attached to the bottom of the rib-forms, which is the top of the canoe, just under where the gunwales (pronounced gunnels) will be. It is advisable to rub a coat of wax onto the outer edges of the forms to prevent the cedar strips from sticking to the rib-forms. You could also use masking tape or regular Scotch tape to cover the rib-form edges. These strips are going to be stacked edge to edge, one on top of the other, using glue to bind them together. Use a staple gun to secure the strips to each one of the forms. Apply a thin bead of glue on top of the first cedar strip, place the next cedar strip on top of the first strip, and just keep repeating that process. It won't take long to see the canoe take shape. This is the fun part -- so much fun that it's hard to stop working on it. My dream of canoeing from the days of being a Boy Scout was coming to life.

Cedar strips can be purchased, already milled.

These are pre-milled cedar strips. Very pricey. I chose to cut my own since I had the woodworking tools.
These are pre-milled cedar strips. Very pricey. I chose to cut my own since I had the woodworking tools. | Source
Scott and me with fiberglass cloth draped over the canoe. Our friend, Will instructing us on how to apply epoxy resin and make a water-tight finish.
Scott and me with fiberglass cloth draped over the canoe. Our friend, Will instructing us on how to apply epoxy resin and make a water-tight finish. | Source
Scott applying resin to interior of canoe and sticking out his tongue at the camera man.
Scott applying resin to interior of canoe and sticking out his tongue at the camera man. | Source
This is a home built canoe cradle. It's used to support the canoe in the upright position for working on the inside.
This is a home built canoe cradle. It's used to support the canoe in the upright position for working on the inside. | Source
An illustration of how the canoe rests in a home built cradle.
An illustration of how the canoe rests in a home built cradle. | Source

A Wooden Boat Will Always Float

Wood will always be my first choice for a canoe. Aluminum boats are noisy, heavy, and just plain ugly. Plastic ones aren't much better, and both must have some sort of floatation device built-in to keep them from sinking, in the event, they fill with water.

Not so with wood. I like the quotation I read from a wooden boat builder, which said, "A wooden boat will always float."

From Staples to Epoxy, Wooden Boat Building is Full of Challenges

Every step in this process adds another level of detail and expertise that I often didn't have and needed to enlist others that did. I knew that after the glue that held the strips in place dried, I would need to remove every staple. There was one staple through every cedar strip into every form (around ten forms in all). Multiply that by roughly 50 wooden strips, and that's a lot of staples. If I had been thinking ahead, I would have inserted some type of durable cloth of thin plastic pieces on the staple location to make removal of each staple easier. Instead, I had to pry each staple up before I could grab them with pliers. Fortunately, the marring didn't detract much from the beauty of the finished canoe.

With the glue dry and staples removed, it was time to begin applying fiberglass cloth and epoxy to the outside of the canoe. I was unfamiliar with this part of the process, but luckily, I had a friend named Will, who had experience with doing this. With the cloth draped over the canoe, it was just a matter of mixing up the 2-part epoxy resin and pouring it over the fabric. We spread the liquid all over the top and down the sides with paint rollers and plastic paddles called squeegees, covering the entire surface and allowing it to dry.

The next step is to carefully lift the canoe off the strongback and forms and flip it over onto something soft, like blankets or foam pad on the floor. Now you can remove the rib-forms from the strongback and move all of that out of the way. The rest of the project will be done with the canoe resting upright.

I built a cradle, or sling, to support the boat while we were applying epoxy to the inside. See the pictures above. We also had to install the gunwales, seats, and decks on each end. For all these operations, it's best to have the canoe at a comfortable working height.

Pictures below are the finished product, which took us well into summer to complete. I was the one occupying the back seat -- my favorite spot in a canoe. Once my good friend and neighbor saw it, he persuaded me to build another one for him. With his dedicated help, we were able to finish the second one in about half the time and half the mistakes as the first one. Soon after that, he found a dilapidated wooden sailboat, which became the next project. But that's another story.

Canoe before seats and decks installed. A couple of paddles I built to experiment with.
Canoe before seats and decks installed. A couple of paddles I built to experiment with. | Source
Our maiden voyage on Lake Champlain Vermont.
Our maiden voyage on Lake Champlain Vermont. | Source

I'm a son, a brother, a husband, and a father. This is by far, the best thing I ever did as a father with my sons. Sons who grew to become awesome men.

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    • Richard Hampton profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard 

      11 days ago from Texas

      Thank you Peggy. It was a lot of fun and therapeutic considering how stressful a move can be.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      12 days ago from Houston, Texas

      What a beautiful canoe you built. Even though it is now gone, I am sure that you built memories to last with your sons. That was quite a sizable project!

    • Richard Hampton profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard 

      12 days ago from Texas

      Thanks Zulma

      Always appreciate you comments.

      I might have considered giving up, but it was so much fun to build and learn this new skill, that the time seemed to pass quickly. And yes, I too start projects before I’ve thought them through.

      A favorite saying of mine is something a friend once said, “I get most of my exercise jumping to conclusions”.

    • phoenix2327 profile image

      Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 

      12 days ago from United Kingdom

      Wow, Richard, that was amazing. Was this one of those projects that seemed like a good idea until you actually got started. Were there times when you felt like giving up? That happens to me a lot. I just don't think things through. lol

      It looks like a fine canoe and I'm sorry you had to let it go. Still, at least it was a good bonding experience for you and your sons.

    • Richard Hampton profile imageAUTHOR

      Richard 

      13 days ago from Texas

      Shauna,

      I no longer have the canoe. After moving it across the country twice, mildew developed under the fiberglass and ruined it. I cut it up into pieces small enough to fit in the trash toter and sent it to the landfill. I almost cried doing that.

      We moved to Vermont to help with a small church there in the late '80s and ended up staying for almost 18 years. We're back in Texas now.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      13 days ago from Central Florida

      What a beautiful canoe! You addressed the challenge well, Richard. You must have been so proud of the finished product. Do you still have the canoe?

      Question out of curiosity: What on earth made you move from Texas to Vermont? That's quite a change!

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