The Summer We Built a Canoe
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
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
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.
Where to Buy Western Red Cedar Strips.
- Bear Mountain Boat Shop - Us Shop - Canoe Strips
All the strips measure 1/4" x 13/16"; all are clear Western Red Cedar, vertical grain, full length and milled so that the 8 strips from any one board are packaged together exactly as they lay in the original plank which allows for symmetrical pattern
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.
Noah's Marine Has Just About Everything You'll Need
- Boating Supplies & Marine Products by Noahs Marine
Noahs Marine is your one stop shop for boat supplies, canoe building kits, and more. Click to visit our online store and shop today!