Wood and Canvas Canoe, 2019-2022

I am always optimistic when estimating completion dates and maybe this time I was ambitious on top of that.  I promised eight months.  Eight months to mill, mold, and shape a pile of white cedar fence posts into a mighty vessel.  Without a shop of my own, my woodworking is limited to when I can find space as an itinerant.  This time I took up residency in my parent’s garage, and as year one rolled into year three, I was reminded, let me tell you that I was reminded, that my pile of scraps was an obstacle to the snowblower and nowhere near seaworthy.  Sincerely and truly when I guessed eight months, I didn’t predict a  prolonged border shutdown, all the failings and wonders of the human body and my own growing family obligations.  After it all, I christened my third boat, this time a wood and canvass canoe, different in both construction and spirit from my skin-on-frame kayak and cedar strip canoe.  The key to the Maine-style boat is the fastening. While the cedar strip canoe is held in shape by fiberglass, and the skin-on-frame by knots, in this construction the wood itself is doing the work. Aided by thousands and thousands of cinched nails, the structure of the boat is apparent to all who sit within it.  I am not informed enough to pontificate on the provenance, but in my mind this one really conjures up all that was right at the turn-of-the 20th century.  All in its heavy, the workout is going to be getting the boat to water not what happens after you are adrift.


As is tradition, I poured a fair share of a farmhouse ale on the bow. One pour for the boat, and another for me.  We started with plans from Cheemaun canoe from Northwood in Maine, but who knows how well the final dimensions conform.  The real key is the mold, the boat takes shape based on all the triumps and missteps there.  If there was enthusiasm for another eight months, the mold is ready to pop off another boat.  I have previously posted on the canoe mold build here and all the fixings (yokes and seats here).

Revati, Brian, Ander, as well as others helped set the boat afloat after all the pieces were installed.  As suggested by the Japanese masters in Mortise and Tenon, Brian ensured that the boat could float because it was flipped three times.

Zora doesn’t yet know what a pain it will be schlepping this thing around with her after its bequeathed to her.  She also doesn’t know the tender age at which she will be enlisted to help lift it on the car.  For now, its just a vehicle, one I try to keep her from going overboard and that typically that keeps her from more splashing.

Taking a well deserved trial launch, Peter and Donna launch in Charleston bay.  Hopefully they remember this project as more than a cautionary tale of agreeing to plans after scotch.  With the border closed, Peter captained the project. With the scantest of instructions, he spent a lot of time with a sketch pad devising and developing the jigs which allowed this thing to come together.


The front and back of the boat is an inch by an inch board, bent and shaped.  A lot is asked from this relatively narrow board, in addition to most of the encounters with rocks, it pins all the planks in place.    The wood from our first canoe’s strongback was ransacked to build the steam box.  The ash is bent over a custom mold, and then wedges are driven in to hold it in place.  Every wood find its task, and this is ash’s; while it bends relatively easily, its tough as nails once in place.   When all goes well, the stem finds its final resting place in just the right shape to pilot the boat.  This whole operation involves keeping wood hot and humid, something we naturally elected to do through a Canadian winter.



Part of the challenge is finding white cedar that runs a couple of feet long without the slightest hint of a knot.  For anyone taking this project on, it is worth driving as far as you need to get to Scouten White Cedar in Smith Falls, Ontario.  Each piece was trimmed,  rounded, planed and sanded to the right thickness.

Straight from the steamer, the ribs are bent over the boat and two ring nails driven into the gunwales.  One challenge is driving the nails into the unsupported ash. To ease the hammering, a small pilot hole guides the way for each ring nail.  Here David is managing the steamer, which was fuelled by both an electric wallpaper steamer and an old paint can, fitted with a valve and placed over a Coleman stove.  Ingenuity was a key to this build.

Even working in pairs, you are always short a hand, with one set pulling the wood tight to the mold and the other managing the fastening.  A 2*4 acts at a stiff spine, applying downward pressure on the ribs as everything comes into place.  As the heat dissipates, the ribs take the shape of the boat

With all the ribs attached, the sheet metal disappears and the shape of the boat takes comes into view.  It’s less and less a mold and more a boat.  Each rib deviating from the center has a shape, a feature meant to focus the eye when its all assembled.


With the ribs in place, the next task is making sure the thing floats straight.  I used a spare rib to look for high spots and low spots and all the other bumps and lumps that get in the way.  We then trimmed and adjusted the ribs the best that my eyes could sight.  With long projects with lots of monotonous tasks you have to find satisfaction in the milestones along the way.

When it comes to sanding, we have a ringer.  This is her at work.  A belt sanding belt was fastened to a 20 inch sanding block.

Stock Prep

Just as sentences start with capital letters and mornings start with coffee, when working in my father’s shop, all work starts with sharpening. The wood was rough cut to size, but all the planks had to be prepped by hand.  I built a custom planing jig to bring the rough cut stock to just the right thickness.  With the longest boards over 18 feet, and aiming for a constant 5/32 down the length, this took some doing.  Each board curves both down the length and the profile of the boat. With two sides to a board, I can easily say that I planed a football field and I have a pile of shavings to prove it.

Stacked together its hard to see just how much water you can displace.  Rarely have I looked on a pile of milled wood with as much pride.


Planks are trimmed and fitted in place.  The magic of this whole construction is how the planks are fastened to the ribs.  Specially designed nails are driven through the planks, through the ribs, and then cinched against the sheet metal below.  With hundreds of nails driven into the planks, each is cinched against the frame, and the whole thing gains quite a few pounds as well as its strength in turn.  These things seem to loosen up, meaning that Peter worked back over each nail, holding an anvil in one hand and a hammer in the other.


The further a project gets from right angles, the more thinking I need to do.  This project had a lot of discussion. Here we are mulling over one of the finer points.

All of the planks have to be fitted into place, here I am running a shoulder plane along the plank to achieve something resembling a snug fit.  The planks are just thin enough to conform to the curves of the boat.

A lot of this work is repetitive, you work along the ribs, each feeling like the last until you look back and the boat has taken shape.

The moment of truth.  Before the final few planks are put in place, the boat is popped off the mold and flipped upright for the first time.  It is also the moment that we see if any stray nails missed the sheet metal and were holding the boat to the mold.  Everything is very wobbily at this point.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/406077374″>IMG_3642</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user25007865″>rae, matthew</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>https://vimeo.com/user25007865/review/406077374/954c9ed074


There is just a lot of metal holding this thing together, here the planks are nailed into the stem.

Decks are trimmed and fitted, the gunwales are screwed into place.   The stem is embedded into a small mortise at the head of the deck.  At this point, there is significant speculation on how far up river this boat would make it without a bailer.


Half ribs

Ruffles isn’t known for being light of foot, special half ribs reinforce the floor to allow passengers a little extra security while flopping about.  Also, every single nail is tightened and secured, with one firm whack against an anvil.  Both the head and the point are buried into the soft cedar.  The challenge of this all, is hitting the right spot with one hand outside and one hand inside the boat.

With the border closed, Peter guided each half rib to its place, a task I can say I am not sad to have missed.


A thick coat of linseed oil is spread across the surface before it disappears beneath the canvass.

Making up for the gaps in the woodworking, a canvass covers the exterior of the boat.  With the canvass draped over, everything from a pair of vice grips to a truck with a bunk transmission is used to pull it all taut.  Zora helps hold things down, although she is a little imprecise with a hammer.  While a deep freeze across the great lakes, Zora may have found the warmest place to curl up.

Along the bow and stern, tacks are driven in holding the seam firmly in place.  The boat takes a big leap towards watertight, as silica is filled into the pores  (adding even more weight).  Rather than Mr. Miyagi David rubbed the silica into the surface, a process which involved negotiating freezing temperatures and some intense vapors. At this point, the boat sat. As the weather gradually warmed and the silica firmed up. With the first coat on the surface the boat is looking a lot less like a duffle bag.

With a couple of coats of paint on the boat, the final pieces of woodworking, including the outwales and the decks are installed.  It’s not till the end that the boat feels solid enough to weather the choppy waters.  Driving bronze screws into ash takes patience, and quite a few podcasts.


With a coat of spar varnish in the interior, all the dust, dents and scratches are safely preserved from salt water and uv rays alike.

Zora practices her j-stroke, which lacks a little focous.

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