Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Project 2014: My homemade redwood strip canoe

Last year, I took on a project of building two wood canoes. The idea was to go with a simple plywood and fiberglass design that I could complete in less than a month, and spend the rest of the summer canoeing with my family. The project was a lot of fun, and a real learning experience: 

The author's first homemade canoes. The design is "Wren" by Selway-Fisher; the construction method is stitch and glue plywood/fiberglass.
During the process of building these canoes, I had already decided that I ultimately wanted something better. I knew of more sophisticated techniques and designs, but I wanted to get the basics down first. To that end, I finished my plywood canoes and then, during the winter of 2013-2014, I set out to build a strip canoe.

For those who don't know, strip-building is moderately similar to classic boat construction techniques. The greatest similarity is the use of lofting and the creation of molds. Lofting is the practice of using charted measurements to lay out the design of a hull on paper (or wood). This pattern is then used to create a mold (actually a number of molds, usually 10-20) upon which the craft will be built. This technique has been used for centuries, but in modern construction, it is possible to use lighter and smaller strips of wood to build the boat. The strips are stapled to the molds and glued to each other by simple wood glue. This creates a shell upon which the boat builder can lay fiberglass to create a very sturdy, watertight, and practical vessel. Because it will be sandwiched in fiberglass, the type of glue used during construction is not terribly important. Cheap carpenter's glue works just fine.

Canoe molds prepared, and the first strips are in place. The pink is masking tape, placed on the edges of the molds to protect them from glue. As you may have guessed, my 2nd grade daughter chose the tape. She was also a wonderful assistant on this project! I never turn down an extra pair of hands.
Cedar is the type of wood most commonly used for this type of construction due to its light weight and high strength ratio. It's also a little more forgiving to work with than some other hardwoods. In my case, redwood was available, so that is what I used. I had several boards left over from a deck I built a few years back, and it made sense to use up what I already had, especially since this was to be my first adventure with this type of construction. Redwood can be brittle and resists bending, so it was definitely a challenge, but ultimately came out looking nice.

The hull is now nearly finished. After a good sanding and the removal of about 3,000 staples, it will be ready for fiberglass.

The author begins fiberglassing. Please kindly overlook the cluttered mess he created in the process of building this boat.
The exterior hull has been glassed. Later, it will be sanded smooth and varnished, but the interior hull most go through the same process first. The dark marks are from staples, a mistake I will correct in future projects.

A full-size view of the outer hull, with the outer gunwales installed.

Gunwales prepared for installation. Note the woodburning of a tomahawk. I had originally planned something else, but ended up freehanding this graphic based on one of the axes in my collection.
The interior and exterior must be sanded smooth (again) after fiberglassing. Then they can be varnished and fittings like gunwales, decks, and seats can be installed. I chose to make traditional cane seats for this canoe, which proved to be another very time consuming and challenging endeavor, but after a couple weekends on the water, I now completely understand why these were the popular choice. They are very comfortable for long stretches of time, and surprisingly sturdy.

This is how it all turned out:

Aside from a few minor imperfections and newbie mistakes, I'm quite happy with the product of my labor. This canoe is fast, stable, and relatively light. I haven't put it on a scale, but I can easily haul it by myself. I would estimate the weight around 50 pounds. I did make a few mistakes and learned a few tricks along the way, which should come in handy for my next project. (Yes, I do have something in mind already. Just don't tell my wife!)   :)

To learn more about strip-built canoes, I highly recommend Building a Strip Canoe by Gil Gilpatrick, and Canoecraft by Ted Moores. The former focuses on the fundamentals of this construction method and comes with several sets of full-size plans. The latter delves into the finer details of creating a true work of art, and the plans included will require basic lofting skills. 

If you enjoyed this write-up, check out my other hobbies on the "Projects" page. You're also welcome to click the banner to the left and check out some of my books at Amazon or, if you prefer, click the "Books" tab above for more details on my books.They have nothing to do with building canoes, but if you like sci-fi, fantasy, or mystery take a look!