I design and build furniture and cabinets for a living. In my “free time”, I try to get outside of the city and into the woods as much as possible. Nothing is quite as nice as being out on a mountain lake attempting to catch a fish or two. My shopmate Bren Reis and I are building canoes right now. We’ll each have a cedarstrip plank canoe hopefully sometime before the end of summer so we can actually get out on the water and enjoy them.
A cedarstrip planked canoe is a beautiful thing. It is made by milling up a whole bunch of 1/4″ thick cedar strips and wrapping them around a mold. Once the mold is covered in planking, it is sanded and covered with a layer of fiberglass on the inside and the outside, then coated in epoxy. It makes a very lightweight, yet strong wooden vessel. Please realize, that there’s a lot more to it than that easy summary.
We each picked up a book called “Canoecraft” by Ted Moores. It is considered by some to be the bible of cedarstrip canoe construction. Ted Moores presides over Bear Mountain Boats, in Peterborough, Ontario, where he gives workshops on building canoes, sells plans and kits, and has been an authority on wooden watercraft for decades.
Bren choose to build Bob’s Special, a 15 foot canoe known to handle well for anglers. I choose to build the 16 foot Prospector, known as a good “all around” canoe. My dad, Ron Klebba is a very accomplished woodworker who has built many very beautiful things throughout his life, among them 2 sailboats (both Herreschoff designs), 2 kayaks, and a few rowboats. His wisdom in this process has been highly appreciated and integral. These posts will be by no means a “how to”, but a document of our progress and the processes we used building our future yachts. I hope you enjoy it.
The above picture is a disaster captured and thankfully diverted. When making a 16 foot long canoe, you need to make a very large pile of Cedar strips that are 3/4″ wide and 1/4″ thick out of really long boards — we bought 16 to 18 foot boards. These strips will end up becoming the hull. If you send an 18 foot board through a planer, pay close attention so that it doesn’t get caught on something and bend like this board did. Apparently wood really is pretty elastic. You cannot sand that out. Thankfully we stopped the planer, pulled the board free and no one was hurt. And we got some awesome photos of this very unsafe tense board.
Ripping Cedar boards into 5/16″ thick strips. Over. And over. And over. And over.
The finished pile of ripped Cedar for one canoe. We will sand this with our wide belt sander to a final thickness of 1/4″… They will then be run through a router setup to make a cove and bead on each strip. More on that in another post…
This is the strongback. It’s basically a long beam-like structure made of plywood. It’s what the canoe is built on. It’s essential to make it as straight and level as possible, otherwise you’ll have a boat that doesn’t track straight.
Leveling the strongback up on its legs.
Cutting out the mold stations on the bandsaw. These will be placed on the strongback. They will form the negative space on the inside of the hull — the cedar strips will be glued together over them (not to them), forming the hull.
The mold cutoffs make a pretty cool pile of shapes on the concrete floor. After the mold stations are cut out on the bandsaw, they have to be shaped and sanded to make nice uniform fair curves. That process however does not make a pretty picture.
The stem molds (the bow and stern) are set first. After they are leveled and plumbed, we move on to the station molds in between. The Prospector, like most canoes, is symmetrical, so the bow and the stern are the same shape — unlike a sailboat or a kayak where the bow and stern are very different.
A string is run from one stem mold to the other, forming a centerline for the hull. The strongback has a centerline, as do the station molds. The string, strongback centerline, and individual station mold centerlines must all line up. This is done by using your eye and sighting down the string over the centerlines and cross checking with a level for plumb. It hurt my head and my eyes, but ultimately everything lined up.
Each stem mold gets an inner and outer stem. I made mine out of ash, a very strong wood that bends extremely well. In the book, Ted steams thicker wood then bends. We’re lucky enough to have a wide belt sander in our shop — so we were able to sand the ash thin enough to bend by hand. It’s glued up overnight with epoxy, clamped to that curve. The stems will be shaped to almost a point to accept the cedar strips at the ends of the hull. The plastic wrap around each stem is so the epoxy doesn’t bond to the mold or get all over your hands. It also keeps the strips from sliding against each other.
We’re still miles away from paddling, but we just bought a 5 gallon tub of epoxy, so we’re officially committed. We’ll be shaping the stems and stripping the hull soon. Ever onward and until next time…