If you have a dedicated space to work, a patient and helpful wife and family, basic woodworking knowledge and a willingness to try things and learn as you go, you too can build a beautiful wooden canoe. No joke! Oh, I forgot to mention, you also need a few tools, a healthy amount of time to dedicate to the project and a willingness to sand, sand and sand some more!
Alan Gale bought a book, Building a Strip Canoe by Gil Gilpatrick that gave him the starting design and the plans for the forms. He described to me how you pull the folded pages out of the book and and trace the cross sections onto sheets of strong support plywood. From there, you have a solid ladder-like form and a step by step process to build your own beautiful wooden canoe.
It was the Fall of 2013 when Mr. Gale began setting up the forms and selecting Western Red Cedar as his main wood strip material. “I wish I’d bought more of it in the beginning,” he said. His supply ran out and he was unable to find more of the same variety when he needed it. So now his boat has some wood color shift. He is still happy with the result.
Mr. Gale has a Shopsmith Mark V Model 520 which converts to become many different tools enabling him to handle many the different steps. He used the Mark V’s bandsaw to cut the forms and its drum sander to sand the edges. With the help of his son, and the Mark V’s table saw and bandsaw, he cut long cedar boards into the strips he would need to shape the hull of the canoe. He explained to me that you can buy long 16’ boards to form the whole length, but he was able to use shorter boards, in the 8’ ballpark, by using scarf joints. He used the Mark V belt sander band saw to create those.
Spoiler alert – Here is where the magic happens
He used the router table function to put a bead on one edge of the strip and a cove on the other. That way the edges have the freedom to hinge with the strip next to it as it curves around the form. It is also a lot less difficult than trying to shape the edges to fit together perfectly.
During the forming of the boat, the strips are also stapled and screwed to the form underneath. After the glue is set and the strips are all in place, the staples and screws are removed and the holes are filled. Woodworking is a very flexible and forgiving medium. If you take good care to fill and sand, these holes can either disappear or become details in the design.
When they see a beautiful wooden boat or canoe, most people, including this writer, have no idea that there is a layer of clear fiberglass on both the inside and outside. “After lots and lots of sanding, then once it is coated with the epoxy, the fiberglass surface goes almost completely clear!” says Gale. That answers the obvious challenge of keeping water from leaking between the boards.
Combined with the bead and cove concept, the idea that it is all wrapped in fiberglass has made this whole project seem a lot more do-able. It takes the mystery out of how they do that. I feel like Dorothy discovering the man behind the curtain.
The gunwales are the thick rails that run along the upper edge of the canoe. These add strength and give the seat, deck and thwart something to mount to. Those Gale cut using the Mark V table saw.
- The seats were cut and tenoned on Shopsmith table saw, mortised with Shopsmith drill press, holes for cane drilled with Shopsmith drill press as well
- Yoke or thwart was cut on the Shopsmith band saw and scooped using the Shopsmith belt sander
- The decks were cut on Shopsmith band saw and leveled with Shopsmith belt sander.
Mr. Gale said he had some experience with basic woodworking projects before beginning this one. He told me he had the help of the Gilpatrick book mentioned earlier, a couple other blogs and most importantly the ongoing advice of members of the community on the Shopsmith forum. One in particular was the forum member Shipwright. Gale says this guy could probably build a boat like this in a weekend. He gave helpful advice all along the way.
One example of help he provided was dealing with a problem called “spiling,” (rhymes with smiling.) The wood doesn’t always lay flat or go the direction you want. Shipwright explained to Gale how to work out the problems with a shimming process.
During my initial interview, I asked him when he expects to be complete. He said the canoe project was approaching the final details. But because his sunroom is unheated, he might not get to work too much as the cold weather sets in. On December 6th, 2015 I received a note from Gale to check the thread. He has finished the boat and it is beautiful!
He hopes to try it out next spring in a lake about 15 minutes from his home in Maryland. He said there are also many rivers nearby as well. Hopefully we’ll see a few more photos of the boat on the water when he gets to try it out.
I hope this sample of the greater story encourages you to read through the entire A Slow Boat to Nowhere thread. It is a nice account full of great photos and descriptions that detail the process. If you have the space, if your family is patient and helpful and if you are willing to do tons and tons of sanding, then the idea of making your own beautiful canoe is a reachable one. Thanks to Alan Gale for taking the time to talk with me and chronicling this project on the site. He showed us that it can be done!