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Building a Cedar Strip Canoe

November 21, 2015
Cedar Strip Canoe

Back in the summer of 1985 we visited my grandfathers cottage in Ontario’s North Kawarthas,  which he hand built himself when I was a toddler.  Their cottage was down the lake from ours about a 30 minute boat ride in our little 10hp aluminum fishing boat.

My grandfather, the son of a Toronto Furniture maker became a civil engineer and served in WWII with the Royal Canadian Engineers.  His spare time when not working for CN designing train bridges was to build things with wood.

The summer of 1985 he had started a new project that interested me like none in the past.  He was building a Cedar Strip canoe.  As was normal for him, he did everything from scratch.  He built the frame that the canoe would be built around.  He also bought Cedar timber and rip cut it down to 3/8″ strips and then ran each one thru the router to create a bead on one side and a cove on the other.  This was the foundation of his 18′ cedar strip canoe.

That summer inspired me and I told my dad, who was almost as equally as talented a carpenter as my grandfather, and also an engineer himself that I wanted to build one.  I was surprised by his answer, he said yes and it was only a matter of time before my grandfather delivered his hand made canoe frame for me to use.  My dad was quick to finance this venture, not doubting my ability even if I was not sure what I had got myself into yet.  I quickly realized that both my dad and my grandfather were both eager to help but for the most part left the project to me to complete and only stepped in when I needed a hand.

The summer of 1986 when I was 15 years old, was the beginning of my canoe building project.  Although I discussed the options for the cedar needed for this project, I was torn between doing it my grandfathers way by hand ripping the cedar strips myself vs getting pre cut strips from a canoe builder.   I opted for the pre cut strips as they could do tongue and grove instead of bead and cove which would give much more strength and they could cut their strips to 1/4″ allowing for a lot less weight.

Although I was working part time that summer, I spent almost every waking moment working on my canoe.  I was in the garage all day and into the evening sizing and cutting cedar strips then gluing them together and stapling them to the frame.  After over a month working with the cedar strips I was nearing the center of the canoe.  At this point I had to hand carve the tongue on the end of each strip to fit the narrowing gap in the center of the canoe.

The next step was the hardest, and after I spent days pulling staples out of the wood, I was ready to start fiberglass.  Once again my dad took me across town to a canoe builder and we came home with about 50′ of cloth and about 3 gallons of resin (one of which was gel coat).  Anyone who has ever worked with fiberglass knows how messy it is. There is nothing like working with a resin that dries in minutes (not hours) and 16′ sheets of cloth.  It was challenging and messy and my dad helped with it as it simply was not a one man job.  After two coats of cloth and resin along with  a coat of gel on the outside and a coat of cloth and resin on the inside, the hull was essentially finished. Now came the trim work.

The trim work took the most patience as now I was working with hardwood.  After I removed the canoe hull from the frame and put a temporary yoke in to hold is shape, I started by trimming the edge of the hull.  The next step was the gunwales, which I chose to do in Oak.  We got the oak and rip cut it into 4 strips to make both inner and outer gunwales.  After they were cut, trimmed and ready, I drilled pilot holes and started hand screwing brass screws every foot from the inside thru the cedar to the outer gunwale.  Next was plaining the gunwales down smooth.

I then cut the front and rear deck and the keel from oak.  The final two pieces were going to require the most talent and I had not yet thought how I was going to do them.  I needed a yoke and two seats.  I was lucky when one day my grandfather showed up with a pair of seats he made out of oak and hand woven.  He also had hand carved a yoke.  The yoke was a work of art, not a cheap plank but a beautifully carved yoke that fit my neck and shoulders perfectly.

The final step was to finish it with spar varnish and then float it.  The canoe has seen almost 30 years of use at the cottage and at provincial parks.  This past summer my son got a taste of this craft and helped me refinish the canoe.

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