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Common Sense Canoe Building

Gather ten canoe builders in the same shop; you will get the ten best methods to build a cedar strip canoe. You'd expect this amount of shop logic to provide definitive guidance. The quest for clarification oten yields a confusing jumble of opinions and approaches to crafting your canoe. Some builders focus on power tools, specialty jigs and woodcraft, others emphasize hull design and would have the first-time builder reinventing the canoe.

A handful of Minnesota racers pioneered ribless cedar strip building in the '50's. Their innovative building techniques soon attracted others simply looking for a lighter more efficient canoe. We teach the Minnesota Method. You start by choosing a proven hull design that fits your paddling style, then use time-efficient building techniques to complete an aesthetically pleasing canoe.

Wood-art rafter ornaments are not NorthWest Canoe. We estimate one out of four first time builders gets overwhelmed and frustrated with too much shop logic; the canoe never gets finished. Canoe building is fun. Make building your canoe an escape from the stress and time-pressures of your daily routine. Finish your canoe ... then get out and paddle!

Four Stages of Canoe Building

Pick any canoe landing, paddling event or parking lot and the hand-built cedar strip canoe gets looks. People salivate over the wood. Wood however symbolizes only a piece of the drama.

SET-UP - During set up the canoe builder transforms flat paper plans into three dimensions. Twenty hours or more pass before the first cedar strip is laid on the building forms.

It starts with the construction of a sturdy ladder-like beam called a strong back. Forms attach to the strong back. It takes general carpentry skills and tools - hammer, square, saw, and drill. Like the mason, the canoe builder relies on scribe lines and strings to ensure the final product is fair and true. The canoe builder walks from end to end squinting at sight vanes and strings.

STRIPPING - Cedar strips laid onto building forms transform fishbone skeleton into solid object. Using the Minnesota Method, the canoe builder uses staples and square cut strips. The first strip follows the sheerline. The second touches the first at the center form. In a few hours an experienced canoe builder establishes a rhythm and closes in a large area of the hull.

Battles rage-on over the topic of building with staples vs. stapless; using bead & cove strips vs. square cut strips... it comes down to aesthetics and personal preference.

A seasoned builder can strip an entire canoe in a few days using staples. Building without staples, even an experienced builder can apply only two or three strips per session. Building without staples involves way more clamps, bungee cord, cam straps, masking tape and time.

LAMINATING - Meticulous preparation. Several hours pass fairing and sanding the hull in preparation for laminating. The wise builder then rehearses; cutting and dry fitting cloth, laying out spreaders, brushes and scissors. Pantomime steps. How much time for each movement?

Most resin systems are workable for a couple hours. Laminating, the term for applying resin and fabric to the hull happens within that relatively short window.

While 6-oz. fiberglass is the most used fabric by cedar strip canoe builders, some use Kevlar, carbon or polyester fabrics for enhancing strength, abrasion resistance or visual drama.

Once the canoe builder laminates the exterior of the hull, the boat comes off the building forms and the builder invests a day or two preparing and laminating the hull interior.

FINISHING - The fourth and final act involves gunwales, seats and thwarts. Finish trim serves two functions: first, gunwales, and cross members provide structure, a naked hull will twist and flex; second, trim makes the canoe usable, a comfortable place to sit or kneel, a means of carrying the canoe to water.

The builder anxious to get on the water can purchase pre-milled gunwales and ready made canoe seats; one day and the canoe is ready to paddle. The builder looking for a shop project can burn an entire day hand-crafting a single canoe seat.

Canoe Builder Class / Worshops

Education, sharing our canoe builder know-how and techniques with you has always been one of the foundations of NorthWest Canoe. In previous years we’ve offered hands-on canoe building classes and how-to workshops. Doing so, we limit our reach to a handful of potential canoe builders.  

In an effort to help more people grasp the canoe building process and get on with handcrafting a canoe at home, we’ve turned on the ShopCam. Most days you can watch us custom build North Canoes or repair customer canoes & kayaks. Visit the NWC YouTube Channel for more ShopCam video. Stop by our Facebook page, click the photos tab for even more canoe shop shenanigans.

Canoe Cradles

Half way through building your canoe, you'll need a pair of sturdy canoe cradles. After laminating the exterior, the hull is stable. Remove the building forms and rest the canoe right side up in cradles to sand and laminate the interior.

We designed and use this simple canoe cradle for classes and repairs. Any handy guy or gal can knock a set together in an afternoon with three eight foot 2x6's and hand tools.

View/save the PDF drawing

This design allows turning the hull eye-to-the-sky or bottom's up. The rope 'n peg adjustment lets you position the hull at a comfortable working height either way. Vary the width of the cross member and you can build cradles for a kayak or freighter canoe.

Often, home builders make do at the last minute by dressing sawhorses with a strip of carpet. We suggest you build cradles ahead of time. Making the project part of your set-up along with building the strongback and cutting forms.

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