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Of all the things I’ve written about so far, I think I had the most fun reading about this one. With each of my previous topics, I had some sort of personal connection with it. So when I started reading more about it to write my post I had some idea of what to expect. I have no connection to boat building, other than having used boat to go fishing, so I had no idea what went into it.
When we moved into our current house one of the first things I thought of getting was a small boat to use in the creek out back. There is a park on the other side so I thought it would be cool to have a way to get there without having to drive or walk all the way to the next bridge and back. We also have a few rivers in the area, which people tend to take kayaks out on.
When I first started reading about how to build a boat I didn’t expect to find so many variations in materials and processes. Though in hindsight, if I had thought about it, it would have been obvious because of all the different types of boats there are. They can be made of wood, fiberglass, steel, aluminum, ferrocement, as well as other materials and combinations of them all. And for each material you can build it from, there are multiple ways to then build it.
I decided to focus on only one process since if I ever built a boat I would need to pick one and stick with it. The process which seemed the most like what I would want would be a strip-planked canoe. Basically, the process involves gluing strips of wood together around a temporary frame then reinforcing them with fiberglass and epoxy.
A common wood to use is Cedar for the hull and Ash for the gunwales, which is probably what I will use if I build one since Cedar will keep the weight down a little and Ash will help support the frame.
The first step is to figure out the dimensions of the boat. There are hundreds of plans available online and starting out I would suggest using one of them. If you are up to more of a challenge there are charts and formulas to help figure out the dimensions based on shape and size and how much weight it will hold, among other things. As much as I would love the challenge of figuring everything out, I’d also like to end up with a usable canoe at the end of it. So I would use a set of plans which have already been tested and proved to be accurate, at least for my first build.
Once you have your dimensions you can start building, but not the boat yet. The first thing you’ll build won’t be a part of the final product. You need a way to make sure while you are gluing the strips of wood everything stays perfectly straight and doesn’t move.
To do this we need what is called a strongback. It’s a long table of sorts that you will screw the temporary frame of the boat to. I’ve seen this done by just nailing 2 by 4’s together to the length needed. The option that I found that seems like it would work best would be a long I-beam of plywood, about 8 inches square, and just under the length of the boat. If built correctly it won’t have as much tendency to warp as just 2 by 4’s.
The next thing to do is cut the contours of the boat out of plywood. When placed an equal distance from each other, these will create a frame in the shape of the final boat. Most plans will have a single piece of paper with all the contours for a quarter of the boat. Then you cut four of each one for the front, back, and each side, unless the front and back have different shapes. Either way, make sure the sides mirror each other by cutting two pieces at once. Then screw these into the strongback and put some packing tape or something similar along the edges to prevent the boat from being glued to the temporary frame.
Now it’s time to start getting the boat ready. If space doesn’t allow doing this with the strongback in place, you can do this before building it. You need to cut your wood into strips. A common size strip is about 1/4 inch by 3/4 inch by the length of the boat. If you cannot get strips which are long enough, you can splice them with scarf joints to make them longer or make it decorative with different lengths.
Once you have everything to the final lengths — or at least close — it’s suggested that you cut a bead and cove into each strip. This will help the pieces stay together during gluing. It will also lead to less filling and sanding later on, as each strip will be fairly uniform where they each meet.
Putting It Together
To make stems for the front and back, you’ll want some very thin strips. These will be steamed and bent to the contour of the front and back. When bending them, you’ll want to start from the center to put the least amount of stress on the wood. After the strips have completely dried, they can be glued together to make the stems. Don’t glue the inner and outer stems together yet though. The inner stems can be attached to the temporary frame and the outer stems can be set aside for now.
Now you can start actually building the boat. The first strip you want to put on each side will be the sheer strip. This will end up being the topmost strip when you are in the boat so it will go all the way from the tip of the front to the tip of the back. Note that it isn’t required to attach it this way. You can have all the strips horizontal if you would like to.
Start at the center of the frame and staple the strip to it. If you did the cove and bead on each strip you will want to cove facing up so it can hold glue for the next strip. Then go along the strip to each frame and continue stapling. When you have stapled the strip to all the frame pieces, cut off the excess length then repeat on the other side.
The next strip will be put in the same way but will be completely horizontal all the way across. Put some glue in the cove of the sheer strip for the length which will be in contact then set the next strip on it and start stapling to the frame.
Continue with the same process of gluing, stapling, and cutting off excess until you have finished the entire hull. Be sure to do both sides at the same time so you don’t end up with the strips not lining up when you are done. After you get everything glued and it is dry, sand the front and back where the stems are to give a nice flat area to glue the outer stem to the inner stem.
After everything is glued you want to sand the entire hull to make sure it is smooth. If you find any small gaps which need to be filled, do it now because after the next step any imperfections in the wood will be permanent. Don’t worry too much about waterproofing as water won’t even be able to get to the wood when the boat is finished. Just make sure it looks the way you want it to.
Now that the bottom of the boat looks perfect it’s time to give it some strength. A boat made of 1/4 inch thick strips of wood won’t last long on its own so it will be encased in fiberglass. Cut a sheet of fiberglass to fit draped over the hull. It doesn’t need to be perfect, as we’ll cut off the excess as we go.
Once you have it draped so it will cover completely, start epoxying it down. Start in the middle and work your way out. The first coat will be mostly just to get the fiberglass wet and pushed against the hull. After the first coat gets tacky you can put the next coat on to actually fill in the fiberglass more. When the second coat gets tacky, apply a third coat. Before everything dries completely, cut off the excess fiberglass along the edge of the sheer strip. This can be done after the first coat to make it easier to cut.
After the fiberglass epoxy has completely cured, make a stand to set the boat onto so you can finish the inside. This can be as simple as some fabric nailed to 2 by 4’s to cradle it. Unscrew the frame pieces from the strongback and knock them free of the hull. Then with the help of someone you trust with weeks or months of your hard work, flip the boat onto the stand you made. Once you have it on its stand, repeat the same process of sanding and applying fiberglass as you did on the outside.
Some Final Touches
Now you need to put on the decks and gunwales. For the decks, cut a couple triangle pieces to fit by the stems to give the sides some extra support where they meet. You can cut a slot in one or both to use as a handle when you are pulling it into or out of the water.
The gunwales help the rest of the canoe keep its shape, as well as giving you something to attach things to. Cut four more strips, thicker than the ones used before. One strip will be attached to the outside of the sheer strip. It’s suggested to use screws to attach the gunwales.
The other strips will be attached to the inside of the sheer strip, but you’ll also want some scuppers on the inside. Scuppers are holes that let you drain water when the canoe is stored upside down. The easiest way to do this is to cut some short pieces of wood and space them evenly along the length of the hull.
If you want to put seats in, they can be screwed to the gunwales. Some people prefer to just sit on the bottom and I saw one person who made a kneeling seat which they use to kneel down without tiring their legs as quickly. It had pads for their knees and cut be moved wherever they needed it to row from any position.
You may also want to install a yolk. This is basically just a piece of wood that goes from one gunwale to the other near the middle. The center has a bend in it so it will fit around your neck and rest on your shoulders to help distribute the weight when carrying it. After you’ve attached the decks and gunwales and any accessories you may want, put a couple more coats of epoxy on it all.
The last step is to use some spar or marine varnish the entire boat. A couple coats will help protect the epoxy from UV radiation which can cause it to deteriorate. After everything is done and dry, get it into the water. After all that time building it, I wouldn’t want to wait another minute to test it out. Just don’t forget an oar!
While doing my research for this post, I picked up a book called, “Building Strip-Planked Boats,” by Nick Schade. It goes really into depth about the physics of building boats, including material choices. It also describes different tools to use and has a very detailed process for building a boat. I highly recommend it and if I decide I want to spend a few months building my own boat, I will have this book out next to me the whole time.
Disclaimer: Although I have done a significant amount of research before preparing this post, I am not an expert on this subject. My intent is to help people who may be interested find some more information. If you decide you would like to try this yourself, please do some additional research and use common sense.