Hi all – I am an amateur boat builder, with a dozen or so kayaks and canoes built over the years, mostly for friends and family. I started with a couple of stitch-and-glue kayaks based on Chesapeake Lightcraft designs. Those were fun boats, but I never was crazy about stitch-and-glue. So I moved on building to cedar strip boats, first kayaks and then canoes, all to my own designs. (I used the KayakFoundry design software provided by Ross Leidy on his website: Blue Heron Kayaks.) I then got the bug to try skin on frame (for lighter weight and to get away from all that epoxy and fiberglass) and discovered Jeff Horton of KudzuCraft and the Fuselage Frame approach. I built two canoes using that approach, one pack canoe and one 16-foot double, as well as a 15+ foot kayak that is one of Jeff’s designs. I was pleased with the SOF boats – they are light and paddle well – but I was never really happy with the plywood framing approach. That led me to contemplate steam bent ribs. The only problem was that I had never steam bent anything and the whole thing was a bit intimidating.
That was the point at which I ran across the Cape Falcon website. I was immediately drawn to the idea of two nesting pack canoes and the overview material convinced me that the building method would be doable. Brian obviously knows what he is talking about and the design concepts are compelling.
So, I am beginning the build for two nesting pack canoes. The boats will closely follow the design and construction approach presented in Brian’s course, with a couple of variations:
- The boats will be asymmetrical, with respect to both beam and sheer, simply because I have had good results with that approach on prior small canoes. (The course has been updated since I first went through it and now has lots of useful information on incorporating this change, which is very comforting!)
- I plan to use dacron polyester fabric instead of nylon for skinning the boats. There are pros and cons for both fabrics, but I have had good success with dacron in the past and I believe it suits my planned use for the boats. More on that decision later in the blog when I get to the skinning stage.
My plan is keep this blog as a daily progress report – that is, each entry will be based on what I got done that day. But my schedule is pretty sporadic so there may be several calendar days between work days. Also, it is still cold here in Vermont and my workshop is in my unheated barn which makes for a challenge. Some steps will require moving into my basement (e.g., laminating the gunwale boards) and then moving back to the barn (e.g., sawing the gunwales from the laminated boards). We’ll see how it goes.
Before I could do anything I had to collect the materials. From past boat projects I have a good source for cedar and picked up 6 nice, clear 12-foot 1×4 boards for the gunwales, stringers and keel. (If anyone out there happens to be in Vermont and needs good cedar I highly recommend Koenig Cedar in South Burlington.) I have a fair amount of miscellaneous wood in the barn for other parts, plus I have a good 14-foot strongback that will serve as a solid and true work surface. The only remaining problem was finding good white oak bending stock. The local lumber yards only get white oak occasionally and when they do it is quickly milled and sent off to be kiln dried. I had just about given up when I thought to contact the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (a terrific operation and worth a visit for anyone passing through Vermont). The LCMM has a wide range of programs, including building replicas of historical boats. And so they have white oak! They get fresh cut logs and rip them on site into 1 or 2 inch boards. The boards I bought have been stored for a while, so they are air dried, but they have never been heated so hopefully will bend well. At least that’s my plan. I expect to mess up a lot, so I got plenty. (By the way, when I told them what the wood was for, they said, “Oh, yeah! The Cape Falcon guy!” Brian is famous in Vermont.)
So, now on to the work!
Day 1 – Steam box
I followed the design for the steambox in the plans, with the box length driven by the maximum expected rib length. For the larger of the two canoes this works out to about 38 ½ inches (canoe width 27 x 1.42 – 38.34 max rib) and I added a few inches to that. I used ¼ inch plywood for the box because I had some lying around. I expect I may get a lot of warping, and if so I’ll rebuild the box with something beefier later. In any case, I hooked up the wallpaper steam generator and it seems to work fine – I haven’t tried to bend anything yet but there is a lot of steam pouring out!
Day 2 – Ripping Stringers and Keels
I played with the dimensions a bit in order to make the stringers close to the keel a little beefier for added strength since I am using all cedar. It turned out that, with my thin kerf blade, I could get 6 stringers from one 1×4 if the thickness was a hair more than 7/16”, and I used that for all the stringers. I wanted to make the 4 stringers closest to the keel a bit beefier than in the plans, so I made them 9/16” wide. For the other 4 I used a width 1/2”. The keels ended up at 11/16” by 3/4”. All together the stringers and keels could be ripped from the 3 1×4’s with very little waste and I like the resulting ‘heft’ of the pieces.
I am planning on a 1-inch rocker, so I propped up the ends of one the keels using 1” pieces of scrap wood and clamped down the board at my widest beam location. Then I measured the rocker at each rib and plugged that info into the Rib Length Worksheet.
Day 3 – Rounding over edges
I wasn’t happy with the Slickplane at first, but I spent some time fiddling with the blade settings and experimenting on scrap until I got the hang of it. I think that, as with most hand tools, you need some time to get the feel of it. Ultimately, I spent very relaxing hour or so in a Zen sort of way rounding over 16 stringers and 2 keels. That’s 72 edges. Lots of shavings.
Day 4 – Prepping the gunwale boards
I had picked out three of the cedar 1x4s, choosing the ones that I thought would make nice looking gunwales after the lamination process. I decided to sandwich a lighter board between two darker ones purely because I liked the look. Note: In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to the grain not just the color. The board that ended up as the top layer of the finished gunwales has a rising grain that may tending to splinter in the finished boat. I think I can deal with it all right, but it is worth mentioning that this is the one and only time to think through the choice of wood layers before everything gets glued up.
I measured and marked the mortise locations at 5” on center, working from the center of the boards out to the ends as shown in the video. In addition to marking the true center for reference, I also marked a point one rib astern of center which will be the location of the widest beam for my assymetrical layout. Note: in Day 7 I found that it was difficult to see the mortise lines while operating the plunge router. I went back over all of the lines with a sharpie – should have done that in the first place. I think in retrospect that was suggested in one of the videos.
Day 5 – Laminating the boards for gunwales
This operation had to move from the barn to my basement to be able to work in temperatures where glue will set.
I want the bow to have a bit higher sheer than the stern, but I am uncertain how much spring back to expect from the laminated cedar boards. I am going to use a bow sheer of 7 inches and stern of 5, and hope that there is a little spring back but not too much. If I ultimately get around 6 inches at the bow and 4 or so in the stern I think that would be good. I guess we’ll see.
In any case, I cut support blocks for those sheer values and mounted them on my strongback. I then slathered glue on the boards and clamped them in place, following the guidance in the course. Ended up needing 54 clamps! I used gorilla glue with a plastic spreader (left over from epoxy spreading on previous projects) and that seemed to work well. It all went without a hitch, and the glue-up seems square and straight. I also went around with a damp sponge and mopped up the glue squeeze-out, in hopes that that will make cleaning up the edges easier in the next step.
My basement is only at about 50-55 degrees, so I used a tarp to make a sort of tent over the whole setup and put a little heater under it. That made a nice 70 degrees around the wood. Plus it sort of looks like a canoe is under there!
Day 6 – Cutting the gunwales
I left the glue-up under the warming tent overnight and removed the clamps the next day. The lamination looks great. There was some spring back but not a lot – I think the bow and stern sheer will turn out fine. The edges were pretty clean and it was easier than I expected to plane them down in preparation for sawing the gunwales.
The whole operation then had to return to the barn to rip the actual gunwales on my table saw. I couldn’t take any photos during that operation, but what we did was substantially the same as what is shown in the course video for this step.
I would just like to say this was the most awkward table saw operation I have ever attempted! Feeding that big, curved lamination through the saw was a challenge. My wife served as the outfeed helper and I had finger boards set up, but even so it not easy to carefully control the feed and keep the board tight against the fence. The key is to move confidently and steadily. Easier said than done. It is different enough from the normal feed process that it is important to spend time getting infeed support(s), finger boards, etc., just right. Then do a couple of dry runs with the blade lowered to get the motion down and make the role of the outfeed helper clear. The dry runs were absolutely the best thing we did to be ready to work with confidence.
In the end it all came out fine but there was just a wee bit of stress.
Day 7 – Mortising
I made the router base and guides as shown in the plans and it worked great. Note: waxing the guide area as mentioned in the video makes a huge difference in how smoothly the router moves. Definitely recommended.
Overall the routing operation is pretty straightforward, although a little tedious – a combined 88 mortises for the two canoes! There is a tendency for the router to be a bit jerky, making it difficult to get exactly the right mortise length. It really helps to run over each mortise site with the router in the raised position just to see how it will move. Fiddle with the clamps/guides and repeat as needed until it moves smoothly, and then do the actual cut.
My biggest problem was difficulty seeing my mortise lines, especially spotting the second line after the router was plunged to full depth. With my router there is a limited viewing window at that point, plus the overhead lighting gets blocked, making it hard to see the line (and therefore to know when to stop!) I solved the problem by: 1) going back over all my penciled mortise marks with a sharpie, and 2) using a head lamp to direct some light right onto the bit. I would have figured this out during trial runs if I had used scrap pieces marked with mortise guide lines (I just played with blank wood pieces). As it is, my first mortises were not too precise. Not a big deal, but still…
Once I finished routing, I rounded over the lower edges with the Slickplane. This is my new favorite tool for this kind of operation – way better than using my router table with a round over bit.
Day 8 – Finishing the Gunwales
Today was mostly a measuring day. I first cut the gunwales for both canoes to length, two at 11’ 8” and two at 11’ even. Then I set up one of the longer gunwales against the edge of the strongback, oriented with the widest beam location mark against the edge and the bow at 6 ¼ inches from the edge and the stern at 4 inches (the actual sheer after the spring back of the lamination). Then I measured the sheer at each rib location and enter the values into the Rib Length Worksheet. I also put all the values into a spreadsheet and graphed the results, just to confirm that the measures yeilded a smooth curve. I’m glad I did that, as it turned out that I had entered one value incorrectly on the worksheet and it really jumped out on the graph. After I fixed that mistake it looks pretty nice! (This may ultimately turn out be a case of “measure with a micrometer and cut with an axe,” but it was fun to do anyway.)
To the nearest zillionth of an inch…
Day 9 – The build begins
This was a day of transitions: transition from the barn back to the basement and transition from making pieces to actually starting to build the canoes.
The first step was to install the pre-cut center spreader. Actually, the main spreader goes one rib behind center in my asymmetrical plan. The spreaders were cut to result in a maximum beam of 27 inches for the larger canoe, and 25 ½ inches for the smaller. I then pinched the bulkhead ends together with the capture forms and fiddled a bit with the location of the forms until the beam at the locations of the intermediate spreaders appeared to be right. The fullness of the ends is pretty sensitive to the location of the capture forms – even a small adjustment has a noticeable effect shape of the bulkheads. Ultimately the large canoe’s beam at the 25% point at bow end was 18 inches, and the corresponding location at the stern end was 19 inches, which seemed good to me – just a bit fuller in the stern. The equivalent measurements for the smaller canoe were 18 ¼ and 17 3/8. I marked the spreaders to fit the curve of the bulkhead at the appropriate locations and cut them with my chop saw. I got a digital angle measuring gizmo for my birthday – it made it easy to measure the exact angle needed and then transfer that to the saw.
I figured that I had better do a little checking to make sure nothing in the spreader attachment process had changed the trueness of the boat layout, so I stretched a line from the center of the ends for the length of the canoes and checked that all the centerlines were still aligned. Thankfully, it all looked OK.
The next step was to kerf the bulkhead ends and lash the bows. The kerfing looked easy on the video, but ends up being kind of tricky. Even after relocating the sawhorse close to the operation and bracing the gunwales with extra clamps, the ends still want to jump around. Maybe if I had a better saw… Anyway, it ended up alright and I moved on to lashing. I have done a lot of lashing with earlier boats, so this was not new. In fact I’ve always liked this work.
Day 10 – Gunwales and Stems
First I had to finish off the gunwales – doweling the tips and then trimming the ends. This process went without a hitch. The 1/4 in dowels fit nice and snugly (with hammering) into holes drilled with a 15/64 bit. I went ahead and glued the dowels although they were tight enough that it probably wasn’t necessary. After the gunwale tips for both boats were doweled I cut them square and vertical using a small level as shown in the video.
With the gunwales finished I temporarily attached the stems using zip ties – I found this step to be a bit fiddly as getting the stems mounted solidly enough with the zip ties takes some effort. But I eventually got it to work, mostly by really hauling on the zip tie ends with pliers. I then made the central keel supports to match the intended hull depth for the two canoes. (In my case the keel supports are mounted back from the center at the planned widest beam in my assymetrical design.) I put the keels in place and clamped them to the stems at the height given by the Canoe Rocker Worksheets. With the keels in place I could pull a string from end to end and check the rocker. Happily, it came out exactly as planned for both canoes! With the rockers looking good, I could scribe the their location onto the stems. I then removed the stems for final layout, following the course video, including use of a 5-gal bucket to trace the curve. I retreated to the barn to cut out the final shapes using a combination of my table saw and jigsaw. (I do envy Brian his band saw!) I eased the edges as in the video, except I used my router table with a ¼ in. roundover bit.
I returned to the (warm) basement and reattached the stems and screwed the keels in place. One more check with the string and the rocker still checked out.
This whole process took some time, but was very straightforward. Following the videos was easy and it all came together exactly as planned.
So now it will be on to the ribs. I plan to do a fair amount of testing, both because I am a complete newbie to steam bending, and also because the white oak I was able to find had been air dried for several months. That should still be better than kiln-dried, but it still may be less than perfect. Time will tell.
Day 11 – Intro to Bending
I have been anticipating this stage of the canoe build with a degree of anxiety. I am totally new to steam bending and the bending oak I found is not green – it isn’t kiln dried, but it has been air dried for some time. The wood looks great, very clean and close to straight grained. I decided to cut a bunch of practice ribs and experiment with steaming times and see how it goes.
My first attempt at steam bending went pretty well. I found a “sweet spot” at around 7 minutes or so in the steamer – less didn’t bend as well and a couple of minutes longer didn’t seem to make much difference. I got some really good results, but I also got a lot of lousy ones. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can blame the wood – the results were definitely better the more I practiced. I plan to do much more experimenting before I start in on cutting and bending the actual ribs.
I can see that there is hope for getting ribs that will work – but it will take more practice. (I didn’t take a photo of the ones that snapped!) I think it’s going to be a good thing that I have plenty of oak…
Day 12 – More Rib Prep
I cut some more test ribs and did more bending trials today. I had noticed that compared to the videos I didn’t seem to have as much working time after taking the ribs out of the steam box. On a suggestion from Brian, this time I let the steamer run for a good long stretch before loading in any ribs. Having the box really hot seemed to help in keeping the wood bendable for a longer period. I’m still a long way from being skillful at this steam bending stuff, but I do feel confident enough that it’s probably time to get on with the real thing.
That means it is time to measure and cut the two sets of ribs for the canoes. First, however, I decided to incorporate the additional progressive adjustment to the length of the central ribs covered by a recent update video. This revision should result in a slightly fuller bilge in the center of the boat, favoring a bit of stability over speed, which is perfect for our intended paddling. I added the new adjustment to my rib measurement spreadsheet along with the beam measured at each rib. The result gives the total length for each rib:
I particularly liked the graph of the results, for two reasons. First, I like how the rib lengths yield a smooth, fair curve. To my mind this shows how the fundamental decisions about sheer, rocker, beam and depth are all pulled together to yield ribs that will properly form the hull shape. In my mind this is the heart of this building system – otherwise I can’t see how you would be able to pre-cut the ribs in order to free-hand them into place. Secondly, if you make an error in measuring (which I have done more than once) it really jumps out at you from the graph much more clearly that just looking at the numbers. It’s easy to see if there are points that don’t follow the smooth curve and which rib has the problem. For example, I measured the beam at one location at 25 15/16, but wrote down 25 5/16. When the data were entered and graphed, that error jumped out at me but I’m not sure I would have noticed it otherwise. If I had gone ahead and cut that rib I would have had an error of 5/8” in rib length – which I would have found the hard way while bending in the ribs. I guess this is the digital version of measure twice and cut once!
Anyway, then next step is to make up the sets of ribs for the two canoes and do some bending for real!
Day 13 – Yet More Rib Prep
Today was devoted to making up the final ribs. This involved selecting the best sections of the oak planks, cutting and planing boards to the max rib length, and ripping lots of strips. I sorted the ribs into groups by looking for the best grain and least knots or other imperfections. The wood I got from the Maritime Museum is very clear and almost all vertical grain or close to it so it turned that not much grading was really needed.
I then cut 10 practice ribs (5 per boat) to length, set up the steam box and bent ribs to fit as a trial. It went pretty well in terms of bending and fitting the ribs to the boats except for the rib thickness. The steamed ribs were very hard to fit into the mortises event though they had fit OK in a dry run. I assume that the steaming caused the wood to swell significantly, perhaps due to steam being taken up by the wood due to its low moisture content after air drying for months. In any case, I went back and planed an extra 64th off the thickness of the ribs that I had previously cut.
I then measured, cut and labeled all the ribs to length for both boats. I used the total length measurements from my spreadsheet rather than the measuring stick approach. It seemed simpler and worked fine for me. This left me with 44 ribs for the two boats plus a supply of about a dozen spares. When arranged in sequence the ribs look alot like the graph from my rib length worksheet, which is encouraging!
Day 14 – Bending in Ribs
Finally got to work for real with the steamer. I steamed each rib for 8 minutes, and loaded the steam box at 2 minute intervals which made following the stopwatch really easy: if it’s at an even number, pull out a rib and stick another one in. The bending went well (actually much better than I had expected). I did break the very first rib which was not encouraging, but after that one the bending went nicely and things settled down into a good rhythm. I found that the sooner I had the ribs mounted into the mortises the better. If I spent a lot of time fooling around trying to get the perfect curve and then tried to fit the rib in the results were not as good. It worked much better for me to quickly get the rib in approximately the right shape, insert it into the mortises, and then fine tune the bend for symmetry and height. I am particularly happy with how the second canoe went – I definitely learned a lot while doing the first one and the whole process went very smoothly. I finished the day with pinning 5 ribs in each boat with 1/8 inch dowels.
Although my bending oak was definitely drier than would be ideal, it still was very pliable and easy to work with. All together for the two boats, I had 4 ribs that I had to replace with spares: 2 at the ends (the one I broke and another that was too short/wide) and 2 in the center that ended up way out of symmetry. It was easy to cut spare ribs to length, pop them in the steamer and replace the bad ones.
Over all, the process ended up actually being very enjoyable and I found a real sense of satisfaction in taking a rigid wood strip and forming it into the smooth curves of the final ribs.
Day 15 – Stringers – Larger Canoe
I marked the ribs at the ends, center, and intermediate points with measurements for locating the stringers. For the larger canoe I used a 3-inch distance from gunwale to 1st stringer and 2 5/8 inch for the distance between the remaining stringers. While I stuck to the basic measurements in the middle third of the boat, I spent some time tweaking the stringers moving toward the ends until it looked like nice fair lines leading into the bow/stern.
Having the stringers on really does highlight any wonky ribs – especially ones that are out of symmetry. I found two more ribs that I pulled out and replaced with spares to fix this problem.
After that the lashing process went really well. The running lashing (as opposed to lashing each junction individually) was a huge time/effort saver. There are 184 lashings for the stringers on the larger canoe and doing them one-by-one would have been a real pain. Also, pre-loading “winders” with sinew as shown in the course video was a huge help. I chose to use a double wrap at every join – I don’t think it really adds anything in terms of strength, but I liked the added friction. For me, it made it easier keep tension on the sinew during the wrapping and as I worked from rib to rib. It probably made the process take a bit longer (and used up about half again as much sinew) but it worked for me.
Day 15 – Tying Stringers to Stems
This step was pretty straightforward, following the steps in the videos. The tricky bit is cutting the stringer ends so they lie nicely against the stem, but its not as hard as it looks. I lashed on the stringers at the points where they seemed to naturally fall. I’m not planning to set up the sailing rig, so I didn’t need to allow for that and could just go with what looked nice to my eye. I then pegged the screw holes in the stems and smoothed the curve at the keel ends. There is still some final finishing and cleanup to do, but it is really starting to come together!
This is it for now, as we are heading south for a couple of weeks (escaping mud season in Vermont). When we get back, I need to get caught up with the smaller canoe and then it will be time for skinning!