Vancouver, B.C., Canada
June 2020: Gathering tools and supplies, and lots of thinking
While watching some of the early prep videos for the course I’ve been plotting my way through a tools and supplies list and settled on some things I need on my shopping list. One great Ebay find was a $40 Stanley block plane from the 1930s that just took a little cleaning and tuning up and immediately impressed me.
I’ve been trying to source bending oak locally here. I found a great supplier on Vancouver Island but couldn’t make sense of a dedicated ferry trip to go get it. I played around with other local options and (re)discovered yellow cedar. It is often used on the West Coast in small boat building and is traditionally used by the local First Nations here in fine carving and steam bending applications. I dug through some Engineering studies and did a lot of math. I have settled on some rib dimensions that I think will compare to the stiffness of Brian’s Oregon white oak. It’s all theoretical so far and definitely straying from the course a little, but I would like to give it a shot.
4th July 2020: Buying the wood and some pre-prep work
Having settled on yellow cedar I’ve now found it almost impossible to buy unless I special order a log to be sawn up for a small fortune. After lots of phone calls to suppliers it turns out that stumpage rates have gone up, a mill closed for pandemic-related reasons, and the main supplier here shut down a couple of years ago. I finally found some in 16-20’ lengths of 5/4 (“five quarter” which varies but in this case is 1”x5.5”) air dried, totally clear, straight and rift grained and excitedly picked up a few boards.
20th July 2020: more prep work and learning to steam bend
Saw horses, zero clearance inserts, and a steam box! Having just built those I’ve now been able to do two rounds of steam bending tests using Brian’s benchmarking method. After a few exploding pieces, I’m now getting really good results with fresh cut, then soaked yellow cedar steamed for 2-3 minutes. Only small tear outs when really pushing the bends like the first rib on the canoe. I can’t tie yellow cedar in a knot…at least not the thickness I need to use, and the bending oak is clearly superior from what I can see compared to my wood, but the yellow cedar is working. There are two nagging things have been concerning me about this project – steam bending and ripping long lengths, particularly the curved gunwale laminations. So far making these tests has really got me feeling excited about the steam bending. Brian’s videos are incredibly helpful.
August 8th: Ripping!
I set up a 16’ infeed and 16’ outfeed for my table saw. I learned a couple of things…getting all surfaces totally level is very helpful to avoid the end of a long piece wandering out and disturbing the cut; thin kerf blades are magical. I switched blades as an experiment. So far I can see no downside to using a thin kerf 7-1/4” blade on the table saw other than depth of cut. It flexes just a little which if the workpiece swings out as I mention above keeps the cut from wandering, saves wood, makes less noise, cuts more efficiently and costs less.
I should mention that this project is clearly taking a long time…I’m slowly working at it on purpose as I’m keeping it a surprise for my wife…hard to do with the setup of some of these tasks!!
August 16th: Thickness planning by hand…
I don’t own a thickness planer… I would love one but in absence I’ve been using a hand power planer. Its working incredibly well with sharp blades, going slow and checking thickness with a caliper. I also built a plywood jig around it to try to make a thickness planer jig. It doesn’t work well but it helps to get a better feel for staying square on the faces and a bonus is its going to help trim the ribs to an exact ¼” at the ends later. So its stayed on…
August 22nd: Laminations!
Having watched the updated videos for this process over and over I followed all the careful tips on sighting the length along the worksurface, flipping clamps around to get the curve to stay true (I actually weighted a couple of the bar clamps to get more leverage). The glue up went perfectly and had just the right amount of glue thanks to the discussion on the videos. I cut my shear curve blocks exact instead of adding for the centre standoff (!) and had to rush over and grab some 2×4 offcuts to get the right height mid-glue up. I took the clamps off at 3.5 hours at ~28˚C and the chisel worked really well on the mostly-hard glue.
With the help of a neighbour supporting the work, we managed to rip the gunwales perfectly. I used only one 1”x5.5” board for all the material so had almost no room for extra. The thin kerf blade was again perfect here. I found that standing WAY back to aim the lamination at the blade to start feeding, about the middle of the curve, then walking it forwards, feather board in place the whole time, it worked really well. As I previously mentioned this step was a big concern to me and I’m glad to say it worked out well.
September 6th: Morticing the gunwales
Again, thanks to some excellent ideas and instructions from Brian on the videos this went really well. I bought a used plunge router off Craigslist and a spiral upcut bit from Lee Valley Tools (really good price by the way). My only challenges were with the old router. First was my fault, I didn’t check the plunge mechanism when I bought it. It had totally seized. I overhauled the whole thing and had to ream out a nylon slider bushing for one of the shafts. Once that was done and I started into routing I noticed the bit was creeping deeper into the cuts! I ended up at about ¾” deep on one before I noticed. It turns out the chuck, being old, wasn’t quite grabbing the ½”-¼” reducer and the bit was slowly able to move a little. I put a huge wrench on the chuck and that solved that…
September 12th: Stems
With this being a larger boat, I knew the red cedar 1x8s for the stems would not work. I didn’t have access to yellow cedar in 1×8 size. I debated other species but I wanted something very rot resistant, and so drawing on the good experience from the gunwale glue up I decided to laminate two of the standard 1×8 stems back to back, from the same board cut mirror image of each other. The thought here is that they would work against each other to resist any cupping. I threw on 40 clamps because…why not! After I get the stringers placed, I’m going to thin and shape these for a finer water entry, keeping the inside parts wider, probably the thickness of the keel. I’ll still taper the keel and the base of the stems as Brian suggests.
I also got most of the last bits of prep out of the way – rounding stringers, building spreaders and capture forms, cutting the gunwales to length. I won’t rip the ribs up until I’m ready for them as I want them to be fresh sawn.
September 26th 2020: Hand carving a paddle
This really has nothing to do with the canoe build, but I decided to hand carve a canoe paddle for my wife. I was going for a deepwater paddle, so no risk of dinging it on rocks, and wanted to use western red cedar. I found a really beautiful 2×6 with a huge knot in what turned into the centre of the blade, and decided to go for a modified otter tail, with a nod to Brian’s techniques and shaping his Greenland kayak paddles. The knot and changing grain patterns made it incredibly difficult to carve but I persisted carefully and I like how it turned out. It’s obviously more fragile than a cherry paddle… No idea how it paddles yet, but it looks and feels really nice!
October 3rd 2020: Starting to look (a little) like a canoe!
It’s getting exciting now! I built the spreaders, separated and spread the gunwales apart, kerfed and tied the gunwales ends and got to check the symmetry of the gunwales and deck with a string line. Its really fun to see a curved piece of wood I’ve been carefully measuring and routing turn before my eyes into the outline of a real canoe with some great looking proportions!
I really found the kerfing more difficult than I think it needed to be. After I was almost done I realised that the capture forms were too tight on the gunwales and relaxing them to where the gunwales JUST touch then sawing made things so much easier.
For fun I really hastily clamped on the keel (flipped on its side so the clamps could hold it) and the stems just to get a quick look before packing up. the rocker measurements were also just roughed in for a photo.
Late October/Early November 2020: Milling ribs and cutting them to length
Recently I’ve not found much time to work on the canoe, so this phase has been a series of 20-minute tasks strung over many days. After some experimenting and consulting with Brian I’ve settled on 1.41 as the r/b ratio. On paper it seems a little fuller than I was originally going for (1.40), but test fitting up some mock ribs it looks like the right way to go. For reference…I feel that a freighter would be around 1.44 and a classic Prospector would be around 1.42 with these dimensions.
I started with a single 16′ length of yellow cedar (in which I found a single knot!) and then ripped and planed it down to 36 pieces of 1″ x 23/64″ x 54″. After that I found the rib rounding jig incredibly useful dressing the pieces.
I used a 3′ long piece of wood for my rib measuring stick (the canoe is 36″ wide). This allowed me to scribe a trace of the canoe width onto the stick at each rib location, on one side of the stick, and mark out rib adjustments on the other side. This made for really fast work with no room for error in measuring the ribs to final length. I decided to cut ribs to length on the table saw to get clean 90˚ cuts. My home-brew planer attachment worked out really nicely to get every rib to exactly 1/4″ at the ends. Looking back I think a similar result could be achieved just by clamping the planer base onto a piece of 1/4″ masonite (which I did also) but I’m telling myself this extra effort was a little safer. If you read this and want to try the same just treat it like a table saw – I guess it has the potential to shoot ribs out at speed, although I didn’t have any of that happen.
After some test bends in the summer I’ve found that soaking for at least 3 days before steaming gave more control on the bends, so after building a stegosaurus in the front yard to test fitment of every rib mortice, I have laid all the ribs down under water (and a little light snow) for a few days.
November 19th: Rib day!
West coast outdoor workspace = tarp city! Hey, I was running out of patience waiting for a day without rain, of which there are very few here at this time of the year. So, I got all set up in the back yard, rain started after a few ribs right on time, and I ended up getting the last rib into the mortice as a thunderstorm erupted. It made for a dramatic end to the day but the boat stayed dry.
I was really happy with how the steam bending went. I was particularly nervous about this whole plan not working at all at this stage. I had taken a bit of a gamble trying to get this done with yellow cedar rather than the suggested Oregon white oak. Things went very well. If someone else was to choose a non-standard wood I really recommend just taking your time, doing some testing and paying attention to the wood thickness based on its strength, to get something at the end of the build that is comparable to the oak in overall stability.
So as mentioned the ribs are yellow cedar, like most of the rest of the boat, and it took a little R&D to figure out steaming parameters. Dimensions I settled on were 21/64” thick and 1” wide. Based on the aforementioned “way too much math” part above. I soaked the ribs outside (rainwater top-up optional) for two weeks until I couldn’t wait any more. I settled on 2:45 steam time for the first lot and once the steam box was really hot, around 1h30 in, I cut that down to about 2:30 a rib. This was a REALLY fun day watching the boat take shape. For the tighter bends I backed the ribs with a length of seatbelt material. I found in my tests that a leather belt I had wasn’t wide enough to be able to secure the edges of the rib so well and the grain would tear out. Seatbelt material has almost no stretch so that helped.
I ended up cracking one rib out of 33 which I thought was really good. I had only given myself three spares. Over the next couple of weeks I ended up changing out four more for a total of five replacements, two were for shaping issues, and the end ribs came out of the formula too short. I ended up adding 3/4” to the end rib replacements (3/8” either side) and making them out of 1/4” stock to get a tighter bend than the other rib thickness would allow. By the time I had bent in the last ribs the spares had been soaking for a month. I trimmed the spares to length right before steaming and noticed that the water from soaking had only penetrated into the wood about 1/16”! maybe the cedar won’t even need to be oiled?!
December/January: tweaking the rocker
No longer building in secret! I’ve I did a bit of a reveal to my wife a day after steaming which was fun. Its pretty hard to hide a full-sized canoe frame covered in clamps for more than a day or two! Things have slowed down a lot with this build, just because of the weather really, and only having space outside to work. That’s fine I’m not in a rush.
I’ve been playing with progressive rocker, and settled on bending in a keel depth at the outside part of the stems. This really helped with the lines I think. I’ve also been trying to figure out how to actually measure rocker. Turns out to be a bit philosophical and no clear answer! In an attempt to figure out if 3 inches is three inches is 3”, I’ve found that the best sets of plans that accurately break out rocker for various canoe styles are on The Carrying Place website. They have a nice adaptation of an original prospector on there based on survey of an early model, amongst other things. I’ve settled after some looking at baselining rocker at ~90% of waterline length which seems to be the most often used (explanation here). With that, and progressive rocker I’m now at 3” 90% WL with an aim to land at around 2-1/2” when the stringers are on. When I started into this I designed in a “planned” rocker of 3” projected out to full length (untrimmed keel 16’4” long). That same measure was now 4-3/8″ with the progressive rocker.
January/February: lashing on the stringers…twice!
Still slow with the weather, don’t take this slow progress as this being a difficult build, its not. I lashed on all the stringers at the end of January and then to my surprise found that I’d bent out almost all the rocker. I was left with maybe an inch at 90% WL, really not what I was going for, probably still a “canoe” but not the plan. After some discussion with Brian and different options for how to proceed I decided to pull off the lashings (350 in all…) and re-do the stringers again, pre-curving the shear more to compensate.
To avoid the same thing, I put the deck on horses at even thirds (before they were at 25% from ends to match the un-stressed shear curve, my mistake), and weighted down the ends of the gunwales with ~2lbs each end. This had the effect of over-curving the shear from the un-stressed 7-9/16” to an even 9”, the theory being the tension of the stringers was pulling the shear (and therefore rocker) flatter. For anyone else’s reference later…I measured the shear curve changes while lashing. Pretty consistently I lost 5/16” of shear (and rocker) for every pair of yellow cedar stringers I lashed on.
At the end of the second lashing (that’s 700 lashes now! Before and after photos below) and the keel clamped at every rib I have a good-looking rocker curve of 2-3/8”. I expect with the keel on (later) this will go down to ~2-1/4” at 90% WL. My shear curve is at 7-9/16 which is exactly where it was before lashing. Cool.
I also looked at the lines for symmetry and took a few measurements. I’m really happy with the left-right symmetry of the whole package. There’s some minor left-right asymmetry at the one end where some of the hull shape might have a slightly slacker bilge on one side to the other, that ends up with the stringers not exactly the same distance from the keel. That’s my theory anyway. I’m done messing with the shape now…maybe.
I was really surprised how efficiently the lashing went. I’m also surprised at the rigidity in the frame with all the lashings on. The design of Brian’s overall building system is seriously cool.
February: Finishing(ish) the frame
Once I got the boat lashed a second time, I started to notice a few places where left-to-right the boat was just a little out of symmetry (see the crazy red-green image below). I tortured the frame a little pulling in the bilge on one side down to the opposite gunwale with careful tweaking of ratchet straps. This worked the shape the right direction and I could see it coming into line nicely, but it had been so long since I steamed the ribs, that I found a lot of spring back after releasing the straps. I discussed with Brian and decided that I’d leave it as is. As he pointed out, I’d hate to make the situation worse and the difference was barely perceptible unless you stare head-on at the boat.
I found fairing the stringers at the stems a little challenging on the first few, but eventually got it. I also did a lot of complex shaping of the stems, first with a router table and then by hand to get the double-thickness stems to a point that they would keep a fine water entry. Working the keel sides down to keep my brass rub strip proud of the keel was really easy with a block plane, using the stringers as a natural guide for the plane to ride against.
I pegged the keel and finally I added some shear blocks, and then immediately wondered why I had decided to add shear blocks! They took a good 3 hours to make a table saw jig, cut the taper and then shape the blocks to the right look, adding exactly nothing in functionality. But, honestly when I stepped back and looked at the frame I felt really happy I had added them. They really do complete the ends for me, especially on a longer boat and end up with more of a classic gunwale line. I found a spokeshave made really light work of curving the blocks, and tidied up the line with a block plane at a good angle for the last cut or two.
All in all I’m extremely happy with the look of the frame and really looking forward to putting the skin on and paddling this boat.
I cut some rub rails out of Douglas fir, stupidly purchasing 16′ 0″ without thinking, I had to scarf on 4 inches extra! I like the look of Doug fir but its a bit of an experiment like the rest of the boat. Its pretty prone to splintering/splitting so I’ve cut my rub rails on the wide side at 1/4″ x 3/4″. Slick planing them was a little challenging but I took my time with it. I found angling the slickplane with the wood out of the guide rail, then slowly introducing the wood over subsequent cuts made it really easy to remove a little at a time even against the grain. probably a good technique for hardwoods with diving grain also.
[edit with the skin on: I found the Doug fir quite cooperative and worked in the wider 3/4″ size. the scarf joints are barely visible (centre of the photo below) and the wood took finish well. Let’s see how it holds up over time]
Side note…on rocker
I’ve been focussed a lot on the rocker of the hull during this build, hoping to keep the boat in the sweet spot of what I’m looking for in paddling characteristics. The current answer here with everything lashed on is that I lost somewhere between 1″ and 1.5″ using the over-bending method before lashing, depending on where the boat is supported when I measure it! I over-bent 2″, so that’s a drop of about 3″ in lashing stringers and keel. My rocker before skinning is now about 2″ from centre to 90% length, or 3-3/8″ from centre to the very ends of the boat, with the progressive rocker accounted for. I’m happy with that and its really close to what I was originally hoping for in the setup phase. Let’s see if skinning changes that, and what it feels like to paddle. Looking at lots of boat designs during this build though, if I was to do this again I think I wouldn’t be afraid to plan in an inch or so more…
March: Ash blocks, starting to make an ash yoke and seat
I don’t trust myself to drill straight down the gunwales with a block glued per the course directions to mount seats etc. I know my biggest weakness in woodworking and its certainly drilling square to a surface with a hand drill. Two different woods in the mix didn’t make that sound any better. Instead I rigged up my Craigslist router in my table saw table with a ¼” core box bit and set up to make all the mount blocks I’ll need plus some spare – see the photo below for a general idea of what I did. I used the mitre gauge for the table saw to keep things in line, raising the blade to make the 45-deg cuts, lowering it, then moving to the router. For the yoke mount I made two holes and a slightly wider block to reduce bolt sway over time.
I also found a “bootlace” seat on a huge discount at a local store. I had initially planned on webbed seats, but having sat in it I was sold. I’m planning on making a double-wide front seat that extends almost to the gunwales, mostly for my wife and kid to sit together, but also so I can paddle the canoe solo in reverse, and heel it over on its side when I want to. I cut the parts and used them to figure out seat locations.
I’ve held off on mounting the seats, I instead marked the gunwales at my best guess location and I’ve masked off the mating areas to keep them clear of finishing oil. Once I get the boat floating, I’ll fine tune those then glue in the blocks.
And finally, for this segment a magic trick! No spreaders in the frame and it stands open, losing maybe 1” in tumblehome. I stared at this for a while – I wasn’t quite sure the yellow cedar ribs would be able to act in balanced tension like the white oak. I’m very happy with this!
Early April: Oiling the frame, bending stem bands
With the yoke blocks glued in and masked off along with the seat mounting areas, I oiled the frame with Watco Danish Oil. I used the start of the can on some earlier projects and I started to run out about ¾ of the way through the job. I thinned it down to make do…I then found to my dismay that the whole of BC seems to have sold out of the stuff!!
I made up an oil-varnish-thinner mix that apparently works well. Thinking about the open boat and UV, I played with some ratios on a test piece and settled with Epifanes Extra UV varnish (~20%) Minwax Teak Oil (~40%, I believe it is tung oil based) and the rest as odourless mineral spirits. I found this worked well but by the time I’d coated the whole boat the varnish was starting to set up, it ended up getting REALLY sticky. I had to use kraft paper to rub it rather than a cloth because it was so sticky! I put this homebrew mix on as second coat over the Watco. The frame has ended up with a satin look, not plastic-like like Epifanes can sometimes look on its own. The finish has good penetration and keeps the colour fairly neutral. It feels really tough. I’d use it again, but pay careful attention to work in smaller batches and wipe off before moving on to the next area.
I went for Varathane Spar Urethane for the rub rails and the ash blocks. I lost count but I think I wiped on about 8 coats of ~50% thinned coating. I wouldn’t normally go to that trouble but I was trying to match the factory finish of the seat I had purchased (its a Nova Craft seat), as a test to see if I can match my new seat also. It worked very well with a good tough smooth finish.
I bent up my stem bands also. note for other builders – do as Brian suggests and do this BEFORE you put the skin on. It was pretty easy being able to clamp areas and get a really good look at what was going on. I cut mine to the taper in the keel 3′ back from the stems, I think about 55″ each in all. I’ll drill these some evening.
I was also interested to see if my wider rub rails in Doug fir would flatten out the boat. I did some measuring and came to the conclusion no, not really. I lost 1/16″ in rocker/shear with the boat on its side for fair comparison per rail.
April 17th-20th: Sewing on the skin
This was a bit of an adventure. When I started this course last year I was trying as hard as I could to minimize the cost. I found an incredibly kind guy in the USA who had purchased an 18’ long piece of skin boat skin a while back and never used. He was nice enough to send it to me for a reasonable price, we both figured it was nylon but I didn’t know for sure. Would it shrink? Did it need to be stretched on? I tested a scrap of it by various means (burning, melting, dyeing), it was in fact nylon. Excellent.
I keep saying it but Brian’s instruction is incredible. I followed along and found myself with some perfectly cut ends, nice looking whip stitches and just the right amount of longitudinal stretch pulled in where I’d shortened the skin. I put the boat away for a few days until I knew I could block off three hours to do the wet-down and stapling.
Today I pulled and stapled down the skin and secured my rub rails. Again, fantastic instruction. I went with the garden hose approach and had a running 10-minute timer to bug me to re-hose the boat. This worked perfectly, it was really dry with a light breeze and the boat stayed wet in the shade. 4 hours later and the thing is dry and tight like a snare drum. Its magical how much the skin shrinks up when it dries. No rocker loss that I can see with the skin dry and in place.
At this point I’ve come to the realisation that I have built, and own a boat. Ok it won’t float yet, at least for very long, but I’ve got a real sense of accomplishment staring at the frame with the skin on. I really like the shape as well. I can’t wait to see how it paddles.
April 21: Trimming the skin to the gunwales
The rain is coming for a week or so, so just a quick note and a couple of pictures of the boat showing that I was able the skin trimmed to the gunwales before needing to put it away for a while. I found the “rope cutter” attachment for my old Weller plumbers solder gun worked really really well. Highly recommend if you have one of those tools sitting around. It doesn’t get hot enough to glow like the one on the course videos but still melts the fabric with ease.