To begin, the Cape Falcon skin-on-frame boat building system is comprehensive and easy to understand. Even inexperienced woodworkers should be confident in their ability to build a Cape Falcon skin-on-frame canoe. The nature of the system allows for a great deal of flexibility in the type of canoe you build. You decide the characteristics you desire, and a series of simple formulas will determine the dimensions of your build to achieve those characteristics. I designed our boats for my wife and children, and wanted something small enough for Michael, age 9, and Jack, age 7, to enjoy now, while still being able to use them as they grow. For those of you who are indecisive or intimidated by the process, fear not; the plans include helpful starting points and rules of thumb. Brian is also available to offer recommendations. I told him what I was looking for, how we intended to use the canoes, and our heights and weights. He gave me excellent recommendations for a set of nesting canoes that took the guessing—and stress—out of everything.
This was the most fun project that I have done to date. The biggest reason was my family’s excitement and involvement. Each of my kids “built” their own canoe, as I was able to involve them in nearly every step of the process. My wife was also heavily involved in helping me rip stock, lash stringers, and skin the canoes. We live on a quiet cul-de-sac, but our driveway became a thoroughfare for curious neighbors, delivery drivers, and strangers going out of their way to see what we were up to. Some couldn’t comprehend why anyone would build their own canoes, some were probably placing bets on whether or not they would float, and others were there to see if the canoes were for sale. The best part was seeing the pride and confidence the project instilled in my kids.
Duration – 51 days from picking up the lumber to being ready for the water. However, it could be done much faster as I (with the exception of two days off from work) only worked on the canoes on weekends and holidays. Working with the kids also likely slowed the process down considerably!
|Heather’s Canoe||Michael’s Canoe||Jack’s Canoe||Pack Canoe|
|Length||15’ 6”||14’ 8”||13’ 10”||13’|
|Width||32 ½”||30 ½”||28 ½”||26 ½”|
|Depth||13”||12 ¼”||10 9/16”||9 15/16”|
|Weight (w/ seats)||40.2 lbs||33 lbs||29.7 lbs||26.1 lbs|
|Color||Oxblood||Sweet Potato||Aztec Gold||Walnut|
|Seat Layout||Three seats. Bow and stern seats have backs (removable or fold out of the way). Center seat allows for solo paddling.||Single seat for solo paddling.||Single seat for solo paddling.||Single seat, but I may replace it with a kneeling thwart.|
Why I Chose Cape Falcon
My wife stumbled across a YouTube video of Brian demonstrating his sail system. Then she and my boys started watching some of the videos of the builds. I built a wood strip canoe about 14 years ago and did not have the time to invest in that kind of project. However, my family was very excited, so I watched the videos. I am always looking for projects that will be fun for the kids and will develop their skills and confidence. What a better way to teach them that they can do anything they set their minds to than to have them build their own canoes?
After watching some of the videos, I too fell in love with the idea. On our honeymoon, my wife and I were hiking in Glacier National Park, where we saw a yellow fiberglass canoe, backlit by the sun, creating a brilliant contrast to the deep blue of the glacial lake. Since then, we have talked about owning a canoe like that. Seeing the Cape Falcon videos, I was struck by the beauty of the wooden frame and the translucent skins. The ability to lash cargo to the frame, install sails or rowing outriggers, catamaran the canoes, and, most importantly, to nest the canoes, sold me. Instead of requiring multiple vehicles or a trailer, nesting canoes allow multiple boats to be carried on top of a single vehicle. This makes canoe trips less of a hassle, which results in your boats collecting more scratches and less dust.
On Finding Lumber
I currently live in Illinois, and finding the right lumber proved to be a challenge. I grew up in Montana, and red cedar was readily available. I made dozens of phone calls and visited several lumber yards in southern Illinois and St Louis. The cedar I found was either of extremely poor quality, containing far too many knots to work around, or was too short to be useful. I did not want to use scarf joints, so I decided to special order the wood. This set my timeline back several weeks and involved some risk. I explained what I was using it for and that I needed it to be free of any knots larger than 1/4”. I was promised that the wood would be “perfectly clear” and of very high quality. Dubious, I ordered 50% more than I needed.
After considerable delays, the lumber finally arrived, and I found it to be full of large knots. I am in the Air Force, and I had just been tasked with a 6-month deployment. This put me under a time crunch. After some figuring and sketching, I decided that I could make it work with some strategic cuts and modifications (I describe my modifications in a separate section below). This was the most challenging part of the build for me. I recommend readers take the extra time to find quality lumber.
Finding green quarter sawn white oak was also a little bit of a challenge. I called and visited some lumberyards that specialized in hardwoods and exotics. Of those that carried quarter sawn oak, none had a supplier that would deliver green lumber. I then googled sawmills and started making calls. On the third or fourth try, I found a sawyer who was intrigued enough by the project to agree to cutting the lumber I needed. Again, I ordered 50% more than the plans said I needed, which already accounted for waste. What I received was well over twice what I ordered. However, the lumber I received was flat sawn, so more was needed to yield the required ribs.
As a note to those who may be reading this prior to purchasing the plans, Brian has some vendors listed to purchase precut rib stock from.
I won’t describe all of the steps to making a canoe; the Cape Falcon system does that better than I ever could. I will provide some of the lessons that I learned and some pictures that show the process.
I elected to work on all four canoes at once, rather than completing one at a time. This was, I believe, more efficient. I was set up to replicate the processes, and the steps were fresh in my head. The disadvantage is that it is riskier. You may be making mistakes that don’t reveal themselves until later in the build. If you build one at a time, you hopefully won’t replicate the same mistakes on all of your builds. That said, if you follow the instructions, you aren’t likely to make any major errors.
Building the canoes was surprisingly simple. I started by cutting and sanding all the gunwales, stringers, and rub strips for all four canoes. This allowed me to make the most of my limited space, and it got all of the tedium out of the way at the beginning. Brian doesn’t recommend much sanding. I elected to sand everything down with 220-grit sandpaper, which I now admit was excessive.
After prepping the pieces, the real fun began. Every night, I would watch the videos to prepare for the next day. They are laid out in a way that is easy to follow. More importantly, they are thorough enough to tell you what you need to know, yet concise enough to keep your attention.
When you are bending the ribs, you will do some test pieces to determine how long to leave them in the steam box. You will also need to decide at what intervals you want to put them in the box. This will determine the time you have to shape each rib. I elected to use two-minute intervals, which gave us more time to shape the ribs and make minor adjustments. This made the step less frenetic and more enjoyable.
Once the ribs are in place, you go right into lashing the stringers in place. Almost all of the little imperfections in the rib shapes were corrected when the stringers were attached. They will average out the occasional bulge in a rib. You do want to make sure that there aren’t several ribs in a row that are deformed in the same direction, because that will likely be locked into place when you lash the stringers in place.
I had one canoe with a slight bulge on one side, and another whose stems tended to skew to one side. Brian has videos to help you fix just such discrepancies, which worked great for me. One issue that took more figuring was a flat spot on the keel. I must have cut a rib too long or too short, but I didn’t notice the issue until the stringers and keel were lashed. I tried correcting the issue by blocking the ends of the canoe and placing weight above the flat portion of the keel. That was only marginally successful. I eventually realized that the center of flat spot was at one of the ribs that was pegged to the gunwales. I removed the pegs, allowing that rib to lift slightly. The rocker immediately smoothed out, eliminating the flat spot. I redrilled and repegged the rib, and you would never know that I had an issue.
Skinning the Boats
I was dreading the skinning process. I found fiber glassing my wood strip canoe frustratingly difficult. I was worried that this process would prove just as unforgiving and was envisioning crooked stitching and wrinkles that would ruin the aesthetic of the boats. I was pleasantly surprised by how easy and quick it was. Heather did most of the stitching, but even I was able to make some tolerable seams. It is such a dramatic transformation. In a few hours, it goes from needing to use a little imagination to believe that it is a boat to looking like it is almost ready for its inaugural voyage.
When cutting the excess fabric off the gunwales, it is difficult to adequately melt the edge of the fabric while not burning the wood. I taped off the gunwales and rub strips with masking tape. It is not a perfect solution and takes a little extra time, but it prevented all but a couple of scorch marks.
Dyeing and Finishing
Staining the canoe will fill you with pride and joy seeing the vibrant color bring your canoe to life. Then the stain will dry, leaving a muted, dirty color that bears no resemblance to the pictures. Fear not! When you apply the urethane, the previous vibrance will be restored. The Cape Falcon website has pictures that show what each of the colors look like when applied to the skin and after aging under UV exposure. All of the colors I used turned out as expected.
I had only intended to make three canoes, but I was only able to purchase 4” “clear” cedar boards. That required me to do two laminations for the gunwales, which is enough for four boats. There were a lot of knots in the lumber, but many were near enough to the ends to allow me to add a small pack canoe without limiting the number of good stringers available for the other canoes, so a three-canoe project turned into four.
Gunwales – Due to the number of large knots I had to contend with, I had to use a board with a couple of larger knots (about ½”) than I would have liked for the gunwales. Rather than laminating three boards of the same thickness together, I elected to keep the top and bottom boards ¾” thick, which were perfectly clear. I then ripped the middle board (the one with the offending knots) in half. This saved me a board, which I desperately needed. It also minimized the weak points of the knots. I filled the knots with an epoxy for good measure.
Oak keels – I didn’t have enough good lumber to use cedar for the keels. I had a 16’ board of kiln-dried white oak, so I decided to use that. As oak is stronger, I was able to keep the width of all of the keels ¾”. This made attaching them to the stems easy. However, the difference in hardness of the oak and the pine stems made it more difficult to shape. With the slight decrease in the keel dimensions, I didn’t sacrifice much weight with this decision, but in the future, I would just stick with the recommendations.
Catamaran boards – I have not made permanent catamaran boards yet, because I decided to experiment. I wanted to be able to use the same set of catamaran boards to catamaran any combination of the boats. My wife and kids really wanted the bungee deck lashings, so I used that as my starting point. I ended up using a combination of Brian’s catamaran methods. I utilized the deck bungees, but instead of using dowels to lock the boards in place laterally, I borrowed from his alternate method, drilling holes and using the ball and loop bungees to lock it in.
Floorboard alternative – We have a golden retriever that thinks he should be able to go in the boat with us. I don’t want him clawing up the inside of the skin, so I was considering floorboards. That adds weight, and I don’t really need something that substantial. Instead, I made a mat out of 5” and 10” strips of scrap bending stock that was stitched together. It attaches to the ribs with bungees and will conform to any section of any canoe. It rolls up nicely when it is not being used. I’m not sure how rugged it will be, but I think it will serve its purpose.
I honestly don’t have a lot of regrets. If I had it to do over again, I would have used cedar for the keels, but I can’t say I particularly regret the oak. I used pine for the stems and riser blocks. I have never liked how pine takes stain. It always looks a little muddy, so I wish I had purchased more cedar. My biggest regret was that Heather’s canoe (the large one) ended up with a finish that is a little cloudy. Brian warned that you could get a cloudy finish if it was too humid. The day I finished that canoe was very humid and was pushing the upper end of the temperature limits. Everything was fine until I applied the fourth coat. It went on too thick, because the epoxy was setting up too fast. The finish isn’t bad, but you always hope for perfection. Every project I do has something that I wish I had done differently or better. A slightly cloudy finish on one of the boats as my biggest regret is something that I can live with.
Getting Out on the Water
After completing each canoe, we put it in our pool to test it out. We had a river trip planned in southern Missouri, but we didn’t want to find out during a 10-mile float that one or all of the canoes didn’t handle well or was too unstable for our capabilities. Fortunately, they all floated beautifully! The pack canoe is a little tippy until you get used to it, but it is wonderfully maneuverable and is a blast to paddle!
All of the canoes handled very well and are very durable. We hit a couple of submerged snags and rocks that made us wince, but the canoes were none the worse for the wear. A few shallow stretches gave them their inaugural scratches, but I can tell that they will last a long time.
In one of the Cape Falcon videos, Brian mentioned all the attention these canoes will attract. He said that it would be flattering at first, but eventually you will just want people to leave you alone. He wasn’t wrong. We were bombarded with questions; one guy even gave the pack canoe a spin. My sons were pretty proud to have our creations receiving so much positive attention, but even they were happiest when we were on quieter stretches of the river.
February 26, 2023
Nicely done, I wish you many many hours & miles of enjoyment.
I think we now have a new challenge, the most nesting 66s… 😀 For me, I chose the 66 similar to you, not enough time/resource for a strip boat, but the real clincher was the nesting feature, I nest my wife’s kayak (Leo), a Wood Duck 12 from CLC Boats inside our 66 (Ursa) and still have room for my 17′ SOF Egret Kayak (Kia Ora).