How to make a wooden strip-built canoe

How to make a wooden strip-built canoe

At shows, people often stop in their tracks at the sight of a wooden strip-built canoe and can’t help but caress her smooth sides. These craft have the curvaceous lines of a Viking ship and the smoothness of stroking a dove’s wing. A single canoe weighs only 15kg – difficult to believe something so strong can be so light. We are regularly asked what it takes to create such a work of art, so here is a brief overview of what goes into making a strip-built wooden canoe or kayak:

The process starts with buying plans from a respected designer, such as Nick Schade of Guillemot Kayaks, and using the templates to cut out a series of forms from plywood.  These forms are then attached to a strongback, which is a very long, hollow beam. The strongback is reminiscent of a whale’s spine and the forms resemble solid ribs.

Forms for a single kayak

The next step is to cut a whole lot of long thin strips of specially selected wood and then to attach them to this temporary frame. The frame is what gives the canoe its shape. Dave enjoys using Western red cedar, the ultimate wood for building canoes which as its name suggests, has a rich russet colour. Thin strips of light obeche add contrast, and for the gunnel, or strip surrounding the top of the canoe, he uses ash and Mediterranean cedar. 

Because the strips are narrow and extremely thin (only 4mm), they are reasonably flexible and can curve around the forms. Typically one machines a bead (or half circle) along the length of one side of each strip, and a cove (or hollow) along the other, so that they can interlock. Dave finds he gets a better fit by using a tiny hand plane to shape a bevel along the sides of each strip so that it fits flush against its neighbours. It is an intricate job requiring very fine precision.

Hand planing each strip

As each strip is shaped to fit snugly, it needs to be glued to the strip below it, and attached to the form while the glue dries. Normally they are stapled to the forms, however this leaves rows of tiny holes once the staples are removed, so to avoid this Dave uses tape and many (many, many) clamps to keep the strip in place.

A single and double canoe under construction
Fitting strips in place

Once all the strips are in place, the canoe is planed and sanded to a fair finish. The next step is finicky. It involves laying a long, unbelievably sheer sheet of glass fibre over the body and then coating this with an exceptionally thin layer of resin. The fibre is like the finest silk stocking and the slightest tug or snag can stretch or ladder it, plus the resin is temperamental. Many things can go wrong in this phase;  fibreglassing is 50% skill, 40% art and 40% luck.

Sheer glass fibre

Much sanding and reapplying resin and more sanding later, the canoe is ready to be removed from its form and turned over. The inside is similarly sanded, draped with glass fibre, coated with resin, and sanded until a near-perfect finish is achieved.

Fibre-glassing the inside

Thereafter the outer gunnel is built up, a strip at a time.

Woodworkers can never have too many clamps

A traditional seat is made of a wooden frame supporting woven rattan. Dave makes the frame and could buy the rattan, but prefers to weave it himself. (When there’s a hard way and an easy way, Dave tends to take the hard – and more beautiful – way.)

Weaving the rattan seat

The entire construction process takes roughly 250 hours for an experienced canoe builder, considerably longer for a beginner, and also depends on whether it is a single or double craft, and a canoe or a kayak. 

The end result, whether a canoe intended for a picnic paddle or a sea-going kayak, is truly beautiful. If the idea of owning a floating work of art appeals to you, but the thought of trying to build it yourself is too daunting, Dave can make a custom canoe or kayak for you. 

Prices are around the R850 000 mark. Please drop us a line if you would like to discuss your dream craft.

A wooden canoe going for a picnic paddle