Saturday, December 29, 2012

Building A Canoe: Steps XI, XII, XIII, XIV

Part XI: Make and Install Gunwales

After finishing the fiberglass work, and cleaning up the annoying, unsightly, ridges, it was time to install the gunwales (or rails). Because the longest board of ash I could find in the lumber yard was only 12 ft, I had assumed I would have to splice two sections together. However, before I had implemented this plan, I learned of a friend of  a friend who had a 20 ft board of ash available. Luckily, I was able to use this person's shop to mill the lumber as well because there was no way I could have done it in my shop. In fact, even with a 12 ft board I was going to have to go to a friend's shop. It would have been helpful, however, if I knew the final length of the gunwales ahead of time because of the cumbersome nature of milling such long strips. I thought the curve in the canoe would result in strips longer than 16' but, it turned out, my outwales were only 15' 7" in and my inwales were 13' 7". I also milled them differently than Gil suggested. He suggested 3/4" by 3/4" for the outwales and 3/8" x 3/4" for the inwales; but I didn't see how 3/8" was wide enough to install the seat hardware, which are 1/4" carriage bolts, so I made mine 1/2" wide. With the outwales, I thought 3/4 stuck out too far so I trimmed it down to 5/8".

My first big mistake, though, was in trimming the outwales. I wanted to cut them close to the actual length because I was taking them to my shop to pre-drill and countersink the screw holes used to attach them. In lining up the outwales, I marked it from the top of the stem, and when I started to install them I realized that the canoe gets longer as you move down the stem, so it left me short to get the entire outwale covering the stem. Luckily, I had added a little to the length to make up for any small error, but it wasn't enough. I hoped that by pulling the canoe together, making it more narrow, I'd be able to squeeze another 1/2" out of my outwales, which worked well enough that in shaping the ends, it looks decent enough and maybe even mistake free. 
Pulling the canoe tighter to make up for the short, pre-cut, outwales
Close-up of the short outwales -- Oops! Next time remember to mark from the bottom!
After the shaping, they don't look too bad, and maybe even intentional
Unfortunately, I realized when I returned my canoe forms, and looked at the lender's canoes, that I didn't need to attach the outwale with screws from the outside, that the screws from the inside were enough. In my defense, in looking back at Gil's instructions, he doesn't explicitly say this and the images show the outwale being attached with screws at the stems in order to also hold the deck in place. The one hint he gives is that he says you need 65 to 70 screws, placed every 6 inches, to attach the gunwales to a 16 ft canoe and I thought his math was just bad when I realized I needed around 115. I could have just left the outwale screws in place but, in addition to the aesthetic issue, I thought it created an increase risk of rot at each of the hole openings so I filled them with walnut (and the occasional cherry) plugs. Problem solved and I think it ends up adding to the aesthetics rather than detracting. By the way, Gil recommends brass screws but my experience with them is that they are just too soft and the heads break off all the time (even with pre-drilling) so I used stainless steel. I had absolutely no problem with broken heads and I think they look just as good.
Mistaken screw holes filled with walnut and cherry plugs
Part XII: Make and Install Yoke

For the yoke, I used a figured piece of yellow birch. I made the shoulders on it especially large, which I think works well. I had never carried a canoe on my shoulders before and the first time I lifted this one I had it resting on my neck. Big mistake. That doesn't feel too good. Better it should rest on one's shoulders, especially with a life jacket on.
Curly yellow birch yoke
Part XIII: Make and Install Decks

For the decks, I created a couple of blanks out of quartersawn ash and walnut veneer. The walnut is between each strip of ash, and as I cut and reglued the sections, I added additional pieces of veneer to create a complicated fault system (I suspect this aesthetic results from the lingering effects of many undergraduate geology classes).

Deck blanks of ash and walnut veneer
Gil recommended created a cardboard template for marking out the shape of the flush deck. I highly recommend this method, it worked out well.
Flush deck installed (bow)
Flush deck (stern)
I didn't know how big the decks would be, so I made blanks much larger than I needed and turned the scraps in to art.
 Three Triangles
shellac and acrylic paint on ash and walnut
16.5" x 17.5" x 1"
Three Triangles (closeup)
Part XIV: Make and Install Seats

Of all the aspects of my canoe, I'm most proud of the seat design (provided that it turns out to be comfortable for many hours of continuous use, which I won't know for several months). It is light weight, strong, easy to make, original, and, I think, very beautiful.

I didn't want to make a standard caned canoe seat, partly because I didn't want to be responsible for the furniture joinery and partly because I couldn't see spending 20 hours weaving it. In order to avoid that monotony, I mulled a few different ideas around for several months, including a Wendell Castle inspired sculpted seat but realized that that would be too bulky. Somehow the idea of making a bent lamination seat popped in my head, which seems perfect in strength and weight. Having never made any bent lamination work though, I needed to experiment a little to get what I wanted (of course, I could have looked on-line, but for some reason, I didn't bother, which is just as well, too many people recommend using urea-formaldehyde glue which is just too toxic for me to want to work with. Instead, I used my standard Titebond III which really is the worlds best all-around wood glue. It worked fine). For the stern seat, I glued 4 thin strips together (each about 3/32" thick) in the form. For the bow seat, because the gap is greater, I used five strips.
Bent lamination in form
(this is an after-the-fact staged photo, hence, no mess or plastic keeping the form from sticking)

I wondered how many rows would be comfortable and thought that I would need three, but when I tested two, I didn't think that an additional one would have any advantage so I'm sticking with two until I'm proven wrong. I used some butternut that I bought from my neighbor when he cut down a tree in 2009. I've had it air drying in my shop ever since, which makes it perfect for a project like this because it is less brittle than kiln-dried lumber that I would have gotten at a lumber mill (maybe it doesn't make a difference but I like to think it does). They seemed to have plenty of flex in them, making them more comfortable, and they seem plenty strong too. I've stood on the front bow strip (160 lbs) without any negative consequences, so I figure two of them should be able to handle the weight of anyone getting in my canoe.
Stern seat (bent lamination butternut)
For the spacers, I played around with a scrap piece of maple and more walnut veneer. I think it is an interesting detail and it really didn't take that much time to make.
Seat spacers (maple and walnut)
The final activity I worked on before stopping for the winter was to clean up the top edge. I had thought that a spoke shave would be the best tool for the job but it turned out that my 102 Lie-Nielsen low-angle block plane worked best (gotta love that little thing!). Now I just need to wait for spring to do some finish sanding (on the decks), touch up epoxy work (on the decks, gunwales, and seats), and then add a few coats of varnish. Until then, it is going to rest in the middle of my living room (which is fine, I don't like using my front door anyway). As is, it weights in at 66.8 lbs. Not bad considering Gil says this canoe should weight about 65 lbs and I used hardwoods that are much more dense than white or red cedar.
An almost finished canoe


  1. Just want to say again how much I like that new piece. Wow!! Hope to see it in person some day!

  2. Have you had it in the water yet? I built a 15' solo canoe back in 1987 and still got her. Thinking about building another and got the Gil Book/plans. Was interested in the one you built, but wasn't sure how it handled.

    1. Yep, check the last of my "Building a Canoe" posts. It handles great, the only "problem" I have found is that it is hard to handle by myself on a lake when the wind picks up because the hull is so high out of the water. I had hoped it would work well as a solo and a double but I think I really need a kayak for solo paddles.