Thursday, May 16, 2013

Building A Canoe: The Finishing and Floating

At the end of April it was finally warm enough to pull out the canoe and finish it. All that was needed was some final sanding and varnishing. I went over the inside and outside with my Festool sander using 120 and 180 grit pads then hand sanded with 150 and 220 grit before brushing the first coat of varnish on. I choose System Three spar varnish because it is what they had at WoodCraft and I didn't want to buy it on-line, pricey stuff though, I paid $38/quart. I choose the satin finish because I thought the canoe didn't need the extra glitz and because satin doesn't show scratches at much.
System Three Spar Vanish

I guessed that two quarts would be enough without doing any calculations and, luckily, I was right (Gil's book didn't provide any guidance). I was able to apply three coats, inside and outside, plus four coats on three paddles and used only 1.5 quarts. The label says 350 to 450 sq-ft/gallon but I seem to have gotten more than that (assume an average of 3 ft wide x 16 ft x 2 sides x 3 coats = 288 plus three coats on the seats, yoke, and paddles equals about 300 sq-ft for .375 gallons = 800 sq-ft/gallon). I did thin the stuff with paint thinner a couple of times but mostly because of evaporation during the application. In any case, two quarts seems to be the right amount for most canoes.

I used a 3" Purdy synthetic bristle paint brush and didn't notice any brush marks -- it dried smoothly. I didn't sand between the first two coats because I put them on within 12 hours but then sanded the with 220 and 320 grit sand paper (by hand) before the final coat.

Here is the finished piece. The final weight is 66.6 lbs (I lost 0.2 lbs in the final clean up, mostly in the decks as I had to get them to match the level of the shell). Given that Gil said this design would weigh in at approximately 65 lbs, I'm pretty happy since I used lumber that is much heavier than the cedar he uses. I'm sure I saved much of the weight in the seats.
side view
front view
Bow Deck
Stern Deck
Bow Seat
Stern Seat
Seat Spacers
Over the winter I prepared three paddles, (58", 63", 68") out of my mountain of old barn flooring that I have stacked in my backyard. I wasn't sure it was a good choice but it was free and at the very least it was good practice material. It turned out to be a good choice  in terms of looks, weight (I got them all down to 2.6 lbs), and performance, but dealing with all the knots made it difficult to shape and probably doubled my working time. I wasn't sure how to make them but soon realized that it is just the same as any sculpture, remove material with finer and finer tools until you have the shape you want. The key was in copying the plans from an old paddle that I liked and using the shape, transferred to a board, to rough cut it the shape on a bandsaw. Then using a draw knife followed by a spoke shave to get an approximate shape. Unfortunately, the high number of knots in the lumber made those tools particularly difficult so I eventually started using a grinder to work through the knots and get the blade as thin as I needed (about 1/4" at the edge). Then my Festool sander working 40 grit to 180 along with a rasp to get the handle shape. The final step being hand sanding. 
The feature I'm most proud of is the thumb notch on the handle. I haven't seen it on other paddles but I found that it really make them much more comfortable to hold.
Note the thumb notches!
You can see that the blades on the right and left had nails, which were rusted by years of horse pee, that cause a black stain -- I really like the look. I filled the holes and knot gaps with black epoxy. 
Horse pee/rusty nail stained blades
I suspect all the lumber is old growth spruce but there is no doubt with the middle paddle. I tried to count the rings but had a hard time. My estimate is that, just on the handle, there are approximately 115 growth rings (plus or minus 5) within a 3" radius. I'll need to find someone with better eyes to get an exact count.
Approx. 115 growth rings  
So everything was ready for a test voyage on May 4. I took it out to Green River Reservoir, about 30 miles north of me. To be honest, I was a little nervous about whether it would float and how it would perform but it turned out to be great in every way. I'm very happy, not only in how it looks, but how it performs as well. One thing I learned pretty quickly though, is that when using it as a solo canoe, the bow and stern flip (since it is symmetrical this isn't a problem) because I need to sit closer to the center to keep the bow from tipping up too much. The paddle also worked great (I used the 68" one). I don't think I have ever used a paddle that was actually the right size for me, so it was a real revelation. I also found the large blade to provide much more power than I've ever found in a paddle before. I highly recommend making one's own paddles, in comparison to what you can buy, these are much better.   

As a final note, my wild life count for the first voyage was several mallard ducks, two loons (my first -- these are super cool birds to see and hear), a couple of kingfishers, and one beaver. Not bad for a three hour cruise.
Green River Reservoir, May 4, 2013


  1. Never ridden in a canoe before but I very much enjoyed following the process of building one. Congrats! You must be very proud and deservedly so!

  2. Thanks J.T. I'll have to take you for a paddle if you ever make it up here.