Making Your Own Cedar Strip Canoe…


Ever dream of portaging a light, quiet canoe into that hidden valley to that big beaver pond where you always said, “I wish I had a boat?” Can you picture drifting silently across the pond with your fly rod in hand and trout rising to eagerly take flies around you? You gotta smile! Those trout have never seen an artificial fly before.

Well, quit dreaming and start building! Anyone with basic building skills, basic woodshop tools and the ability to follow instructions can make their own beautiful cedar strip canoe. When finished, people will be so impressed that they will ask you if you actually intend to throw that beautiful piece of furniture into the water.

A word of warning though. Although the process of building a cedar strip and fiberglass canoe isn’t complicated, it is quite involved and labor intensive. The book says it will take 150 to 200 hours to complete this project. Many have started a canoe and found that they didn’t have the time, patience or determination to finish a job of this magnitude. A friend once pointed out that, “Patience only becomes a problem when you would rather be somewhere else, doing something else.” So, unless you truly love this type of work, you may want to think twice about starting this project.

Another thing to consider is that the material for a cedar strip canoe is not cheap. In reality, you can probably buy a pretty decent canoe for the same money.

On the other hand, if you prefer the warm look of nicely finished wood over space age Kevlar and molded plastic; if you prefer silently gliding with the current as opposed to the clunking of aluminum announcing your arrival; and if you prefer a lightweight portage rather than dragging your heavy boat to the next lake; you will admire and appreciate a cedar strip canoe. For those who appreciate more traditional things, a strip canoe offers a “drift back in time” to the era when the canoe was the main mode of transportation throughout the Northland.

I built my first cedar strip canoe in my basement last winter. I feel that the project was a great success. And, if I can build a great canoe…anyone can.

The first thing to consider is where to build the canoe. Good canoes have emerged from haylofts, basements, sheds, garages and have even been built outdoors. In choosing your workplace consider space, climate control and ventilation capabilities.

As far as space, you will need enough room for the canoe with a few feet of room all around it to work in. A work bench, long enough for laying out the wood strips and your tools handy. It is essential to have good lighting to accomplish a nice finish on the canoe. Consider mobile work lights in addition to good overhead lighting. A wood strip canoe could certainly be built using only hand tools but, personally, I prefer the labor saving use of electric saws and sanders. So, electric outlets should be available in the workplace.

Temperature and humidity are critical to the curing process of epoxy resins. Unless you plan to wait for the proper weather conditions, plan on temperature control of some kind. I found the use of an electric heater useful.

Epoxy resins and varnishes require ventilation and/or the use of an organic respirator. One caution is to always wear an organic vapor respirator when using, or sanding, epoxy. Although the smell isn’t bad, some people may become sensitized by breathing the vapors or dust.

One other thing to remember is to ensure that the finished canoe will fit through the door of your workplace. Don’t laugh…it has happened.

Before actually building the canoe the strongback and forms must be set up. The strongback is a frame, made from straight 2″ x 6″ planks, which is the platform for attaching the forms. The forms are plywood pieces which are cut into the exact shape of the inside of the canoe at regular cross sections. These forms vary in size and shape, depending on the length and style of canoe, and are provided with many canoe plans. The forms are attached, at measured intervals, onto the strongback. When assembled, this mold will be used for attaching thin, flexible wooden strips to make the hull of the canoe.

Stretch a string along the centerline of the strongback to line up the centerlines of the forms as they are attached. Any irregularities in this mold will be built into the canoe, so be sure to set it up straight, level and rigid. Attach it firmly to the floor if possible.

The actual building of the wood strip canoe can be divided into three main parts.

1) Planking the hull.

2) Fiberglass and epoxy work.

3) Finishing and varnishing (gunwales, seats, thwarts, etc.).

Various woods can be used for making a wood strip canoe. Considerations are, ease of cutting and sanding, ability to bend around curves without cracking, weight and color. Soft, lightweight woods like cedar, basswood or Sitka spruce are excellent choices for the canoe hull, with cedar being the most popular choice. Strength and water resistance are not concerns because the hull will be sheathed between thin layers of fiberglass and epoxy resin. Weight of the wood is a concern because we are after a lightweight canoe. Eye pleasing color combinations can be achieved by arranging strips of contrasting woods like Western Red cedar and Northern White cedar on the canoe hull.

While it is possible to cut and mill your own wood strips, I’d suggest buying pre-milled strips for your first canoe. The long, thin (¼ inch by ¾ inch) wooden strips can be purchased from any of the companies listed in the sidebar. These strips are milled with what is known as “bead and cove” edges. The rounded “bead” edge of the strip fits nicely into the hollow “cove” edge of the next strip. This configuration allows them to bend around the curves on the hull without opening cracks between them.

The canoe hull is built upside down on the forms. Start at the bottom (which will be the top, or shearline of the canoe) with the first two full length strips, one on each side of the forms. Put the strips on with the bead side up. Staple the strips to each form while making sure the shear lines are a nice, matching curve. Carefully measure, from the centerline at the top of the forms, down to the shear line to ensure that both sides are the same. It’s very important that the first two strips are perfect, as the rest of the hull will be built upon them.

Now, run a small bead of carpenter’s wood glue (I used Titebond) along the cove of the next wood strip. Place it above the first strip and pull the cove down onto the bead of that strip. Staple it in place at each plywood form. In this way, continue adding strips as you move up the forms. Use a wet rag to wipe off any glue that is squeezed out of the joints, both inside and outside of the canoe. Use as many clamps or bungee straps as necessary to hold the strips tightly in place until the glue cures. I found a strip of masking tape helpful to draw the strips down in between the forms. The strips do not need to be full length. Short strips can be joined with a 45 degree cut that won’t damage the looks or integrity of the hull. This joint doesn’t even need to be placed at a form, simply clamp it together until the glue cures. The next strip will lock it in place.

Use a fine toothed hacksaw blade to trim the ends of the strips off square where they meet at the ends of the canoe. This area will be reinforced later with a double layer of fiberglass for strength.

If you plan ahead, a nice contrasting color pattern of light and dark wood can be laid out on the canoe. Save enough dark wood for a nice football patch area on the bottom of the canoe.

Continue planking both sides up the forms until the centerline is reached near the ends of the canoe hull. Now plank only one side, letting the loose ends of the strips extend past the centerline. When finished with one complete side, snap a chalk line on the centerline. Carefully cut the wood strips, on this straight line, down the center of the hull. One half of the canoe hull is now completed. Plank up the other side, trimming each strip to fit snugly against the opposing strip on the centerline, until the hull is completed. Cut the last piece to fit and glue it in place. Don’t worry about the strength of the joint. The fiberglass and epoxy will completely strengthen the finished hull.

After the hull is completely planked and the glue has cured, remove all the staples. Take care not to dent the soft wood as you remove them with a pair of pliers.

Then, use a block plane or spoke shave to smooth out any small ridges left on the hull. Next, sand the hull into smooth, fluid curves using a random orbital sander with 80 grit sandpaper. I removed the collection bag from the sander and hooked it directly to my shop vacuum to take care of the dust.

A flexible, long-board, sander is an indispensable tool for hand sanding a curved surface like the canoe hull. Make your own from a 16″x 3″ piece of 1/8″ thick masonite board. Attach wood blocks at each end for handles and glue 60 grit sandpaper on the bottom side. This sander can be bent around the curves to finish the sanding job. By applying some elbow grease you’ll soon have a perfectly shaped and smoothed canoe hull. Soft wood, like cedar, does not attain a smooth finish like the hardwoods do, so it is not necessary to use fine grit sandpaper on the hull.

Now, sit back, relax and admire your work. You have reached a milestone. The canoe hull is now ready to proceed with the next step; the fiberglass and epoxy.

Next month, in this column, we’ll finish up our canoe so we can get out on the water. With the canoe, we can drift silently down lazy waterways, quietly approach wildlife, explore places where power boats can’t go and fish forgotten places.

I believe those dreams of finding your own trout fishing sanctuary can come true.