Birch Bark Canoe build the final chapter

Way back in June I documented the various stages of our birch bark canoe build, this is the final chapter. Ther last blog post had us fitting the gunwales and thwarts once that was done we had to fit the ribs. These are made from cleft and shaved cedar. Here is Jarrod working with the crooked knife to shave down the ribs.

IMG_9590-1Once shaved the ribs were steamed until pliable then you have a couple of minutes to get them out, bent into shape and in place in the boat. Here comes a piece from the steamer.IMG_9606-1Jarrod swiftly starts the bend before it looses it’s heat.
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bending the curve under Jarrod’s watchful eye, you have to learn fast the heat is going all the time.

IMG_9609-1Each piece is bent to fit a particular place in the canoe by eye, tighter bends toward the prow and stern, flatter bottomed in the middle.

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The corners are pushed tight into the shape of the canoe then the top tacked temporarily to the thwart whilst they dry and set in shape.

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Most of the ribs in place.

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Once the robs had set we numbered them and removed them. The whole boat was lined with sheathing, that is a very thin layer of cedar cleft down to a few mm thick running lengthways. This spreads the load and pressure from the ribs evenly across the bark. The ribs were then cut exactly to length and hammered into place tucked underneath the thwarts. No nails, glue or anything they are just held in place by the pressure and tension of the bark.

And then came the day we had worked for three weeks towards. We loaded the canoe onto Jarrod’s pick up and headed for the lake.

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This is the maiden voyage, me and Jojo paddling away.

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I can’t begin to express how it felt, this was the culmination of a dream I have held for 15 years since first seeing the film Ceasar’s bark canoe. To have my daughter there, a skilled green woodworker in her own right sharing the whole build and paddling together was just deeply joyful.
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Then Jarrod took her out to put her through her paces and get a feel for how she handled. Having only paddled in a modern plastic canoe I was very impressed. First it is far lighter but more importantly it sits lower int he water which means it does not catch the wind. It was quite a blustery day and I would have struggled to paddle my plastic canoe but the birch bark glided effortlessly over the water. This boat is deeply embedded in Canadian culture, it is a national icon, a design which is replicated and not bettered in fibre glass, GRP, aluminium and kevlar. We built it on a reservation of the Ojibwe people from materials gather locally. Those materials are all to hand so any repairs could be carried out from the materials in the woodlands around.IMG_9968-1

It seems simply incredible to me that there is no support system from the US and Canadian government to ensure that these skills are kept alive. Jarrod is one of maybe 8 serious builders (folk that have made more than 5 canoes) Most of those are old men, it would be great to see these skills being passed on to the next generation.

If you missed the earlier posts here are links

collecting bark and root

More collecting bark

collecting and working cedar

setting out and stitching bark

gunwales and thwarts

3 Responses to Birch Bark Canoe build the final chapter

  1. Craig Majoros September 29, 2014 at 1:00 am #

    Very much enjoy your blog and all the hand crafts. The birch bark canoe brought back a memory for me. In the early 1980’s I was the college nurse @ Sterling college in Craftsbury Vermont. A wonderful birch bark canoe builder visited the college to show the students how it was done..
    http://www.birchbarkcanoe.net/ I think he still does his craft, not sure though.. Anyway, keep up the good works..

    • Robin Wood September 29, 2014 at 7:13 am #

      Yes Henri is probably the most famous of the 8 builders I mentioned we have corresponded a few times over the years and he is still building.

  2. Ted Hodson October 17, 2014 at 7:34 pm #

    Thank you for the excellent build log, I’m keeping my eye out for big birch trees. We are fortunate in Peterborough, Ontario to have a museum dedicated to canoes. It is a beautiful, interactive facility with a workshop suitable for building even birchbark canoes. A few of Caesar’s canoes reside in the museum. http://www.canoemuseum.ca/