Saturday, July 26, 2008

Canoe Decision

With the impending birth of my little one around early October, I've actually been stressing out and running myself ragged trying to get all my canoe & paddle projects out of the way before then. Everyone keeps telling me that when the baby comes, I'll have ZERO free time for the next year or two. I've therfore convinced myself (with the wife's approval) that this is the summer to build a canoe. Though I still fully intend to build a full scale birchbark canoe based on my completed Attikamek model, the amount of labour and time just for for harvesting the materials all by myself (especially so late into the season) made me realize that this should be a long term project and one that I should tackle gradually. In the end, I don't want to rush and end up with an unusable boat. But with the baby clock time ticking away, I'm eager to get my very own hand built boat made this summer.

Since the material cost of building a full-sized birchbark canoe is relatively inexpensive (but with no guarantee that I can pull it off), I've decided to pursue my canoe building dreams with a professional builder. I've officially enrolled in Pam Wedd's build course just outside Parry Sound where over 9 intensive days, we'll be building my very own 14ft cedar canvas canoe based on an historic, circa 1890's E.H. Gerrish mold. Pam's Bearwood Canoe Company is really famous around here and her premium canoes (decked out with Sitka Spruce inwales, Black Cherry trim, hand-caned seats) retail for over $5000. The course build cost is about half that price with the added bonus of learning all these skills in a one-to-one setting. Seeing a finished model of the intended boat at the WCHA assembly sealed the deal for was gorgeous!

Pam's 14ft Gerrish model I'll be building

As a history buff, I was also attracted to the fact that E.H. Gerrish is apparently accepted as the first commercial builder of cedar-canvas canoes having basically adapted the building process of the local Penobscot natives in Maine to use oil-sealed canvas as a replacement for birchbark. In the end, I'll end up with my own hand-built boat (under professional supervision) that is the next best thing to a bark canoe while probably learning some extra woodworking skills that'll help me out during the future birchbark build.

So basically during the days I'll be working on this Cedar Canvas canoe and in any spare time, I'll be gradually working on the bark build. Somewhere in there will be my wife's OB-GYN appointments and time for sleep.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Harvesting More Spruce Roots

Collecting spruce roots is a dirty, sweaty, insect-ridden affair but I have to admit it's an enjoyable part of the process for me. I really enjoy getting all mucky (thowback to childhood) and I find the aroma of spruce so refreshing. The roots are a fantastic lashing agent and relatively easy to work with, but like most things in nature, they require some patience and extra work before they are usable.

While up north last week, I took a break from constructing the building bed to harvest some white spruce roots for the build. Generally, all roots of the spruce family are long, thin structures that fan out from the base of the tree and are buried in very shallow topsoil. Sources up in the Muskokas are unfortunately embedded in the typical rocky granite ground of the area so take a lot more effort to harvest. Book sources mention that the best roots will be found in trees that grow next to open lots with few trees around them to prevent overlap and tangling of the roots. In my searching, I've noted that these sun-loving trees need some open space to grow anyway. As with any natural collection care must be taken to ensure the health and survival of the tree. Following some advice from Susan Marie, a Dene woman who collects roots for basketry, I picture the area around the tree as a pie cut into 4 pieces and only harvest one "slice" leaving behind 3/4 of the tree undisturbed. My father, a retired forester, assured me that cumulatively, these roots have a huge surface area anyway, so minimal harvesting from one area will not adversely affect a healthy tree.

I ended up collecting and armful of roots (still not sufficient quantity for the build) but ran out of time to properly clean and split them. So they were brought back home in a large bag in the back seat of the car. No need for fake car air fresheners when you've fresh roots in the back! Once back in the city, I proceeded to debark them on a nearby fallen maple tree in the ravine next to our place during one of Toronto's many heat waves. It was shady and pleasant here. Basically after soaking the roots in a bucket of water first, I would pull the root with one hand while pressing down with the dull spine of the Mora knife. This would effectivly debark the fresh roots. After about an hour of working in this manner (attracting the attention of some of the neighbourhood kids), I was left with a nice bundle of roots to split.

Debarking the roots

Before & after shots of the roots

In my effort to re-use our junk as much as possible, I saved our ugly curtain rod that we'll be replacing anyway and am now using it as a holder for the split & coiled roots. It's a convenient way of storing and accessing all those roots when the time comes.

Coiled roots on the old curtain rod

Monday, July 21, 2008

Building Frame

I scored a pretty nice deal in the scrap bin at Home Depot. Three, 5/8" plywood wall panels (4ft long x 3ft wide with a 1/2" tongue & groove) for the grand total of $4.01 which I intend to use as a the building frame. Purists may argue that such building materials have no place in a historical bark canoe, but various books I've read mention how many native builders (Jocko Carle, William Commanda, Dan Sarazin) used plywood forms later in their building careers for ease of use. This generally involved a building frame constructed in two symmetrical halves, but I figured using three small panels would work too while also being easier to carry and store.

With my wife away on a 2 day business trip, I hijacked the condo balcony for the purpose of marking out the frame. It was tight but I could just maneuver around. The three panels were layed out on foldable sawhorses and marked out the centre a chalk line. The positions of the centre, intermediate, and end thwarts were also marked out in permanent marker.

Plywood panels taking up on the balcony; Chalk line centre

Then using the same technique as the building bed, panel nails were lightly tapped into position on this lines so that a flexible cedar batten could be bent around them, forming the curve of the hull. This was sketched out in pencil and formed the cutting guidelines.

Panel nails & cedar batten; Finished guidelines

After another visit to the Carpenter's Square where I also did some simultaneous work cutting out square staves from some 2x12 scraps also in the discout bin), the plywood panels were cut and the form emerged. Below are the assembled and disassembled pics back on the condo balcony.

Completed form panels lined up; panels disassembled for transport

Another small step completed.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wooden Canoe Heaven

Just came back from the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association Assembly in Peterborough, Ontario. I had a chance to view some fantastic bark canoes and chat with their builders.

Ted Behne was there demonstrating some of his fantastic models with their precision lashing, sheathing, and winter bark decoration. Ted recently finished a 1:5 scale of a Fur Trade Canoe complete with miniature barrels and canvas stuff sacks. The painted colours were stunning indeed. If anyone intends to make a bark canoe model and needs materials and guidance, Ted is the man to speak with. He was kind enough to clarify why certain canoes had their gores stitched and why some didn't...apparently all to do with how the gores were originally cut. Ted's tech tips were absolute gems during my model canoe build so it was great to discuss these details with him. Check out his site - for more stuff.

Ted's beautiful models including the Fur Trade in back

Also there was Ferdy Goode from Wisconsin. Ferdy brought along an Abenaki style canoe that he built back in 1990. The bark had weathered to a nice grey patina and the workmanship was fantastic. I really appreciated all his feedback to my questions regarding gunwale construction and lashing. Being able to stick your head up close into a bark canoe, touch the lashings, and finely examine the features isn't possible at the Canadian Canoe Museum so this was a real eye-opener into the building process. In particular, the clean lines of the gunwale caps and decorative whip stitching on the bow & stern is how I plan to finish the ends on my eventual bark canoe.

Ferdy's aged bark beauty

A surprise visit came in the form of Rick Nash of Woodland Heirlooms, who's been an avid birchbark builder in Dwight (next town over from our cottage place) for over 20 years. I've been meaning to contact Rick over the phone anyway, but now had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife, Doris. Rick was also kind enough to deal with my barrage of questions and offered some alternative suggestions to common problems I anticipated in facing my first full-scale build. In particular, he mentioned his use of Tamarack roots as an acceptable substitute for White Spruce which will be easier to harvest in my area.

Rick had a few of his models on display which included a fantastic 1:5 Maliseet complete with a stunning chip-carved paddle in cherry. In particular I was utterly amazed at the chip carving work on the grip area - something I hope to try on some of my future paddles. Rick's photo portfolio of bark canoes he's built was amazing...particularly a shot with Pierre Trudeau paddling one of Rick's canoes when he was still Prime Minister in 1981.

Rick's Miniature and chip-carved Maliseet Paddle

Maliseet stem; Trudeau paddling Nash's canoe in '81

I also got a chance to meet Lloyd Stonehouse, another paddle maker who had a workshop class running. He had a bunch of blanks layed out on display as well as a few completed ones, including a stunning Bird's Eye Maple beavertail. I asked Lloyd about some other woods to consider for paddlemaking (other than cherry, walnut, birch, etc) and he mentioned using Willow, Butternut, and Sitka Spruce. So the next time I source out some wood, I'll try these stock

Lloyd Stonehouse's various paddle blanks

All in all a fantastic day for a canoe-addict!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

New Carving Tools

Now that I'm taking this woodworking hobby more seriously, I thought it would be neat to customize my own carving tools. I don't have enough metalwork experience to forge blades from scratch, but figured making some customize knife handles from the loads of wood scraps on hand would be simple enough if I could get my hands on new blade blanks.

After searching the net, I came across a fantastic site with just what I needed -Deepwoods Ventures selling various carving knife blanks. I decided to order their general carving knife, spoon carver, and "bent knife" (i.e. crooked knife blade). The crooked knife blade was the most interesting to me, as this is the traditional tool for paddlemaking and canoe construction. The Deepwoods Ventures blade is by no means a full length crooked knife blade. Its cutting edge is only 2" so it makes it more suitable to smaller jobs, but I wanted to try it out anyway.

Now that the blades had been selected, working on the handles was next. On my last excursion to the Carpenter's Square, I brought along a bunch of woodscraps destined for the fireplace and cut out various knife handle patterns so that I could experiment and find the right ones for my pudgy hands.

When the freshly forged blades arrived 2 weeks later (amazingly sharp and protected with an improvised foam sheath), I layed out the blanks on the balcony table and started to get a feel for the blade/hand patterns I liked.

The knife blanks; Various handles of birch, walnut, cherry

Once I had made a rough decision in my mind, I started shaping the handles with a coarse rasp, my indispensible Mora, and some sandpaper. Funny how sometimes, the handles that seemed to fit well as a blank, got less comfortable as they were rounded and shaped to appropriate size...and vice versa. In the end, I settled on the "whale - tail" walnut shape (3rd from top) as my preferred design for the general carving knife as it seemed most comfortable for the verical positioning of the blade. The cherry handle (4th from top) was also very comfortable, especially for the crooked knife hand position. The walnut "crooked handle" (1st from top) was cut to a standard shape for most crooked knives and was also nice in the hand, but the mini 2" blade seemed dwarfed by the huge handle size. I think I'll be keeping that handle for when I make a full sized crooked knife from a rusty file I have on hand (yet another project in the background). For the spoon carver, I ended up with the birch handle (bottom)

Once these were all shaped and sanded, I needed to drill the hole for the tang. The blades came with instructions to use a 19/64 drill bit that I marked off with red electrical tape to ensure proper depth of the hole to fit each tang. Then, while clamping in vise, I carefully drilled out a hole.

Marking out the depth with tape

Clamping and drilling out the tang hole

With some standard harware store epoxy on hand, the blades and handles were layed out and set. The next day I made some simple sheaths by sewing some leather coverings onto the temporary foam sheaths that shipped with the blades. After some basic labelling with the pyrography kit and oiling the handles, the knives were all ready for work. I've all ready used them with some spoon blanks and scrap wood. All in all an easy side project that serve me well for years to come.

Blades in position; epoxied up

Final Carving Knives

Monday, July 14, 2008

Full Sized Building Bed

I've officially begun construction of the full-sized birchbark canoe, but am resigned to the fact that it was begun too late in the season and will not be finished by the end of my holiday time this summer. With the impending birth of my little one, 2 more paddle commissions in the works, and the fact that I'm spending weeks of free time scouting and legally harvesting the materials entirely on my own, this inevitably will need to be an ongoing project. The good news is that I've been planning the build in the heated garage at our winterized chalet up north so if all goes well and I get all the raw materials harvested now, the build can continue when the weather turns colder.

At any rate, I started the first step which is the construction of the building bed. The most expensive purchase for the build for so far has been the 2x10 boards from HomeDepot that will make up the structure (total = $60 CND). With some 3" deck screws I had on hand and some scrap 2x4s cut to appropriate width, the boards were secured together and mounted on sawhorses.

2x4 bases; 2x10s layed out on edge

Securing the boards; Up on Sawhorses

Using the plywood form from my model canoe as a guide, I marked out the centre, intermediate, and end-thwart lines directly onto the building bed adjusting to appropriate scale. Width dimensions were also taken and at these points, panel nails were tapped into place to serve as guides. Then, a long piece of thin cedar scrap was bent around these nails to form the natural curve of the hull which was sketched in pencil onto the bed. After repeating three more times, I was left with a sketch of the building frame in position. This isn't a necessary step and I'm sure many builders skip this entirely, but I found sketching the position on the bed useful for the model build when trying to ensure everything is aligned properly. The exact same process will be used when I build the frame as well, but I'll need to pick up some extra plywood for that part.

Setting pins; Flexible cedar batten; Marked out canoe frame

The spots where 1-1/4" dowel holes will be later drilled were marked every foot along the hull in addition to two extra holes at the ends resulting in 26 stake positions. Instead of adding unnecessary cost of purchasing 26, 3ft dowels, I intend to harvest the stakes from deadfall in the bush and shape them with an axe.

It's a modest start to the build, but I can already visualize the hull taking shape on this building bed soon.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Gift from Mother Birch

I've been granted a wonderful gift from nature. While hiking around the surrounding cottage property, I came across a huge birch tree that had tumbled down from a precarious cliff position. It had come to rest lying horizontally between two mammoth Muskoka granite outcroppings and miraculously, the central trunk was perfectly suspended without damage to the bark. After weeks of random wanderings trying to source out some bark, I'm amazed that I never came across this find before. Its extremely difficult location made it really unfavourable to reach. Basically, it involved climbing up about 10 vertical meters of steep rock face overgrown with moss and other fallen debris. I noted the location on my GPS and later pinpointed it on a digital topo map...check out the location right at the confluence of all those contour elevation lines!

I couldn't have asked for a better find - appropriate width, length & thickness, the right amount of flexibility, within walking distance to the cottage, and naturally downed. It appears the tree fell very recently (this winter or spring) as the area around the base had what appeared to be freshly distubed soil. The fact that the bark revealed the darker and much sought after winter bark was a bonus. By this time it was late evening (7pm) and with the sun already gone behind the ridge, I set to work tring to harvest the bark. I didn't have my camera with me so never got to take shots of the progress.

I've found bark collection to be a delicate and sweaty affair that needs to progress slowly for risk of shredding the bark up into strips. Using my Mora knife, sharp Wetterlings Axe and some cedar shingles, I set out to defty pry the bark from the trunk. It took about 1.5 hours in nasty humid weather while being attacked by voracious Canadian mosquitos but I was determined to take advantage of the find. All went well except for 4 serious knots from healed branch wounds that caused the bark to split quite seriously. Basically my hopes for a single sheet hull were not meant to be, but the bark was still salvageable. In the end, I ended up cutting the natural split fault lines to result in 2 large 5ft long panels.

The next day I returned with the camera to document the final bits of removing more bark. While approaching the tree, I took a shot to show the difficult footing in the area surrounding the trunk. More than a few times, my foot sank into a sink-hole of soft soil and nearly got trapped under collapsing bits of granite boulders. Very delicate treading and solid balance was required to stay upright while harvesting.

Approaching the tree; Scene from the previous day's harvest

After clearing the another fallen tree (top right of 2nd photo) resting on the end of this birch (requiring 1/2 hr of chopping with the axe), I realized that I could've obtained another 5-6 ft of bark from the day before and maybe ended up with a larger single piece. Oh well. In any event, I started to collect this last bit which would end up having to be harvested only up to the giant rock on which the birch rested - there was no way I could under the tree after this point.

Starting the cut; Peeling with cedar shingles

Getting up the rocky slope was a challenge in itself. Climbing down with rolls of bark was a crazy affair but I managed without incident. Back at the cottage, I surveyed my harvest to visualize the orientation of the bark panels for a full-scale build. The main panels are a whopping 40" wide with the largest panel a bit over 5ft in length. I'm disappointed in my failure to successfully peel the bark as a single piece, but the awkward location made it difficult to work around those pesky branch knots. With the additional side panels from the previous harvest on Paul's property, I'll certainly have enough panels for the hull. Obviously, it'll need to be stitched but this is the same technique that Jim Miller uses for his full-scale canoes. If my quarter-scale model is any indication, the hull can still be made water-tight with this technique.

The winter bark side; White bark panels

Since it'll likely be many more weeks before I can get established in the build, the bark was rolled up, white side in, and tied off into rolls. With an overnight soak in the lake and plenty of boiling water, the bark should be good to go when the building process starts.

Bark rolled up for storage in the garage resting on Dad's fishing boat

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Another Commission - Birch Tripper - Part 1

A neighbour in the building caught me loading some paddles into the car and inquired about the hobby. Turns out she needed a gift for a paddling friend and another commission came my way. In this particular case, she snuck into her friend's place while she was out of town, grabbed her paddle, and asked me to replicate it.

From the shape of the paddle, it looked to be similar to a Grey Owl Tripper - 58" long with a 27" blade and a 6-1/4" width. This one had a Black Feather branding on the blade face, but I couldn't find a Black Feather paddle company on the net. Instead, I'm assuming it is the logo of Black Feather Adventure Company, a wilderness outfitter based out of my hometown of Toronto. I almost signed up for their Arctic Canoe excursion down the Soper River last summer, but opted for Arctic Watch instead.

What intially struck me about the paddle's design was that the wide & thick blade surface coupled with a thin 1" shaft and a small pear grip meant that the paddle was blade heavy and not balanced at the throat. Replicating the design exactly would mean that this balance flaw would also be copied. At any rate, you could tell the paddle is a favourite given the amount of wear on the handle and the blade. A closeup revealed not only wearing of the varnish layer but complete rot and a few splits in the tip. One more season of heavy tripping and this paddle would be a goner anyway.

Black Feather Logo; Worn out Tip; Grip damage

I suggested using Yellow Birch rather than cherry as a bit of change, but also because the lighter coloured wood would lend itself better to some pyrography work. Cherry is a decent hardwood but mostly imported from the Carolinean forest zone in the United States. Yellow birch is more prevalent in our area and is an undervalued wood for paddlemaking. Once the centerlines of the board and paddle were determined, it was easy enough to trace around the pattern.

Paddle next to Yellow Birch stock; Tracing out the paddle

I brought the cut out blank up to the cottage for my short holiday up there and made use of the time carving out the paddle on a picnic table under my favourite cedar tree by the lake. Over the course of a few days, the paddle began to take shape. To keep me going, I brought out a portable burner and made some Turkish Coffee to enjoy by the lakeside. My power-boat and jetski loving neighbours were wondering why I was working on yet another paddle...I guess only other canoeists would understand.

Carving by the lakeside

It has since been wetted & sanded down and now I'm just waiting on my neighbour's decision on the decoration. She's an avid birdwatcher as well so is spending some time coming up with a choice for her friend. I'll post again when the paddle's been burned and varnished.

UPDATE - Aug 12, 08: Paddle has been completed - read Part 2

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