Canoe Building

Posted on January 21, 2012



A Living Tradition

The basic tools include the axe, crooked knife, jack-knife and awls

At the construction site the bark was laid on the ground with the outer facing up. A canoe form was placed on the bark, which was weighted down with rocks, while the two sides of the bark was held upwards by means of stakes driven into the ground.

Staking up the Bark

“In the OLD DAYS”……….That afternoon the women arrived with coils of spruce roots and boxes full of gum. All day they had been scraping sticky accumulations of gum from spruce trees. They had been grubbing up long strands of root from the black earth and their stained clothes and skin were proof of their labor. The bits of bark  In camp the dirty lumps of gum went into bark packages with holes punched in them, and these were dropped into a larger sealed birch bark box filled with water. With red-hot stones dropped in, the water heated, and the gum melted and seeped through holes The bits of bar and dirt remained in the packets and the gum floated on the surface. Still liquid, it was skimmed off into clay pots and bits of hard moose fat were blended in so that it would be less brittle.”

“When canoe building was resumed the next day everyone had a job. The young boys were told to build two big fires. Girls were slithering bark from coils of spruce roots while the women separated each clean, bare length into two half-round strands. There was little conversation because, after she started the split with a fingernail, a women held one strand in her teeth while with sure fingers she controlled the split down the length of the root.”

“The following days were chilly and everyone worked at gathering more bark and cedar, more roots and gum. Then the weather changed. A hot sun warmed the sheltered camp, and they started the first canoe.” 

Family Canoe Building Camp

With a sureness of hand that told she had done the job many times before, one woman with a flint blade made a series of gore cuts about two feet apart, from the outer edge of the bark nearly to the edge of the frame. as she lifted up each flap of bark, the men replaced the stakes in their holes to hold the bark in its trough form, while another woman looped a strand of basswood bark around each pair of stakes. Five or six women made themselves comfortable around the shell and got to their work. Each had her own box of spruce roots in warm water, each her own flint knife and a new awl for punching holes. It was a fine social time as they trimmed and sewed and chatted. Along the center, where the canoe was wider, the bark didn’t rise as high as the ends, so they laced another panel of bark to each side to bring it up to gunwale level. As the sun dropped, the bark grew cooler and more difficult to work. They splashed hot water on it to keep it supple while they finished the sewing.”

“Next morning the building frame, lying inside the bark trough, was raised and held just within the upper rim of the sewn bark shell. The two long sides of the frame would become the inner gunwale strips. When they added another long cedar strip to each outer edge, the bark was sandwiched between the two pieces of wood. The old canoe-maker was busy again measuring the depth of the canoe, and eying its length to see that it had no twist. When he was satisfied, the women punched holes just below the gunwales, lacing spruce roots through and around the wood to complete groups of bindings from end to end on both sides.”

Root stitching and gunwale lashing

“The canoe-maker showed the young men how to split and smooth cedar planks for ribs. With his greatly prized crooked knife he was adding to the pile at his side. Each was about five feet long , two inches wide and a quarter of an inch thick. The old man nodded towards the fires, one burning fiercely over a pile of stones and the other in a bowl-like hollow in the rock. The youths raked the fire out of the depression and filled it with water, then emersed the cedar laths, keeping the water near to the boiling with stones from the other fire. From time to time they hooked out a couple of laths and took them to the old man for bending. He flexed the first two together against his knee, shifting the pressure up and down their length until they were bowed into a flat U shape.

Flexing a pair of cedar ribs over the knee

“Then he tied their end together to hold the curve. As he worked, the ribs diminished in size to conform to the narrowing shape of the canoe, and he sprang each new rib inside the previous one so that they nested together tightly. In the sun or beside the fire they would dry in a permanent bow.”

“While they weighted for a hot day to guarantee supple bark, the men split long, flat pieces of cedar for the inner sheathing, rounding the ends of each. When the day came, they started at the inside bottom of the canoe, at the bow and stern, pushing the feather-thin wood pieces between the bark skin and the stempiece. Working up the sides, they added sheathing until the whole interior was covered cedar held in place by temporary ribs.”

Ribs bundled and drying in the sun

Installing the cedar sheathing and fitting the ribs

 “The job of fitting the permanent ribs was reserved for the master builder. Trimming each to length, he pushed them gently into place with their ends wedged under each gunwale. Then as he hammered them into their final position, they stretched the bark into the ultimate round form.”  

Trimming the ribs with the crooked knife


“The final task was to make the canoe watertight and the Ojibwe women, who often sat on the bottom while paddling, had every reason to seal the seams with care. They poured the hot liquid gum over every seam and lace hole, licking their thumbs and squeezing it into every crevice. If the gum set before they were satisfied, they used a glowing stick from the fire to soften it, then pressed it flat so the canoe would present a smooth hull to the water.”  

Pitching the canoe

Pouring boiling water over the gunwale caps to soften the wood fibers

     “The master-canoe builder watched as the canoe was launched. He waded into the water, placed one foot in the center, shifted his weight aboard, and pushed off with the other foot. He settled on his knees, then raised and dipped a paddle. He shifted his stroke and she turned instantly to the shore, and the old man proved he was yet agile enough to step out into shallow water before the birch skin touched the sand. It was a good canoe, he was satisfied.”*

*Text adaptations from ‘THE CANOE’ by Kenneth G. Roberts & Philip Shackleton, 1983

Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe-style Canoe

For more photos of Theresa paddling on Rice Creek  Theresa on Rice Creek – Ferdy Goode – Picasa Web Albums