Birchbark canoes are a rare class of vessel these days, but before the advent of wood canvas canoes in the 19-century they were ubiquitous across Canada. Opting for a challenge, I decided to construct one using hybrid techniques and equipment.
To start I had to source a suitable piece of bark. Roaming 200 acres of woods over a weekend I found what I thought was a good tree. However, after chain sawing it down the bark came off not as a rollable sheet but in segments with many tears.
Once a lateral rip begins it is very hard to stop. I got the bark in mid-May near the Soo. As the winter was cold and I did it before the leaves had come out I feel that I missed the time when sap was flowing well enough to assist in peeling. Also I may have chosen an unsuitable tree. After all, I was taking my cues from a published source and mostly from long ago.
I decided on a design from the Atikamekw, a community of noted canoe builders north of Montreal. Having limited lengths of bark I chose a 9 foot 8″ solo “hunters” canoe. Tappan Adney recorded the specifications in his detailed book. Knowing how to build a canoe upside down using a mold, I thought I could construct it just like a cedar strip boat. When I consulted with bark canoe builders on the Net I was told it would be harder and they didn’t know if it had been done before.
Since I did not have one long strip of bark I found a contact in the States who sells bark and got a 8 foot length and two smaller pieces for the bow and stern. I used the pieces I cut down for the sides above the chine, eliminating the need to create gores.
I started by cutting the stem pieces from spruce. They were soaked and steamed into place. Unlike other canoes there is only one stem stock for the bow and the stern.
The large piece of bark was soaked and steamed in the shower then draped over the mold. Traditionally sewing was done with spruce root but since I didn’t want to pull up roots for days, I choose caning reed (i.e rattan) that once soaked, provides a very suitable alternative. Seldom would it rip and it came in 1000 foot bundles. I only needed one bundle.
Sewing is very difficult to learn. In the end I used a drill to punch through the pieces and double sewed from back and from front an interwoven design. It was hard on the hands and took a lot to get used to.
There are three gunwales on the canoe: topwale, outwale and inwale. The outwale was square but the inwale was beveled on the inside where the ribs would intersect. This helps to hold the ribs in under tension. The inwale was attached to the stem prior to the bark, the outwale was sewn onto the bark using the reed at regular intervals leaving a gap for the ribs, the top wale covered the binding.
After stitching it all together I was able to remove the gunwale/bark shell from the mold and envision the final shape. The centre thwart was installed at this time to allow the shape to hold and aid in movement.
Although I tried to use clear grained cedar for the ribs, the wood proved to be too inflexible for the job and after much wasting of beautiful wood I opted for clear grained spruce. The spruce was from 2×6 and 2×8 regular framing lumber, but chosen from pieces with minimal knots and tight grains. Ribs were ripped from the boards and any ribs with knots were discarded. A beleveled edge was put on one edge with a spoke shave to create a gentle curve. Sanding was done to take out any knicks and sawblade burns.
Once complete the 40 plus ribs were soaked and put into a steam box that I created. The steam box had slots running the length to allow up to 9 ribs to lie flat. Two holes in the bottom allowed steam from two running kettles to fill the box with steam.
Once the hot and moist ribs were removed, they were pre-bent along the station mounts used in the mold. This helped to create a general shape, the final shape was the curve of the canoe which varied slightly from the ideal shape of the mold. Once inplace the ribs were clamped onto the gunwale to dry. Small sheathing boards were positioned under the ribs to lift the ribs off the bottom a bit.
Sheathing was from an old growth 4×4 recycled cedar post, and a 2×10 old growth plank. Both of these boards were ripped with a table saw to the maximum width the blade would allow (3 3/4″). The tight spacing of the grains were ideal for the curve of the chine and the deep bronze colour of the wood added beauty. The thickness was as small as it could be without having them snap easily.
The sheathing was overlapped along the bottom and sided and held in with the ribs that were cut to length and bevelled on the edge to lock into the gunwale. Each rib exerted pressure outwards helping to define the true shape of the canoe. Starting from the stern and the bow, working inwards. Additional thwarts were added at this stage.
Instead of using spruce gum and bear fat to water proof the seams, I used a clear multi-polymer caulk. It helped to show off the stitching and was flexible. Final pieces included headboards and small bow and stern thwarts (handles).
A test of the canoe in a filthy pool revealed that it floats, but also sinks. With hundreds of sewed up holes, re-caulking was needed.
Tools used from the Library:
Scroll Saw: Trimming the edges of sheathing
Belt Sander for thwart finishing and smoothing sheathing edges
Clamps: all the clamps at the library for rib bending
Chisels for carving headboard.