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Cedar Strip Canoe Build: Part 1



PLEASE NOTE: To respect people's privacy, I have blurred the faces in most of these photos. The exception is people I know who have given permission.

At our first meeting, in mid January, there were just three of us, talking and making plans. We then ripped up a bunch of 7/16" plywood to use to make the strongback. The Moores book gives clear directions for this. There were no pictures of this day.


On the first "official" day of the build, we had a pretty good sized group of people, so we broke into three teams. Team one was two guys who were working on the stems.

Here is one of the canoe stem forms. The inner and outer stem pieces are being glued (laminated) into shape around the form with lots of clamps. The inner stem is pine, the outer is cherry. There are three (or four?) pieces in each. We glue them both at the same time. There is packing tape between the inner and outer stems, so we don't inadvertently glue them together. Albert had prepared these strips in advance.

Once one set was complete, it was set aside (see in the background) and they worked on the other set. There was one minor mixup here, as they accidently glued the cherry to the pine the first time, due to a misunderstanding of the instructions. Fortunately the glue was still tacky and it could be separated and reglued.
Team two was working on the strongback. Yours truly was in charge of that team. Here we are already done the build. (Sorry, no progress shots.) This is a pretty elegant design from the "Canoecraft" book. This is built from two sheets of plywood, to make a 16 foot long strongback. Two pieces are ripped at 12" to make the top. Five pieces are ripped at 8" to provide the sides. (There are four outer sides, and one piece is ripped in half and used to build the bridge section to connect the two 8ft sections together. This is made clear in the book.) Then a bunch more are ripped into (roughly) 8x8 pieces to make the inner ribs -- the whole strongback is like a torsion box, though without a bottom. The remaining scrap is enough to provide pieces to build the legs.
Team three was stuck outside as that was the only way they'd have enough room to rip the 18ft cedar boards into strips. It was a pretty mediocre portable table saw, so they had to work hard to make sure that they were getting nice consistent thin strips out of the procedure.

Albert provided the gorgeous clear western red cedar, which is used. It's kind of amazing that three boards provide enough strips to make an entire sixteen-foot-long canoe.

Here I am as we are starting to fasten the forms onto the strongback. There is a form piece set every 12" down the length of the strongback. You start in the middle with form #0 and work out from there. This is a symmetric design, so after #0, all the other forms come in identical pairs. So it would look like 6-5-4-3-2-1-0-1-2-3-4-5-6 from one end to the other.

We were fortunate in that we did not have to make the forms. These had been through a few hands and used to build a few canoes over the previous decade.

Here is an overview of the shop from one corner. We have the 3,2,1,0 forms in place and are working on the #4 forms in this photo.
And a photo from the opposite corner. We're now setting the pair of #5 forms onto the strongback. On the right-hand bench you can see one set of stems clamped and drying.

That was the extent of our work for this day one. We got all the strips cut out, the stems glued up, the strongback assembled, and most of the forms into place.


This is a view of the workshop we are using at our church. It is about 20ft on a side, with 10ft ceilings. It is also used by our Cadet boys club during the week, so we need to pack things away when not in use. The strong back is shown down the middle of the shop, with most of the canoe forms fastened into place. On the wall in the background are two large brackets where all the 18ft cedar strips are sitting. At the end of the day, the strong back will be carefully lifted up to rest on those brackets also, to clear room in the shop.

Closeup of the wall brackets and cedar strips. (sixty or seventy of them...)
It was a cold day today (-10c with a bit of snow and wind also, brrrr.) But we had to set up the router table outside. We are processing 18ft cedar strips which means you need at least 36ft of space to run them through the router table. So we had to work outside. Hopefully this will be the last outdoor work for a while!
Here is a closeup of the rough and ready router table. There are TWO routers in there both with cove and bead bits mounted. The first router (on the right) is for milling the cove. You can see that router bit, just to the left of the one featherboard. The second router (on the left and behind that pile of chips) is milling the bead. There are five feather boards keeping things tight. Since it was just built out of plywood, once things were in position we just popped in several screws to hold everything in place.

Just to be clear, the second router bit (on the left) is NOT in the fence. Rather, it is about 3/4" away from the fence. The first router bit is in the fence and mills the one side of the strip, then it gets to the second bit which mills the opposite side of the strip. This cut the work of milling the strips in half.

Look closely. He is PULLING the cedar through the router table! With 5 feather boards, it was tough work moving the cedar through.
Yours truly bundled up and feeding the cedar into the routers
Back inside, the forms are now completely installed on the strong back with the addition of the stem forms. One of the pine inner stems is in the foreground.
Here are the two cherry outer stems on the bench. They look kind of rough right now, covered in glue drips and the like, but they will be planed and sanded and made smooth later. In the foreground are a stack of scrap plywood that will be used when we start clamping the cedar strips into place. We are planning on using the clamped (or staple-less) method to build the canoe, so we will NOT have a whole bunch of staple holes left on the canoe.
One of the stem (bow/stern) forms, showing how the pine inner stem fits into place. It will need to be shaped to a V-shape so that the cedar strips fit snug.

First we worked a bit more finessing the shape of the inner stems. This is done with a block plane or spokeshave. You want to end up with an edge that is only about 1/8" wide. We just lay a piece of cedar along the forms and use that to eyeball the shape. Near the strongback, this is pretty easy as it is a basic V shape. But up top, near the keel area, it is a much wider V, so it takes a bit of care.

And another view of the stem.
Then it is time to start fastening cedar strips.

But wait! Getting ready for that first strip takes time. We start with clamping all these notched jig pieces along the bottom edge (gunnel/gunwale edge) of the forms. These are to support the first strip as it's position is finalized. (You need every C-clamp you own and then some for this.)

Then we lay the first strip there, bead side down, and make adjustments.

Along the edge, as shown here, is pretty easy. Then we had to fuss a bit to make sure it fit well at the bow and stern. We start with aligning it to the edge of the form, but for the ends you just need to bend over and eyeball the curve and see. Your eye will show you if there is an unsightly dip or wobble that needs addressing. Then we staple the first piece into position. These staple holes are later covered by the gunwales, so they are not unsightly.

On the other side we check every spot for level before stapling these also. They need to be level with the strips on the other side of the canoe.

I also forgot to mention, we check the spacing between each form, to make sure we are maintaining the 12" spacing. The forms can tend to flop around at first.

Each form is also checked for plumb, and we tack a strip along the keel to hold them in position. This is a temporary piece, and will be removed later in the process.
The first glue on the entire craft is when we glue the first pieces to the stems at each end of the canoe.
We elected to go with the "staple-less" method. This means NO STAPLE HOLES. This method is a bit more work along the way -- okay a lot more -- but the end result is a hull that is not covered with tiny holes.

First we clamped all those L-shaped jig pieces to each form so that they ready for use. We also cut a bunch of wedges from scrap bits of cedar. We need wedges for the top, and wedges for the face. Finally we practised a dry fit with one piece of cedar so that the whole gang knew what we were doing. Then it was time to go live and we laid a bead of glue down the cove of the strip, fitted the jig pieces into position and clamped them tight. And finally forced wedges in. Note that the jig pieces are not clamped tight to the strips; you leave a small gap so that the wedges can be forced in. Those will lock the beads into the coves.

And then we moved over to the other side where we got fancy and glued two strips at once and then clamped it. You do this by first laying a bead of glue into the strip that is on the form, and then also into another strip, and then fit two strips into place.

Note that the wedges are made from bits of the cedar planks. So they have the cove shape along the one side. That side is what is wedged into the strip. A flat wedge would possibly damage the bead edges of the plank.

Clamping near the stems is tricky, but manageable.
By this time, we trust that the glue on the first side has set up enough. So we went back to the first side and glued in two more strips.
This is the glue we are using. We went with this new titebond as it is supposed to set very quickly. We're not that worried about water resistance, given that the whole canoe, inside and out, will be encased in fiberglass and epoxy resin.

NOTE: in later weeks we went back to regular wood glue. We found his glue to be a bit too thick for our purposes. I've heard from several people who like this glue for trim work or crown molding work, but we found it not the best for canoe work!

At the end of the session we have to hoist it up onto braces, since the shop is a multi-use facility and we can't just leave the canoe out. We purposely did NOT screw the legs of the strongback into place, since we knew we would be lifting this up all the time. They are just friction fit into place, and the weight of the whole thing holds them in place. We also marked the floor around the feet with a marker, so that we could always get the strongback back into the right position.

As time went by, this got heavier and heavier. In order to feel safe, we usually wanted five (or more) people to lift and one or two standing by to help keep it from tipping, and to deal with the legs. For getting it down, four was enough usually. If I ever did this again, I might prefer to set up a hoist of some kind.


I was not able to be here on the 8th, so I only have a few photos hat I took the next day that shows all the work that was accomplished. The group made a lot of progress, as is shown in these photos, adding several cedar strips to each side of the form. Both sides of the canoe are now up to about 13-14 strips.

Clamping near the ends is tough, so they added these u-shaped frames for a place to clamp wedges that keep the strips pressed into place.


(This is a Wednesday. We soon realized that this was a huge project, and so we started meeting twice a week on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings when possible, so as to move along quicker.)

Being a weekday evening, we could only get together for a bit over an hour, but every little bit of progress helps!

We had to "slow down" and only clamp one strip at a time now. We are curving over the top of the form, and we need to force each strip to follow that curve. That is hard enough with one strip.

As each strip is glued, we work from the centre towards the ends, clamping as we go. The wedges are very important, as they force the strips against the form, to make sure they're following the curve.

It's getting harder to clamp at the ends...
If you look to the left side of this photo, you can see the wedges better. There is usually a face wedge, which pushes the cedar strip against the form, and also a top wedge, which pushes the cedar strip down to lock into the previous strip.
Note the odd wedges here... Sometimes ya do what ya gotta do to make sure the strips are in position!

Only four of us made it out today, glad I dragged my #2 son along, as with only three I'm not sure we could have safely lowered the canoe down to the floor from where it is stashed up top.

We got six (or seven?) strips added onto the canoe. We're going through the bilge area right now which is really hard. Near the center of the canoe, the strips are moving toward horizontal. But at the ends of the canoe, the pieces are still nearly vertical. So it is a fight with each strip to force it into position. Once again, we start at the center and work our way towards both ends.

One thing we have done is take some advice (from a woodworking forum) and hot-glued in some blocks to help hold the cedar strips to some of the forms where they end to pull away once we remove clamps. This is a temporary need. As the canoe nears completion these won't be needed and we'll just knock them loose.
At the stems we really have to get creative and determined with clamping the strips. They do NOT want to be twisted into place...
Like I said, really creative. Duct tape is your friend.

Another small group tonight, but we still made some progress. We got 4 strips installed on the one side, and we are PAST the stem on that side. Hopefully on Saturday we'll get the one side completely stripped up to the keel. Hopefully.

Just a few pictures. You don't see much progress with these photos as it is mostly more of the same.

Should have done this LONG ago: under the blue clamp is a pair of angled glue blocks that I made with 80 grit sandpaper glued to the face. It makes clamping on the angle SO MUCH EASIER.

This photo was taken just before putting on the fourth strip of the evening, which is the LAST ONE that will be touching the inner stem. You can just see it peeking out there in the middle.
My #2 son in the background.

Here you can see how we have made good progress with adding strips on the right side of the canoe tonight. In this shot we're finished for the evening and starting to clean up.

When it is tucked away it almost looks finished, since you can't see the hole in the middle. We will also need to start adding partial strips DOWN at the ends to build the bow and stern a bit taller. Oh yeah, and this is getting VERY HEAVY to lift up and down. Those strips are thin, but it adds up. We can get it down with four guys, just. But getting it up we used six -- four lifting and two guiding/positioning.

Great progress today -- 5 strips at the top, and 2 partial strips at the bottom (really the top, since the canoe is upside down) of each end.

We were able to remove one of the frames from each end, as it is no longer needed, and it is getting in the way. We also removed 4 of the supports along the bottom that held up the first strip when we started. We needed to remove them as we were ready to start adding the partial strips at the ends that build up the bow and stern.

Here we have added two bottom strips at the end. They only go as far as that second piece of duct tape on the far right side of the photo. You need the duct tape because out there the strips are below the extent of the station forms, so they are otherwise unsupported and there is no where to clamp them.
This one is blurry, but I'm including it anyway. This my 10yr old son (#3), who I "drafted" to come along today. I think he had some fun anyway, even though he was frequently on the short side for reaching the top strips. Here he is tapping in a nail to help hold a strip in place. The strips are still fighting us a the ends on this side, so we use nails or staples, while trying to keep them in places where they will be later covered up.
Another shot showing my #1 son as he is helping add two partial strips under one of the ends

The next two photos are a top view and a side shot.

I am loving the curves. So much of what I do is square and flat. It is kind of exhilarating to be building something that is so curvy.

We're done and leaving for the day and stopped for a last look. I crouched down for this last photo which again really shows the lovely curves of this craft that are developing.


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