[canoe] La Mina - a classic modern canoe

From birchbark to plywood

La Mina - latest greatest This spring I'm starting my canoe project. Living close to the Rockies, there is not too much water around, but still enough to make this project worthwhile. It's a good Canadian tradition to build your own canoe. Over the years, this has been done by many in birchbark, wood and canvas, fiber-glass and today's most popular cedar strip with epoxy.

My plans are a bit different and I like to explain here why. I like the shape and looks of the classic planked canoes with ribs. Probably because they have more rhythm than the modern smooth hulled strip epoxy canoes. And although I like the color and pattern of wood, I also think there is nothing wrong with a canoe painted in a nice bright color.

Further, when you visit one of today's wood selling stores, it's tough to find a straight piece of timber. Which is a development you can fight by going to expensive specialty stores, but isn't it much more interesting to see what you can make with what's regularly available? Didn't the Indians build their canoes too with locally available materials? So, what for them was birchbark and white cedar out of the forest will for me be plywood and glue from the local home improvement store.

The goal of my project is to build a canoe with a classic design, but using modern easily available materials and the corresponding low costs. The name of the canoe I have already decided on, it can only be "La Mina", applicable for a laminated plywood construction. At the same time it's a little :-) in Dutch.

Please come back and stay tuned . . .

Building the strongback

La Mina - 31 mar 2002 (click to enlarge) Any book on canoe building shows you quickly enough that a big part of the construction time is absorbed with building the form. Unfortunately, I don't have friends with canoe molds in their backyard ;-). So, time to go ahead. Cutting full sheets of chipboard is a tough job on a small hobby tablesaw, but with some inventiveness, it can be done.
La Mina - 31 mar 2002 (click to enlarge) Extending the little saw with large "tables" before and after helps a lot to support the sheet you are cutting. With my sawing machine, extending it was not very difficult. And it makes all the difference in handling those huge sheets. This will become helpful, when I have to cut the 3 mm plywood into strips for the hull.
La Mina - 31 mar 2002 (click to enlarge) The strongback I'm crafting is completely "out of the book", in this case Ted Moores' book "Canoecraft". Because I intend only to build a single canoe, I use a bit thinner, but also much cheaper chipboard for my strongback and molds.
La Mina - 12 may 2002 (click to enlarge) After putting the three parts together, the result has really become strong. As it should be, being a strongback. It also fills up the garage quite a bit, so the car has to leave. But I knew that beforehand.
click on image to enlarge

Making the molds

La Mina - 14 apr 2002 (click to enlarge) Starting with a good line-plan is IMHO an essential step to a successful project. In my case I bought the plan for a "15' Bob Special" from "Carrying Place, Canoe & Boat Works". Using some sheets of carbon paper, the lines were transferred to the chipboard for the molds.
La Mina - 14 apr 2002 (click to enlarge) Lacking a proper bandsaw, I cut the molds using my sabersaw. As said, one of the aims of this project is to use what is readily available. Spending more dollars on additional tools than on materials is definitely not part of that plan.
La Mina - 14 apr 2002 (click to enlarge) After two half days of work, a nice stack of molds is waiting to be mounted on the strongback. But first I want to laminate the inner and outer stems.
La Mina - 14 apr 2002 (click to enlarge) The molds for the stems are made twice as thick, by gluing on some cut-off pieces of chipboard. As usual with woodworking and especially with boat-building, you can not have enough C-clamps. As you see, I have many different types.
La Mina - 12 may 2002 (click to enlarge) Putting it all together, goes much faster than expected. Within a couple of hours, I suddenly can see the shape of the canoe to be. After adding a couple of battens the whole construction becomes very solid, ready for some final touches.
La Mina - 12 may 2002 (click to enlarge) Using a small bandsander, I bevel the molds. Given that the plywood I will be using for the skin of the canoe is rather thin, I need to have as much contacting surface as possible between the planking and the form.
click on image to enlarge

Laminating the stems

La Mina - 28 apr 2002 (click to enlarge) An exciting moment, my first attempt to do some real plywood laminating. In this case the inner and outer stems. You need two for both ends of the canoe, but it is easiest to make them just double the width and later cut them in two. Before doing the real gluing, I do a "dry-run" to see if it all fits and to check my C-clamps.
La Mina - 28 apr 2002 (click to enlarge) The glue I use is an urea-formaldehyde plastic resin. A white powder :-), to be mixed 2:1 with cold water, which gives a waterproof glue that can be worked on for four hours. That sounds good. So far, it looks that all went well. Besides the fact that I made more than double the amount of glue that I needed. Never mind, tomato cans enough ...
La Mina - 1 may 2002 (click to enlarge) After the glue has completely dried, it's time to cut the 5 cm wide laminates into two, which results in two 22 mm wide inner and outer stems. The wooden tool you see clamped to the table saw is called a "spring fingers". It's easy to make and it definitely helps you to save your own fingers.
La Mina - 1 may 2002 (click to enlarge) The end result is two inner and two outer stems. The laminated plywood is surprisingly sturdy, which is a good promise for the strength of the future canoe, but the downside will be that I won't have much flexibility in bending them to fit the mold. We'll see . . .
La Mina - 12 may 2002 (click to enlarge) After clamping the inner stem to the mold, I can start the process of beveling them. The thickness must be reduced to 6 mm at the edge. Which is a time consuming job, that I do with a spokeshave and when I get impatient with the bandsander. Laminated plywood appears to be a touch material.
click on image to enlarge

Ripping the sheets

La Mina - 18 may 2002 (click to enlarge) Ripping the sheets of 3 mm plywood into strips of 6 cm wide is not that difficult, as long as you extend the table saw with some extension tables.
La Mina - 18 may 2002 (click to enlarge) Calculating how many strips are needed, requires some high-school math :-), but I finally settle for 80 strips. If I come short, it won't be difficult to cut a few more
La Mina - 18 may 2002 (click to enlarge) Finally, there the are. A nice stock provision of plywood strips. And at the same time it makes the strongback a bit heavier with a lower point of weight.
click on image to enlarge

Stripping the hull

La Mina - 19 may 2002 (click to enlarge) The first planks finally on the mold. This is the moment I've been waiting for. Mostly because I wasn't sure if the strips would bend sufficiently. If not, the whole project would have failed.
La Mina - 19 may 2002 (click to enlarge) The nice thing about the thin plywood is that it is very east to cut or model. I normally cut it with only a Stanley-knife or when at a strange angle, with a small saw. In both cases, it is an easy job.
La Mina - 19 may 2002 (click to enlarge) As said before, you can never have enough C-clamps. However, this type of fast-grip clamps is very useful, because the gripping surfaces can make an angle. And on a boat you always have some of that.
La Mina - 19 may 2002 (click to enlarge) Here is part of the skin, which consists of two layers of plywood bonded together with plastic resin glue. Lots of staples are required to keep the strips in place. But before the project ends, all staples will be taken out.
La Mina - 19 may 2002 (click to enlarge) So, after a good weekend of work, there is some pretty good progress. The parts where the hull is two layers thick feel really solid. On the other hand, the tight bends of the plywood at the stems remain to be a problem. It looks that I need something stronger than just staples to bend the strips. We'll see.
click on image to enlarge

Gluing and stapling

La Mina - 5 jun 2002 (click to enlarge) Last few weeks I've been progressing steadily, but planking the hull is a lot of work. Cutting the plywood strips to length, mixing the plastic resin glue, brushing it to both sides and then the toughest part of all: bending and fixing it. For the latter you need everything you can find; staples, clamps, strips of wood with glue, etc. etc.
La Mina - 5 jun 2002 (click to enlarge) But, bit by bit, I'm getting there and the shape of the canoe is becoming more and more clear. At the stems, I'm now starting to approach the sheerline. Two more strips to go. In the middle, of course, I still need to do a few more.
La Mina - 5 jun 2002 (click to enlarge) Because my plywood strips are quite wide, I use the same planking pattern as used to build the traditional canvas canoes. This means starting at the keel, and slowly working outwards. This pattern seems to work out rather well. The planks stay close together, even when bending them can be tough.
La Mina - 5 jun 2002 (click to enlarge) The staples need to be hammered in deep enough to fix the plywood, but on the other hand must be left out enough for easy removal. A trick I've developed is to drive in only one side of the staple. It gives a tight fix, but you can still get your screwdriver under it.
La Mina - 5 jun 2002 (click to enlarge) The planking works out particularly nice on the inside. The holes and marks left by the staples will later be covered by the ribs, which hopefully will give the canoe a nice classic interior. This is important, because I intend to varnish the inside, while painting the outside.
click on image to enlarge

Time for tapering

La Mina - 22 jun 2002 (click to enlarge) There comes a time when luck runs out. In this case, I couldn't continue with using full width planks. The curves became just too much and the plywood wouldn't bend enough anymore. So it was time to start tapering the planks. I did the first one using a Stanley knife. That works, but it takes way too much time.
La Mina - 22 jun 2002 (click to enlarge) After considering many alternatives, a borrowed routing machine came to the rescue. An ingenious template construction took care of making twelve identically curved strips of plywood. The only thing I'm not sure about is if the neighbours can stand the whining noise the whole day long :-).
click on image to enlarge

A sad, sad stop ...

La Mina - 7 aug 2002 (click to enlarge) Because of all the tapering and because bending the strips really became difficult, the project recently slowed down to a crawl. Also winter is approaching and the car needs to go back into the garage. So, only one solution, which involved putting the saw in my own canoe, which is a sad, sad moment, but that's how it is.
La Mina - 7 aug 2002 (click to enlarge) But the good news is that I keep the strong-back and molds. Therefore, next year or the one after, I can give this puzzle a fresh approach. And the nice thing of using cheap materials is that there is hardly any money wasted. Plywood, glue and some staples. That's all. So stay tuned, who knows what the follow-up will be.
click on image to enlarge


  Willem van Schaik, Calgary, March-August 2002     http://www.schaik.com/wwwillem.html